On May 10, 2018 the East Coast PYD members went to Alejandro Iñárittu’s Carne y Arena exhibit. Read about their experience.
Jenny N: Whenever my parents tell me snippets of their journey from Vietnam to the United States, I listen with respectful disconnect. It's not easy to put yourself into the shoes of a refugee/immigrant, even if the person is related to you.
Alejandro Iñárittu's Carne y Arena (translated Flesh and Sand) changed this for me. The virtual reality (VR) exhibit is on the edge of D.C. in a brick building that has an outside set-up like that of a maze. Inside, the building lobby doesn't give much away. If anything, the sterilized environment feels like a blank slate - like hitting restart on a video game. Everything feels clean and structured.
This could be why the 7-minute VR experience was so startling - not only in subject matter but also because of the contrast, the way we're swaddled in modern comfort only to be thrown into sand and fear.
Without giving much away - this is definitely an exhibit everyone needs to go see - Carne y Arena is a short, VR film about the journey of Central American immigrants. Coming out of it was sobering but also enlightening. I learned so much about the immigrant’s experiences and relationships, fears and dreams that translate across all races. And that only scratched the surface of the many stories we haven’t yet heard.
It's appropriate that PYD visited during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month. This topic of refugees and immigrants connects to many of ours and our family's experiences. I hope one day we'll have a Boat Person version of this - because although putting yourself in someone else's shoes isn’t easy, we must take small steps to reach this understanding.
Tammy T: When I first left the Carne y Arena exhibit - covered in sand, dirt, and cuts - and entered the post-experience room surrounded by sofas, coffee, and tea, I immediately searched for my friends’ faces. Without hesitation I said, “We are privileged motherfuckers.”
This exhibit is the first exhibit that made me question many things fundamentally as well as how much I have taken things for granted. The Carne y Arena exhibit is currently being held in Washington D.C and was previously in Los Angeles. This traveling virtual exhibit allows a viewer to experience being an individual crossing the borders from Central America into the United States of America.
For six to seven minutes, I wasn’t exactly living the life of Tammy Tran but neither was I truly in the position of an immigrant or a refugee like I thought I was. Instead, I had an out-of-body moment where the exhibit showed me as who I really was - a bystander. This realization of acknowledging what role I truly played in this virtual world (as well as my current reality) was filled with raw emotions such as sadness, heartbreak, and uselessness. I am a true bystander in all of its physical manifestation regarding the immigration crisis that is currently going on between Central America and the U.S. Therefore, I left feeling quite ashamed of myself.
The exhibit, which took five years for Alejandro Iñárittu to create, did a fantastic job incorporating the viewer into the world that is reanimated by Central American refugees’ stories. He produced an atmosphere that allows the viewer to utilize all of his/her five senses to recognize the hardship of one person leaving home, enduring and escaping from brutality (both human conditions such as border patrols and by nature, such as harsh inclement weather). He also depicts what it is like to enter a diaspora movement of trying to redefine home once more, an ongoing question. To me, the overall exhibit was empowering and heartbreaking at the same time.
It was empowering and heartbreaking because it made me confront my position as an American person, whose parents are also immigrants and refugees. How do I use my voice to be an ally for those who are suffering from the immigration crisis? I now think about this issue a lot since many of my students are DACA recipients. While I have no answers and am still trying to process and understand the issue, I do know that after seeing this exhibit that there is so much more work to be done. Which is why we, PYD, won’t stop doing what we can for our own communities and for our sister communities.
For those who haven’t yet, it is a must-see exhibit. I definitely encourage everyone to see it if they get a chance or at least let other people know about it. Every two weeks, tickets come out on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s totally worth the wait and the fight.
*Spoilers ahead. Please read only if you’d like to know the specific details of the exhibit.
Daniel S: The immersion factor of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena exhibit struck me the minute I set foot in the old Baptist church it’s currently housed in. The nearly pitch black interior and minimal lighting of the lobby felt to me like a buffer of sorts, helping to disconnect my reality from the one I was about to experience. The tone was ominous and the silence was only broken up by the periodic roar of what sounded like a train rolling by in the room next to me.
Shortly after checking in, I walked through the curtains ahead of me and stopped to read a bilingual set of plaques with words from Iñárritu, stating why he chose to do this exhibit, and that the people I were about to encounter were modeled off the very real immigrants he had collected stories from. After reading his intentions, I moved through the door to the next room; an uncomfortably cold holding area with shoes strewn across the floor and a few steel benches. No one was in the room and the only instructions I received were written on the walls: “Take off your shoes and socks” and “Wait for the alarm before going through the door”.
