Volunteer Terry Stanford places rocks around the base of a cross in the San Rafael Valley. Photo by Robert Gay

The multinational season of the dead is underway, a traditional time of honoring those who have gone before us. The All-Souls’ Procession in Tucson always includes honoring the crossing of migrants from life to death, after they’ve crossed a border from one nation to another. 

Red dots have been getting placed for years to mark the deaths of migrants in Arizona, first on maps, and then on artist Álvaro Enciso’s handcrafted wooden crosses in the ground. Santa Cruz County currently has 96 known death locations, with over 3,000 in Arizona, between 2001 and 2021.

Enciso calls his cross-placing project “Where Dreams Die/Donde Mueren Los Sueños.” He places an average of four crosses a week, now totaling around 900 of them. He and helpers from the Tucson Samaritans have logged tens of thousands of miles driving and walking for these placements. 

In eastern Santa Cruz County, one cross is on Upper Elgin Road and a group of five, from a high-speed car wreck, was placed along SR 82 east of Sonoita, as reported in the April 2020 PRT. Enciso has also made smaller versions of his crosses, as wall pieces, some now available at the Patagonia Trading Post. 

Recently, volunteers, including India Aubry of Voices From the Border, participated in a cross placement day in San Rafael Valley. GPS location of the places where the migrants had died was facilitated by the crew’s navigator, David Whitmer. When the spots were reached, holes got dug about a foot deep. A gallon or two of cement was poured around the base of each cross, then some dirt, then a small pile of rocks above ground. The cross was straightened, then a small rosary was hung on it, continuing a tradition begun by a monk who had worked with Enciso.

Unlike a tombstone, these memorial markers have no names, dates, sayings, or mention of relatives. No wording at all, but a focusing red dot on every one. 

The first placement site was on a slope below Parker Canyon Lake, an open, treeless spot beyond a cattle tank. It was for a 45-year-old man named Jose Carrasco Popocatl, discovered in August of last year, cause of death being “probable hyperthermia,” i.e., heat exhaustion. The remains had been found within about a day and were not decomposed. His surname comes from the Nahuatl language, almost certainly placing his origin in central or southern Mexico. 

The second site was about a half mile north of the border, west of Lochiel. This was a replacement for an original cross that had fallen and separated. Because of recent erosion, the new cross was placed a bit further from the stream bank. This cross was for 33-year-old Jose Adrian Montenegro-Mendez, who’d been shot in the leg and was assumed to have bled to death on the spot. Enciso was not dismayed at the damage to his original cross – “If the cows don’t knock ‘em over – you know they love to scratch on things – then the termites will chew the base.” 

Enciso prefers to not be called an activist but sees himself as an artist and human being, an individual reacting viscerally to these unacknowledged deaths, driven home even further by his first direct encounter with a body in the desert. At 75, he knows he will not finish commemorating every red dot in his lifetime, but still feels called to continue. Checking off every possible site is not his goal; nor is organization-building. Instead, making and placing crosses is a remembrance process for him, each step honoring the life of the one who passed. Asked if he’d transition the work to a successor, he said “no,” that the project should evolve according to the vision of the person doing it. 

Over the last several years, the migrant death toll and Enciso’s work have both been reported on by national and international media. Broadening awareness is the real goal of the work, and he appreciates the media who’ve contacted him. For us in Santa Cruz County, the red-dot death maps make the invisible deaths visible. Enciso’s project makes it vividly clear that we move around in a growing, yet highly scattered 1,238-square mile graveyard.