Honors College exhibit showing plight of migrants crossing Sonoran Desert to end Sept. 1

Students fill out 3,200 toe tags commemorating the dead
UW-Stout students filled out 3,200 toe tags as part of exhibit at the University Library. The exhibit has tags with information on migrants who died crossing the Sonoran Desert from Mexico to the U.S. from the mid-1990s to 2019.
Pam Powers | August 2, 2021

On the back of a toe tag hanging in an exhibit in the University of Wisconsin-Stout Library a simple message printed by the student filling out the tag reads:

“It’s really disquieting to write the term ‘fully fleshed’ on an identification for a human being.”

That human being was Efrain Gonzalez-Manzano, age 24, who died from exposure in May 2001 in Pine County, Ariz., while trying to cross the Sonoran Desert to come to the U.S.

That toe tag with his name and the message is one of 3,200 handwritten tags representing migrants who have died trying to cross the desert from the mid-1990s to 2019. The exhibit is entitled Hostile Terrain 94.

It is a participatory exhibit sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project, a nonprofit research-art-education-media collective, directed by anthropologist Jason De Leon.

The free exhibit in the library’s main entrance lobby has been up since late fall 2020 and will be taken down on Wednesday, Sept. 1, said Tom Pearson, UW-Stout professor of anthropology. A UW-Stout student-created Honors College film introduces the migration issue and exhibit.

The toe tags are geolocated on a wall map of the desert showing the exact locations where remains were found. UW-Stout is one of about 150 institutions around the world housing the installation last and this year. The project at UW-Stout is co-sponsored by the campus colleges, Honors College, Nakatani Teaching and Learning CenterFurlong Gallery and library.

About 150 students participated in filling out toe tags. More than 550 students who were part of the UW-Stout Honors College read the book “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail” by De Leon for the fall colloquium. De Leon is also director of the Undocumented Migrant Project and head curator of Hostile Terrain 94.

UW-Stout Professor Tom Pearson and his daughter, Zora, with Amy Brostrom, Honors College program assistant, look at some of the toe tags on exhibit at the University Library.
UW-Stout Professor Tom Pearson and his daughter, Zora, with Amy Brostrom, Honors College program assistant, look at some of the toe tags on exhibit at the University Library. / UW-Stout photo

Students met in small groups virtually and in person with social distancing to discuss the book.

Honors College is a curriculum designed to enrich students’ educational experiences, foster more in-depth learning and help them become creative thinkers and leaders. Each year the Honors College, which will have more than 550 students involved this fall, chooses a reading to promote discussion and bring attention to social issues, Pearson said.

Once the exhibit is taken down, some parts of it will become part of the UW-Stout University Archives. Most of the toe tags will be sent to the Undocumented Migration Project to become part of future exhibits.

“Even though geographically the Sonoran Desert is far away, there are a lot of migrants working for farmers and in food processing around here,” Pearson said. “It is an intimate part of the community. We are all connected to what is happening at the border.”

Another note on the back of a toe tag says: “This man’s name is lovely. I wonder what he was like as a person … What was his story?”

The note talks of 36-year-old Migal Angel Barajas-Lua. His body was found in the desert in June 2016 where he died of hypothermia.

The tags were filled out by UW-Stout students.
The tags were filled out by UW-Stout students. / UW-Stout photo

This fall the Honors College is reading “Klara and the Sun: A Novel” written by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro. The New York Times bestseller tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend, with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in a store, carefully watches the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

The book explores the fundamental question: What does it mean to love? The Fall Colloquium is Thursday, Oct. 7, in the Memorial Student Center Great Hall, said Amy Brostrom, Honors College program associate.

Honors College is sponsoring City of Text from 9 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11, Brostrom said. Students view Menomonie as a textbook and learn about the city and area during an experiential learning event. The event starts in the Great Hall.


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