2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago

Cristina Rivera Garza

Artwork by Ifada Nisa


Thousands of years ago, in what is now the Chinese city of Xi’an, an emperor preparing to die and to extend his reign into the other life ordered his craftsmen to reproduce, in real size, every single member of his army. With local materials and in well-organized work crews, the artists not only gave each piece a unique face, thus turning them into personages, but also placed in their hands the weapons that corresponded to their rank. The realistic effect of the assembled pieces was such that, years after the death of the hated emperor Qin, a peasant mob fought the terracotta soldiers, disarming and, you could say, lethally wounding many of them.

Walking among the pieces that Alejandro Santiago and his team of thirty-two artisan-laborers have designed and produced in the last six years in their ranch-workshop of El Zopilote, located in Santiago Suchilquitongo, a community close to the tumultuous state capital of Oaxaca, produces a similar sensation: that of finding yourself among strange living beings that, at any given moment—and preferably between sips of mescal—will begin telling stories about their journeys to the other side of the border. Phantasmagorical and terrifying at the same time, fragile like the material of which they are made, but real in the air that envelops them and solid in the space they occupy, Santiago’s migrants cross one border above all: the thin and brittle line often called reality.

“Sometimes I look at them from far away,” says Santiago with his traveler’s voice that slowly slides along a dirt floor, “and it looks like they’re chatting.” Placed on the hills scattered throughout the ranch-workshop or positioned along the path leading to the building, the migrants, without a doubt, prudently observe everything. Of human proportions and with faces that don’t depict but rather evoke a reality as much internal as external, the pieces aren’t only a part of the landscape but also part of an incessant conversation that they themselves provoke. “This is a little boy of about twelve, he’s healthy, but he took a spill,” Santiago half-whispers while gravely pointing to the broken leg of one of the pieces. With their own stories, that is to say, with unique identities, the clay bodies could even evoke fear. It isn’t difficult to imagine the migration officer that, years before the death of the hated emperor, points his gun at the clay migrant that, with a shocked face and tattoos of the Virgen de Guadalupe on his back, tries to cross once more, always once more, that mobile and misunderstood line that unites and divides the richest country in the world and its poor neighbor to the south; the nightmare and the dream; that which is and that which is about to leave; the here and now, and the beyond.



Each of Alejandro Santiago’s clay migrants carries a signature. You can see it on the feet. Not all of these signatures belong to Alejandro Santiago. Each signature—a curved line that extends to the ankle, a symmetrical fissure between the toes, or the faint shadow of a nail—is a marker of identity: evidence that it was made by of one of the thirty-two young mixes and mestizos who, thanks to working on Santiago’s ranch-workshop, haven’t had to emigrate to the north, like so many others have done. Earning an average of 3,600 pesos a month—a reasonable amount in a rural region where even water is scarce—the workers and even Santiago’s family members are able to identify their own pieces at the slightest provocation without getting defensive. To confirm the identity, you need do nothing more than carefully examine the feet.

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the young Karl Marx elaborates with characteristic passion on the labor process created by a capitalist economy. The young man of abysmal temperament argued that labor, by transforming the natural into the social, is the one and true source of our humanity. In an ideal society, that is to say, one in which labor and its products still belong to the worker, to work and to create would be one and the same thing, one and the same process. In that kind of society, a worker could pronounce, just like Santiago’s sister-in-law did, standing before a group of twelve half-completed pieces: “these are mine.” Something in the natural and irrevocable tone of her affirmation forces us to rethink the limits of our concept of authorship.

More than products of labor, Alejandro Santiago’s 2501 migrants, above all, are labor, the process in itself and for itself. With Zoila Santiago, the artist’s wife, organizing the administrative side of things, the artisans put great care into constructing these clay bodies as they tend to cows, sheep, and turkeys, which continue to observe the finished pieces without apparent astonishment. In the incessant comings and goings among the corn during the time they dedicate to tending to cows and sheep and turkeys, they still stop to observe, without apparent astonishment, the finished pieces. The artisans are the ones that mix the material stored in sacks at one end of the workshop and they are the ones that, based on trial and error—though always directed by Santiago—find the positions that enable the clay men and women to stand up on their own two feet. The young artisans know when a piece is ready and then they place it in the kiln so that it acquires the consistency and color of a human body. Alongside all of this, the young men and women also have access to the musical instruments that Santiago has collected with the hope of one day forming a band that would play norteño music.

