It begins at an outdoor café while you’re working for a month in central Mexico. From one table away, you zero in on his brown forearm, the two black cuffs tattooed around it. You want to touch those cuffs, encircle his arm with your hands. Soon you’ll learn the word esposas, which means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but today you know only polite Spanish, please-and-thank-you Spanish. You smile at him until he approaches. When he asks if you have a boyfriend, you start to cry and can’t stop. You want to explain something to him — that you loved someone the way a dog loves her owner — but the only available language is snot. He holds a cocktail napkin to your nose. “Blow,” he says. For a second, you think he’s serious. Then you laugh so hard you feel something shift, the way the sky shifts from blue to pink.
His socks never match. His clothes and his dog are splattered with paint. His mother embroiders designs on his guayaberas and does his laundry. At night, he crashes wherever he is — on a porch, on a couch, by the lake in his pueblo. He takes you hiking to see the bursting white moon. He takes you to meet the shaman who can erase your pain with feathers. He takes you to see pyramids and an eagle carved into a mountain. He knows how to build a fire. He knows how to prepare a sweat lodge. He knows how to get people to buy him drinks. He knows how to wrap your hair around one hand and undress you with the other. During sex, he says all kinds of things you wish you understood. By the lake, you get so stoned together he stares at your face and asks if you’re Buddha.
“If I were Buddha, I couldn’t tell you,” you say.
“You have the face of Buddha.” He takes a drag, exhales a cloud, leans back on one elbow. “But don’t tell me. You are right. It is better not to tell me.”
In the late 1960s, Jaime Bermúdez Cuarón, an engineer from a wealthy family, decided to build factories on his cotton fields in northern Mexico. Over time, he, low wages and trade agreements helped turn Juárez into a city of 400 factories that employ 300,000 people, and gave rise to similar industrial areas along the border. People call Cuarón the godfather of Mexico’s manufacturing sector.
Martinez says the city is undergoing perhaps one of the most uncertain periods in its history. And that largely has to do with a man to the north.
Maquiladoras haven’t been a direct topic of the recent Nafta negotiations, but the industry is in the crosshairs of the administration, whose trade delegation argues that Mexico’s low wages and poor working conditions create unfair competition for American business. Even the slightest upward adjustment to wages in the maquiladoras or tweak in labor laws could threaten the industry’s advantages. But Juárez has strengths it lacked even a few years ago. Companies around the world are constantly prowling for lower production costs, and it’s now cheaper to hire a worker in Mexico than in China. In 2000, Chinese workers earned half of what Mexican workers did, adjusted for productivity. By 2014, Mexico’s adjusted labor costs were 9 percent lower than China’s, according to an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group.
For decades almost every maquiladora in Juárez was owned by a U.S. company. Today the figure is 63 percent. Japanese companies own 8 percent, German companies 7 percent. Other owners are from China, France, South Korea, Malaysia, Sweden, and Taiwan, according to María Teresa Delgado, president of Index Ciudad Juárez, a trade group that represents the maquiladora industry. “The Trump experience, it really opened our eyes,” she says. “At first we were all kind of nervous because we thought the world would come to an end. But there is a bright side to every dark side, and that’s what we found out. … We’re more global than we were a few years ago.”
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.
Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)
It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard toaddress.
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.
(John Moore/Getty Images)
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!
At The New York Times, Farah Stockman profiles manufacturing employee Shannon Mulcahy during her last year at Rexnord, a bearing plant in Indianapolis, Indiana that moved to Mexico for cheaper labor. As Mulcahy trains the Mexican men who will eventually take her job, Stockman posits that American workers are not only losing their livelihoods but also their identities — the pride and self-esteem accrued from the specialized manufacturing knowledge accumulated over decades at work.
Men had come and gone. Houses had been bought and lost. But the job had always been there. For 17 years. Until now.
Shannon and her co-workers had gotten the news back in October: The factory was closing. Ball bearings would move to a new plant in Monterrey, Mexico. Roller bearings would go to McAllen, Tex. About 300 workers would lose their jobs.
The bosses called it “a business decision.”
To Shannon, it felt like a backhand across the face.
