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Sculptor repopulates Mexican ‘ghost town’ with statues


Mexico City : A Mexican sculptor has decided to “repopulate” his homeland with 2,501 clay statues after he found it turned into “a ghost town” because hundreds of his one-time neighbours had left for the US.

Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago himself returned to Teococuilco, a mountainous picturesque town in southern Mexico, after spending 34 years in the city of Oaxaca to complete his education.

The 43-year-old Santiago began his original artistic endeavour six years ago with the aim of reviving attention in the phenomenon of immigration and emphasizing “the suspended history of the ghost towns”, Spanish news agency EFE quoted the sculptor as saying.

“They (emigrants) are people who go and abandon their entire world… In my town of Teococuilco, in Oaxaca state, in many towns in Mexico, all over the world… It’s a universal phenomenon,” Santiago added.

The number of clay figures is not just a whim of the artist. Two thousand are for the people he calculates tried to cross the US border – something he also tried. Five hundred are for the families he estimates left his town and one figure is because “there will always be one immigrant more”, he said.

Santiago returned to Teococuilco at the end of the 1990s to find that none of his friends, relatives or childhood companions still lived there because virtually all of them had crossed illegally into the US in the intervening years seeking a better life.

That dangerous journey is made each year by half a million Mexicans trying to find “the American dream” – or at least a little piece of it.

“There’s no family who does not have a relative in the United States,” he said, recalling the impact he felt when he saw the empty streets of Teococuilco.

At that moment he decided to have the same experience – crossing the frontier without papers to be able to reflect it in his work and “get to know the sensation of being an immigrant”.

With the help of two “coyotes” – as the traffickers of undocumented immigrants are known – Santiago went with a false visa and passport from Tijuana to Otay Mesa, California, where a car waited for him to take him to another “more secure” town.

Before being deported, Santiago sought financing for his art project in the US.

The Rockefeller Foundation is one of the organisations that have become interested in the initiative, on which another 35 people are working and the completion of which is scheduled for September. After that, the statues will be exhibited in the Forum of Culture in the northern city of Monterrey, which is also financing the project.

There, the 2,501 clay statues will be united for the first time to “symbolically represent a community” of men, women and children.

The statues are life-size, and they weigh between 30 and 90 kg. No two are identical.

“Each piece has its own personality,” added Santiago, who has decorated each statue with its own unique features.

For examples, on some of the figures he has placed necklaces with figurines of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, the names of wives or girlfriends and even “characteristics of death” because the emigrant adventure “is an uncertain and unreal step” in which not everyone manages to achieve a better future.

“The majority manage to get together a little money but then they return to Mexico and they spend it in a bar and so they remain in the same condition as when they left,” he said.

In Mexico, “many people emigrate to the United States to improve (their lot), and that chain links those who are there with those who are here, (they leave) and leave behind ghost towns, like mine,” he said.