“Los Desconocidos: The Migrant Quilt Project" at the German American Heritage Center -- through August 27.

Through Sunday, August 27

German American Heritage Center, 712 West Second Street, Davenport IA

With the traveling exhibit designed to memorialize the stories of migrants who have died seeking refuge in the United States and to encourage compassion and support for humane changes in border policies, Los Desconocidos: The Migrant Quilt Project will be on display at Davenport's German American Heritage Center from through August 27, the exhibition a collaborative effort between artists and activists to document the names and number of lives lost each year.

Founded in Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-2000s, the Migrant Quilt Project is a grassroots, collaborative effort created to express compassion for migrants from Mexico and Central America who died in the Southern Arizona deserts on their way to create better lives for themselves and their families. Once a hub for immigrants looking for a fresh start in a new land, Davenport itself boasted a high percentage of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, and this trend continues in the 21st century as many immigrants and refugees seek safety and better opportunities for their families in the United States. Materials used in the quilts were collected at migrant layup sites used for rest and shelter on established trails in the Sonoran Desert.

Between 2004 and 2005, a record number of 282 migrants perished in the Tucson Sector, the border region between New Mexico and Yuma. The increase in deaths moved Jody Ipsen to take action to alleviate the tragic loss of life. As she hiked remote migrant trails with fellow humanitarians, they collected clothing, cans and water bottles left behind by migrants. Initially, they recycled some items and threw away the dirty clothes until Ipsen realized that the textile-based discards could be used to make quilts to communicate the reality of migrants’ deaths. She reached out to quiltmakers and artists to create quilts from the blue jeans, bandanas, work shirts, and embroidered cloths she gathered in the desert. Quilts would represent deaths from each year since 2000 when the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office began documenting the names of deceased migrants.

Each Migrant Quilt lists the deaths for a specific federal fiscal year, coinciding with the U.S. government’s record-keeping. The name of each individual who died that year is inscribed on the quilt, with the word “unknown” or “desconocido” used to designate an unidentified person’s remains. Quiltmakerswere free to design their quilts however they desired, and the Migrant Quilt Project shares the quilts at exhibits and immigration conferences and on its Facebook page. The organization also carries the stories of those who died so that viewers of the quilts may understand the real, personal, and fatal results of inhumane policies, including NAFTA, CAFTA, Operation Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and Hold the Line.

While immigration into the United States from its southern neighbors has slowed in recent years, the deaths continue to occur as migrants are forced to cross the border into more remote and dangerous areas. Now in its 20th year, and currently on loan from the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson, the quilts in the Los Desconocidos exhibit will travel to five locations around Iowa in 2023 and the early months of 2024. serving as a reminder of how policies affect human lives.

Los Desconocidos: The Migrant Quilt Project will be on display at the German American Heritage Center through August 27, with regular venue hours Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Exhibit entrance is free with $3-5 museum admission, and more information is available by calling (563)322-8844 and visiting GAHC.org.

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