History of Hostility

Curated by: Leigh M. W. Mahlik

Hostile Histories

Histories of the United States traditionally favor narratives emphasizing European immigration to and reconfiguration of North America. Yet the territory that is now the United States has been inhabited since time immemorial by Native People, people who remain here and, in fact, are present among our curators. The 15th century initiated massive European migration and centuries of policies aimed to displace and erase Native cultures. These policies were so vigorous that by the 19th century, ‘nativism’ ironically referred to conflicts between earlier and later European immigrants with little relevance to actual Native People, many of whom had been forced to migrate West. 


History of Hostility DetailThroughout the history of the United States, there has been voluntary and involuntary migration. Several waves of migration have influenced American culture, perceptions of who “the American people” are, and policies that govern access to – and rights within – the States. In the 17th and 18th centuries voluntary migration was primarily from Western Europe and forced migration from West Africa. The 19th century saw migration waves from Eastern Europe and Asia. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first major law to restrict migration to the US. By the turn of the 20th century, significant migration to the US came from the Americas, in addition to the rest of the globe. By 1924, the Immigration Act established national quotas to manage the ethnic makeup of the US population. 


Today there are more than 45 million foreign-born individuals in the US. There are many motives for migration including religious or cultural persecution, economic opportunity, and relief from genocide, famine, gang violence, organized crime, and domestic violence. The US is a symbol of opportunity, but it is not always welcoming in practice. For many immigrants, violence, hostility, and trauma characterize their country of origin, their journey, and their daily experiences in the US.  

The Trauma of Policy 

The United States has a long history of immigration, naturalization, and citizenship policies that stand in contrast to popular conceptions of justice. From its inception, US lawmakers have developed policies that simultaneously maintain control of the physical terrain while attempting to influence the make-up of its population. Mercurial policies have typically targeted groups who are treated as if threats to economic opportunity, American culture, or the safety of the American people. Discourses on immigration policy and pervasive stereotyping of immigrants often cultivate negative public perceptions of immigrants and lead to racist sentiments with negative consequences for already-marginalized people. The effects of our history of boundary maintenance are inscribed in the landscape, as installations in the next gallery demonstrate. The power dynamics of governmental and social attitudes towards migrants and migration have negatively impacted generations of people – many of color. These consequences provoke generational trauma and ongoing hostilities in the landscapes marginalized people call home. 

A Landscape of Dualities

The US-Mexico border is a principal site of entry for authorized and unauthorized immigrants to the US. Though not the only point of entry, it has been exploited most publicly in recent history. The 1994 Prevention Through Deterrence policy weaponized the environmental qualities of the Sonoran Desert against migrants attempting to enter the United States, as chronicled in Jason De León’s The Land of Open Graves. The Sonoran Desert covers over 100,000 square miles in Mexico and parts of Arizona, Texas, and California. It is a space of dualities: beauty and danger, life and death, hope and disappointment. We see these and other desert dualities in the juxtapositions of the prints and photographs in this section. 


Though politically exploited for its low population density, many people do in fact live in and around the Sonoran Desert. The Tohono O’ootham people are the primary residents of this region and have stewarded these lands for generations. Indeed, the placement of the current US-Mexico border bisects their tribal lands. The political exploitation of the desert’s environmental characteristics has led to thousands of deaths memorialized in the next gallery. The impact of border policy on Native territory is also a form of violence against marginalized people.