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Mexican artist Alejandro Santiago dead at 49

OAXACA, Mexico -- Alejandro Santiago, a Mexican artist who filled the streets of his hometown with clay figures to represent the migrants who left for the U.S., died Monday. He was 49.

Santiago died of a heart attack, said Emilio de Leo, the Oaxaca state culture director. De Leo said Santiago had diabetes for years.

Santiago, a painter and sculptor who studied in the workshop of Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, had shows in Mexico, the U.S. and Europe. His best-known work was "2,501 Migrants," which opened in 2007 in his 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 to represent the young people who had abandoned his hamlet in impoverished Oaxaca state. 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 what it was like to cross the U.S. border illegally. He was caught by U.S. immigration authorities and returned to Mexico, but 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 at 2,500 and settled on that number, plus one, symbolizing that there is always one more person risking his or her life to try to reach the U.S.-- AP

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