For months, Shannon kept working as the factory shut down around her. She struggled with straightforward questions: Should she train workers from Mexico for extra pay or refuse? Should she go back to school or find a new job, no matter what it paid?
And she was forced to confront a more sweeping question that nags at many of the 67 percent of adults in this country who do not have a four-year college degree: What does my future look like in the new American economy?
She had always been proud of her job. When she ran into friends from high school, she told them she worked at Link-Belt, conscious of the envy it incited. Shannon was a legacy hire. Her uncle had worked at the factory since before she was born. Her sense of self-worth was tied to the brand. The bearings she built were top of the line.
She held onto that. “I still care,” she said last March. “I don’t know why. It becomes an identity. A part of you.”
For workers like Shannon, the factory’s final months were a time of reinvention and retribution. Of praying that Donald Trump would save them and arguing about why he didn’t. Of squabbling over whether to train their Mexican replacements or shun them. Of vowing that one day, the corporate bosses would realize that making bearings isn’t as easy as they thought.
Shannon could have given Tad the bare minimum of training, answering a few questions and collecting her pay. But just as Stan Settles had passed on his knowledge to Shannon, Shannon trained Tad as if he were one of her own.
In the 1600s, Northern Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara tribe escaped Spanish incursions by moving deep into the rugged Sierra Madre. There, they cultivated the steep canyons, maintained their cultural identity and traditions, and developed into some of the world’s best long-distance runners, able to run for days without stopping. The Tarahumara people have earned international renown for their phenomenal marathon endurance. Tarahumara runners have appeared on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. They’re the subject of the best-selling book Born to Run, and they compete in many international races, yet many of their villages still lack running water and electricity. As they’ve suffered drought and famine, Mexico’s drug cartels have preyed on them. Cartels clear-cut their ancient pine forests. They converted their land to marijuana and opium poppy fields, and forced these peaceful reclusive people to work for them or leave.
At Texas Monthly, Ryan Goldberg tells the tribe’s story — which is Mexico’s story — and how cartels now offer the Tarahumara endurance runners money to run drugs across the border. The dire need to keep their families fed and keep violence out of their villages has turned too many village men into felons after they get caught at the border. Although Goldberg’s article isn’t polemical, the narrative puts the responsibility in the hands of Western consumers: if you buy Mexican drugs, you are funding the destruction of these indigenous people. Even if your Saturday night coke party is an occasional weekend extravagance, it comes with a huge human cost, not just to your body. Your purchases are part of an international supply chain, and the West’s appetite for drugs is the root of this problem. Supply and demand itself is simple in theory: no demand for Mexican drugs, no cartels. The reasons for demand are varied and complicated, and addiction is very different than recreational drug use. But America is still complicit in the Tarahumara’s suffering.
As the cartel war ricocheted from one canyon to the next, Urique became one of the last towns to be engulfed by intense violence. It had once served as an outpost for tourists exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding canyons, which helped keep it relatively tranquil until a Sinaloa boss’s nephew was murdered there, in late 2014. From then on gunfire could routinely be heard in the town and up the canyon. In the days leading up to the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco, an eight-hour battle erupted in a village along the planned racecourse. International runners arrived to find armed gangs in the streets of Urique, while local government officials assured the competitors there were no problems. A day before the race, however, Juárez hit men stormed the police station, seizing two officers and a teenager, and American organizers called off the race. Most of the visiting runners, who had come from 23 countries, made their way out under military escort. More than five hundred Tarahumara, Silvino included, resolved to carry on anyway, and the mayor agreed to a version that cut out the downriver loop, where the major shoot-out had occurred.
A few months later, Sinaloa won control of the area—nearly a dozen planes flew out of the town of Urique in one day with the remaining Juárez fighters—but conditions worsened. With the Sinaloa in command, land theft and poppy growing increased.
