Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)
As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”
Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.
When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?
I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?
People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.
Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?
I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.
Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?
All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?
I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.
One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.
It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard to address.
Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?
It’s interesting too because history is subjective.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.
I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.
We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.
In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?
The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.
Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.
People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.
Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?
We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015. We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.
I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.
Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.
Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?
It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.
I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?
I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.
What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?
For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.
Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.
The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.
You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!