Before I get into the details of Carne Y Arena, I want to stress that even though it’s featured here in the T(w)een Scene section, it definitely isn’t for every tween or teen*. It’s an extremely powerful experience — emotional, scary, and very intense. That said, I do think anyone who can handle that kind of situation should experience it if they have the opportunity. (And by opportunity, I mean being one of the lucky people to score the current hot ticket in town when a limited number are released online every two weeks.)
[Warning: Spoiler alert, but I think it’s necessary to give details, so parents can determine if this is appropriate for their kids.]
Carne Y Arena is a virtual reality installation that places viewers in the Sonoran desert as an invisible witness to a group of migrants’ attempt to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. It begins in the vast, pre-dawn landscape just as the group comes into the scene. Merely seconds later, helicopters start roaring overhead and trucks come blazing through the sand. The wind picks up, headlights glare, and within moments U.S. Border Patrol officers and their dogs are out of their vehicles, descending on the group, guns drawn. People are scrambling. Someone has fallen. Babies are crying. Everyone, including me, is scared.
I had a chance to experience Carne Y Arena shortly after it opened, thanks to a friend of mine who works for an organization associated with the installation. Owen actually went through it a couple of weeks before I did (his friend’s mom got us in) and even though he relayed details of his encounter and I knew almost exactly what would happen, it still had my heart pounding and mind racing as I helplessly watched the drama unfold.
Here is Owen’s quick take on it: “It was really cool how they put you in different rooms and let you experience all the different things that happen to people trying to immigrate here. It’s very intense, but gives you a true perspective of what really happens in that situation — it kind of puts you in their shoes. I’m glad I had the chance to experience it.”
Saying this experience puts you in someone else’s shoes is apt but also ironic, since you aren’t actually wearing any. Before entering the room where the virtual reality part takes place, you spend time in a holding area intended to replicate one where migrants are detained. It’s a small room lined with benches and littered with worn shoes. Signs on the wall inform that the shoes were collected from the desert in Mexico, artifacts left and lost by migrants. You are instructed to remove your shoes and socks, leave your belongings in a locker in the wall, and wait for an alarm to sound before going through the door to the next room.
Once there, a couple of staff members help you gear up with a backpack and the virtual reality headset. Sand covers the floor to simulate a desert; other than that, the room is empty. They explain that you can move around as much as you want, and they will gently redirect you if you’re coming close to a wall.
Then the experience begins, and you’re immediately transported. When you look around, there is desert in every direction, and you can walk around and examine the details. The people there with you are the actual immigrants who shared their stories and recreated their experience with filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s for Carne Y Arena. (The Revenant and Birdman are among the films Iñárritu produced.) You can stand close and get a good look at them. I’ve heard you can even look into them and see a beating heart.
The experience moves between two scenes. The Border Patrol tumult ends abruptly and a “dream sequence” of the migrants sitting at long table enjoying a meal begins. I learned that this represents their dream of coming to America. Just as suddenly as it began, the dream ends, and you’re back in the desert watching the confrontation with the Border Patrol, seemingly unseen. Until they turn the guns on you.
After you leave the main room and gather your belongings in another small room, you exit through a hallway lined with video screens, each of them sharing an immigration story, all of them incredibly moving. There are tissues nearby, and they come in handy.
Carne Y Arena is running through August at 1611 Benning Road NE. The location is an old church that was renovated just for this exhibition. Tickets are free, but required for entry. Every person needs a ticket, and entry is one person at a time every 15 minutes. Tickets are being released every two weeks and going very quickly. The next release date is May 1 at 8am. You can try to reserve yours here.
*The age recommendation for this is 14+, but as mentioned, Owen (12) experienced it. (I’m not sure how stringent they are about ages; as I noted, he went with a friend who had access.) I think mature middle school-aged kids could handle it. But parents are the best judges of what is appropriate for their individual child. For visitors up to age 17, parents must sign a waiver and release of liability.