Alvaro Enciso has been placing crosses in the Sonoran Desert for seven years to mark the sites where migrants have died on their journey into the United States. His goal is make the invisible visible, to honor the lives lost, and to point his finger at the policies that lead to unnecessary deaths.
A Colombian immigrant himself, he finds that his land art project connects him to his own migration and heritage. And he has found that the experience of going weekly into the desert and honoring the dead has increased his sense of compassion and connected him more deeply to his own humanity.
“So now the secret is out. The Sonoran Desert is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. The fauna and the flora and the light and everything. People come from all over the world to photograph it, to spend time there, to hike, but this beautiful landscape has a secret. Inside this lovely land, this Garden of Eden, people are dying every day. People are being arrested. People are being treated badly. And no one seems to know that.”Alvaro Enciso
“I don’t like the word artist because I don’t know if I’m one or not. The word artist is loosely used, you know, anybody can be an artist.
The first thing that I learned about when I started making art is that I was very good at making bad art, since I had no idea what good art was. I look at a piece of art and I don’t know if it’s good or bad. But you know, what it matters is that I like it in some way.
So, I started making better art from the very beginning. And then, the second revelation was that there are some people who buy my art, thinking that they buying good art. Which is not the case.
Well, when I first moved here, I saw this map of all the casualties of the immigration policy. And it’s full of red dots of locations where bodies were found. They tried to reach someplace here in the U.S. And died in the desert from lack of water, too much heat and too much sun. But also in the winter from hypothermia, you know, you freeze to death.
So a lot of people die from heart attacks, busted ulcers, all kinds of things. And a lot of people get hit by cars and some people get killed by who knows who.
I’m a migrant. I came here from South America in, in the sixties. I came here with all the papers in order, by plane. And, I came looking for the American dream, like everybody else. An opportunity to be somebody. To improve your quality of life. To find a future that looks a little bit brighter than what you had back home. So for years, I always wanted to connect in some way with my roots, with who I am.
Because despite all the time that I’ve been here, I’m still a Hispanic man and a Latino man. And people always remind me of that. You know, they don’t want to let me forget that I’m a pseudo gringo. And somehow you get this idea that you are an outsider and that you don’t belong here. Even though I’ve spent most of my life here.
So I wanted to find a way to connect with my migration, sort of be one of them. So I started hiking to the sites where a body had been found or human remains of some sort. I went to stand there and see if there was anything there, a vestige of what happened there, the suffering and the disappointment and the failure and everything.
Immigration is a two-part thing you know. The person who leaves to come here and the people who stay behind, and I was trying to connect all of that. But, you know, I’m not really an activist. And I wanted to treat this thing with some sort of a separation because I didn’t want it to get too sentimental. So I was trying to find a way to document those deaths, you know, over 3000 of them.
One of the ideas about contemporary art, or at least my way of thinking about it, is making the invisible visible. So I needed to give these people presence. I needed to mark the locations somehow.
So I started going to these sites. I will go there sometimes by myself and I will just go flat on the ground and hoping to find some epiphany or some sort of revelation, some cosmic message. This was going to be the project that had a lot of meaning and purpose. I was even thinking that this was going to be my legacy. You know, that it’s a beat up old guy putting crosses out in the desert.
The cross connects, a lot of things. It’s a symbol of death. It’s a symbol of finality. You know, the Catholics didn’t invent the cross. They appropriated the cross from the Roman empire. The Romans used to make the crosses, big ones, to kill people. They used to hang them there. You know, common criminals, enemies of the empire, false prophets. And they hang them there for three or four days without any water under the sun until they died. Which is exactly what it was happening here.
So the cross was beginning to make sense, but I was a little reluctant because I didn’t want to be seen as some kind of Christian fanatic putting crosses out there. So I decided that this cross was going to be not a religious cross, that it didn’t have any Christianity in it. It was a universal symbol. It was nothing more than a geometric equation. You know, a vertical line on a horizontal line. The vertical line means that you’re still alive, that you walking. And the horizontal line means that you’re dead. That you are flat on the ground, that this is it. And where those two lines meet, that’s the point where the tragedy took place. Where the story of David and Goliath in this case, Goliath always wins, you know, because the poor person from Mexico or from Guatemala cannot compete with all the technology and all of the hate and all of the things so that he, he or she always loses at that encounter.
That is the moment where something took place that ended badly for someone from another country, who after years of being exploited, a victim of colonialism and imperialism decides that he wants to be part of the empire. That he no longer wants to be exploited. Because remember that these countries, the central American countries were the banana republics. All of the American intervention in those countries and those governments turned it into very difficult places to, to make a living. So they need to move here. In other words, the natives are getting restless. They need to be part of the empire. They want to get something out of it. And this is where you find that the opportunities are, where you can not be afraid of being killed, you know, not being robbed, not being raped.
So when you decide to come to this country, to make that difficult trip it’s because you have no other options. You’ve run out of options. So the only option is to come here, where you will find what you’re looking for, or hope that you find what you’re looking for. But really you never really find it, because you find a crappy job that pays badly and you live in some ghetto. And so that’s not the American dream that this country sold to the Europeans. Because the American dream was never intended for Mexicans, Chinese, native Americans. It was intended for white Europeans to come here. Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Irish, because they were white and they had blue eyes. They didn’t want any Mexicans here. They didn’t want any Chinese. They came here as laborers, you know?
So now the secret is out. The Sonoran Desert is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. The fauna and the flora and the light and everything. People come from all over the world to photograph it, to spend time there, to hike, but this beautiful landscape has a secret. Inside this lovely land, this Garden of Eden, people are dying every day. People are being arrested. People are being treated badly. And no one seems to know that.
So it’s been seven years or so, where every week I go in and put as many crosses that I can. Or nowadays, it’s as many crosses as I can make. But I can no longer hike the long distances that I used to hike. I’m getting old, you know. I’m 75 years old and now who knows how long I can be able to hike out there, how difficult it is nn the heat, when it’s 110 degrees outside.
Well, it sounds a little cliche, but this has given me things that I never experienced. Has given me compassion and empathy. You know, when you get old, you sort of become invisible. People don’t pay attention to you. You’re no longer pretty. You no longer important. So I want to stay relevant and this, this keeps me relevant.
But most important, this has made me more human, because I lost my innocence in Vietnam when I was drafted. And I changed dramatically. And I wanted, all my life since then, I wanted to find a way to have more feeling.
I’m going to continue to do it for as long as I can. Because I’m really getting a lot of sustenance out of it. You know, I don’t need fame and fortune. It’s too late for that, but I’m getting something I never had before. This inner sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something that you think is important. And in a way it’s going to be my legacy.”
-In what ways do you consider yourself an artist?
-What is your immigration story?
-What do you know of the Sonoran Desert and the migrants who have died there?
-Have you ever felt like an outsider?
-What risks have you had to take in your life in order to pursue your dream?
-What is your understanding of the American Dream?
-What do you know of Central America?
-In what ways have you worked to make the invisible, visible?
-What do you hope your legacy will be? How will you ensure that?