SONORAN DESERT, Ariz. (Reuters) - The brightly-colored crosses that Alvaro Enciso plants in the unforgiving hard sand of Arizona’s Sonoran desert mark what he calls ‘the end of an American dream’ - the places where a migrant died after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The bodies of nearly 3,000 migrants have been recovered in southern Arizona since 2000, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Aid group Humane Borders, which sets up water stations along migrant trails, said that may be only a fraction of the total death toll, with most bodies never recovered.
Humane Borders, in partnership with the medical examiner’s office, publishes a searchable online map, which marks with a red dot the exact location where each migrant body was found.
It was that map and its swarms of red dots that inspired Enciso, a 73-year-old artist and self-described ‘reluctant activist,’ to start his project.
“I saw this map with thousands of red dots on it, just one on top of the other,” he told Reuters at his workshop in Tucson in September. “I want to go where those red dots (are). You know, the place where a tragedy took place. And be there and feel that place where the end of an American dream happened to someone,” he said.
The red dots of the map are represented by a circle of red metal Enciso nails to each cross, which he makes in his workshop. He decorates the crosses with small pieces of objects left behind by migrants, which he collects on his trips to the desert.
With temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), Alvaro and his two assistants, Ron Kovatch and Frank Sagona, hauled two large wooden crosses, a shovel, jugs of water and a bucket of concrete powder through the scrubby desert south of Arizona’s Interstate 8, weaving through clumps of mesquite trees and saguaro cacti.
They used a portable GPS device to navigate to a featureless patch of rocky ground - the place where the remains of 40 year-old Jose Apolinar Garcia Salvador were found on Sept. 14, 2006, his birthplace and cause of death never recorded.
They planted another cross for a second person who was never identified, one of 1,100 recovered from Arizona’s deserts since 2000 whose names are unknown.
Enciso, who left Colombia in the 1960s to attend college in the United States, considers the crosses part art project and part social commentary. He would like to see an end to migrant deaths in the desert and a change in U.S. immigration laws.
“We cannot continue to be a land, a country that was created on the idea that we accept everybody here. We have broken the number one rule of what America is all about,” he said.
Reporting by Jane Ross, Editing by Bill Tarrant and Rosalba O'Brien