University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León and a few students were doing field work in Arizona's Sonoran Desert seven years ago when the group stumbled upon the corpse of a woman.
For years, De León had been studying undocumented migrants crossing the Mexico border into the U.S. through the desert, so he was aware of the thousands of people who died in the desert because of the perilous terrain.
But this was the first time he saw the fatal journey firsthand through the death of Carmita Maricela Zhagui Pulla, who was 31 when she died, after leaving her husband, three children and a one-room shack in Ecuador.
"She migrated because she couldn’t put food on the table, her kids were starving to death and they were living in dire circumstances," De León said. "Like most parents, she was making the ultimate sacrifice to save her family. Its not an immigration story. It’s a human story that most people could recognize if they were in a similar situation."
Next week, De León will take a toe tag with Zhagui Pulla's name and pin it on a 25-foot long map, resembling the U.S.-Mexico border, for a pop-up exhibition in the middle of UM's campus. Five hundred students will join De León in assembling the exhibit by writing on toe tags the names of 3,034 undocumented migrants who have died in the desert, and putting the tags on the map.