Carne y Arena exhibits puts visitors in immigrants’ shoes with VR

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Dallas residents have until April 18 to see Carne y Arena, a virtual reality and immersive exhibit by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu. With the aid of a VR headset, headphones and a backpack, visitors are immersed in a 15-minute journey through the desert near the border of Mexico and the United States with immigrants.

It all starts from the moment visitors arrive at the Food & Fiber Pavilion in Fair Park, where they’re welcomed into a dark room with dim lighting. After registration, a real section of the border fence between the US and Mexico that was removed in 2010 can be seen.

Visitors are encouraged to arrive 10 minutes before their entry time so they can be briefed about the exhibit.

The facility has three different areas where the experience is carried out. One person is admitted every five minutes.

Once inside the first room, visitors are given the option to take off their shoes and socks so they can feel the floor’s texture and temperature, adding a sensory element.

A pair of headphones and a virtual reality eye set that are used at the exhibit hang inside the facility.(Ben Torres/Special Contributor)

That first room is called “la hielera” or “the cooler,” a common nickname for detention rooms among immigrants, because of their low temperatures and cement benches, where immigrants are taken after being arrested by border agents.

After a few minutes, an alarm goes off, signaling that the visitor has to move on to the next room.

A room with black walls and a floor covered with sand is where the action takes place. Inside the space, which simulates the desert, the visitor joins eight immigrants in their attempt to cross the border.

A staff member then places a backpack on the visitor’s back and gives them a VR headset and large headphones.

In a matter of seconds, the visitor is walking through the desert at around 4 am, the following eight immigrants, including children, and a coyote who is guiding them to the border.

“It’s a very intense experience that helps people understand a little bit more what immigrants go through trying to have a better future,” said Sergio Gonzáles, director at The Immigration Hub, an organization that promotes pro-immigrant policies, after visiting the experience on March 29. “It makes you feel empathy, something that is sometimes lost in the political debates about immigration issues.”

Sergio Gonzáles, right, executive director of The Immigration Hub, stands outside the exhibit.
Sergio Gonzáles, right, executive director of The Immigration Hub, stands outside the exhibit.(Ben Torres/Special Contributor)

During the experience, visitors can feel the hot desert air, the wind caused by border patrols helicopters, and the screams of immigrants as they are being captured by border agents.

Visitors feel like one more immigrant in the group by walking with them, listening to the agents’ orders and their dogs barking and feeling the intense light from their weapons, as they are being detained for trying to get to the United States.

The exhibit also gives visitors the chance to watch videos in English or Spanish about each of the immigrants who participated in the making of the virtual reality experience.

Visitors can submerge their faces inside black cubes to read their stories. They are not actors but real immigrants who crossed the border and were contacted by the director to make the project.

Upon leaving the room, visitors can share their opinions about what they saw in a journal, which will be completed and saved as part of the project, according to Iñárritu. The journal already has hundreds of comments in English and Spanish from North Texan visitors.

The exhibit is presented by the Nasher Sculpture Center and the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in collaboration with Emerson Collective, PHI Studio, and Legendary Entertainment. This is the first time it has been presented in Texas.


Through April 18 at the Food & Fiber Pavilion at Fair Park, 1233 Washington Street, Dallas. Recommended for people over 13 years of age. Children under 15 must be accompanied by an adult. The experience is accessible to wheelchair users.

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