This roadside cross in Elgin is one of more than 600 crosses that Alvaro Enciso has erected in Southern AZ. Photo by Pat McNamara

Five crosses that have recently appeared on both sides of Hwy 82 two miles east of Sonoita and one cross on the east side of Upper Elgin Rd have a story to tell. They were placed there by Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso to honor those migrants who have lost their lives looking for a better life in the United States. 

Enciso’s project, named “Where Dreams Go to Die” was inspired by the work of Pastor John Fife, who was working on a ‘Death Mapping’ project. Fife had created a map with red dots representing the discovery of the remains of migrants found in the Arizona desert. 

Since 2001, Pima County has been keeping records of those remains and have documented more than 3000 bodies. The county medical examiner works with, a nonprofit organization which maps the location of remains using GPS data provided by law enforcement. If there is enough evidence, the ME collects DNA samples and attempts to evaluate the cause of death. The DNA is then sent to the Colibri Center for Human Rights, who seeks to identify those victims by matching it with the DNA of family members of migrants reported missing from Central and South America. 

The Death Mapping project sparked a passion that went right to the soul of Alvaro Enciso and he began to create a way to honor those who had died on their journey. He uses items he has found in the desert to decorate his crosses. The paint comes from donors with leftover paint and each cross features a red dot, to match the red dot on the GPS map, molded from clay donated by a friend who is a potter. The red dots should remain even after the wooden crosses have disintegrated. 

A group of volunteers hike out with Enciso to place the crosses. There are many crosses in the Sonoita,Elgin, Patagonia and Nogales mountains and grasslands along with those in other places of the southern Arizona desert. Enciso estimates he has placed over 600 crosses which do not necessarily represent the Christian faith but are more a geometric representation of the vertical start of the life journey and its horizontal end. 

Enciso, himself an immigrant, came to the U.S. from Columbia in the 1960s after graduating from high school, with dreams of attending college here. He arrived at JFK airport with his visa and paperwork in order, ready to take on the world, knowing no English and naïve enough to think that getting accepted into a university would be simple. 

It was during the Vietnam war and Uncle Sam had other plans for him. He was drafted into the army and spent time in the infantry in Southeast Asia. Upon his discharge, now fluent in English and with the GI bill in hand, Enciso entered Queens College where he received his BA, working his way through school as a NYC cab driver and a custodian for a ‘peep show.’ He then enrolled in the New School for Social Research where he earned his MA in anthropology. 

After his graduation, Enciso became, as he labeled it, “a bureaucrat.” He worked for the government in Washington D.C. and Baltimore, teaching and overseeing immigration policy, mostly with Southeast Asians, as the Vietnam war was winding down. His experience as an immigrant was an asset in this profession and he spent the next twenty years helping to resettle those who immigrated to the U.S. 

Having finally had enough of bureaucracy, Enciso moved to New Mexico to develop his talent as an artist, and then, in 2011, settled in Tucson, where for the past seven years he has been working to leave a visual reminder where the remains of those lost lives have been found.

“Migrants who cross the Arizona desert are my heroes,” he said. This is the reason for Enciso’s work. It is his passion. Because he is also a migrant, he feels his life has come full circle, starting 50 years ago with his arrival here from Colombia. 

Enciso feels he has reconnected with his origins. “As you age, it all changes and I want to honor my losses and the courage of those in the desert who have perished, their losses, too. They had a name, a family, dreams, hopes and were just looking for a better life, looking for home. I want to honor that.” With his creations, Alvaro Enciso has found a way to do just that.