The Land of Open Graves: Understanding American Politics and US/Mexico Border Enforcement through the Lives and Deaths of Migrants

January 24 11:30 am – 12:30 pm

Mayser Gymnasium

  • Jason de Leon

Jason de León
Director of The Undocumented Migration Project and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan

Since the mid-1990s’, the U.S. federal government has relied on a border enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence.” Using various security infrastructure and techniques of surveillance, this strategy funnels undocumented migrants towards remote and rugged terrain such as the Sonoran Desert of Arizona with the hope that mountains ranges, extreme temperatures, and other “natural” obstacles will deter people from unauthorized entry. Hundreds of people perish annually while undertaking this dangerous activity. Since 2009, the Undocumented Migration Project has used a combination of forensic, archaeological, and ethnographic approaches to understand the various forms of violence that characterize the social process of clandestine migration. In this presentation I focus on what happens to the bodies of migrants who die in the desert. Drawing on the archaeological concept of taphonomy (i.e., the various post-mortem processes that impact biological remains), I argue that the way that bodies decompose in this environment is a form of hidden political violence that has deep ideological roots. Using ethnographic data from New York and Ecuador, I focus on the families of people who have lost loved ones in desert and demonstrate how the post-mortem destruction of migrant corpses creates devastating forms of long-lasting trauma

Jason De León is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of MIchigan and in July 2019 will become Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a long-term anthropological study of clandestine migration between Mexico and the United States that uses a combination of ethnographic, visual, archaeological, and forensic approaches to understand this violent social process. He is the author of the award-winning book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail and the recipient of a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship. He is co-curator of Hostile Terrain, a multimedia installation focused on different sensory engagements with the complex world of clandestine migration. The exhibition is currently on view at the Phillips Museum of Art. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Jason is an active musician who played with the Long Beach based hardcore-punk-reggae band Youth in Asia in the mid to late 1990’s and the Americana band The Wilcox Hotel based out of State College, PA between 2005 and 2008.

This event was proposed by Kostis Kourelis.