Toe tags littered my floor for weeks, Halloween had come early to my apartment . When I had the time, I was mechanically filling in causes of death, body conditions, coordinates of where they were found without a second thought. At the back of my mind, I knew they were people. I was not so completely dense not to realize they had had lives and families, but it had become a job, something to finish. That is until I got to a migrant named Flores, a common last name but also my last name. The realization shocked me. They are me.
In my family, being from Texas, we prescribe by the idea that the border crossed us so therefore we belong here. However historically, Texas was not kind to those with brown skin and my family responded they only way they knew how, by assimilating. My cousins and I were not taught Spanish. No traditions were passed down. We ate Tex-Mex when we got together as a family and when I asked my grandparents about their childhood, they only boosted about being allowed to go to high school because they could pass for white. Lucky them? We forgot about where we came from, a line on the map made us different than those on the other side. We are proud Americans, well, that is until we are not.
I have been told that affirmative action got me into college. That I look so exotic that I must be from “somewhere else”. Ironically, I have been yelled at for not speaking Spanish because “I look like I should”. However, no one should expect an insult to come from the highest office of this land.
On June 26th, 2015, during his presidential announcement speech, Donald Trump said:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” I digress, Mr. President. They are me. After my realization, each tag I then filled out became familia. A lost soul who made it to mythical Aztlán, they were finally home. As I pinned their memories to the map at the coordinates where they took their last breath and their sacrifices became all of ours. How can they not? We are one people regardless of any border in our way.
Humanization of the Migrant
Throughout history, the United States has had an inconsistent record in regards to
immigration. Although the Statue of Liberty stands tall inscribed with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” poor migrant children are packed into ICE detention centers where they are sick, huddled, and yearning to breathe free. The United States has favorited a more eurocentric immigration policy. In 1982 President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, in 1938 we denied Jewish refugees fleeing the holocaust entry into the United States; during the Obama administration, most Americans did not feel comfortable with resettling refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil war, and President Donald Trump has expressed rhetoric discounting Central Americans and favoring Nordic/European immigrants. Migrants are demonized by politicians and associated negative stereotypes. For example, politicians may use certain rhetoric like alien, murderer, rapist, super predator, they’re gonna to take your job, they don’t speak English, they don’t have the same values, they wanna leech on the system, and bad hombres. Over time, this kind of rhetoric dehumanizes the immigrant and creates apathy within the electorate.
Prior to this project, I was not aware of how many migrants die in these deadly border
crossing zones. From watching documentaries and TV shows, I assumed the only deadly part of the natural border was the Rio Grande river. I falsely assumed that once a migrant was across the border, their journey was essentially complete. Filling out the toe tags was both distressing and informative. While knowingly filling out the toe tag of a dead migrant is extremely sad, these types of projects are necessary to rehumanize the immigrant. This project best humanized the migrants by showing and then making us write down the personal items of the departed. While many of them have rotted to the bone and look relatively the same, their personal items are what gives them an identity and tells their story. This project has only reinforced my belief that no one deserves to die fleeing a conflict they can’t control. Although politicians spew anti-immigrant and Islamaphobic rhetoric, my opinion is shaped by my experiences with refugees. In high school, I was friends with several Syrian refugees. They were able to learn English within a couple of years, learn American History better than most Americans, and were the hardest working people I knew. My friend Karam Sufi received a full ride to William and Mary for pre-med and Kareem Diab got a scholarship to Virginia Tech for engineering.
To be quite frank, Hostile Terrain is one of the most emotionally taxing projects I have ever worked on. Although I came in with some prior knowledge about U.S. Border Patrol enforcement and policies, there is something deeply harrowing and soul stirring about manually filling out each toe tag and being physically face to face with the identities of those who fell victim to such unimaginable cruelty. Perhaps the most impactful part of my experience was drawing parallels between the experiences of my parents and migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. As Ethiopian refugees, the means by which they entered the United States were different, but the physical conditions under which they fled Ethiopia and the manner the government managed emigration, were eerily similar to those of the area I was working on, the Sonoran Desert, and U.S. border patrol strategies of immigration enforcement. Coming to terms with the fact that they, too, could have become a name on one of these tags (so to speak) and realizing the horrible trauma they and countless other migrants have endured left an indelible mark on my perspective, and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in bringing this essential project to life.
