Meet Alvaro Enciso, the artist placing crosses in Sonoran desert to memorialize migrant deaths

In the past five years, Enciso has built and installed over 900 crosses across the treacherous Sonoran Desert in Arizona as part of his ongoing project Where Dreams Die.

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More than 3,000 human remains have been found in the Sonoran Desert, most of them of migrants fleeing their home countries to embark on an uncertain and perilous journey to the United States. On a recent visit to the Arizona borderlands, Democracy Now! accompanied Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso into the desert at the site where he placed four unique markers to honor four immigrants killed in a car accident years ago as they fled from Border Patrol. In the past five years, Enciso, who is originally from Colombia, has built and installed over 900 crosses across the treacherous Sonoran Desert in Arizona as part of his ongoing project Where Dreams Die. Rather than religious symbols, Enciso views his crosses as markings that visible deaths that are often ignored. This is part of Democracy Now!’s ongoing series, “Death and Resistance at the U.S.-Mexico Border.”


Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: The bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people, nearly all migrants, have been found since 2001 in the treacherous Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Recent changes to asylum proceedings under the Trump administration have diverted more migrants to deadly portions of the U.S.-Mexico border, including the treacherous Arizona desert.

In June, the body of a 6-year-old Sikh girl from India was found in a remote area of the Sonoran Desert, just one mile north from the U.S.-Mexico border in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. She was later identified as Gurupreet Kaur. Kaur’s death was the second recorded migrant child fatality in the Arizona border this year. She’s one of thousands of people whose remains have been found in the desert. Summer months are often the deadliest. The week of Kaur’s death, the extreme heat reached a temperature of 108 degrees. Gurupreet had crossed the border with her mother and 8-year-old sister in an attempt to reunite with her father, who had been in the United States since 2013 and was seeking asylum. She died of heatstroke after she became separated from her mother, who was desperately searching for water.

Days after Gurupreet’s death, the Sikh community in Tucson, Arizona, held a memorial for her. They also reached out to local artist Alvaro Enciso and asked him to create a special marking with an ancient Sikh symbol to honor her and make visible the exact area where the little girl lost her life. Alvaro Enciso has built over 900 unique crosses. Every week, he drives and hikes to the exact locations in the desert where the migrants’ remains have been found, and places across there to honor their lives and make visible the deaths, that are so often ignored.

On Sunday, Democracy Now! headed to Alvaro Enciso’s home in West Tucson and asked him about the death of Gurupreet Kaur.

ALVARO ENCISO: I’m going to go there as soon as the weather gets a little nicer, because it’s a hard-to-get-to place. And I’m going to put a cross for her. And the Sikh society here, the Sikh community here, is going to give me a Sikh symbol that I will put on the cross. So, here I am adding an ancient Sikh symbol to this cross of mine, that looks like a Christian symbol, but in reality it’s a marker. And that bugs the hell out of me. Just I cannot get it out of my system. I guess the only way I can do it is to go there and put a cross and to spend time there and think about this death, you know, this poor girl who died there, who didn’t come on her own. She was brought up by her family. And she never made it out of the desert. So, this is a big-time death for me to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: Alvaro Enciso said that her mother ultimately found her daughter by seeing the vultures circling overhead. This past Sunday morning, we went with Alvaro Enciso to the Sonoran Desert, the Altar Valley, a 30-minute drive southwest of Tucson, to the site where four immigrants were killed in a car accident years ago as they fled from Border Patrol agents.

Alvaro Enciso is from Colombia. He spoke about what inspired his ongoing project Where Dreams Die. He says this is a project he’ll never finish, as the actual number of migrant deaths in the Arizona border are unknown and as tens of thousands of migrants flee their home countries every year to embark on an uncertain and perilous journey to the United States. We spoke as we walked.

ALVARO ENCISO: This area is called the Altar Valley, because we have the Baboquivari Mountains in that direction, and we have the Sierrita Mountains in this direction. The migrants use this area here to go from south to north, from Mexico, which is about 40 miles this way. And they use the electric poles as a navigational point. They’re not far from the paved road, in case they get into — they don’t feel well, and they come out to the road and hope that someone will pick them up and — whether the Border Patrol, you know. At one point you know that you cannot walk anymore, and that’s it. So this is one of those — it’s not as heavily used as much anymore, because too many Border Patrol and too many helicopters and too many things here.

As we came in here, you saw some tires on the ground, and the Border Patrol uses those tires to drag them to clear the road. So, they come back, and if they see any tracks, then they know that migrants have come through here, and so they start looking for them. But now the migrants carry these booties made out of pieces of rug, pieces of carpet, and they clear.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saying the Border Patrol smoothes these sandy paths so they can see their footprints?

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And they wear — and so, some of the migrants wear kind of carpet?

