Lost and Found in the Arizona Desert

El Paso. Texas

As the spring desert heats up again for another deadly season of would-be crossings, what the indocumentados leave behind in their excruciatingly dangerous trek into El Norte is mute testimony to the “desgraciada pobreza” (“disgraceful poverty” ­ a popular corrido) that motors their migration.

It is also an object of fascination for Maeve Hickey, an Irish artist who curated the small but intriguing exhibit “Lost & Found” for the Paso del Norte Museum on the University of Texas-El Paso campus last autumn, a show heavily freighted with the deadliness of the geography in which her findings were made, the notorious “Coridor de la Muerte” (“Corridor of Death”), out in the unpardoning desert west of Yuma where hundreds have perished from dehydration under the brutal sun in this waterless tract abutting the O’dum Indian reservation.

The spectacular beauty of this killing field ­ over 400 have died out here in the past ten years (the record one-day kill is 14 dead at Cabeza Prieta in 2001) – is darkened by the shadows of those who do not survive. Indeed, whether the objects collected by Hickey belong to the living or the dead or the desert itself is the tension upon which this small display of ordinary objects turns.

Prowling around such picturesque locales as Growler Valley where the rattlers and the scorpions slither and roam, she uncovers a single white high top baby shoe, two emptied cans of Clemente Jacques Chilies Vinagres, a flattened pack of Boots with three filter tips graciously extended. Each is now encased in a plastic museum cube or case, instant Duchampesque artifacts in the anthropology of desperation.

A baseball cap and tee-shirt distributed by the DIF ­ the Mexican Integral Family Development Directorate ­ are folded into each other to suggest a dissecated cadaver.

In one case, a homemade bicycle with kind of square wheels. In another, a store-bought bike and a baby stroller are crammed together in an airless space ­ both have large empty plastic water bottles attached. The viewer tracks the young mother defiantly pushing her baby into this deadly terrain.

On the walls are photographs of lizard tracks and migrant trails, of the “Circle of Eight”, a plot divided in half by carefully placed stones ­ inside the semi-circle other stones are arranged in a figure eight with all the precision of a Smithson earthwork. The site is said to mark the tomb of eight who perished there.

At the other end of the life cycle, Hickey has laid out a pile of wrinkled birth certificates in a museum case. Placed atop this wedding cake of crushed, discarded documents is the “certificado de nacimiento” for one Gildardo Diaz Gonzalez, born July 11th 1984 in Bella Vista Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state and now the leading source of out-migration in the region. Indocumentados often discard their identifying documents before setting out in the desert soas not to be cited by the Migra for repeat offenses.

But it is the centerpiece of “Lost & Found”, a roll of undeveloped film the Irish artist found in the San Pedro river wash that finally puts a face to the bearers of these objects. As the viewer moves from one anonymous piece to the next – a twisted tube of Colgate, a small stuffed doll – frames from the developed role flash in loop upon the museum walls: a “quincenera”, the coming-out party that marks the passage of teen-age Mexican girls into womanhood, set incongruously against the lush backdrop of tropical Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz. The scenes are poignantly “tipico”: young girls in store-bought evening gowns waltzing on the town plaza, the aunts chowing down at the festive board, a stern grandmother posing with each of her grandchildren. Who is the actual traveler? Although Hickey found identity cards along with the film, she has received no response to her letters to Veracruz.

In her remarks at the inauguration of the exhibit, Maeve Hickey insisted that human beings do not migrate: “birds migrate ­ humans begin journeys” She compares the indocumentados’ heroic odysseys to those which Homer celebrated. She draws similarities to her Irish expatriate compatriot Samuel Beckett, self-exiled in an interior landscape that seems to be part of the greater desert.

And she marvels at what she has found out there: a pile of business cards meticulously stacked upon a flat rock in the middle of the wilderness as if they were left behind for the four winds to hand out; a black bra flapping from the upturned arms of a giant Saguaro cactus; a woman’s comb with course hair still knotted in its teeth; a love letter from a young woman to her “novio” that begins like the most heart-aching corrido ever written: “I write you this so that you can be happy to know that I love you so much and already I miss you”

What has been retrieved from the wilderness cuts to the quick but does it constitute criminal evidence or cultural anthropology or found art or art at all? A friend returned from election watchdogging in Tucson last fall reported Dia de los Muertos altars at “El Tiradito” (“The Throwaway”), a border art space, also featured the discarded clothing of the indocumentados. Sothby’s could be next.

The Paseo Al Norte Museum, a peripatetic entity that sponsored “Lost & Found” is dedicated to recording the passage north of the border in much the same way as Ellis Island documents the Jewish diaspora to New York, explains UTEP professor Jon Amastae. In a curious way, the project sits at the other end of the seesaw from the nearby Border Patrol museum set atop a lonely mountain road overlooking the “frontera” about ten miles out of El Paso and crammed with badges and portraits of famous desperados and heroic agents, their saddles and six shooters and scrapbooks, samples of contraband and stuffed horses. Together, these two museums tell the true story of what my friend, the west San Antonio corrido writer Salome Gutierrez calls that “desgraciada pobreza” which pushes the migrantes ever-northwards.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed by the first Bush and the now reviled Carlos Salinas in 1992, over 4000 Mexican workers, many of them campesinos displaced from the land by NAFTA agricultural imports, have died trying to cross that line to find a job no North American citizen will work. They have drowned in the All-American Canal and the river that Mexico calls the Rio Bravo and the U.S. the Rio Grande. They have been bitten by vipers running through south Texas, suffocated to death in boxcars, died in car crashes after high speed chases or simply been shot down by the Migra and their volunteer vigilantes. They have fallen into ravines or froze to death in the winter snow up in the Rumarosa, the most dangerous part of the border to which it is U.S. immigration policy to chase them in a strategy to “up the risks” of migration. And mostly they have dropped out there in the cruel desert never to rise again as the vultures circle slowly in the spotless heavens above. It is a daunting task to make sense out of all this let alone art. At least Hickey succeeded in achieving the art part.

JOHN ROSS is at home on the Aztec island of Tenochtitlan nursing a bum back. Pray for him — and buy his latest instant cult classic “Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left“.








JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org