Returning to his native Mexican village after many years, the artist was startled by what he didn’t see.
“Where are my friends, my relatives?” Alejandro Santiago asked the remaining residents of the town, Teococuilco de Marcos Perez, in a remote mountain area of Oaxaca state.
Upon learning that most of them migrated from southern Mexico to the United States in search of work, he vowed to honor the departed and “repopulate” his impoverished hometown.
Around 2002, he began to sculpt the first of hundreds of strangely poignant, human-looking ceramic figures and planned to place them around the village. But by the time he completed the massive “2501 Migrantes” project six years later, it had come to represent a much larger, universal story of struggle.
Santiago, who was diagnosed with diabetes more than a decade ago, died of a heart attack July 22 at a hospital in Oaxaca city. He was 49.
His sudden death “took everyone by surprise,” said Yolanda Cruz, who became a close friend while making a documentary about him. “He was at the peak of his career.”
“The story behind each clay migrant was a story that applied to all the other ghost towns in Mexico and other places with a large immigration history - in the end it was a tribute that the whole country needed,” said Cruz, whose 2009 film “2501 Migrants: A Journey” explores global migration from the perspective of migrants and artists.
In making the statues, Santiago fused aspects of pre-Columbian and modern art. Covered in elaborate markings that resemble tattoos, they are about three-quarters the size of a typical adult. Their faces are eerily misshapen. No two figures are alike.
To better relate to what it was like to enter the U.S. illegally, Santiago traveled to Tijuana in 2002 and hired a smuggler to help him cross the border. Santiago was quickly caught and returned to Mexico, but the intense fear he felt would be graphically reflected in the “Migrantes.” Each was rendered naked.