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Artist Makes Marking Migrant Death Sites His Mission


Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso has spent the last eight years documenting the places where migrants have died trying to cross the U-S Mexico border. Using public records, he finds the exact spot in the Sonoran Desert where a body was found, then marks each place with a unique wooden cross.

Enciso is in Flagstaff Friday for an interactive exhibit that explores human stories from the border. It’s Friday evening from 6:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on Beaver Street in Flagstaff. 

Zac Ziegler: “What made you decide to memorialize these places where people have died in the desert?”

Alvaro Enciso: “Prior to moving to Tucson in 2011, I had no idea that people are dying out in the Sonoran Desert. I saw a map that has all these red dots where a death occurred, where a body has been collected, and I wanted to walk to those sites and see if there was any spirits, any energy and if something that could tell me. So I did a few of those walks. I went to the sites, and of course there's nothing, just a bunch of desert and sand and rock. These locations were important to me. I needed to do something to point the finger that someone had died here. Someone looking for the American dream had died.”


An image with each instance of found human remains in the Sonoran Desert since 2000.

ZZ: “So there are thousands of deaths in the desert in the last decade. How do you choose which sites you visit?”

AE: “Well, you know, most of these death sites are in very remote areas. In the beginning I used to find clusters of them. So I could do two, three or four in a week. Nowadays, I cannot do that. I can only do maybe two because the distances are becoming longer and longer and longer, and besides I'm getting older and my legs are no longer what they used to be. I try to put as many of them as I can knowing that I'll never finish.”

ZZ: “How many have you placed?”

AE: “Over 900.”

ZZ: “What do you hope goes through the heads of someone that finds one of your crosses, be they a person trying to cross the desert, a border patrol agent or just someone out enjoying nature?”

AE: “Another reason why I use the cross is because not many people want to desecrate a place where there's a cross. It’s like the cross protects the red dot. So the cross is really the vehicle to take the red dot into the desert. So when people see the crosses, it's always, ‘Wow, what is this cross doing in the middle of nowhere?’ Some of these crosses are becoming shrines. The migrants leave little religious imagery, some money, maybe a candle to sort of remember that this journey is very very difficult. And I don't know what Border Patrol will think of them. Perhaps a little bit of ‘hmm.’ A little bit of humanity, that this is a sacred space.”


ZZ: “What has this taught you about the people who cross the desert?”

AE: “Well, when when a migrant dies in the desert, it doesn't make the the news. It's not written anywhere except at the morgue. But this person was a human being. This person had a life and had family and dreams and hopes and plans. And that all ended. You know, I was an immigrant myself. I came from Columbia, South America. I was one of the lucky ones who found the American dream. I mean maybe not all the pieces, but enough for me to feel that I succeeded here.”


ZZ: “You found your American dream.”

AE: “Yeah, I found my own version of it. Maybe this is what the American dream is all about. It's a notion to sort of advertise that this is where you may find it.”

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