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, just about all of the migrants wear these booties that have carpet under, on the bottom, you know, the sole.

AMY GOODMAN: So you can’t see the footprint.

ALVARO ENCISO: So, then, the last guy sort of sweeps the — a sweeper, pretty much.

AMY GOODMAN: What is this area?

ALVARO ENCISO: The Altar Valley. We are close to Tucson. The idea is that the more money that you have to pay the coyotes, the less you walk. The less money you have, the more you have to walk. So, if you have enough money, they will — you will walk to Tucson, which is that road that we came on, Ajo Road, and they’ll get picked up there. The idea is that you’ll get picked up after the checkpoint. But if you don’t have enough money, you’re going to have to walk another hundred miles, 80 miles, to Interstate 8, which is the road that goes to San Diego.

And, you know, the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol now is a hundred miles; it’s not just the border. It’s a hundred miles in, into the U.S. So you have to walk at least a hundred miles to be out of Border Patrol jurisdiction. But then ICE takes over, you know, so it’s always a layer and layers and layers of people. So you have to live in the shadows.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of cactus are they?

ALVARO ENCISO: The ones you need to worry about are these, are the jumping chollas. They jump at you when they feel any kind of warmth, and, you know, they will attach to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what that means for a migrant.

ALVARO ENCISO: Well, at night, you will go right into one of those, and you get hundreds of those things, and you cannot remove them. And then they get infected. In two, three days, you are infected. So, the infection debilitates your body, and the lack of water and everything. And then you just sit in front of, you know, under a true, kind of take a break, you know, but you don’t get up. That’s how we find them, sitting there under a tree.

AMY GOODMAN: And the rattlesnakes?

ALVARO ENCISO: The rattlesnakes, you know, there are about seven species of rattlesnakes here in southern Arizona. And at night they are very active. And they bite you, and that’s the end. You know, you can’t — you know, who’s going to take you to the hospital? You know, you lose your leg, you know, depending on the kind of snake there is.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this happens. It’s not only migrants in the desert, but to be safe, they want to start moving at night, and that makes it very, very dangerous.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. And, you know, in the old days, they used to carry these regular gallons of water. But now that water reflects at night. So they started painting them with paint black and using shoe polish. And then people in Mexico started making them. So now you buy black water bottles that do not reflect any light. However, black doesn’t reflect light, so the water gets very, very hot. And so you’re drinking water that’s 130 degrees. So you don’t drink as much, because it doesn’t taste right. But you start dehydrating.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at night you have the dangers of the rattlesnakes. You have the danger of the cactus. You have the danger of falling, of —

ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. And also, the Border Patrol is more active at night. This is where they really start their day, you know, at night. Everything in the desert is out to get you. Everything has thorns. And so, when I ask people to go with me, I always tell them to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and to not expose your body, too, because everything is out there to stab you in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: At night it’s hard to see if there is a cliff, if there is a —

ALVARO ENCISO: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —rock that you trip over and break a bone.

ALVARO ENCISO: Right, absolutely. There’s a lot of injuries here — a twisted ankle, a twisted — you know, a bone that you fracture. That kills you. Blisters kill you. Little things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

ALVARO ENCISO: Well, you have blisters, because you don’t bring — you know, in order to hike all day long, you have to change your socks every day. But, you know, most of these people who come here, they don’t do this kind of hiking. You know, this is sort of like — they tell them it’s only going to be a day, but it turns out to be seven days. So you start getting blisters. And the blisters get untreated, and they become wounds, horrendous, and you can’t walk.

So you get abandoned. They leave them a little bit of water, but that water’s not enough for you to survive. And you hope that someone will come and rescue you. That’s why we have these groups here like Samaritans and No More Deaths, who walk the trails, putting water out there and looking for anybody that may need assistance in some way. So, these are the remnants of migration, you know, the gear that they —

AMY GOODMAN: A shirt or a cloth.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah. It’s a shirt, most likely.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this looks like it was a shirt.

ALVARO ENCISO: You die here, and you don’t last very long, because the animals will get at you very quickly. And in matter of two weeks, you disappear. The animals begin to grab their parts. You know, the vultures eat very well here. You can see they’re nice and fat.

I put the first cross here about six years ago. But at the time, I was not very experienced with the GPS, and I didn’t realize that there were three other people at that location. So, once I started revisiting some of the sites and looking at maps and looking at my data, then it came up that three other people had died here. So I came back not too long ago and put three crosses. So now this site is complete. So, like, there’s a cross for each one of them. They were — one guy was 17 years old. The other one was 19 years old. You know, young people. You shouldn’t be dying at that age. You’re too young.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were they from?

