2016 Winner

Incomplete Lives

The Unfinished Houses of Undocumented Migrants in Oaxaca, Mexico

by Ivan Sandoval-Cervantes

We are pleased to announce the 2016 winner. At the AES spring meetings in Washington, D.C. on April 1, Ivan Sandoval-Cervantes (U. of Oregon) was awarded the 2016 prize for his paper entitled “Incomplete Lives: The Unfinished Houses of Undocumented Migrants in Oaxaca, Mexico.” Ritty Lukose (NYU Gallatin) chaired the prize committee and was joined by Amy Trubek (University of Vermont), Sonia Das (New York University) and Azra Hromadzic (Syracuse University).

The committee wrote the following words of praise for the paper:

Ivan’s essay analyzes the relationship between undocumented migration, materiality and migrant lives within Oaxaca, Mexico by exploring the affective dimensions of house construction, many of which remain unfinished. Deploying a keen ethnographic eye rendered in beautiful and skillful prose, the essay link unfinished houses, migration trajectories and family obligations. After richly conjuring up the material landscape of unfinished houses within Oaxaca, he digs deeper to draw out the affective landscape of presence and absence, success and failure that mark migrant lives. He is also able to contextualize both the material and affective in imaginations of futurity that mark migrant hopes for their children.

This essay displays the seminal contribution that ethnography can make to an interdisciplinary terrain of inquiry such as migration studies. Ivan contextualizes his ethnographic work as a contribution to this scholarship that is often marked by generalized understandings about remittance economies and return migration. Folding the precarity of being undocumented into the material and affective landscapes produced by remittances and the hopes of return, the unfinished house stands as the presence-absence of the migrant herself. Coursing through kin networks and family obligations, the materiality of the unfinished houses that dot the landscape bear witness to the incomplete lives of migrants, a window into the affective dimensions of remittances and return. Such theoretically acute, ethnographically rich and contextualized material opens up the space between the dominant ways of understanding migration in the social sciences – marked by “push” and “pull” factors. Ivan’s essay lays bare the everyday, palpable ways in which migrants are caught between the two. The unfinished house is a tangible instantiation of this struggle resonant with meaning.

Congratulations to Ivan!