The Shoes they left behind

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning virtual reality exhibition Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand) is a solo experience based on true accounts from Central American and Mexican refugees. Through state-of the-art technology, participants move about in a vast space and live a fragment of the migrant’s journey to the U.S.- Mexico border.

UPDATE: The Carne y Arena virtual reality exhibit remained in Washington, D.C, until late October of 2018. 

 The Hielera

The first room you enter is bare, sterile, and meat-locker cold. Against one wall are two cabinets of brushed steel. You think these must be intended to remind visitors of the holding cells the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses to house migrantsostensibly kept “ice-box” cold to minimize the spread of diseases. But, actually, they remind you of the lockers in city morgues you’ve seen in countless detective shows.  Morgues are kept cold, too, aren’t they? All the better for preserving dead bodies.

A disembodied voice tells you to take off your shoes and put them inside.

The cement floor feels like ice against your bare feet. You notice the old work boots and sneakers littering the floor—mostly adult sizes, but there is a pair of toddler-sized slippers with pink bows that gets your attention. In Washington, D.C.,’s Holocaust Museum, there is an entire wall of shoes from concentration camp victims. The shoes here are newer, of course, but they are also shoes that have been left behind.

We jumped the wire fence at the border and I cut my hand. We walked with sponges tied to the soles of our shoes to not leave a trace. In the distance, we saw a highway and ran. I lost a shoe in the sand.  Lina, 53, Guatemala

 Crossing the Border:  

The director, actors, and crew on location in Arizona for Carne y Arena.
The director, actors, and crew on location in Arizona for Carne y Arena. Photo credit: Chachi Ramirez, Forbes.

The next room is large, circular and eerily dark. You are walking barefoot on sand collected from the border near Naco, Arizona. It’s not powder soft like sand from the beach, but it’s not so sharp that it cuts, either. Still, you walk gingerly, just in case.

Your silent guide puts on your back pack, your headphones and tightly straps on your goggles. It’s pitch black now…like the nothingness of outer space…and then…


You are standing in the desert at night. The sky is heavy with stars, and you can barely pick out the outline of the noble saguaro cactus. It’s chilly, but not unpleasantly so. It feels balmy. And unearthly quiet…quiet as a tomb.

You start to wonder about coyotes—the animal kind of coyote. Don’t they hunt in packs? Aren’t they nocturnal? And what about snakes and scorpions? Do they hunt at night? Do your bare toes resemble food to them? Just how realistic is this virtual reality, anyway?

And then…you hear them before you see them. A small group of migrants is trudging through the desert on your right. The guide is leading them with only a small flashlight to mark their way. There are a few young men, women, a child, and someone you immediately identify as a grandmother, although you aren’t sure why. She is wailing and struggling to keep up. “Ayúdame! Ayúdame!” She pleads for a chance to rest, but the guide urges them on.

There is no time, he warns, to stop.

For 3 days and 3 nights we crossed the desert. The cold almost killed me. My feet were filled with sores. A thorn was buried in my foot. I could not walk. The coyote threatened me with his gun. I walk or he kills me, he said. I tied my shirt to my feet and walked. Manuel, 19, Guatemala

You hear the thump-thump-thump of the helicopter’s approach before you see it. Its lights bounce from one side to another until it zeroes in on your group. The light is blinding. You cover your face with your arms but you can’t escape the white-hotness of it.

Suddenly, there’s a large, angry, snarling dog next to you. You can’t help yourself: you jump and emit an involuntary shriek. You weren’t expecting the dog to be so real.

The border agents are out of their armored car, assault weapons drawn, shouting in both English and Spanish. “Get down! On the ground! Get down NOW!”

They are looking for the “guia.” They don’t use the word “coyote.” They grab the young man with the flashlight and demand to know if he is the guide. They turn to the frightened, weary group and ask the same question.

“If we tell you, they will kill us,” moans the grandmother.

Everyone is sprawled on the sand, but the little boy remains standing. He doesn’t look scared or dazed. He cocks his head, and gives the agent a curious look.

“How old are you?” asks the agent, not unkindly.

“He’s 4,” says his mother quickly. The boy just stares, unblinking.

“4 years old?”  You can hear the smile in the agent’s voice. “Well, you’re a big boy, aren’t you?”

Meanwhile, the other border agent is questioning a teenager. The agent’s Spanish is very good, but he can’t make out what the boy is saying.

“He doesn’t speak Spanish,” someone informs the agent. “Only Ki’che.”

Out in the desert, underneath some branches…he was probably 70 and he was already…he had passed away. He had taken his shirt off which he shouldn’t have done. Then, I saw there was another one dead and three more that were in very bad shape.
When you deal with somebody who is dying of heat exhaustion, they are scared, they moan, it’s like life is just coming out of them. To watch that and not be able to do anything, it’s heartbreaking. John, 62, U.S. border patrol agent

The grandmother is still moaning, begging for help. Suddenly a table appears in front of us. People are sitting around it, eating, drinking, and having a pleasant conversation. The agent who’d been so taken with the little boy is gazing up at the sky.

“There’s Orion,” he says, lowering his gun. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

The grandmother, you realize, is hallucinating. She’s escaped this nightmarish reality for some gentler memory. Her fever must be dangerously high.

And then the dream is over. The agents shoulder their guns and start dragging people away. An older teen stops to pick up his shoes.

“You!” shouts the agent. “What are you doing?”

Mis zapatos…” begins the young man.

“Drop them!” the agent has his gun trained on the teen as if the worn sneakers could be a weapon used against him. “Drop them! Drop them NOW!”

And so they are left behind.

The remaining agent points his weapon right at you and screams, “On the ground! Get on the ground! Do it!”

You look around, wondering if there is someone behind you.

Get down, I said!”

And then he’s gone. They are all gone. You’re alone once more.

For two months, we slept in churches and depended on the kindness of strangers. At night, we crossed the river at the border by ourselves. When the Border Patrol found us, they couldn’t believe we were alone. ‘Don’t you know they are killing dark-skinned immigrants like yourselves?’ they said. Jessica, 17, Honduras

It’s that twilight time just before dawn. Slowly, graciously, the desert reveals its treasures; the saguaros stand like centurions against distant hills, and rows of green-gray brush carpet the hardscrabble ground.

Above you, there’s the faint tint of a red sky breaking. You have a vague memory of an old adage: “red sky in the morning, sailor take a warning.” You wonder if that applies to the desert, too.

If I were discovered, dehydrated and disoriented, after wandering in the desert for three or more days, you think to yourself, surely somebody in a uniform would take me to a hospital to recuperate. Even if I were in decent shape, somebody in a uniform would insist that I, a U.S. citizen, receive medical care to make certain I suffered no lasting ill effects. 

Somebody in a uniform, you reflect, would treat me with care and sympathy.

And you realize that you would consider it your due.


“If people could experience this,” one woman wrote in the visitor’s book, “they would never again talk about immigrants the way they do.”

And on another page, a more plaintive appeal:

“How do we get the people who truly NEED to experience this to come?”


 The Carne y Arena virtual reality exhibit remains in Washington, D.C, until late October 2018. For tickets to this free event, or for more information, please visit their website.

For further reading, we recommend Carolina A. Miranda’s insightful and excellent interview with Director Iñárritu in the Los Angeles Times. 


*Featured cover photo courtesy of No Caption Needed.


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