Virtual Reality: Carne y Arena

It means flesh and sand.

It is a moment, lasting six minutes, in the harrowing experience of crossing the United States southern border illegally.  It is both silent and loud, always uncomfortable and, above all, confusing and frightening.

Reading facts and data about refugees (variously called migrants, illegals and aliens) fleeing from the violence and poverty of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is troubling, but experiencing it in virtual reality engages another dimension of understanding.  Carne y Arena presents, in a VR experience without commentary or explicit advocacy, a fraction of the journey that refugees crossing the southern border of the United States endure to reach our country. It is the moment of apprehension and detention that is captured in VR.

After first sitting alone in a frigid holding room for several minutes amid assorted flip flops, boots, sandals and sneakers found in the desert, I stood bare-footed in harsh, gravelly desert sand, outfitted with a back pack, VR glasses and headphones.  The desert scene stretched endlessly around me, desolate except for scattered shrubs and cacti; there seemed to be no horizon.  Then others arrived, the migrants, adults and children, their angst and uncertainty palpable.  In moments, suddenly, helicopters with their roaring blades and inescapably bright search lights hovered above us.  Voices of Border Patrol agents thundered – drop your belongings, men to the left, women and children to the right – but even their voices held fear.  Uncertain if I was supposed to comply, I absorbed the migrants’ confusion and fear.  Agents and migrants swarmed around me and I instinctively backed up to avoid virtual collisions.  A child called, Ayuda, Papa.  A sense of helplessness and hopelessness pervaded the dark.

And then, it ended — for me.  My backpack, goggles and earphones were removed.  After, still shaken and confused by this VR encounter, I wiped the sand from my feet, retrieved my shoes and coat.  In the adjacent Gallery, I read the words of refugees who survived the border crossing, superimposed on their activated photographs. They had contributed accounts of their journeys to the VR experience and here told their after-stories.

One woman worked 20 years to save $35,000 to bring her five children to her, one at a time.  The youngest was three when she left; the child was a woman of 23 when she was reunited with her mother.  In the interim, the mother cared for the children of American families, earning her living and saving money for the passage of her own kids.  She wrote of gratitude.  There was a young man who crossed as a child, and went on to attend UCLA, becoming an attorney and working for a non-profit.   And another had traveled with his younger brother.  Kept in a freezing cold detention center for ten days, he gave his shirt to his brother to help warm him. A guard gave him a blanket.

Transported by “coyotes” for sums up to $8,000, these men and women survived smuggling in vans and trucks, sometimes loaded like logs inside the trucks, barely able to take a breath. In one chilling story, a refugee featured in the Gallery recounted that a coyote abandoned a boy in the desert because his weakening condition left him unable to keep up.  I heard echoes of the Auschwitz trains.

The ones in the Gallery are among those who survived, who have made good lives, working, going to school, learning, serving others. Their numbers grow still, but more slowly.  Along with the number of legal refugees, the rate of illegal migration, as measured by detentions, has decreased materially month to month in recent years. But, while the rate of detention of border-crossers has dropped significantly since 2000, and even more rapidly since 2016, the rate of death of those crossing the border rivers and deserts has increased.  The number of bodies recovered in the first quarter of 2017 nearly equaled the total for all of 2010.  For the period from October 2000 through September 2016, 6,023 in-transit migrant deaths have been recorded in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.  State officials leave no doubt that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more uncounted migrants who have died of dehydration, heat stroke and hypothermia, while escaping their violent and impoverished home countries.;;;

Print and online reports of these numbers, like those cited, are ubiquitous. But it is the VR encounter with flesh and sand that conveys most profoundly the transcendent courage, resilience, commitment and love of family that impel these migrants to seek a life in our country. Would that it also could awaken the compassion and courage to embrace them and their values as our compatriots.


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