Noted Mexican Zapotec artist Alejandro Santiago, 49, creator of a sculpted indigenous ghost town installation, died July 22, of a heart attack related to diabetes.
Santiago had studied with the noted Oaxacan artist Rudolfo Tamayo before leaving to study and work further in the United States and Europe. After gaining some success in Europe, he returned to his home in Teococuilco in 2001 to discover that the small southern Oaxacan town was empty. Most of his Zapoteca and other indigenous neighbors had migrated north to find work after the local economies had collapsed.
Inspired first by this ghost town, Santiago decided to try the experience himself and attempted to cross the border illegally into the U.S. in 2003. He was arrested by immigration agents and on his way back to Mexico he saw thousands of small crosses posted on a corrugated metal wall, representing the many people who did not survive the crossing. The sight of the crosses was the other source of inspiration for his massive installation.
Santiago returned to his workshop and began the process of creating an homage to the migrants that became the clay sculptures of 2,501 individual indigenous people titled “2501 Migrantes.” He sculpted the figures to be life-sized, with different faces and expressions on each one.
After receiving critical praise for his shows in Oaxaca and then Monterrey, Mexico in 2007 Santiago and his work came to the attention of Chatino filmmaker Yolanda Cruz, who put together a documentary about the installation called "2,501 Migrants: A Journey."
On the documentary's website, Cruz said, "The film is about an artist’s search for meaning in the villages of Oaxaca that are breeding a unique kind of ghost town, where legions of young people grow up thinking they have no other choice but to emigrate to the United States once they are done with elementary school."
Between 2010 and 2011, the documentary was shown on public television in the U.S., and is now available on a U.S. based online movie service, Cruz said.
In the last year of his life Santiago was working on several projects, Cruz noted. One that he had finished was a 16-part mural entitled "To Paint is to Think." One of the panels, called "Breaking the Silence" was about the murder of two indigenous broadcasters in Oaxaca in 2008.
Santiago is survived by his wife Zoila López, son Lucio Santiago, 26, daughter Alejandra Santiago, 12, and his mother Isabel Santiago, as well as two sisters and a half brother.