When approached about writing tags for the Hostile Terrain Project, I immediately knew that I wanted to participate, but did not know how much the experience would link me to something I’ve always had a hard time connecting to.
My grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1950s from Jalpa, Zacatecas, a poor and rural town in inland Mexico. He travelled with his brother and little to no money, the clothes on his back, and hope to make enough money to bring my grandmother over. He navigated El Rio Grande and the deserts to make it to Texas, where he lived under bridges, ate rats, and picked cotton to make money.
I have always had a hard time conceptualizing this, since he has provided for my family to be able to give my dad, and now me, the opportunities to succeed in the United States. I started filling out the tags after a long day of school and began to read over the people and their causes of death. After about a page, I broke down crying. Here I was, a college student being tired over their work, reading about people who put in so much physical and emotional labor just to have access to the opportunities that I have now. I saw my grandfather in the tags because I knew the horrors that happened to them could have easily happened to him. Through reading, I felt like I was understanding a glimpse of what the immigration process was like for him, and the hardship he must have experienced that he did not want us to know. Without him I would not be where I am at a private four-year university, and I am beyond grateful and proud to come from such a resilient person.
Now after three years of him not being with us, this project made me feel connected to him again and even more grateful for everything he did for my family. Every tag I wrote was a person just like my grandfather: resilient, dedicated and brave. Every single one of them deserved more than what they experienced. The lives of immigrants matter.
Taking part in the Hostile Terrain project by filling out the toe tags made the topic of immigration and the politics that go along with it much more real and tangible to me. I have spent much time on my own, reading through books such Jason de Leon’s “The Land of Open Graves” and Francisco Cantu’s “The Line Becomes a River.” All of which have increased my understanding of the humanitarian and political issues we have been facing at the border but holding the tags in my hand made the issue much more tangible. The novels bring about information, which is general, but through doing the project I got more of a glimpse into the lives of the victims of the border. I learned their name, their age, where they were from, and other biographical information which brings humanity to their case number and cause of death. This project shows there are real lives at stake, there are real people and families impacted by the statistics you hear about deaths of border crossers. The most striking aspect of the project to me, was the tags I filled out which had very little identifying information on them. There were several where the name, age, and gender where unknown. And some of these even had cause of death unknown because the terrain and elements left only their skeletal remains left. When I looked at the tags and the information I was filling out on them, it reinforced in me the idea that we are truly facing a problem that my generation is responsible in fixing, and we need to bring justice to all who have crossed and perished, while also bringing justice to the lives that are in jeopardy that feel it is a necessary risk to cross our border.
When the Hostile Terrain project was first presented to us, I became quite intrigued to
what the project had to offer. I had no idea about the U.S. Border Control policy surrounding prevention through deterrence (this is another one of those things that no one ever teaches you in school), so hearing about it shocked me. I knew crossing the U.S.-Mexico border was dangerous, but I did not know how it got this way or how many people have actually been affected. I think I was most shocked about how many people have been killed and the different ways they died along the way. I did around 50 tags and experienced a wide variety of ages and causes of death. The youngest tag I made was of a 14 year old boy. When writing that one, I imagined myself 4 years ago and realized I could never do something as scary as crossing the border. I always felt a connection to the teenagers I wrote tags for which was something I was definitely not expecting. Regarding cause of death, I wrote many tags for people who died due to hypothermia, exposure to a hostile environment, or blunt force injuries. I had one tag that was for a man who was killed by a gunshot wound. So many questions started forming in my head about what happened and if there would ever be justice for what happened to him.