ALVARO ENCISO: I think Mexico and Guatemala, if I recall correctly. They used to come here looking — you know, economic reasons, trying to find a life for themselves and for their family. But now the American dream is no longer a plan. You know, they are fleeing violence. They are fleeing for their lives. They are fleeing from all kinds of things, and even climate change. You know, if you’re a subsistence farmer and you buy seeds and you put them in the ground and it doesn’t rain for one [bleep] year, you know, you get wiped out. You know? So what do you do? You head north.

AMY GOODMAN: Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso, as we walk together in the Sonoran Desert. When we return, we sit down in front of four of the more than 900 crosses he’s created to honor migrants who’ve died in the Sonoran Desert. He calls his project Where Dreams Die.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “The Black Shadow” by Totó La Momposina. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our series, “Death and Resistance on the U.S.-Mexican Border.” I’m Amy Goodman.

On Sunday, we accompanied Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso to the site where he installed four unique crosses to honor the unique lives of four migrants who died in the Sonoran Desert. In this case, they were fleeing Border Patrol. Alvaro Enciso has built and installed over 900 crosses. Rather than religious symbols, Enciso views his crosses as markings that make visible deaths that are often ignored. The bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people, nearly all migrants, have been found since 2001 in the treacherous conditions of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, but it’s believed the total number of deaths could be as high as 10,000. This, again, is Alvaro Enciso.

ALVARO ENCISO: We are here at a location where four migrants were found dead some years back. These migrants died on the same day. They died all together here. They were trying to get away from the Border Patrol. They were in a van, and the van just rolled over and tumbled. And they were collected out of here with multiple injuries, multiple head injuries. And I learned of this site about six years ago, when I started putting crosses out here. At the time, when I saw the red dot, I thought it was going to be just one person, and I left it at that. And then —

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where you built your first cross?

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, that’s where — this is one of my early crosses. This is very early Alvaro. This is right when I got started.

AMY GOODMAN: That was one person you learned about. And you talked about a red dot. Where did this red dot come from?

ALVARO ENCISO: When I first came to Tucson, and I took this training, an orientation for Samaritans, and the first thing they do is they show you this map of southern Arizona with thousands of red dots on it. And, you know, I guess when you’re a visual artist, you sort of react to certain things. And that red dot immediately caught my attention, because this red dot represented a location where someone lost his or her life, you know, who the end of an American dream happened to someone. And so, this was the — so I decided to go to these actual locations, you know, because the map is a map. It’s not the territory. And the red dot is an abstraction on a map. But I wanted to come here, where the people are collected out of here, put in bags and taken to the morgue.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was the first person that you built a cross for, the red cross?

ALVARO ENCISO: Well, I don’t have the names of these people. Over the years, I put over 900 crosses here. And to me, at the time, they were — I don’t want to say generic, but I wanted to treat everybody with the same, you know, respect and dignity, so I wasn’t very concerned with the names or whether they were identified or not. I was just wanting to put the cross there to celebrate the honor, to celebrate the courage of someone who came here looking for what I came here looking for 50 years ago, that opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn the stories of these four migrants?

ALVARO ENCISO: Well, again, you know, there’s a database that is public. But the database is limited. You get the name and the age and the place of origin, and that it was, in this case, multiple injuries, head injuries and chest injuries, due to a car accident. And that’s all I know.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe how you came up with the idea. And who was the first person that you honored?

ALVARO ENCISO: I was looking for a way to mark locations where the American dream ended for someone. And I was trying to avoid the cross, because the cross had enough baggage already. And I wanted to think of migration as a universal thing, that it happens all over the world. And I didn’t want to use the Christian symbol, because it would limit the vision of people. You know, when people saw those crosses, immediately Christianity comes into mind. And so, I wanted to — it needed to be bigger than that. So I was struggling with what to — how to mark these locations. And I tried different things that didn’t work.

But then I started paying more attention to the cross, and I learned that the cross was used as an instrument of death during the Roman times. The Romans built these structures to kill people. They hung them out there in the sun without any water until they died. They wanted to make it as painful as possible, you know, so people will see that you don’t [bleep] with the Roman Empire, you know, that this is the price. And it’s exactly what is happening here. You know, people are dying because they don’t have any water, and there’s no shade, and they’re out in the sun until they died.

And I was also using this very simplistic geometric equation where there’s a vertical line and a horizontal line and they meet somewhere. And the vertical, for me, represented being alive, you know, because when we are alive, we are erect, upright. And when we are dead, we’re usually horizontal. Or that’s how they bury us, in a horizontal manner. And the two lines meet somewhere at one point in space or in time. And where that encounter takes place, I was trying to give a twist of the biblical story of David and Goliath, where David wins the encounter. But in this case, David loses the encounter, because the David in this case is the poor peasant from Chiapas, you know, the poor person from Latin America, who meets a giant from the north, you know, with all the technology. And the encounter is always deadly for David. Goliath always wins the encounter.

