Tagging Hostile Terrain
By Ciera Miller, Staff Writer
Since September, University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) students across five disciplines participated in filling out a total of 1,370 toe tags for the Hostile Terrain 94 (HT94) installation at the Oak Institute for Human Rights at Colby College. A toe tag is a piece of cardboard or paper attached to the toe of a deceased person used to identify them. HT94 is an art project organized by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), directed by anthropologist Jason de León.
HT94 was born out of the term “Hostile Terrain”, a direct quote from the U.S. government’s Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) policy. PTD uses the desert and mountains as a form of border patrol to deter people from migrating into the United States through Arizona. However, PTD has failed and migrants continue to flood in.
For this project, toe tags are filled out and pinned to a large wall map at the coordinates at which a dead migrant body was found. Orange tags belong to unidentified people and white tags belong to the identified.
Dr. Gaelyn Aguilar brought HT94 to UMF because she believes in “teaching justice in an unjust world.” She said, “I was hoping that filling out our toe tags would feel an awful lot like the naming of names,” which she compared to the most recent surge of Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country.
Cassie Donald, a UMF student who participated in filling out over 20 toe tags, echoed Aguilar. It made them feel more personally involved and was more than just an assignment. “Putting names to the issue made it very real,” they said. “It brought forward a lot of emotion that reading an article might not.”
Aguilar discussed the language used to dehumanize migrants coming into the U.S. from our southern border. “We call undocumented immigrants ‘illegal’―folks do that to avoid speaking the names of those who’ve died, or even having to imagine their faces,” she said. Aguilar believes contributing to this toe tag installation allowed herself, her faculty members, and her students to reinvision these migrants and give them their names back, not only in individual consciences but in our national conscience as well.
Senior Adriana Burnham knows what it’s like to experience this language. “I’m half-Mexican, and I get a lot of jokes about jumping the border,” she said. Due to Burnham’s heritage, it felt personally disrespectful not to fill out these toe tags. Living in the U.S., Burnham reflects that most don’t have to stress about crossing into a new country to start a new life and/or supporting families from afar. “It gives a reality to something we don’t see in Maine,” she said. “We have this chance to recognize these people who risked their lives.”
Laney Randolph, a senior education major, was blindsided by the amount of tags UMF received to fill out. She hadn’t realized how many people died crossing the border. “It’s horrifying to think that this isn’t something most people are aware of,” Randolph said. “I think Americans would have a much more empathetic attitude towards immigrants if they knew just how difficult and dangerous it was to get here.”
Their reactions are the purpose of HT94. This installation is a moment of global reflection and remembrance of those who’ve died on this hostile terrain, trying to cross into the United States. Donald said it best: “It’s important for people outside of the issue to gain awareness of the issue.”