Some Tarahumara activists tried to make their plight known, like Irma Chávez Cruz, a 25-year-old mother who was a friend of Silvino’s. Chávez had learned Spanish as a teenager, to serve as an interpreter for her people, then earned a university degree in ecology and gotten elected to local government. She worried about Tarahumara children losing their running traditions, so she regularly put on races in the region, including all-female events called ariweta. She helped organize the largest-ever recorded rarajipari in Chihuahua—Silvino led one of the teams—and together they traveled to Brazil, in October 2015, for the inaugural World Indigenous Games. The next year, Chávez ran in the Boston Marathon (possibly the first Tarahumara woman to do so) and, while there, spoke on a panel about indigenous running traditions. Together with her father, an activist, musician, and poet known as Makawi, she pleaded for government officials in Chihuahua to help prevent drug traffickers from stealing their land and their water. But help never came, and speaking out became risky. According to the Mexico City–based magazine Proceso, at least five indigenous activists were assassinated in 2015 and 2016.
Visitors from the United States walk past a dental office in downtown Los Algodones in February, 2017. (Guillermo Arias /AFP/Getty Images)
A mouthful of healthy teeth has become a luxury in America, and the divide between rich teeth and poor teeth has become a stark symbol of inequality. Poor dental care can be both humiliating and life-threatening, and those who wait in lines for hours at free clinics in tents or local stadiums are often given the chance to fix one thing, and little else.
Los Algodones, Mexico — tucked into the sharp corner where California and Arizona meet at the border near Yuma — has 600 dentists among its 6,000 residents, giving it the nickname “Molar City.” As Republican senators cobble together a plan to repeal Obamacare behind closed doors, little has been done to address the dental crisis currently unfolding in the United States, where 114 million Americans don’t have dental insurance.
Dental insurance has only been commonplace for about thirty years in America. As a 34 year old, I remember trips to the dentist in the mid-1980s as intense and frequent. Fluoride was a cure-all at the time; I was given extra-fluoridated chewables on top of our already-fluoridated town water supply, which left my teeth strong but streaked with white stains. When I lost my four adult front teeth in a playground accident at ten, I didn’t get porcelain veneers until I was 18. They cost $1000 each, so we had to save.
In Los Algodones, porcelain metal crowns that can cost $1500 in the states are just $180 each — one patient got fourteen in a single go. “We’re helping the United States take care of the people they are not able to,” the mayor of Los Algodones told Buzzfeed in their recent profile of the city. And many of those people the US is unable to take care of just put the new president in office.
Jennifer Ure smiles sheepishly through the numbing agent as we stand on the sidewalk outside her dentist’s office. She’s just had her first round of surgery to replace three crowns on the right side of her mouth and is speaking with a lisp. The crown would have cost $600 back home in Ashland, Oregon; here, it’s $190. Her sister, Dana Gross, is here, too. Both are retired, both lack dental insurance, and both have been coming to Molar City for years.
“I’m on Medicare, and I can’t afford dental insurance,” Ure says as she starts to choke up. “I just can’t afford to pay.”
Both sisters warn that to get quality care in Molar City, you have to get recommendations from people you know and trust.
“You really need to do your research,” Ure, 61, tells me. “You can get some who don’t know what they’re doing, which happened to me.” Her first procedure here seven years ago didn’t go well — the implants a dentist put in fell apart soon after Ure returned to the US.
Ure, like most of the Americans I spoke with in Molar City, voted for Trump. The president’s dark warnings of Mexican rapists and gangsters coming into the US haven’t deterred his supporters from coming to Mexico for dental care.
Of course, that’s not to say the Mexicans providing care don’t see the irony.
David Gil, the manager of TLC Dental, says he’s become Facebook friends with many of the patients, and “everything is Trump, Trump, Trump.” But so far, he hasn’t seen a drop-off in customers who support the president — and he hasn’t had any problems with visiting Americans. “I think when it comes to racism, people hide it … [but] why else would you vote for him?”
“I think it’s a little bit odd, but we can’t judge them on how they voted, so we just try to respect them,” says Margo Carilla, who works as a translator for a dentist in town.
Guns seized in the arrest of an alleged member Los Zetas in 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
In March 2011, gunmen from the Zetas drug cartel descended on the small town of Allende, an hour from the US border, killing dozens, possibly hundreds of people — many of whom had no connection to the cartel — and destroying their homes and businesses. Seven years later, the town still has more questions than answers.
