OAXACA, Mexico – A Mexican artist who gained fame by filling the streets of his hometown with clay figures to represent the migrants who left for the United States, died Monday. He was 49.
Alejandro Santiago died of a heart attack, said Emilio de Leo, the Oaxaca state culture director. De Leo said Santiago had diabetes for years.
"Our condolences go to the family of the great teacher and cultural promoter Alejandro Santiago, a loss to Oaxaca," Oaxaca Gov. Gabino Cue wrote on his Twitter account.
Santiago, a painter and sculptor who studied in the workshop of Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, had shows in Mexico, the United States and Europe.
His best known work was "2,501 Migrants," which opened in 2007 in his picturesque hometown of Teococuilco, in southern Oaxaca state. Financed with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it was an ambitious work to create an army of life-size clay figures to replace departed townspeople.
He created the statues, each about 4-feet, 4-inches tall and 150 pounds, to represent the young people who had abandoned his hamlet in impoverished Oaxaca state. No two sculptures were alike and many of the faces were sculpted to reflect the hardship of migrants' lives in both Mexico and the United States.
Santiago said the inspiration for the project came in 2001, when he returned home after a three-year stay in Paris and was struck by Teococuilco's empty streets.
In 2003, Santiago decided to experience for himself what it was like to cross the U.S. border illegally. He met a smuggler in Tijuana who set him up with fake papers and tried to cross. Santiago was quickly caught by U.S. immigration authorities and returned to Mexico, but he was struck by the thousands of crosses put on the corrugated wall marking the border by activists to represent those who died trying to cross. .
He estimated those crosses numbered about 2,500 and settled on that number, plus one, for his project. He said the extra figure symbolized that there is always one more person who is leaving, risking his or her life to try to reach the United States.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.