Digital Mourning: Some of the Sights and Sounds of the Sonoran Desert

My name is Alyssa Quintanilla, and I’m a fifth-year PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. I am one of the recipients of the Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship for AY 2020-21. My dissertation “A Matter of Waste and Bodies” explores the use of “waste” and ideas of trash within discourses and policy about the United States-Mexico border. I use literary representations and digital art to examine how concepts of waste are applied not just to the items border crossers leave behind, but to their bodies, leading to the diminishment of their voices, experiences, and deaths. Throughout my dissertation research, I have looked at digital pieces like Fatal Migrations and Border Memorial which memorialize some of the thousands of border crossers who have died in the process of entering the United States. These pieces not only raise awareness about the realities of life in the borderlands, but they are also an active call for mourning those whose deaths are not publicly grieved. Considering the importance and limitations of these works, I have had the opportunity to create my own digital memorial for border crossers that builds on the work of digital artists, artists, and immigration rights groups.

Vistas de la Frontera is a digital memorial that captures some of the places where migrants’ bodies have been recovered. Using data collected by the Pima Office of the Medical Examiner and made accessible through Humane Borders, I capture videos of some of the sites where people have been recovered. Like other digital memorials, the idea behind Vistas is to make the realities facing migrants crossing the United States-Mexico borderlands more visible. One of the deadliest forces migrants face while crossing the border is the environment, which the United States weaponized through the 1994 policy Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD). Over the past 26 years, PTD has been used to fortify the border in major metropolitan areas and push migrants into dangerous environments. The result is thousands of people whose deaths are not publicly or openly mourned (this is not to say that families do not mourn for these individuals). Vistas makes these spaces, in all of their bio- and regional diversity, visible. Using 360 technology, I have captured some of the spaces where migrant bodies have been recovered and made them accessible for users to see and explore. The videos in Vistas are an invitation to grieve for the person honored within by allowing people to see and interact with the borderlands space. The videos invite uncomfortable contradictions between a beautiful natural environment and the realization of death in a particular spot. These videos are placed on a publicly accessible and interactive map which encourages users to explore the landscape. Videos are also accessible through the website and on YouTube.

Practically speaking, Vistas has been the hardest thing I’ve done during my graduate study. The reasons are many, but the pandemic exacerbated every aspect from moving to Tucson to finding people who can safely show me the desert and making sure I’m making time to care for my own mental well-being. Creating a project like this during a time of mass mourning and loss is hard, but having been on the ground during the second half of 2020, I know that migration does not stop for the pandemic. In fact, things have escalated with more apprehensions and more deaths than in the previous year. Being in Tucson has allowed me to see the effects of this, as well as construction on the border wall. I have done my best to document as much as possible, but as someone whose primary research focus was literature until a few years ago, I’ve had to teach myself many aspects of digital creation. I’ve learned how to edit video (360 video is particularly challenging) and sound, best use GIS, and create a website. The process has been frustrating and fruitful, especially as I am discovering many limitations of the digital medium. For instance, embedded 360 video does not work on mobile browsers. If someone chooses to look at Vistas de la Frontera on their cell phone, the videos on the website will not work – they will only work via YouTube. This is particularly frustrating considering that cell phones have VR capabilities, but my fix for now is a button on the website that leads directly to the YouTube page.

Despite these frustrations with technology, the videos themselves are critical to disrupting the silences that surround so many of the deaths in the borderlands. Vistas de la Frontera makes visible the violence of migration policy by showing how the environment is weaponized against border crossers. The first step in holding power accountable for this crisis is by making it visible and raising awareness about how sovereignty along the border is solidified. The attempted erasure of these deaths is directly linked to the politics of bordering, and by grieving for individuals who have died, we can demand accountability. I want people to sit with the videos and to think critically about how and why we grieve for certain groups and not others. In this way, the act of creation itself is one of the most exciting aspects of this project for me. I have done the theoretical work to write a dissertation, but the ability to spend time in the field and create something that works against violence in the borderlands is important.

Mourning for migrants takes a wide variety of forms, and my work has only been possible through important collaborations here in Tucson, AZ. The artist Alvaro Enciso has been placing crosses for border crossers in the desert of Southern Arizona for the past 6 years. Working with the Tucson Samaritans, Alvaro has placed over 1,000 crosses in some of the most remote parts of the Sonoran Desert. Over the past six months, I have had the opportunity to accompany Alvaro on his weekly crosses trips where he and a few other Samaritans go to different spots where migrant bodies have been recovered and place a cross. Alvaro uses crosses to mark these spots and to honor the person -- regardless of identifying information or religion, Alvaro uses crosses as a universal symbol of loss. Alvaro has been generous enough to allow me to record the spots where we place crosses as part of Vistas de la Frontera. I am extremely grateful for his generosity, his knowledge of the area, and his unending dedication to memorializing the border crossers who have died. Many of Alvaro’s crosses are visible in Vistas de la Frontera which illustrates the possibilities of analogue and digital mourning together.

cross in the desert

Cross by Alvaro Enciso. Image by Alyssa Quintanilla.

My approach to writing about the borderlands and ideas of memorial has changed significantly after the past few months of direct engagement with recovering disavowed voices and bodies. Furthermore, this immersive experience has expanded my self-understanding.  Yes, I am a scholar, but now I add the titles of digital artist and activist. In our graduate training, we are primed to see what is missing in our research fields, but we are not often encouraged to fill those needs beyond our scholarship.  Fellowships like this provide a new space for creative thinking, and I am grateful for the platform I was provided to channel my desires to participate in migrant aid and to respond to the limitations of other digital memorials into the creation of Vistas de la Frontera. More of these opportunities are needed so that we humanists, who often see ourselves only as writers and teachers, can start to view ourselves as creators capable of undertaking meaningful work beyond the walls of the academy.

Alyssa Quintanilla
Department of English
January 2021

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