Why I wrote 500 toe tags during a pandemic in Kansas

Huascar Medina is the 2019-2021 poet laureate of Kansas. He lives in Topeka. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Huascar Medina is the current Poet Laureate of Kansas.

I recently completed the task of filling out more than 500 toe tags for an art installation. I’m a member of a team composed of Washburn University faculty and Topeka locals bringing the Hostile Terrain 94 art exhibit to Washburn University this month. The Mulvane Art Museum is one of more than 100 venues worldwide hosting the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit and the only participant in Kansas.

Hostile Terrain 94 is an international, participatory art exhibit by the Undocumented Migration Project, a nonprofit out of Los Angeles. The Undocumented Migration Project is a long-term anthropological study of the complex social process of undocumented migration at the United States-Mexico border.

A giant wall map depicting the U.S.’ southern border will have toe tags pinned to exact geolocations where each body was discovered. Some tags will include QR codes allowing smartphones to view videos of a migrant’s family members sharing stories of the individual’s life.

Roughly 4,000 people have lost their lives traveling through the Sonoran Desert since 1994 when the federal government’s Prevention Through Deterrence immigration policy took effect.

Bringing this project to fruition has been difficult. The art installation was supposed to be “participatory.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its necessary precautions like limits on audiences attending group events, on and off campus, I decided to fill the tags out myself.

I sat for hours with black pen in hand filling out manila and orange toe tags (orange tags are for unidentified bodies).

A detail of the Undocumented Migration Project’s Hostile Terrain 94 installation. (Undocumented Migration Project)

The information required to fill out a toe tag included name, age, sex, reporting date, surface management, corridor, cause of death, body condition, county and state, and latitude and longitude.

The information I would use to fill the toe tags was available on spreadsheets ordered chronologically by reporting date and grouped by positions on a grid related to a map. I had over 500 deaths to record onto tags.

On day one, I spent six hours writing out the names of the dead.

The dead ranged from children to the elderly. Causes of death included dehydration, hypo- and hyperthermia due to exposure, blunt force trauma, gunshot wounds and hanging. Body conditions included fully fleshed, partial to complete skeletonization with ligamentous attachments and mummification.

I found the unidentified toe tags the darkest. Almost half of the toe tags were marked as unidentified. Each one of these unnamed tags symbolized a missing person to someone in the world.

A detail of the Undocumented Migration Project’s Hostile Terrain 94 installation. (Submitted by the Undocumented Migration Project)

That first night, I crawled into bed and told my partner to wake me up if she heard me having a bad dream. I cried a bit then passed out.

That night, I dreamt in the colors of an Albert Bierstadt painting. The Sonoran Desert landscape was full of giant Saguaro silhouettes who were trying to walk away at dusk to escape the view. In my mind, even the desert’s shadows have a conscience.

The Kansas poet laureateship facilitates the movement of ideas. One idea that is deeply rooted in me is that we are all human beings, despite our differences. We are in this together whether we like it or not. The pandemic is proof.

I share poetry to stir thought and spawn conversation with a variety of individuals. Some of whom live in a world full of others rather than in a world of one another. I share my truth to elicit sincere emotional responses from the audience so we can talk openly about beliefs and world views. I have always believed truth is the path to empathy and empathy with action becomes compassion. I’m not sure I believe that with the same certainty as before.

On May 24, 2020, The New York Times printed Incalculable Loss, names with obituary passages of nearly 100,000 lives lost to the coronavirus in America. This project was the brainchild of Simone Landon, assistant editor at the Times’ graphics desk. It was an attempt to combat data fatigue and still inform the public.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are over 150,000 current coronavirus deaths. Yet, we debate lifesaving mask mandates. Mask wearing is a simple act of compassion.

With this realization, I worry an art installation depicting roughly 4,000 deaths at the southern border of Arizona won’t be enough to open the hearts and minds of anti-immigrants in Kansas on U.S. immigration policy. I hope I’m wrong.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here.