6000 Bodies

                                                                             In Collaboration with Robert Neustadt Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, 2011

Materials: Salvaged scrap wood

For the Right to Live in Peace - Othon Perez

In memory of those who, when seeking a better life,
found only death,
In memory of those who risked everything and lost it,
Who went with hope in their eyes and challenge in their souls.

The sun calcified them, the desert devoured them,
and the dust erased their name and their face.

In memory of those who will never return
we offer these flowers . . .
To them, with respect, we say:
Your thirst, is our thirst.
Your hunger, is our hunger.
Your pain, is our pain.
Your discomfort, your bitterness, your agony
Are also ours.

We are a shout that demands justice. . .
In order that No One, ever again, will have to
Abandon their lands, their beliefs, their dead, their children
their parents, their family, their race, their culture, their identity. . .

We are a silence that has a voice . . .
In order that no one will have to look for their destiny in other lands.
In order that no one will have to go to the desert and be consumed by loneliness.

We are a voice in the desert that cries out:
Education for all!
Opportunity for all!
Work for all!
Bread for all!
Liberty for all!
Justice for all!. . .

We are a voice that the desert cannot drown. . .
In order that the country offers equality to all its children
The opportunity for a decorous and dignified life. . .

After returning to Flagstaff from a class field trip on the U.S./Mexico border, my colleague Robert Neustadt (Director of Latin American Studies and No More Deaths faculty advisor) contacted me, wanting to know if I would like to collaborate on an installation, by constructing 6000 crosses to be installed on the NAU campus, which would call attention to the humanitarian disaster on the border. 

I agreed and designed an installation that would memorialize the more than 6000 migrants who have been found dead in the southwestern deserts of the U.S. since 1994 when NAFTA became policy.  My hope was to create an installation that would cover the campus, a symbolic piece of time and space, where one would walk along the main thoroughfare from south campus to north campus, past thousands of wooden crosses staked into the ground.  Beginning on a south campus lawn, a field of crosses would be erected.  Then spaced out on both sides of the main sidewalk, a few feet apart, crosses would lead students to the north campus, where another field of crosses would be installed. 

But, because of a lack of imagination, and of politics and fear, NAU President John Haeger and his administration would not allow it to happen.  Using safety as a reason for concern “that a student might trip and fall and impale themselves,” our designed project stalled.  Finally, we were able to secure a meeting with the president, the provost and other administrators, and to sit down and discuss our proposal.  After a number of absurd questions, concerns, and suggestions (one offering us a field on the periphery of campus, where no one walks, and thus, where no one would view them and bear witness) we were granted a “path to permission.”  We would not be allowed to install the piece as designed, but to lay the crosses on the ground on one large field on the south campus.  I left the meeting deflated.  Because of a culture of fear, censorship had raised its ugly head again.

Having promised to remove the crosses before parents would start to arrive on campus for the Spring Commencement ceremony, on the afternoon of May 1, with the help of NAU faculty and students and members of the Flagstaff community, we began laying the crosses out on the grass, creating a chaotic landscape, as if a tornado had passed through, leaving splintered wood across the field.  This lack of a coherent design initiated a new symbolism – our federal government’s immigration policies have created what they were intended for – a killing field for the poor.