Halfway between an agora and a small, non-profit business, the creation of the clay migrants challenges, and by challenging, questions, the process of the production of flesh-and-blood migrants. If the former responds to the human needs of the region, providing the community members with a way to stay, that is to say, to reproduce the community, the latter responds to the needs of North American capital that provokes a diaspora that, in Oaxaca and so many other states in Mexico, has left in its wake a rosary of ghost towns. It is no mere coincidence, or in any case it is a co-incident of contemporary politics, that this is the original context of Santiago’s project: an empty plaza through which the specters of bodies that no longer exist glide. There, perhaps much like Juan Preciado who came to Comala because he had been told that his father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there, Alejandro Santiago set about discerning the murmurs of those who have gone and vehemently wishing, as one wishes for these things, for their sudden appearance. From the desire to see them once more, from the desire to have them close by, elbow to elbow in the daily grind or in the echo of shared laughter, from the desire, too, for justice, the clay migrants were born, one by one. In number, they are the same as those that would have died trying to cross the border between Mexico and the United States up until the year that Santiago crossed via the Otay gate in Northern Baja California. Twenty-five hundred was also the number of families that, as far as Santiago remembers, made up his town. Twenty-five hundred, the man who is still sitting in the ghost town, wishing, murmurs with utmost certainty. Twenty-five hundred plus one. The next one. Twenty-five hundred plus those whom Alejandro Santiago wants to keep, with opportunities for work that are life opportunities, in their home towns in Oaxaca.

In the last of the three manuscripts that Marx wrote in 1844, the young philosopher argues that “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.” Man, it was said then, learns to see and, seeing, produces the eye and the object that the eye sees. The same happens with smell, taste, touch. By passing your fingertip over the clay bodies of Santiago’s migrants, you can easily feel as though within that touch the entire history of the world up to the present is concentrated. That the politics of eternity is concentrated there.



A tumultuous beauty runs through the clay migrants that come out of the El Zopilote ranch-workshop. More than beautiful, they are overwhelming. With the tattoos almost mystical on their backs, the figures of men, women, and children share a kind of original expressionism and the intimate feeling of a howl. There is something contained there that threatens to collapse at any moment. The clay, brought directly from Zacatecas—another region characterized by the high number of workers that leave for the United States—can, in effect, become mud or dust or nothing under the pounding climate and the passage of time. The clay, which Alejandro Santiago uses as a malleable frame, can be opened—never to be closed again—in the slashes that appear on the faces and torsos of the migrants. Flowering wounds. Identity marks. Maps.

Far from the realism that dominated the designs made by the artisans of emperor Qin’s court, the faces of Santiago’s migrants seem to emerge from a private purgatory or from an unborn world. Extracted, without a doubt, from the astonishing world of the paint that covers them, these faces are unique, certainly, but they are, at the same time, and perhaps for the same reason, unrecognizable. Those that truly wish to see them will have to get close and shut their eyes and open them again. Those who wish to see will have to work their way into the multiple openings of the clay and occupy, from the inside, the space of the face that sees the way that it is seen. These faces, as the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said, demand. The face claims. The face, by the mere fact of its existence, elicits a response: “the free movement of presence.” Those that wish to see will implicate themselves.

Made of coarse textures that invite touch, Santiago’s migrants fit into a long tradition of clay sculpture in the state of Oaxaca. Among the zoomorphic figures within which chia plants grow, and the hand-sculpted women that were made by the disappeared potter from Atzompa, Teodora Blanco, there is a place for these men and women who return from a long journey. In fact, it wouldn’t be all that strange to think that the black clay sirens and the tanguyús from Tehuantepec share the same tactile and delirious universe as Alejandro Santiago’s clay men and women. There is something hallucinatory and recurrent about them, something of the shrillness of communal laughter, and something of the communal withdrawal of the villages. Something about them, too, of that Frankenstein who, already compelled by his imagination, lost his way among the trembling global borders. Something of the rigid Tula Atlante transformed into a woman. Something of a mannequin that refuses the trade. Something, too, of a cyborg and a mutant. Something of that alien from planet Mexico that persists on its journey.

As if they were defending themselves against the transparent dangers of the air, the hands of those who migrate are gathered at their chests, perhaps foreshadowing the position they will acquire when, finally—and this is in the town from whose empty plaza they were invoked—they rest.



