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Deadly Desert

Shared Vistas exhibition chronicles the continuing agony of the borderlands



On the day that Mireya Guerra Casiano stepped into Arizona, the temperature hit 104 degrees.

Guerra had the misfortune to attempt her epic journey al norte this past June, a month that set new records for hellish desert heat. June is always the hottest month in these parts, but this year the desert cauldron reached a scorching 100 degrees or more on every single one of the month's 30 days.

Guerra started out across the border around June 12, hiking east of I-19 to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint at Amado. The weather dropped three degrees to 101 on June 13; by June 14, it was an even 100. But the downward trend did Guerra no good.

Her body was found on June 16. She lay dead in the desert just two miles east of the cars zooming by on busy I-19 and five miles southeast of the serene streets of populous Green Valley. Official cause of death: environmental heat exposure.

She was 23 years old.

Guerra was one of 29 undocumented border crossers who died in Southern Arizona in June, and one of 182 who lost their lives here in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That tally was a big jump up from last year, when 171 migrant bodies were discovered in our deserts and mountains. And in the 13 years that officials and human rights groups have been counting, the remains of a staggering 2,648 undocumented migrants have been recovered in Arizona. And those are only the bodies found.

Local artists have been responding to the carnage for years. In the new group show Shared Vistas at the Florence Quarter Gallery in the Southwest University of Visual Arts, the art bears witness to just how long the deaths have continued unabated.

A suite of moving black-and-white photos by Michael Hyatt date back to the early 2000s, but they could have been taken yesterday. The 2003 image "End of the Migrant Trail - Tohono O'odham Nation" shows a reservation cop looking down at a young man who's collapsed at the side of the road, injured and dehydrated. The man was saved, and deported, Hyatt says, but this work pays tribute to the thousands more, like Guerra, who were not so lucky.

A heartbreaking Hyatt picture of a man cradling his baby son, "Migrant Father," was shot in 2005 in Altar, Sonora, a major gathering point where travelers connect with coyotes. Desperate dads like the one in the photo still find their way to Altar's church plaza, but the dangers they face are even greater today. Gangster networks — migrants call them "la mafia" — now control the road between Altar and Sasabe, and exact tribute from the desperate travelers.

And the border walls, which push migrants farther out into the perilous wilderness, have only metastasized since the early years. The old landing-flats walls in Nogales and Douglas — easily breached by coyotes armed with a blow torch — have given way to towering steel barriers. Rex Koningsor, an MFA candidate at Southwest University and the curator of the show, took pictures of the old wall at Nogales in 2010, the year before it came down.

Filmed at night, his nightmarish panorama is garishly colored, with flashes of light bursting above the wall and over the crossing's sad, shabby buildings. Through digital manipulation, Koningsor has twisted the structures into menacing barriers, capturing the creepiness and unease of the nighttime border.

Grad student Lindsay Huseby, the lone painter in this group of photographers, used oils to paint a border wall made of dollar bills. Real dollar bills are glued on top. The canvas' title, "Steamlining the Paper Stacking," makes pointed reference to the profits made by private detention centers, especially from the increasing incarceration of immigrants processed through the mass Streamline trials.

Biological photographer Charles Hedgcock takes a long view of the border wall, literally. Best known for his black-and-white close-ups of jewel-like bugs, biological photographer Hedgcock here debuts sweeping, beautifully colored photos of the landscape. His borderlands skies are a subtle denim blue, his distant horizons pale rust, his grassy foregrounds a tawny shade of straw.

In some of these lovely pictures, the border wall is not even noticeable at first. Shot south of New Mexico, "U.S. Mexico Border Fence, Sierra San Luis, Sonora, Mexico," 2009, seems at first to be just another pretty landscape. Only belatedly do you notice the massive wall creeping stealthily through this vast terrain. The barrier is dwarfed by the broad sweep of land, but it's big enough and powerful enough to cut a single swathe of land into two.

A little closer to home, "U.S. Mexico Border Fence, East Flank of the Huachuca Mountains," 2010, is an aerial shot taken from a plane flying just west of the San Pedro River. From its high vantage point, the picture documents the immense scar that the wall and its accompanying road have etched into the land. In another New Mexico photo, the "Normandy barrier" version of the wall — all warlike right angles — flares out like a metal monster alighting on the land.

In contrast to Hedgock's macro views, Alejandra Platt-Torres zooms in for a micro view of the borderlands. She documents the sandy desert floor, making large-scale black-and-whites of footprints of border crossers, discarded sausage cans, black water bottles designed to evade the Border Patrol's night vision cameras. The plain water bottles left out by No More Deaths and Samaritans volunteers come with written good wishes: Que la luna te guie. May the moon guide you. Buena suerte, amigos. Good luck, friends.

Platt-Torres, fresh from a solo show at the Arizona State Museum, has printed these poignant artifacts of migrant archaeology on large sheets of paper destined, like the real-life objects, to decompose over time. They hang on the wall, and flow out across the floor, a makeshift migrant trail.

Hyatt, in a 2013 work, also makes use of the articles left behind by the fleeing travelers. Working with recycling artist Mike Mollett of L.A. he's created a soft dangling globe. "Migrant World Exodus: Artifacts of the Displaced on the Social Divide" is made up of the lost belongings of the wretched of the earth: T-shirts and caps and shoes, ID cards lost in the desert, a blue plush whale toy, a child's pink backpack and a little girl's tiny jeans skirt.

The skirt corresponds to the lacy frock in Hyatt's early photo "Little Girl's Dress, Arizona Desert," dropped 10 years ago by a child passing through. Whether she survived, like the young man on the Res long ago, or died far from home, as Mireya Guerra Casiano did this summer, is unknown.

In the long agony of the borderlands, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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