Poor management of confidential information about cartel leaders Miguel Ángel and Omar Treviño had caused a retaliation against their perceived informants that was swift and severe. Allende is a town so thoroughly infiltrated by the powerful cartel, there was little leadership or resistance to the violence. For ProPublica, Ginger Thompson interviews to victims’ families, the informers, and DEA agents in an important, difficult to read investigation.
Officers under my command responded to reports of a fire at one of the Garza ranches. We’re talking about less than three kilometers away from Allende. It appeared that the Garza family was having some kind of gathering. Among the first responders was a group of firefighters with a backup engine. They noticed there were certain people connected to criminal organizations, who told them, in vulgar terms and at gunpoint, to withdraw. They said there were going to be numerous incidents. We were going to get numerous emergency calls about gunshots, fires and things like that. They told us we were not authorized to respond.
In my capacity as fire chief, what I did was to advise my boss, who in this case was the mayor. I told him that we were facing an impossible situation and that the only thing we could do was to stand down, out of fear of the threats we faced. There were too many armed men. We were afraid for our lives. We couldn’t fight bullets with water.
At Fusion, Sasha von Oldershausen revisits the story of Esequiel Hernandez, the 18-year old who Marines fatally shot when they were patrolling the border in 1997. They mistook him for a drug smuggler in a part of West Texas that the U.S. Government characterized as the front line of the War on Drugs. But how dangerous is this area? And is militarization the most effective way to reduce the drug trade? Twenty years later, many people here feel less safe. As one longtime resident said, “The moment you employ the rhetoric of war, it becomes a battle zone.”
It was this same wrongful characterization of Redford that would ultimately lead to Esequiel’s death. In some ways, it’s plain to see how the Marines could have mistaken Esequiel for a criminal, given “the fragmentary and sometimes inaccurate picture of local conditions,” as the congressional investigation stated.
JTF-6 was equipped with a cursory understanding of the area gleaned from notes written by their sergeant, recounted in the Marine Corp report, which stated: “Redford is not a friendly town,” and “Connections between town residents and drug traffickers were assumed to be the norm.”
They were not informed that families lived just a stone’s throw from where they were hiding, and that among them were Hernandez and his brothers and sisters, his mother and father, who resided in a small cluster of humble homes below the hill where he was shot. They were not told that Esequiel would herd his goats daily in the very region they were monitoring. They didn’t even know that the Polvo Crossing was a “Class B” entry—a legal route for pedestrian traffic to cross the river—until two days into their mission.
José Mares was one of 161 undocumented immigrants netted in the L.A. sweeps that ICE conducted in early February, the first significant enforcement surge of the Trump presidency. The sweeps were part of a nationally coordinated surge of 680 arrests in 11 states. Yet it was not the size of the raid that’s notable but, rather, how abruptly ICE had jettisoned the “felons not families” guidelines for removal established under President Obama.
Trump appeared to endorse the sweeps a few days after Mares was deported, tweeting: “The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” It is the “others” he mentions that most concern advocates for immigrant rights.
ICE under Trump is going after low-hanging fruit, migrants with final orders of removal for a petty misdemeanor offense, according to lawyers who work with the recently deported in Tijuana. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued new immigration enforcement guidelines that make a priority of following no priorities. The guidelines call for hiring 10,000 additional enforcement agents, increasing the holding capacity at detention centers and reactivating a program that deputizes local law enforcement to help make immigration arrests.
Memorial coffins on the US-Mexico barrier for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México via Wikimedia.
Making it across the geo-political border doesn’t mean you’ve made it. In Documenting the Undocumented on Places, Taylor James and Adelheid Fischer find the end of the line for a number of “un-authorized border crossers.”
The public record of the Death Maps provides no detail about the private lives of its entrants. What hopes carried Claudia Patricia Oqunendo-Bedoya, Case Report 02-01321, into the desert inferno in August 2002 when she succumbed to “probable hyperthermia”? Just two days before Oqunendo-Bedoya’s remains were recovered, another crosser, Jaime Arteaga Alba, Case Report 02-01310, was riding in a vehicle that may have been taking him to his final destination: a job site in the U.S. Was he jubilant that he survived the grueling desert trek? Was he planning his new future when he was killed on August 8 in a highway accident?
Humane Borders gathers data each time a body is found, while the work of James (and Fischer, through this essay) attempts to humanize each loss.