Documenting the undocumented

By Kyle Hobstetter on November 30, 2021

TU hosts interactive art exhibit cataloging lives lost at U.S./Mexico border

Sydney Avelino ’23 standing in front of Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit in Cook Library
Sydney Avelino ’23 stands in front of the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit on the main floor of Albert S. Cook Library. (Alex Wright/Towson University) 

Sydney Avelino ’23 never thought her college experience would involve filling out toe tags.

A mass communication major with a focus on public relations and advertising, Avelino has been working with the staff of the Albert S. Cook Library to bring Hostile Terrain 94 (HT94) to life on the library’s third floor.

It is a participatory art project composed of more than 3,200 handwritten toe tags that represent migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s and 2019. These tags are displayed on a wall map of the desert showing the exact locations where remains were found.

This is a coordinated exhibit between Cook Library, the Center for Student Diversity and BTU-Partnerships for Greater Baltimore.  

Avelino began working to bring HT94 to TU in 2019, when she served as the project’s engagement researcher and event coordinator. While she has handed off the position this year, she still attends events and speaks about the exhibit as much as she can.

For her, HT94 was more than just a job, it was about telling the stories of those who no longer have a voice.

“I remember the first toe tag I filled out. It was emotional because my birthday is July 2, and they were discovered on July 3,” Avelino says. “I remember thinking that when I was celebrating the date of my birth, there was a family mourning their loved one’s death.

“These are people. And sometimes you look at the ages on the spreadsheet, and they go as low as six years old, and they are crossing the desert to get a better life. It puts so much into perspective.”

Someone filling out a toe tag for Hostile Terrain 94
Hostile Terrain 94 has students fill out toe tags, that represent migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s and 2019. These tags are displayed on a wall map of the desert showing the exact locations where remains were found. (Alex Wright/Towson University) 

The exhibit will be on display until Dec. 9, with a special student response event on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at 4:30 p.m. Individuals interested in completing toe tags for the exhibition can obtain them at the Help Desk on the main floor of Cook Library.

HT94 is sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project, a nonprofit research/art/education/media collective, directed by anthropologist Jason De León, who held a special meet and greet on campus on Nov. 19.

TU was supposed to host the exhibit in fall 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening date was pushed back a year.

According to Joyce Garczynski, assistant university librarian for development & communication, the library wanted to host HT94 because it’s a compelling and interactive way for the campus to learn about issues surrounding migration.

“The U.S./Mexico border may seem like it’s so far away from Towson, but this giant map with thousands of toe tags makes migration proximate,” Garczynski says. “It encourages our community to learn more about the people behind the migration data and how the challenges of migration, that many in our community face, impact all of us.”

The library is also bringing the exhibit to the classroom. Over the fall term, Garczynski, Avelino and other employees have partnered with professors to host special classes dedicated to filling out toe tags and learning the meaning behind the exhibit.

Professor Matthew Durrington, and a student discuss filling out toe tags
Anthropology professor Matthew Durington, left, was one of the faculty members that hosted Hostile Terrain 94 events in his class. Here, students would fill out toe tags, and learn more about the exhibit on campus. (Alex Wright/Towson University) 

“It’s been very inspiring to see the amount of people who are willing to talk about their experiences,” Avelino says. “This is a subject that is definitely hard to speak about, but there are people who are willing to tell their stories and relive their trauma, just to disseminate this information that can sometimes be misconstrued.”

Garczynski is quick to credit the junior for all the hard work she’s put in.

“This exhibit wouldn’t be a reality at TU without Sydney,” Garczynski says. “She took the initiative to reach out to faculty to encourage them to schedule toe tag-filling events with their classes. She transformed a toe tag-filling program into a meaningful activity that encouraged students to connect with one another.

“She has been an invaluable leader and champion for Hostile Terrain 94.”