Scholars, activists, artists examine migrant deaths


The new book, “Migrant Deaths in the Arizona Desert,” has on its cover “Angel of Mercy,” a statue crafted mostly from artifacts left behind by immigrants in the Arizona desert.

The artist, Deborah McCullough, made the angel’s skirt from dozens of ribbons, each bearing the name of a person who has died in the Sonoran Desert from 2011 through February 2012. Hence the book’s subtitle, “La vida no vale nada,” roughly translated as “Life has no worth.”

Published by the University of Arizona Press, the book contains 15 entries by scholars, activists and artists who are dedicated to the thousands of men, women and children who have lost their lives while crossing the desert in search of a better life. Chapters touch on government policy, community responses to crisis, definitions of citizenship, and the role of the arts.

One of the book’s co-editors is Jessie K. Finch, assistant professor of sociology at Stockton University, Galloway, where she will give a presentation and sign copies on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 4:30 p.m., in the Campus Center bookstore.

The presentation was scheduled before Donald J. Trump — who made building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border a signature issue of his presidential campaign — won a close and bitterly-contested election, and his ascent to power makes the issue more pressing than ever, said Finch.

“Given President-elect Donald Trump’s draconian stances on immigration, this book is especially relevant as it considers the historical trends of border militarization, growing socioeconomic disparities, and the ultimate consequence of these types of policies: migrant deaths,” she said in an email exchange.

One of the chapters Finch co-authored focuses on the tragedy of migrant deaths as expressed in song. “As someone who teaches about both immigration and popular culture, I think music can be a powerful way to humanize the thousands of people who are dying as a direct result of government policy,” she said.

Her co-author, Celestino Fernández, has written original songs on the topic of migrant death in the form of corridos, or Mexican folk ballads. The chapter they co-wrote makes reference to Saint Toribio Romo, and his role in helping migrants cross the border.

Saint Toribio is the patron saint of migrants and the most famous of the canonized 25 martyrs of the 1920s Cristero Rebellion. Migrants pray for his intervention before heading north, while those en route say sightings of Saint Toribio are commonly reported during difficult times on the journey.

“Migrant Deaths in the Arizona Desert” has “a spiritual, Catholic overtone to it,” said Fernández, a practicing Catholic and Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Consultant, University of Arizona. “Indeed, that’s the book’s foundation.”

He pointed out that the book includes prayers that were prepared and delivered by Father Ricardo Elford at a weekly vigil to remember the migrants who died that week while crossing the Arizona desert.

“We, the co-editors, intentionally included these prayers by a Catholic priest because we wanted to recognize the fact that the local church, with the leadership of Bishop Jerry Kicanas of the Diocese of Tucson, has been a leader in calling attention to the plight of immigrants, specifically those who enter the U.S. through the U.S.-Mexico border, many of whom have died in the process,” he said.

Fernández noted that Bishop Kicanas has celebrated Mass several times on the U.S.–Mexico border, “literally adjacent to the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, to pray for migrants who have died or disappeared and to call attention to these issues.”

Bishop Kicanas recently concelebrated Mass at the border on Oct. 23 with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, and the bishop of Mexico’s Diocese of Nogales.

There the archbishop echoed the sentiments of Pope Francis in regard to borders and the care of migrants and refugees, who he said all too often are looked upon as unwanted and as criminals.

“Borders exist all over the world, and borders are not bad, but borders should not be just a barrier — should not be a wall — but should be a bridge between people,” the nuncio said.

In what seemed to be a spontaneous moment during the service, five young people ducked under a barrier near the border fence to hold hands and pray the Our Father with those on the other side in Mexico.


Jessie K. Finch, Ph.D., will be presenting on “Migrant Deaths in the Arizona Desert,” as well as signing copies on Tuesday, Nov. 29 at 4:30 p.m. in the Campus Center bookstore, Stockton University, Galloway. Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona. More information on the volume can be found at the University of Arizona Press website (