- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2007

TEOCOCUILCO, Mexico (AP) — Alejandro Santiago’s picturesque hometown in southern Mexico for decades has said goodbye to its young people as they have left to seek work in the United States. Now the Oaxacan artist is trying to repopulate his town — at least metaphorically.

With a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Mr. Santiago has undertaken an ambitious plan to create an army of life-size clay figures.

So far, he has created about 1,500 statues, each approximately 4 feet 4 inches and 150 pounds, to represent the youths who have abandoned this hamlet in impoverished Oaxaca state. No two sculptures are alike, he says, and many of the faces have been sculpted to reflect the hardship of migrants’ lives in both Mexico and the United States.

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

Low wages and an inadequate number of jobs drive thousands of Mexicans to migrate every year to the U.S., turning rural communities such as Teococuilco into near ghost towns.

“Where are my friends, my relatives?” he asked the town’s 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 didn’t know how many to make at first, but I knew I had to repopulate the town,” he says.

In 2003, Mr. Santiago decided to experience for himself what it’s like to cross the U.S. 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, Mr. 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 caught quickly by U.S. immigration authorities and returned to Mexico, but that image was burned into his brain.

He estimated that the crosses numbered about 2,500 and settled on that number, plus one, for his project. He says the extra figure symbolizes that one more person is always leaving, risking his or her life to try to reach the United States.

The Rockefeller Foundation grant is helping him complete all 2,501 statues and pay his crew of 35 workers. He expects to finish the collection by the end of this month.

The sculptures then will make a journey of their own, traveling next month to Monterrey, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, for their first exhibition. Mr. Santiago hopes to show them later in the United States and then bring them home to be installed on Teococuilco’s empty streets.

When that happens, the artist promises a party.

“We will be celebrating the migrants’ return,” Mr. Santiago says.