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-based artist Alvaro Enciso, as we walk together in the Sonoran Desert. We then sat down in front of four of the more than 900 crosses he's created to honor migrants who've died in the Sonoran Desert.
ALVARO ENCISO: We are here at a location where four migrants were found dead some years back. These migrants died on the same day. They died all together here. They were trying to get away from the Border Patrol. They were in a van, and the van just rolled over and tumbled. And they were collected out of here with multiple injuries, multiple head injuries. And I learned of this site about six years ago, when I started putting crosses out here. At the time, when I saw the red dot, I thought it was going to be just one person, and I left it at that. And then...
AMY GOODMAN: And that's where you built your first cross?
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, that's where this is one of my early crosses. This is very early Alvaro. This is right when I got started.
AMY GOODMAN: That was one person you learned about. And you talked about a red dot. Where did this red dot come from?
ALVARO ENCISO: When I first came to Tucson, and I took this training, an orientation for Samaritans, and the first thing they do is they show you this map of southern Arizona with thousands of red dots on it. And, you know, I guess when you're a visual artist, you sort of react to certain things. And that red dot immediately caught my attention, because this red dot represented a location where someone lost his or her life, you know, who the end of an American dream happened to someone. And so, this was the so I decided to go to these actual locations, you know, because the map is a map. It's not the territory. And the red dot is an abstraction on a map. But I wanted to come here, where the people are collected out of here, put in bags and taken to the morgue.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was the first person that you built a cross for, the red cross?
ALVARO ENCISO: Well, I don't have the names of these people. Over the years, I put over 900 crosses here. And to me, at the time, they were I don't want to say generic, but I wanted to treat everybody with the same, you know, respect and dignity, so I wasn't very concerned with the names or whether they were identified or not. I was just wanting to put the cross there to celebrate the honor, to celebrate the courage of someone who came here looking for what I came here looking for 50 years ago, that opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn the stories of these four migrants?
ALVARO ENCISO: Well, again, you know, there's a database that is public. But the database is limited. You get the name and the age and the place of origin, and that it was, in this case, multiple injuries, head injuries and chest injuries, due to a car accident. And that's all I know.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe how you came up with the idea. And who was the first person that you honored?
ALVARO ENCISO: I was looking for a way to mark locations where the American dream ended for someone. And I was trying to avoid the cross, because the cross had enough baggage already. And I wanted to think of migration as a universal thing, that it happens all over the world. And I didn't want to use the Christian symbol, because it would limit the vision of people. You know, when people saw those crosses, immediately Christianity comes into mind. And so, I wanted to it needed to be bigger than that. So I was struggling with what to how to mark these locations. And I tried different things that didn't work.
But then I started paying more attention to the cross, and I learned that the cross was used as an instrument of death during the Roman times. The Romans built these structures to kill people. They hung them out there in the sun without any water until they died. They wanted to make it as painful as possible, you know, so people will see that you don't [bleep] with the Roman Empire, you know, that this is the price. And it's exactly what is happening here. You know, people are dying because they don't have any water, and there's no shade, and they're out in the sun until they died.