Right now there is a group of migrants from Central America making their way through Mexico to try to find asylum in the United States. This is being used as a kind of scare tactic by a lot of politicians. But all I have is empathy. This summer I visited “Carne y Arena,” a virtual reality experience designed to show visitors the experience of immigrants attempting to cross the U.S border and it only emphasized what I’d already thought; crossing thousands of miles and a killing desert on foot is not and has never been the easy option.
The point of Alejando Iñárritu’s “Carne y Arena” is not to shock or horrify. Its point is to bring you wholly into an experience. There’s a tastefully decorated space for the check-in room, with comfortable modern furniture and a coffee and tea bar. From there, you exit the building and re-enter through a door bordered on all sides by pieces of the actual border fence. In a totally black room, you check in and are directed through a curtain to read the artist’s statement about the work, and the people who made it happen. Iñárritu spoke to people who had made the crossing from the Mexican border in the US, and used them to recreate their time in the desert. After that room, you are in the work.
The first room is a freezing cold, sterile space with metal benches. Shoes and other personal items are scattered across the floor. These items were found in the desert near the border in Arizona, where it’s estimated that over 6,000 migrants have died trying to make the crossing. The variety of shoes will raise questions in your mind that have no answers. Tiny shoes for toddlers, strappy high-heels, meticulously beaded flats, pairs of shoes and individual ones. In this room directions on the wall direct you to take off your own shoes and leave them in a locker in the wall, then sit on the bench and wait for an alarm by the door to let you know when it’s time to enter the next space.
In D.C, “Carne y Arena” was displayed in a church, and the main space was entirely empty with almost no lights and sand on the floor. Two attendants helped put on a backpack and a VR helmet. Once the helmet is on, the VR puts you in the Sonoran desert at either dawn or dusk. You can walk around in the experience, get closer or farther away from things. The sand beneath your feet helps ground you into the experience. A group of people approaches from one side. There are men, women, and children. One woman is being supported by another person with calls that she may have broken her ankle. As the group trudges towards you, a helicopter appears in the distance with a spotlight sweeping the ground. It passes over the group, and suddenly border patrol units drive up to the scene with agents jumping out of SUVs screaming orders. It’s easy to describe the actual series of events that you watch through the VR helmet, but hard to communicate how much you feel THERE. Even though you can tell it’s a VR recreation, and you know that you are standing in a church in D.C, your emotional response is heightened by the seeming proximity. The VR simulation ends with a border patrol agent pointing his gun directly at you and shouting at you to put your hands up and get on the ground. I could understand what he was saying. In the migrant group the experience focused on, at least two people didn’t speak English or Spanish. It was implied they spoke a Central American local dialect. This would have been far more confusing or upsetting for them. There were no sensors on my hands. There was no way to tell where they were. The movement of my hands would have no effect on the simulation that I was in. I still started to put them up before the agent and all the other people and vehicles suddenly disappeared and I was left “alone” in the desert landscape, watching the light spread across the scrub around me. The attendants took the helmet and backpack off me, and I left the room into a hallway filled with portraits of people who’d participated in the project, with their stories appearing as text in front of their faces. There were mothers trying to earn money to help their children, people fleeing gang violence, and even a border patrol agent who spoke about watching people die of heat stroke while crossing. Most of the migrants don’t try to run from border patrol, they look for them. They’re hurt, or dehydrated, or want to surrender so they can be granted asylum. Many of them were lied to about how far they’d have to walk through the desert, how long it would take them to reach the relative safety of the border. They were not given enough water or food to last the trip.
After you go through the whole work, there’s a “Post Experience” area that you can stay in for a while. It’s got the same tasteful modern decorations and soft lighting as the first lobby, but it’s bigger and there’s a server at a coffee bar with water, tea, coffee, and cookies. You can have either half and half or Oat Milk in your coffee, and then sit down with a cookie to think about what you’ve been through while looking at potted succulents. I said to my boyfriend that it really drives home how soft we are, that after seven minutes of a virtual experience, this is the space they think we need to decompress. We were never in danger. We were never really tired or hurt. We were never going to be shot because we made a wrong move while panicking because someone was yelling at us in a language we didn’t understand. It cost us nothing. And for just watching that we get a lovely space with comfortable couches and a literal cookie. Perhaps it’s trite to quote the Warsan Shire poem “Home” but it was all I could think of while I sat there. “No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying - leave, run away from me now/ i don’t know what i’ve become/ but i know that anywhere/ is safer than here.”
There are currently over 7,000 people fleeing a home that is not safe. I don’t have long-term answers as to how to make home safe for them, but I know that I can’t imagine what would have to happen to me to make me decide that walking over 1,000 miles with only what I could carry was my best option. I wish that “Carne y Arena” could be seen by all the Americans who are afraid of these people. Whatever our fears are, they are a drop in the ocean of the things feared by those walking through Mexico right now. If this were a just world, they’d be escorted into that “Post Experience” area to sit on a comfortable couch, and have a cookie, and get the chance to have their asylum claims heard fairly. At the very least, their families could be kept together. For a lot of white Americans, our ancestors migrated here when immigration checks meant looking for lice and TB, and asking a few questions. We know this is no longer the case. It hurts my heart to think that the safety these people are looking for, the home they’re looking for, doesn’t exist here either.
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