It was not clear if he did it himself or if it was caused by someone else, but it would be nice to know his story and exactly what happened to him. At times it became frustrating that I will never know the story of these brave people. Of course, I learned more about them just by doing this project than most people would, but I feel like someone is a lot more than their death. Part of me feels guilty for not knowing their lives or them as a person. I feel bad for filling out a body tag virtually knowing nothing about them, especially for those who were unidentified. I just want to be able to tell their story a little bit better, but sadly I do not think that will ever happen. I hope this project helps other people better understand what has been happening with border control and policies and helps shine a light on the victims of such heinous policies.
Tag Project Reflection
The tag project was a very interesting task that I got to work on. Even though I only had to fill out the tags with their names, age, sex, cause of death, and where they were found, it opened up my mind to see how treacherous the journey was for them. Every single body, that was able to be identified, died from exposure. This shows me that they have been walking for days while the sun is beaming down on them. They were unfortunately not able to reach to their destination due to hyperthermia. This made me thought about those who had succeeded on their journey crossing the border and how painful it would’ve been for them.
To those who had crossed the border and now able to settle in, I am amazed by their courage and determination to be able to reach to the destination the hoped to be in. I don’t think I would even be able to survive on that journey for that long. I probably would’ve died somewhere before the border. For the people who had successfully crossed, it was the end of their crossing journey, but it opens up a new journey for them which is how they would survive in America. They now have to find a place to work and a place to settle in or else they would end up dying like those on the tag project.
Overall, this project was very simple, but it was also very emotional to do. As I go line by line to fill out each person’s information, it was sad to see that not all of the bodies were found fully fleshed. Some were fully decomposed that it was unidentifiable. It’s sad to hear that the family members had died along the journey, but even worst when you don’t know if they are alive or not. For families of those unidentified bodies, it must’ve been painful to not hear anything from them or anyone. The most shocking thing when doing this project was the 2 young male who were only 14 and 16 years old. How can someone so young be part of a journey so treacherous? But then I understand for them because I was like them too. We were both looking for a better life and better future that’s why we came to America.
Anne Marie Okuhara
The tags project was a very insightful project that I had not previously focused much on in the past. I knew about the border struggles and how much the United States has always disliked aliens, particularly those who were from Mexico, but I did not realize just how difficult it was to cross the border to the point where thousands died trying to find a better life in the states. It is incredibly tragic that the United States government would put the people at ease by forcing people to give up the dream of coming into the United States by making it physically impossible for them to cross the border.
Writing out the tags was tedious, and took more time than I had expected, but it was
absolutely miniscule compared to the suffering that the families and victims of the US Mexico border went through. It was also tragic to realize just how many bodies could not even be identified because their remains were too decomposed or tattered, and it made the experience seem all too real when reading the identified victims’ full names and creating tags for them. They were real people who existed and met a violent, unfair end trying to find a better life in the US. The tags project brought a new topic for our class to consider, as even though the class centers around the Asian American and Asian Pacific American heritage, it is incredibly important that we use that knowledge to consider other minority groups, like those who died at the US-Mexican border.
Tag Project Reflection
While I was completing the tag project. Many thoughts came through my mind. It was
very saddening to read all the different and excruciating ways that those migrants passed away. Some froze to death. Some even rotted to death. Some were even the same age as me. I cannot imagine the pain and hell they had to go through just to get into the country.
This tag project was very insightful and inspiring about a topic that I have not done much research myself and I should which is why is I am really glad I got to do this assignment and learn about this important piece of history. I always knew that Mexican migrants were not welcomed into the United States and they always have had border struggles. However, I did not know that they suffered from it to such a degree. I could only imagine what it was like to be lured by the hopes and glamour of the American dream but to only be forced to surrender because they physically could not come in.
Filling out the tags took longer than I expected. But I am glad that I had the opportunity
to take the time and learn about each individual who was denied entry and unfortunately died because of it. It is even more sad to realize that so many of those bodies were unidentified, showing that they were tortured so hard that they literally torn to pieces. This tag project informed me of the struggles other minority groups faced and went through. Writing each tag was like writing a memorial for each of the individuals that did not get to have a memorial. I am excited to see the final project and to see all the tags being put up on the exhibition.