HT94 exhibition honors migrants through art

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Handwritten toe tags are part of the Hostile Terrain 94 interactive art exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Undocumented Migration Project.

GABI MORANDO | EMPLOYEE REPORTER | gmorando@butler.edu

the Hostile Terrain 94 The exhibition is making its first appearance at Butler in the hands of its coordinator Christopher Luis Paez Reyna, a senior course in the theory and practice of social justice. The interactive artwork is comprised of over 3,200 handwritten toe tags displaying information from migrants who died between the 1990s and 2019 while attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona pinned to a map the desert with the exact location of the remains.

Started by Jason de Leon, archaeologist and author of the award-winning monograph Land of Open Graves: Life and Death on the Path of Migrants (2015), HT94 is part of the Undocumented migration project, an initiative to understand the many aspects of unauthorized border crossing. Installations of the exhibition are now taking place at a large number of institutions at home and abroad and will last until 2022. Exhibition venues include the United States, South Africa, Denmark, and many more. From now on according to the project website, Butler is one of only three locations in Indiana.

History and anthropology professor Ageeth Sluis applied to bring the exhibit to Butler and, when accepted, asked Paez Reyna to coordinate the installation of the exhibit. Paez Reyna is in the Irwin Library and has set up the card and is in the process of filling out the thousands of toe tags. Paez Reyna said he hoped the exhibit would give the butler community some perspective on the ongoing problems on the border.

“The idea is that while this is unique to the southwest corner of the United States, phenomena like this happen all over the world,” said Paez Reyna. “The whole idea is that this isn’t a unique thing, but here is a representation of what your area is like.”

With the help of volunteers and the students of the SP320 Service Learning in Spanish course from Spanish professor Terri Carney, Paez Reyna estimates that roughly half of the toe tags are filled in. as Indianapolis Community Requirement (ICR) Class, Carney said that her students were limited in their community opportunities due to the COVID-19 precautions. With the exhibit right on campus and allowing students to participate, Carney hopes that her students’ interaction with the exhibit will give them a better understanding and empathy towards immigrants.

“[The exhibit] rehumanizes a group of people who have been drained of their humanity as a category, “Carney said. “I hope my students connect in a real, personal way to what border crossings really are, the deaths that are taking place.” [and] the guidelines we have put in place that cause other people’s deaths … I hope they personalize for them subjects that are easy to abstract and theoretically do as if it wasn’t really your problem. “

Letitia Bortey, the junior Spanish and biology student, found the most impactful part of the tags in old age. Bortey spans a wide spectrum from young children to the elderly, and said the younger age was particularly influencing how she filled in the tags.

“One of the biggest things I think about while doing this work is their stories and trying to connect with these people in some way,” said Bortey. “Especially when we see their age and they are 14 or 13, it’s like the age of one of my younger siblings.”

After crossing the border himself at the age of eight, Paez Reyna feels connected to the days of the HT94 exhibition. He described a “sinking feeling” the first time he filled out a label when he realized the weight of the words on the label. Jargon like “skeletal remains”, “fully deflated”, “bullet wound” and “murder murder” add to the severity of each day. In a way, Paez Reyna said that he was strangely comforted by knowing the experiences of others.

“It was kind of isolating to feel like the exception of a group,” said Paez Reyna. “Hearing this happening to other people, hearing that the others are also experiencing what I have experienced and some of them lead to deaths, makes me and the part of me that I have always tried to deal with , human.”

Paez Reyna said he hoped to have the exhibition completed by the end of November. Paez Reyna plans to show the exhibition in Irwin until the next semester and is also in the process of hanging pictures and securing a museum display case to display items from immigrants in addition to the artwork.


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