AMY GOODMAN: And where they meet, where the vertical meets the horizontal — 

ALVARO ENCISO: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — you have — you always make an image. Or, talk about the kind of icon you have in the middle, that’s different for every cross.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. I wanted the crosses to be as unique as possible, but to have something that bring them together. And I use the red dot that I found on the map. So I’m bringing the red dot into the desert where the actual tragedy took place.

AMY GOODMAN: The red dot of a migrant death.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah. The red dot that you see on the map is here now on the crosses. So the crosses are the container to bring the red dot here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the pregnant woman who was making her way along the border here in the Sonoran Desert?

ALVARO ENCISO: I learned about that case a while ago. And it was a baby who was born by the side of the road and died by the side of the road. And the fact that baby was born by the side of the road, that made him an American automatically, because he was born in this country. But he didn’t have the opportunity to die — he died there. And the mother, we don’t know what happened. She got deported somewhere.

And when I saw that case, you know, I said, “Jesus, do I have to make a special cross for this baby, or do I need to do something with it?” And I finally had gathered enough courage to go there and put the cross for this baby. It affected me, you know, big time. How could a baby die here? And so, I came and put a cross there, and then I told people that I had put a cross for a baby, you know. And then, little by little, people started bringing toys and started writing poems, and it became a big shrine. And everybody that came here will have to stop there and have a picture taken with this cross that became the iconic symbol of this tragedy here.

But one day the cross disappeared. It was gone. And then everybody started calling me about, “Well, the cross is no longer there. We need the cross, because the cross is now — now we don’t have anything to” — you know, this was the symbol that represented this whole thing. So, I went back and built another one, so that was a second-generation cross. Now it’s full of toys again. And now there are people who maintain the area. They pull the weeds and, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alvaro, you also find bones in the desert.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, I find bones and dead bodies, because I walk areas that are so remote, where migrants die, because, you know, that’s the way it is here in this desert.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about working with the Pima County medical examiner, how you find the link between the bones or the dead body in the desert and the family that has somehow made it known that their loved one is gone.

ALVARO ENCISO: Sometimes I work with Colibrí Center for Human Rights. They work together with the Office of the Medical Examiner. You know, they see me on television, or they see me — they read an article about me. So I get a call or an email from a family that they want me to put a cross. And a couple years ago, there was a family from Peru. The woman, a woman from Peru, disappeared here, and no one knew what happened to her. And then, one day, a skull was found. The cranium was found. It took a couple years to identify the cranium, and they finally were able to make the connection. So —

AMY GOODMAN: DNA connection.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, DNA connection. So, the family, her two daughters and her husband, came, and I put a cross for them. And it was a magical moment. You know, things like that don’t happen in my project. It’s always anonymity. You know, it’s always — and that was very, very special, you know, to be able to have the family there and me putting a cross for her. But those are rare moments that — you know, I got an email recently from a woman who wants me to put a cross for her father. And I said, “Well, I’ll do that when I come back from Colombia. When I — you know, I’ll do that.” And they asked me: How much do I charge for this kind of service? You know, I said, “No, I don’t ask for money. This is what I do. This is my work.”

In the beginning, you know, some of the dead sites from the early 2000s, we knew most of the names, because people carried IDs, you know, they carried some kind of information, and because they were found not too far from the roads. But nowadays people do not carry any form of ID, because if you carry ID, that exposes you to extortion from organized crime. You know, they can call your family and ask for money. They kidnap people very much. And what good is an ID from Guatemala or from El Salvador or from Honduras? It doesn’t do you any good. In fact, it brands you as an illegal person here. You know, I say “illegal,” but that’s not a good word, you know. Trying to be somebody in life, there’s nothing illegal about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you go on building these crosses?

ALVARO ENCISO: For as long as I can. You know, the objective of the project has already been — you know, the statement has been made, that there are crosses here in the desert, that 3,000 people have died, and then a whole bunch missing. But for me, going out every Tuesday, it has become my meditation, my going to church, my — you know, I’m not a believer. I’m not a — I don’t follow any religion or anything. But this gives me the opportunity to connect with whatever spiritual thing is happening here. So this is my — this has become part of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso. He was originally born in Colombia. Alvaro has created more than 900 crosses to honor migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert. He calls his project Where Dreams Die.

Special thanks to our Democracy Now! desert team: Maria Taracena, Libby Rainey, Charina Naduro, Tey Astudillo, John Hamilton and Denis Moynihan.

Go to democracynownow.org to see more from our series, “Death and Resistance on the U.S.-Mexican Border,” including our report Monday on the No More Deaths volunteers who drop water in the desert to save migrants. One of them, Scott Warren, faces 10 years in jail. Back in a minute.

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Amy Goodman
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of "Breaking the Sound Barrier," recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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