NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Alvaro Enciso, a Colombian artist, of Tucson, Arizona, has entered a red "river" of suffering in the Sonoran Desert. That's where he places wooden crosses to memorialize migrants who die there while seeking dreams of freedom.
Enciso learned of this "river" through Humane Borders, a humanitarian group that tracks the deaths of migrants who die from heat, dehydration, or snake bites while fleeing border patrols. Red dots mark the geographical coordinates where bodies — or parts of bodies — have been found. On maps printed by Humane Borders, a solid red, river-looking swash indicates the most heavily trod areas; red dots sprinkled throughout the map show less-traveled tributaries and isolated eddies.
To help himself and others to enter this river in solidarity, Enciso founded "Where Dreams Die" in 2011. The project involves his creation of wooden crosses with a red dot in their centers to symbolize a map coordinate. Every week, he and a small group of others place the crosses at the exact spot where border patrols, hikers, humanitarian groups, and vigilantes have found the bodies. So far, they have placed more than 900 crosses in the Sonoran Desert.
Alvaro Enciso, a Colombian artist living in Tucson, Arizona, gives a presentation to Mennonite Mission Network's alumni and friends service-learning tour last November. He shares how he creates wooden crosses that he places in the Sonoran Desert where migrants die while fleeing border patrols. Photo by Laurie Oswald Robinson.
He described his project last fall to participants of Mennonite Mission Network's alumni and friends service-learning tour. They struggled to absorb the magnitude of deaths evoked by U.S. immigration policies that are tightening borders and goading risky desert crossings. Since 2001, more than 3,000 red dots have been placed on what is called the map of death, though Enciso said humanitarian groups believe the total is closer to 10,000.
"The cross …was the instrument of torture used by the Roman Empire to kill people through the heat of the sun and the lack of water," Enciso said. "These elements contribute to the death of migrants in the desert. The cross is also a geometrical equation that includes a vertical and a horizontal line — just like the coordinates on our maps."
Tour group participants who heard his presentation said that they were burdened by what they learned. But they were also buoyed by the stories of people like Enciso who offer solidarity to suffering migrants.
"We have witnessed how there are so many people, who, often in hidden ways, are finding ways to serve and to help those in need," said Linda Van Loon, of Pueblo, Colorado.
Deferred dreams that survive
During a group presentation at Tucson-based Shalom Mennonite Fellowship by Rocio Calderon, a former immigrant from Bolivia, the group learned about how migrant dreams don't always die. But they can be deferred for a very long time through a slow-moving and unjust system, said Calderon, program director for the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program at the Elroy (Arizona) Detention Center.
The program — supported by Shalom — provides support, friendship and encouragement to immigrants in detention in hopes of breaking the cycle of isolation through weekly visits and letters. Having been in detention herself, Calderon empathizes with immigrants who face long waits for a resolution to their search for amnesty and permanency in the United States.
"I came to the United States on a tourist visa because I was offered a job in California by a person who bought my plane ticket," she said. "But this person tricked me and didn't give me the promised wages."
"I asked to extend my visa so I could report this deceptive person to the authorities," Calderon said. "But they didn't believe my story. I was handcuffed on my wrists and ankles and put on an airplane without any explanation of where I was going."
She was brought to a detention center, where she had 10 days to find a sponsor in the United States. "I didn't know anyone, so I was stuck there," Calderon said. For the next two-plus years, she fought her way through the legal labyrinth.
Her situation was deemed a legitimate work trafficking case, but she was slapped with an impossible-to-pay bond of $20,000. Calderon reached out to a visitation group, and her first visitor was Tina Schlabach, co-pastor at Shalom. "Others wrote me letters and visited me, and they gave me the strength to keep fighting my case," she said. "… I prayed God would open doors and touch hearts."
God did. People within the community and beyond raised the $20,000. When she won her case, she returned the bond money, which helps to release others who are detained. She must live in the United States for one more year before she can apply for residency.
Calderon encouraged tour group participants to share her story with their home congregations to garner support for the visitation program at Elroy. The program accepts visits, letters, phone cards, and financial donations for bond money and lawyer fees.
Upon returning home, tour participants did share Calderon's story. Their congregations responded by offering fruits of solidarity. For example, tour participant Cheryl Lehmann's congregation, Sermon on the Mount Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, sent 81 cards to people being detained at Elroy.
"Glenda and I count the tour as one of the most important trips of our lives," said Abram Moyer, of Lansdale, Pennsylvania. "I applied for a grant for the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program from our congregation's [Plains Mennonite Church] Jubilee Fund, and they sent a very generous financial donation. Someone said, 'This has moved you.' And it has. You think differently about the plight of migrants than you did before."