Mike Davis, the brilliant North American critic and author of the already classic City of Quartz, among so many other books, once argued that the border wall is nothing more than a kind of horrifying political spectacle. Effective only for justifying the violence of the crossing and to later reinforce the dynamics of power generated by the empire, the wall has not been able to do what walls are supposed to do: to suspend the flow, stop the passage, contain the material. The border wall has not been able to prevent the incessant crossing of the men and women required by the economy and lifestyle of the United States. This is something that Oaxaqueño migrants, for whom the journey to the North has become, over the years and generations, a way of life for entire communities, know well. I’ll repeat it: a way of life. Because confronted with the real risks of the movement between the two countries, the difficulties inherent in exile, and the rage surrounding their exploitation, many of these migrants, as sociologist Laura Ortiz Velasco analyzes in “Agentes étnicos transnacionales: las organizaciones de indígenas migrantes en la frontera México–Estados Unidos” (Transnational Ethnic Agents: Indigenous Migrant Organizations on the Mexico–US border), have turned toward their own forms of community organization in order to integrate themselves into the realities that their labor ultimately reproduces. While the statistical claims about Oaxaqueños in the United States vary (the figures in differing sources span from thirty to five hundred thousand migrants), the majority of them are concentrated in California. Introducing not only a language, or in many cases, two, but also forms of sociality and protest in the fields and cities of their northern neighbor, the Oaxaqueña community forms a part of what militants as much as analysts have named the Mexicanization of the United States—that gradual but inexorable process that provokes anxiety in so many, but in so many others, though not always everyone else, provokes expectation.

But all the force and tradition that have assured, in spite of the adverse conditions, the dignified survival of the Oaxaqueña transmigration has only been possible through the production of its intermittent and phantasmagorical presence in the region of origin. Their bodies are not or are only sometimes on the streets where they were born. Sudden apparitions. Their hands do not hold the tool that can pierce the land in order to produce corn, agave, beans. Their eyes do not see the rusted rims of a car that once ran. That toy. This tool. Their feet do not curiously or devotedly dip into the healing waters of the Hierve el Agua—two petrified waterfalls consisting of large quantities of calcium carbonate and two small springs of carbonated water (which turns the water a greenish-blue color). Their voices. Their echoes. Alejandro Santiago’s 2501 migrants are, essentially, a meditation on this absence. The 2501 migrants are a project, in reality, about the reach of the absent body.

Much has been said about the nostalgia of those who leave, but rarely has anyone explored, and even less frequently with clay, the melancholy of those who stay. What does the witness to the slow process of deterioration, the gradual configuration of ruin, the always fleeting happiness of reunion, really see? How do you experience in your own flesh the process through which reality empties? When you walk through the clay bodies of the migrants you cannot help but feel that you have found yourself before the work of a solitary but inventive child who, out of pure desire, had to build his own playmates. There is something of that childlike and voracious energy in the design of the bodies, especially in the way the masculine sex hangs and the feminine sex opens in two. Stunning dichotomy. There is something of that frenzied and impossible energy in the clay bodies that brings them back to us. And in order to receive them and to invoke them at the same time, to continue playing that extreme game called life, Alejandro Santiago will go about placing his 2501 migrants in Teococuilco de Marcos Pérez, in the northern mountains of Oaxaca, a town that, with their presence, which is to say total absence, will cease to be a ghost town and will become pure intervention. If that isn’t the power of art, what is? If this isn’t a form of resistance, what is?



In the long study of the personal and political dynamics of human pain that is The Body in Pain, especially in the chapter dedicated to torture, Elaine Scarry analyzes with particular attention the place of the interrogation in the production of a confession that always, out of necessity, will be what the representative of power wants to hear—that is, it will be, even when it is true, false. An imposture that responds to an imposition. A form of bartering that, according to various testimonies, ends up not only producing guilt but a sense of betrayal and, even more, self-betrayal. The border interrogation that has as its objective to produce, through constant confirmation, a unique identity, would seem to fulfill, keeping in mind the proportions of the case, a similar function: I am he who appears there, the migrant must claim in the presence of his identity document. He who appears there is me, she will repeat. And all of that, even though sometimes it is true, will have to be, out of necessity because that is what the representative of power wants to hear, false. An imposture that responds to an imposition.

Alejandro Santiago says that rarely has he felt more naked than when in front of a migration officer. He doesn’t say that interrogation is a weapon of the empire that harms his body, but he suggests it. What he does say is that this is one of the reasons why his migrants are naked: all of them are permanently there, at the gate, exposing themselves, responding. They are all crossing. Right now. Eternal gerund. And I, who have passed so many times over that stretch and who, even now, still endure that subtle bewilderment and that kind of horror that provokes the need to prove who I am, who among all the I’s am I; I stand looking at the clay bodies and, suddenly, I feel like I am a part of them.

And that is when you, which is another way of saying I, see us.

translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker

Excerpted from: Dolerse: Textos desde un país herido. Surplus Ediciones, 2011.