In the mid-1980s, immigrants fleeing north to the U.S. from Mexico were risking their lives by crossing through busy freeways. Dozens of immigrants were struck by moving vehicles and some immigrants were left watching their parents or children die from their injuries, according to San Diego Union-Tribune. The frequency of the accidents prompted the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) to create a sign to alert drivers to the danger that was specific to that stretch of the interstate along the U.S.-Mexico border. There were originally ten signs along the 5 Freeway alerting drivers to the danger of people running across the freeway. Today, only one remains and, according to Los Angeles Times, as soon as it’s gone, it won’t be coming back.
The decreasing number of border crossings means that the signs are now considered obsolete.
According to Cindy Carcamo of The Los Angeles Times, 1986 was the most active time for border crossings in California. Border patrol agents in the San Diego area detained 628,000 people who crossed the border into the U.S. Despite being rather small in comparison to the rest of the border, Los Angeles Times reports that the border along the California state line accounted for almost 40 percent of all immigration arrests in the 1990s. The sheer number of people crossing is why CalTrans graphic designer John Hood was assigned the task of creating a sign that would let drivers know what to expect on that stretch of freeway. Since then, the number of people crossing over from Mexico to California has seen a significant drop, with only 31,891 arrested for crossing the border in 2016, according to Los Angeles Times.
When the signs were first revealed, there were immediate and strong reactions from all sides of the immigration debate, according to San Diego Union-Tribune. Immigrants and Latinos saw the sign as dehumanizing and akin to showing immigrants as faceless animals. Those who were against undocumented immigration thought that the state should not be spending time and money trying to keep them safe.
“Either you liked it or you hated it,” Steve Saville, a veteran CalTrans spokesman, told San Diego Union-Tribune. “It was an extraordinary measure to deal with an extraordinary situation.”
The road sign became a part of pop culture, with artists taking the original image and reimagining it. Here’s one from Chicano artist Lalo Alcaraz.
“You create your work, and that’s the extent of it. You never envision something like that to happen,” Hood told Los Angeles Times. “It’s become an iconic element. It lives on.”
It has also been used as a politically-charged message about immigration and political climate.
The signs above appeared aroundSouthernn California leading up to the 2016 election. It was created by street artist Unsavory Agents to be pro-Trump’s immigration rhetoric.
“It’s served its purpose,” Hood told his son when they visited the last sign, according to Los Angeles Times.