An Artist Is Placing Crosses in Sonoran Desert to Memorialize Migrant Deaths

More than 3,000 human remains have been found in the Sonoran Desert, most of them of migrants fleeing their home countries to embark on an uncertain and perilous journey to the United States. On a recent visit to the Arizona borderlands, Democracy Now! accompanied Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso into the desert at the site where he placed four unique markers to honor four immigrants killed in a car accident years ago as they fled from Border Patrol. In the past five years, Enciso, who is originally from Colombia, has built and installed over 900 crosses across the treacherous Sonoran Desert in Arizona as part of his ongoing project Where Dreams Die. Rather than religious symbols, Enciso views his crosses as markings that visibilize deaths that are often ignored. This is part of Democracy Now!’s ongoing series, “Death and Resistance at the U.S.-Mexico Border.”


AMY GOODMAN: The bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people, nearly all migrants, have been found since 2001 in the treacherous Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Recent changes to asylum proceedings under the Trump administration have diverted more migrants to deadly portions of the U.S.-Mexico border, including the treacherous Arizona desert.

In June, the body of a 6-year-old Sikh girl from India was found in a remote area of the Sonoran Desert, just one mile north from the U.S.-Mexico border in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. She was later identified as Gurupreet Kaur. Kaur’s death was the second recorded migrant child fatality in the Arizona border this year. She’s one of thousands of people whose remains have been found in the desert. Summer months are often the deadliest. The week of Kaur’s death, the extreme heat reached a temperature of 108 degrees. Gurupreet had crossed the border with her mother and 8-year-old sister in an attempt to reunite with her father, who had been in the United States since 2013 and was seeking asylum. She died of heat stroke after she became separated from her mother, who was desperately searching for water.

Days after Gurupreet’s death, the Sikh community in Tucson, Arizona, held a memorial for her. They also reached out to local artist Alvaro Enciso and asked him to create a special marking with an ancient Sikh symbol to honor her and make visible the exact area where the little girl lost her life. Alvaro Enciso has built over 900 unique crosses. Every week, he drives and hikes to the exact locations in the desert where the migrants’ remains have been found, and places a cross there to honor their lives and make visible the deaths, that are so often ignored.

On Sunday, Democracy Now! headed to Alvaro Enciso’s home in West Tucson and asked him about the death of Gurupreet Kaur.

ALVARO ENCISO: I’m going to go there as soon as the weather gets a little nicer, because it’s a hard-to-get-to place. And I’m going to put a cross for her. And the Sikh society here, the Sikh community here, is going to give me a Sikh symbol that I will put on the cross. So, here I am adding an ancient Sikh symbol to this cross of mine, that looks like a Christian symbol, but in reality it’s a marker. And that bugs the hell out of me. Just I cannot get it out of my system. I guess the only way I can do it is to go there and put a cross and to spend time there and think about this death, you know, this poor girl who died there, who didn’t come on her own. She was brought up by her family. And she never made it out of the desert. So, this is a big-time death for me to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: Alvaro Enciso said that her mother ultimately found her daughter by seeing the vultures circling overhead. This past Sunday morning, we went with Alvaro Enciso to the Sonoran Desert, the Altar Valley, a 30-minute drive southwest of Tucson, to the site where four immigrants were killed in a car accident years ago as they fled from Border Patrol agents.

Alvaro Enciso is from Colombia. He spoke about what inspired his ongoing project Where Dreams Die. He says this is a project he’ll never finish, as the actual number of migrant deaths in the Arizona border are unknown and as tens of thousands of migrants flee their home countries every year to embark on an uncertain and perilous journey to the United States. We spoke as we walked.

ALVARO ENCISO: This area is called the Altar Valley, because we have the Baboquivari Mountains in that direction, and we have the Sierrita Mountains in this direction. The migrants use this area here to go from south to north, from Mexico, which is about 40 miles this way. And they use the electric poles as a navigational point. They’re not far from the paved road, in case they get into — they don’t feel well, and they come out to the road and hope that someone will pick them up and — whether the Border Patrol, you know. At one point you know that you cannot walk anymore, and that’s it. So this is one of those — it’s not as heavily used as much anymore, because too many Border Patrol and too many helicopters and too many things here.

As we came in here, you saw some tires on the ground, and the Border Patrol uses those tires to drag them to clear the road. So, they come back, and if they see any tracks, then they know that migrants have come through here, and so they start looking for them. But now the migrants carry these booties made out of pieces of rug, pieces of carpet, and they clear.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saying the Border Patrol smoothes these sandy paths so they can see their footprints?


AMY GOODMAN: And they wear — and so, some of the migrants wear kind of carpet?

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, just about all of the migrants wear these booties that have carpet under, on the bottom, you know, the sole.

AMY GOODMAN: So you can’t see the footprint.

ALVARO ENCISO: So, then, the last guy sort of sweeps the — a sweeper, pretty much.

AMY GOODMAN: What is this area?

