AE Interviews Jason De León (University of Michigan): A Conversation on Migration, Disciplinary Boundaries, and the Ethics of Objects

January 2016

Former AE editorial intern Deniz Daser interviewed Jason De León about his research and plenary talk.

AES is excited to feature several plenary speakers at the spring 2016 conference, including Jason De León from the University of Michigan. Much of De León’s work has taken a four-field approach integrating archaeological and ethnographic methods to study undocumented migration along the U.S.-Mexico border, the suffering and resilience of migrant border crossers, and the objects that they leave behind. His book based on this research, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (University of California Press), was recently published in 2015. He joins the AES conference to talk about his new research into the experiences of Honduran migrants in Mexico.

Jason De León

AES is excited to feature several plenary speakers at the spring 2016 conference, including Jason De León from the University of Michigan. Much of De León’s work has taken a four-field approach integrating archaeological and ethnographic methods to study undocumented migration along the U.S.-Mexico border, the suffering and resilience of migrant border crossers, and the objects that they leave behind. His book based on this research, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (University of California Press), was recently published in 2015. He joins the AES conference to talk about his new research into the experiences of Honduran migrants in Mexico.

Deniz Daser (DD): Let’s start with the widely influential UMP (Undocumented Migration Project), which you started in 2009. Can you tell us about it and the impetus behind its creation?
Jason De León (JD): In a previous life, I was very much a traditional archaeologist. I had worked in Latin America for close to a decade before I started the UMP. My dissertation was on ancient political economy, stone tools and that sort of thing. Over the course of several seasons of doing fieldwork in Mexico I got much more interested in the local people who worked on these excavation projects than I did in the actual stuff that was coming out of the ground. My life had been really been affected by these local people, working class folks who all had really intense migration histories. As I got really interested in that I also became really disillusioned with the type of academic work that I was doing. I think dissertations are hard no matter what. You end up hating them by the end because you’ve spent so much time, obviously, wrestling with them! For me, I already kind of knew that I was going to do something different after the dissertation. And I had already tried to make the jump. I had pitched all kinds of crazy ethnographic stuff in conjunction with the archaeology, which none of my advisors thought was a very good idea at the time. And so I basically tried to do the dissertation as fast as I could and then I completely jumped ship and decided that I wanted to start focusing more on undocumented migration; mostly because I had gotten to know these folks so well who had had these crazy, difficult, heartbreaking stories about migration. But I didn’t have a sense of what it was actually going to look like. The UMP is essentially a four-field project but it didn’t really start out like that. In the beginning, my research question was, “What can I do with archaeology in this context?” And, “How can I use it in conjunction with ethnography?” The project is often characterized as an archaeological endeavor, however.

DD: Do you mean in the popular press, not in academic circles?

JD: Yeah, people say, “Oh, that’s the guy who studies migrant artifacts.”

DD: I think sometimes everyday people are more familiar with the methods of archaeology rather than cultural anthropology.

JD: Which is too bad because I’m the least interested in archaeological approach these days. I think that I sort of sit uncomfortably in the discipline at this point. Nobody really claims me. (laughs)

DD: That’s not so bad, is it? (laughs)

JD: Well, there are archaeologists who say I’m not really an archaeologist and ethnographers say that I’m not really an ethnographer. I think part of it is just because people just think of me as “that guy who does the archaeology.” I think that if they read my work more closely they’d say, “oh yeah, it’s ethnographically driven.” And this other work, the forensic science and the archaeology really inform the ethnography. But I think it’s still so strange for people. We preach that we’re a four-field discipline but it’s very difficult to be four-field for all kinds of methodological, intellectual, and political reasons.

DD: And academics in general are very protective of their disciplinary boundaries.

JD: And I used to be really concerned about such boundaries because I was fighting against the tide. I was thinking, “Is this going to be acceptable to bring this framework or method into this sub-discipline?” I think I spent a big chunk of my early academic career worrying about that. Now for me it’s all anthropology. It’s just a matter of what your questions are and when it makes sense to step outside of your own primary sub-discipline.

DD: The four-field issue is interesting because you often find older scholars more comfortable with the notion. So, in many ways you’re going back to some roots of how anthropology used to be thought of. As an example, as cultural anthropologists, we’re often comfortable with doing some historical research, like archival work. Somehow that seems more acceptable than archaeology, which is also examining the past, though through different materials and different methods. It’s interesting how those boundaries are formed.

JD: Yeah, it’s a funny thing and in the past socio-cultural anthropologists were very interested in material culture and interested in the history of their regions. People who came up in the 1960s and early 1970s seem to be much more attuned to this stuff than my contemporaries to whom I really have to make an argument for why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s a weird moment right now in the discipline. I’m not sure what we’re going to do next. Even in contemporary archaeology, which is a genre I am often lumped into, I am often uncomfortable. It’s interesting thinking about material culture and trying to use social theory to understand contemporary physical remains. But we often lack the kind of ethnographic depth that I would like in this type of archaeology. Archaeology was initially the genre that I thought I had the most in common with and increasingly I’m more alienated from it now than ethnography. I’m always asking, “Where are the people? Where is the ethnography?” As I’ve kind of said in other places, I don’t know what the point of contemporary archaeology is without privileging the voices of people who are still around to talk about this stuff.

