The natural splendor of southern Arizona serves as a focal point for Borderlands, the new exhibit at Washington & Jefferson College’s U. Grant Miller Library.
Sophomore Adriana Rodriguez-Ruiz’s photograph of sunlit cactuses against the backdrop of a blue sky and outcroppings of desert rock makes for a visually striking centerpiece for the display.
Just to the photo’s right, though, the imagery shifts to some of the region’s less-appealing aspects: a border patrol sign, military patrol vehicle and fencing topped by razor wire, plus a shot of three memorial crosses propped against steel slats.
Borderlands reflects the experiences of students who participated in Jason Kilgore’s sociology course Engaging the Sonoran Border, traveling to Arizona for three weeks in January. The exhibit is the first to be coordinated by students at the library since its summer renovation.
“This is the exhibit that they have put together, that they envisioned from the get-go, even before we left for this trip. They designed, they composed and entirely built this exhibit themselves, with very little oversight from Ronalee and me,” Kilgore said during its March 1 opening, referring to director of library services Ronalee Ciocco,
Rodriguez-Ruiz explained how Borderlands came together.
“We wanted to have a sort of simple title in the library that drew attention to the general issue,” she said. “Our class was really interdisciplinary, and we covered topics ranging from environmentalism to public policy to sociology and other things in between. And so what we tried to do was form clusters and choose photos that embodied that.”
Other groups of images, for example, focus on the humanitarian efforts on behalf of migrants who attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border through the vast Sonoran Desert by foot, and on the indigenous people whom the Washington & Jefferson contingent visited.
A dominating Borderlands design element is a series of vertical strips, representing the boundary between the nations, spanning the length of the library wall on which the images are posted.
“We wanted to show that these issues, and this landscape and its beauty, are both above and below the border,” Rodriguez-Ruiz said.
To provide further elucidation about the myriad of issues confronting the border region, Kilgore and H.J. Manzari, an associate professor of Spanish in the college’s modern languages department, are organizing a series of speakers for the fall.
Among them will be the Rev. John Fife, a 1962 Washington & Jefferson College graduate, whom the Engaging the Sonoran Border students met through his work with Los Samaritanos, a humanitarian group affiliated with Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. In the 1980s, Fife was at the forefront of the Sanctuary movement to provide support for Latin American refugees fleeing death squads in their home countries, and in 2004, he co-founded No More Deaths to address the growing number of fatalities among people attempting to cross the border.
The students underwent training by members of the group and took part in related activities.
“They talk to us about what is it going to be like when you come across these people who are dying and who are dead in the desert,” Kilgore said, “because there is a chance we can come across bodies when we’re out there doing that work.”
Since 2001, the remains of at least 3,023 migrants have been recovered in southern Arizona, according to the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a resource developed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, partnering with Humane Borders Inc., which maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert.
“These are only the remains that are recovered,” Kilgore explained, with the medical examiner estimating “double the number of bodies out there than there are those that are found.”
For more information about the initiative, visit humaneborders.info.