ALVARO ENCISO: The Altar Valley. We are close to Tucson. The idea is that the more money that you have to pay the coyotes, the less you walk. The less money you have, the more you have to walk. So, if you have enough money, they will — you will walk to Tucson, which is that road that we came on, Ajo Road, and they’ll get picked up there. The idea is that you’ll get picked up after the checkpoint. But if you don’t have enough money, you’re going to have to walk another hundred miles, 80 miles, to Interstate 8, which is the road that goes to San Diego.

And, you know, the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol now is a hundred miles; it’s not just the border. It’s a hundred miles in, into the U.S. So you have to walk at least a hundred miles to be out of Border Patrol jurisdiction. But then ICE takes over, you know, so it’s always a layer and layers and layers of people. So you have to live in the shadows.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of cactus are they?

ALVARO ENCISO: The ones you need to worry about are these, are the jumping chollas. They jump at you when they feel any kind of warmth, and, you know, they will attach to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what that means for a migrant.

ALVARO ENCISO: Well, at night, you will go right into one of those, and you get hundreds of those things, and you cannot remove them. And then they get infected. In two, three days, you are infected. So, the infection debilitates your body, and the lack of water and everything. And then you just sit in front of, you know, under a true, kind of take a break, you know, but you don’t get up. That’s how we find them, sitting there under a tree.

AMY GOODMAN: And the rattlesnakes?

ALVARO ENCISO: The rattlesnakes, you know, there are about seven species of rattlesnakes here in southern Arizona. And at night they are very active. And they bite you, and that’s the end. You know, you can’t — you know, who’s going to take you to the hospital? You know, you lose your leg, you know, depending on the kind of snake there is.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this happens. It’s not only migrants in the desert, but to be safe, they want to start moving at night, and that makes it very, very dangerous.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. And, you know, in the old days, they used to carry these regular gallons of water. But now that water reflects at night. So they started painting them with paint black and using shoe polish. And then people in Mexico started making them. So now you buy black water bottles that do not reflect any light. However, black doesn’t reflect light, so the water gets very, very hot. And so you’re drinking water that’s 130 degrees. So you don’t drink as much, because it doesn’t taste right. But you start dehydrating.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at night you have the dangers of the rattlesnakes. You have the danger of the cactus. You have the danger of falling, of —

ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. And also, the Border Patrol is more active at night. This is where they really start their day, you know, at night. Everything in the desert is out to get you. Everything has thorns. And so, when I ask people to go with me, I always tell them to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and to not expose your body, too, because everything is out there to stab you in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: At night it’s hard to see if there is a cliff, if there is a —


AMY GOODMAN: —rock that you trip over and break a bone.

ALVARO ENCISO: Right, absolutely. There’s a lot of injuries here — a twisted ankle, a twisted — you know, a bone that you fracture. That kills you. Blisters kill you. Little things like that.


ALVARO ENCISO: Well, you have blisters, because you don’t bring — you know, in order to hike all day long, you have to change your socks every day. But, you know, most of these people who come here, they don’t do this kind of hiking. You know, this is sort of like — they tell them it’s only going to be a day, but it turns out to be seven days. So you start getting blisters. And the blisters get untreated, and they become wounds, horrendous, and you can’t walk.

So you get abandoned. They leave them a little bit of water, but that water’s not enough for you to survive. And you hope that someone will come and rescue you. That’s why we have these groups here like Samaritans and No More Deaths, who walk the trails, putting water out there and looking for anybody that may need assistance in some way. So, these are the remnants of migration, you know, the gear that they —

AMY GOODMAN: A shirt or a cloth.

ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah. It’s a shirt, most likely.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this looks like it was a shirt.

ALVARO ENCISO: You die here, and you don’t last very long, because the animals will get at you very quickly. And in matter of two weeks, you disappear. The animals begin to grab their parts. You know, the vultures eat very well here. You can see they’re nice and fat.

I put the first cross here about six years ago. But at the time, I was not very experienced with the GPS, and I didn’t realize that there were three other people at that location. So, once I started revisiting some of the sites and looking at maps and looking at my data, then it came up that three other people had died here. So I came back not too long ago and put three crosses. So now this site is complete. So, like, there’s a cross for each one of them. They were — one guy was 17 years old. The other one was 19 years old. You know, young people. You shouldn’t be dying at that age. You’re too young.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were they from?

ALVARO ENCISO: I think Mexico and Guatemala, if I recall correctly. They used to come here looking — you know, economic reasons, trying to find a life for themselves and for their family. But now the American dream is no longer a plan. You know, they are fleeing violence. They are fleeing for their lives. They are fleeing from all kinds of things, and even climate change. You know, if you’re a subsistence farmer and you buy seeds and you put them in the ground and it doesn’t rain for one [bleep] year, you know, you get wiped out. You know? So what do you do? You head north.

AMY GOODMAN: Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso, as we walk together in the Sonoran Desert. When we return, we sit down in front of four of the more than 900 crosses he’s created to honor migrants who’ve died in the Sonoran Desert. He calls his project Where Dreams Die.