I removed my footwear and took a seat on the bench. It was then I noticed how worn and dirty the shoes on the floor were, as well as how they varied. Children’s shoes, women’s, men’s. Sandals, boots, ripped-up sneakers. Most looked like they were the only pair of shoes a person ever owned in their life, and it was obvious they were meant to represent as much. The room itself was cold not only in temperature but in personality. The floor was simple concrete, and the hiss from the fluorescent lights was artificially loud. Aside from the shoes and benches, there was only a lone camera pointed in my direction. I was slightly uneasy knowing I was being watched. After what felt like half an hour, the alarm went off and I was glad to be moving through the next door.
It was mostly dark again, but the first thing I noticed was that the concrete was gone, and I was now walking barefoot on sand and gravel. Once my eyes adjusted, I noticed just how vast and empty the room was. There were no lights except for one lone LED panel that ran alongside the far wall, bathing everything in a dim amber glow. Standing in the middle of the room were two people who set me up with the VR headset. I was given very few instructions and within a minute, the experience began.
I “woke up” in the middle of a desert. It was almost completely dark - I imagine sometime in the early morning - and I was only surrounded by the ambiance of the occasional breeze moving through the desert foliage. As I wandered around orienting myself, I noticed mountains far off in the distance. The actual sand and gravel beneath my feet served the purpose of grounding me in Iñárritu’s world. I felt very alone, despite knowing everything I was observing was all contained in a headset just inches from my face.
I eventually heard whispers moving toward me. A group of figures emerged from just outside my field of vision. It was a group of undocumented immigrants being guided through the desert. They were huddled together, and their dragging movements meant they had been trekking for far, far longer than they should have. The two men upfront mentioned how someone had broken their ankle and that they needed to hurry because they were falling behind. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pay much more attention to what they were saying as I became distracted by a steadily growing light that appeared in the sky. I realized that it was the floodlight on a helicopter which roared above me as it flew past. As the room I was physically in started to shake, I realized that this was the cause of the train-like vibrations I heard earlier in the lobby. The group of immigrants began to panic as border patrol trucks quickly pulled up, almost out of nowhere. Border patrol officers poured out of the trucks with guns raised and began shouting at the group. Even though I knew this was all a simulated experience, my senses were heightened purely due to the sudden rush of action that was unfolding. The officers quickly rounded up the immigrants before one of them turned a gun on me. No matter where I moved, his gun and commands followed. The scene before me turned to black and faded to a dining table surrounded by immigrants. There was a small boat in the middle with tiny people falling out and dissolving into the table, as if it was water. I could only hear what sounded like a Spanish lullaby being softly sung as the surreal scene faded out again.
Suddenly it was morning. I was in the same place as the night before, but the sun was just now rising. All that was left of the events that took place the night before was a beaten and torn kid’s backpack, some footprints, and tire tracks from the trucks. The calmness of the sunrise felt like a cover-up for the utter despair and fear that the captured people likely experienced.
Once the exhibit ended, I removed the headset and moved on to the next room. The annoyance I felt by the sand and dirt on my feet was quickly followed by extreme guilt - any problem I have is a blessing in comparison to the troubles of those desperate enough to make the dangerous journey here.
I found myself in a long, dark hallway with extremely detailed portrait videos of the immigrants that Iñárritu had interviewed. Each one was staring back at me, with all the pain of their struggles worn on their faces. Their stories appeared on screen in text. One woman worked 20 years at a low-wage labor job just to bring her daughter into America. Another woman feared the father of her son would initiate her child into a gang, so she hired a coyote (smuggler) to get her out of the country. There was even the story of a former border patrol officer who described his experiences in dealing with the immigrants he had come across and how badly traveled they were. How some died of overheating or dehydration. How they all had to be deported, their journeys for nothing.
There was a post-experience room that was quaint and furnished with comfortable couches and chairs. A barista stood behind a bar at the back wall, with coffee, water, and baked goods. I knew the room’s purpose was twofold: to calm people down after a jarring experience, and to showcase just how fortunate we are to be living in this country. I was filled with gratitude. Life is a lottery I won just by being born where I was. The perspective I gained from tasting just a drop of an immigrant’s story was immense. Not only did I more deeply appreciate my own circumstances, but my empathy for immigrants and refugees grew substantially as well. The media paints all undocumented immigrants as criminals, which I already knew was propaganda. But what Iñárritu’s exhibit helped me understand was the severity of the experience. The lengths that these human beings were going through, just to experience the basic necessities that most of us take for granted every day was nothing short of eye opening. The exposure to Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena is something I will never forget.