Sun, Aug 05, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Lonely artist seeks to repopulate rural Mexican hometown

TERRA COTTA TOWN An artist has decided to build clay statues to represent all of those who have left his village hoping to find a better life in the US


Artist Alejandro Santiago is undertaking an ambitious plan to repopulate his southern Mexico hometown, devastated by migration to the US, with an army of life-size clay figures.

So far Santiago has created some 1,500 of the 1.3m, 70kg statues representing the youth who for decades have been abandoning this hamlet in impoverished Oaxaca State in search of work north of the border.

No two are alike, he said, and many of their faces were sculpted to reflect the hardship of their lives in both Mexico and the US.

Santiago said the inspiration for the project came six years ago, when he returned home after a three-year stay in Paris and was struck by Teococuilco's empty streets.

"Where are my friends, my relatives?" he said he asked the remaining residents, mostly young children and the elderly. "They are all in the United States? I kept asking and asking. Night fell and not one soul came to visit me.

"I knew I had to repopulate the town," he said.

In 2003, Santiago decided to experience for himself what it's like to cross the US border illegally. He bought a bus ticket to Tijuana, met a smuggler who set him up with fake papers and tried to cross.

In Tijuana, Santiago passed by thousands of crosses on the corrugated wall marking the border, placed there by activists to represent those who have died trying to cross. He was quickly caught by US immigration authorities and returned to Mexico, but that image stayed with him.

The artist estimated the crosses numbered about 2,500, the number he settled on for his project. He added one more to symbolize that there is always one more person who is leaving, risking his or her life to reach the US.

The Rockefeller Foundation has given Santiago a US$100,000 grant to complete all 2,501 statues and pay his crew of 35 workers. He expects to have the collection ready by the end of this month.

First the sculptures will make a sort of migrants' journey of their own, traveling to the northern city of Monterrey for their first exhibition next month, Santiago said.

He hopes to show them in the US and then return them home to be installed on Teococuilco's empty streets.

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