True to life

As President Trump further militarizes the southern border, even though illegal crossings are at a 47-year low, it seemed an opportune time to visit the Academy Award-winning virtual reality installation “Carne y Arena” in Washington DC and learn more about what it takes to reach the promise of America. Author and director Alejandro González Iñárritu creates empathy and compassion for immigrants who are willing to risk everything for a better life. It’s loosely translated as “Flesh and Sand” but it has a stronger meaning in Spanish since carne also means meat. And just as animals are hunted, so are these immigrants.

The 15-minute experience is done alone. You begin by entering a small, very cold room, where dusty and scattered shoes left behind by actual immigrants crossing the southern border create a strong impression of poverty and panic. A sign on the wall instructs you to remove your own shoes and sit on a small steel bench to wait. There’s nothing to do but contemplate the fate of the people who wore these lost shoes, many obviously belonging to women and children. I learned later that the icy room is meant to simulate the “hieleras,” (freezers), which function as holding cells where apprehended immigrants are kept for days as they are processed for deportation, often separated from their children.

As I opened the door to the next room, alerted by a red strobe light and insistent alarm, I could feel my heart rate rising. My bare feet encountered gritty sand, and I gingerly approached two shadowy figures standing in the middle of the large, dark area. For a few seconds I wasn’t sure if they were real, but one man quietly bid me good evening and fit the virtual reality technology around my head.

I was soon surrounded by a familiar southwest desert landscape at dawn. Spanish-speaking voices became louder as a group of immigrants approached. I learned Spanish living in Madrid as a teenager and barely noticed the English woven into the experience. As the struggling people staggered through the sand, it felt eerily real.

My heart pounded more strongly as the room shook with booming helicopters and their probing searchlights. Soon, white SUVs pulled up behind me with flashing lights, the menacing shouts of armed border patrol filling the space. A large threatening dog appeared on my left and I instinctively backed away from the chaotic scene as children, women and a few men were thrown to the ground, terrorized.

It seemed to go on forever. At one point, I inadvertently walked through a person and was immediately surrounded by a beating heart, as if I were inside him. A border guard aggressively demanded to know who was the pollero, the smuggler. A woman tearfully choked out, “If we tell you, they’ll kill us.” Nos matan. I believed her.

The most powerful moment came at the end of the experience. I was standing with my hands in my pockets when an officer suddenly turned and pointed his massive gun in my face, screaming, “Get your hands out of your pockets” and “Get down on your knees.” I immediately thrust my hands in the air in a posture of submission. Later, a friend told me at that moment, unmoored and frightened, she dropped to her knees and cowered. After an uncomfortable pause, I was surrounded again by the desert landscape, alone except for birdsong and some shoes scattered among the bushes.

I exited the room with my heart still racing. As I brushed the harsh sand from my feet and entered the gallery to view portraits of the immigrant actors whose experience the film was based upon, I felt the brutality and horror inflicted upon these immigrants deep within me, heartbreaking and unforgivable.