DD: When you say “contemporary archaeology,” do you mean the contemporary state of the field or an archaeology focused on studying the more recent past?

JD: Yes, the latter, or folks who are studying post-1950s. And there are a lot of people doing that kind of stuff. But I think many archaeologists are generally uncomfortable with living humans – at least as a source of data – because they do a great job of undermining all of our theories and ideas (laughs). I think for me “archaeology of the contemporary” isn’t some form of truth production. I think instead it can produce a different type of data that doesn’t necessarily do what we think it’s going to do. I think you can tell different stories with contemporary archaeology and I think you can get different perspectives about an event or about social processes but I don’t think it is a way to kind of get to some truth … I think there are some people who think that archaeology can’t lie, that it tells the truth because you can be more “scientific” or “objective” with it. But I think that archaeology can be just as misleading as the voices of individuals and that’s fine. I’m just more interested in how those things can play off each other. So, there is this kind of incoherence there. Archaeology doesn’t solve problems. I think a lot of times it makes new problems, but they’re good problems. I like the tension between sub-disciplinary approaches.

DD: In the context of the border-crossing migrants that you study, you talk about the dialectical relationship between individuals and use-wear objects such as clothing, shoes, water bottles, and so forth. What does this type of research that combines archaeological study and ethnography tell us about these migratory systems?

JD: I think it tells us a lot about some of the bigger processes, like the evolution of technology and how undocumented migration is a global phenomenon. It’s not just that the process starts and ends in the desert. It stretches throughout both the North and South. So, for me the archaeology is a way to look at major changes over time. It’s a way to look at different issues of scale from the individual artifact level to much larger, aggregate levels. With that approach you can think about different sorts of questions. But the tendency has really been to focus in on the individual objects; especially the objects that people react to strongly, like baby shoes, bibles, water bottles, and that sort of thing.

DD: The heavily symbolic objects.

JD: Yes, and that’s kind of where we’re stuck. There is often some push back when I say “Look, I think Doritos bags left in the desert are just as important as baby bottles!” People reply, “Well, I’m not moved by a Doritos bag or an empty water bottle.” But, you know, an empty water bottle might be life or death for someone. You wouldn’t treat other archaeological assemblages the way we treat these contemporary ones. You wouldn’t come in and say, “I only want baby stuff from 1000 years ago. I’m going to leave everything else behind.” And so I decided early on, too, that I didn’t want to get stuck in that kind of cherry picking. So, for me, this stuff behind me in my laboratory, this room full of empty food wrappers, dirty socks, baby bottles, bibles, personal photos, and so forth- it’s in conglomeration that this stuff is way more powerful and informative than individual objects. And often, individual objects are really put up front, particularly by artists who play with these types of materials. Or the contemporary archaeologists who want to focus on the material. Let’s find the people first, privilege those narratives, and then see what the objects can speak to in conjunction with these voices. And so I think that initially with my writing and as the UMP project has evolved, I’ve gotten better at pushing migrant voices to the forefront. The book that’s just come out, The Land of Open Graves, is probably the best example of where I currently sit with the archaeology. It’s funny, I would say archaeology maybe plays 15-20% of a role in the whole book.

The Land of Open Graves

DD: That’s different from many of your earlier articles.

JD: I’ve moved away so much from the straightforward archaeology as my thinking about this stuff has matured. Or, at least from a methodological standpoint I’ve been more interested in how archaeological theory can inform ethnography. So, I’m interested in how sites are formed or the taphonomic processes that shape how bodies decompose, for instance, so the forensic work has become much more important. And so I hope that the book at least will set the record straight as to why I think this is a heavily ethnographic endeavor and how forensic science and archaeology and linguistics help me get to different elements of the process of undocumented migration that I’m interested in. At the end of the day, it’s really about the people themselves, which is hard to convey in article formats in general.

DD: Speaking of various methodological approaches, through the UMP and other endeavors we see a more visual approach come through. What is it that artifacts, photographs, and other more visual forms of scholarly production do that texts can’t? Because for us in cultural anthropology, it is the text that really emerges as the authoritative voice.

