Returning to his native Mexican village after many years, the artist was startled by what he didn't see.
"Where are my friends, my relatives?" Alejandro Santiago asked the remaining residents of the town, Teococuilco de Marcos Perez, in a remote mountain area of Oaxaca state.
Upon learning that most of them migrated from southern Mexico to the United States in search of work, he vowed to honor the departed and "repopulate" his impoverished hometown.
Around 2002, he began to sculpt the first of hundreds of strangely poignant, human-looking ceramic figures and planned to place them around the village. But by the time he completed the massive "2501 Migrantes" project six years later, it had come to represent a much larger, universal story of struggle.
Santiago, who was diagnosed with diabetes more than a decade ago, died of a heart attack July 22 at a hospital in Oaxaca city. He was 49.
His sudden death "took everyone by surprise," said Yolanda Cruz, who became a close friend while making a documentary about him. "He was at the peak of his career."
"The story behind each clay migrant was a story that applied to all the other ghost towns in Mexico and other places with a large immigration history — in the end it was a tribute that the whole country needed," said Cruz, whose 2009 film "2501 Migrants: A Journey" explores global migration from the perspective of migrants and artists.
In making the statues, Santiago fused aspects of pre-Columbian and modern art. Covered in elaborate markings that resemble tattoos, they are about three-quarters the size of a typical adult. Their faces are eerily misshapen. No two figures are alike.
To better relate to what it was like to enter the U.S. illegally, Santiago traveled to Tijuana in 2002 and hired a smuggler to help him cross the border. Santiago was quickly caught and returned to Mexico, but the intense fear he felt would be graphically reflected in the "Migrantes." Each was rendered naked.
"Mutely expressive, they communicate through body language and facial contortions," Times staff writer Reed Johnson wrote in 2006 after he viewed a display of 380 of them at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Oaxaca.
"Santiago's figures dance on a thin line between individuality and anonymity," Johnson observed. "The closer you look, the more singular each appears."
Mass migration was a theme that "obsessed Alejandro," Femaria Abad, then director of the Oaxaca museum, said in 2006. "With this work, in a way, he is summoning the absent ones."
At first, Santiago said the idea to make 2,500 statues stood for the approximate number of crosses he saw on a fence while attempting to cross the border — one for every person who had died trying. Later he said the number was inspired by the mass emigration of his townspeople.
The 2,501st figure symbolized that there is always one more person who is willing to risk his life in the hope of finding a better one. He also said the extra sculpture represented his own immigration story.
The complete collection was exhibited in 2007 at the Universal Forum of Cultures in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey. They have been returned to Oaxaca, where "they have been living in Alejandro's workshop" on the outskirts of Oaxaca, said Cruz, who is from the region.
She met Santiago when he had completed a couple hundred statues and pledged to finish despite setbacks. As a filmmaker, Cruz said she "could relate to his madness and determination."
"Oaxaca is home to many great artists," she said, "but Alejandro will be remembered as the artist who dreamt big and was not afraid of realizing those dreams."
Born in 1964, he moved with his family at age 9 to Oaxaca city, the culturally rich state capital. He studied at the Centro de Educacion Artistica in Oaxaca; trained at prestigious Rufino Tamayo Plastic Arts workshop; and pursued his art for a decade in the U.S. and Europe.
While spending three years in Paris, he was exposed to monumental art and later found his own outsized vision sometimes overwhelming. Before receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Santiago had poured his own money into the project and was ready to sell his house to complete it, according to the 2009 book "Along the Way: Travel Stories."
Eventually, he built a team of more than 30 workers, many of them from poor farming families, to help craft the "Migrantes." When they struggled to concentrate away from their familiar surroundings, Santiago bought farm animals to help his emerging artisans feel more at home.
He is survived by his wife, Zoila Lopez; son, Lucio Santiago, 26; daughter Alejandra Santiago, 12; his mother, Isabel Santiago; two sisters; and a half-brother.