JD: If I could right now, I’d quit my job and I would just go take pictures. It’s all I want to do. It’s funny- I just kind of came out of this two-year writing process where I really think I really found my writing voice. Or at least it’s a voice that doesn’t make me cringe when I read it. I’ve never been very good at looking back at things I’ve written. I write something and I don’t ever want to see it again. And actually I really enjoyed the writing process for this book because when I started it I read so much to prepare. I went back and read ethnographies I loved. Ethnographies I hated. I read stacks and stacks of new stuff that had come out. And then I just decided I couldn’t read any more ethnographies because I needed a different frame of reference. So many of us anthropologists write in basically the same kind of format - intro, historical background, theoretical background, here’s my data, here’s my analysis, here’s my conclusion, and so forth. And dissertations are built like that. Articles are built like that. And of course you have to follow some of those conventions. But I just started reading novels as a source of ethnographic inspiration. So many of the books that I really wanted to read (and reread) when I was writing were by non-anthropologists. I wanted to be a better storyteller because I felt like the stories I was told were so powerful and I didn’t want to kill them with academic speak. And so part of this process for me as I’ve matured with the Undocumented Migration Project is trying to find ways to translate the ethnographic data in a way that doesn’t sterilize it or doesn’t overly intellectualize it to the point where only six people can read it, or want to read it. So, for me the writing process is still very important. And this is the whole tension about being a public anthropologist. We use terms like “engaged” and “public.” And sometimes those words are veiled insults. When people say, “Oh, you’re an engaged anthropologist,” while it is a term I’d never use to describe myself, it functions as an underhanded critique, as in, “Oh, you’re not theoretical enough” or “you’re dumbing it down.”

DD: It’s hard at times to know what “engaged” means.

JD: I don’t know, either. And I react very strongly to it because I think in so many ways it’s this unfair critique. I always say to people, “Well, if I’m an engaged anthropologist, then what’s the converse? A disengaged anthropologist?” I think we should be asking hard questions. The world is a very brutal, horrible place for so many people. If we can do any work to at least shine a light on these inequalities and in some way provide some more insight into the human condition, then that’s what I want to do. As for writing publicly- I’m not so concerned about op-ed pieces and that sort of stuff. I think that’s one route and a very important one. I’m just not very good at that type of writing. I would rather focus my energy on trying to make my scholarly work readable beyond the academy. For me, that’s a way to do both- to engage with the public and to not lose intellectual integrity. But when it comes to the visual approach- there’s so much more that it can do. And I think that we don’t take it seriously as a discipline. Rightfully so there’s a long-standing critique that we’ve been abusing photography with all these problematic representations of people of color and indigenous people. I recognize that. However, photography has now become so important for me because there are a lot of things that photos can do that I can never convey in words, no matter how hard I try. Initially I thought, well, maybe the photos can illustrate things that I am not fully capable of capturing with text. And so even with the book, the texts and images sort of sit together. There’s more direct overlap between text and image than I would like and now I want the photos to do all kinds of ethnographic work beyond the text.

DD: Do you think being open to different methods and approaches springs from working collectively? You’ve worked with fellow colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduate students, and in general archaeology tends to be a collaborative effort.

JD: Yes, I think it definitely does because in all archaeological endeavors, you have to have people coming in to do stuff that you’re not a specialist in. So, you always have to collaborate and when this project started, I was interested in collaboration also because I’m so dedicated to student learning, especially undergrads. My life was changed by being taken into the field and given all this responsibility. Having learned so much that way, I’ve always tried to give that back to students. The nice thing about that is that they come in and say, “I’m interested in this.” And I say, “I am, too. I don’t know how the hell to do it. Go and learn how to do it, come back teach me about it, and let’s see if we can do this stuff together.”

DD: So being methodologically diverse has significant pedagogical dimensions as well?

JD: Yes- if I didn’t have all these people around me I wouldn’t be able to realize a lot of the project that I wanted to do. And photography was one thing I couldn’t do in the beginning. I had no idea. People were coming in and showing me how to do stuff. And now I’m trying to reinvent myself as a photo-ethnographer. I want to think about photography as an ethnographic method and so I’m interested in composition, technical issues, and so forth. I shoot only film now and I’m also building a dark room at Michigan.

DD: So, tell us about more recent work that you’ve been doing on Hondurans in Mexico.

JD: I think what I’m going to talk about most at the conference relates to corporeal suffering and the specific type of habitus that is needed to undertake a clandestine crossing. I have written about this previously and I have been revisiting it lately. I’m going to be talking about Hondurans who are involved in smuggling and robbery; people who are migrants themselves on some level but who are involved in human trafficking and migrant extortion. I’m going to talk about their bodies, the phenomenology of migration when you don’t fit the kind of noble, sympathetic individual. What about the bodies of those who are just as involved in the migration process, yet are doing things that I think are much more difficult to theorize about and even be around? So, I’m coming back to this migrant habitus now but trying to think about it in more gray, complicated ways.

DD: I’ve found in my own research that some people go in and out of various categories, maybe they were involved in some gang-related activities but then were also migrants trying to find safe passage to the U.S. Have you found that as well?

JD: Yes, absolutely. That’s what we started doing this summer. And yes, they fill all these different positions. They left their home countries. They are moving across Mexico. They’ve had some time in the States. They weren’t successfully integrated into the American undocumented economy. Think of Primo and Caesar from “In Search of Respect.” They’re guys who are pretty good at being violent but not good enough to rise in the ranks of criminal organizations. But they’ve got particular social skills that can be really lucrative in certain contexts. Those of us sympathetic to the issue of migration spend a lot of time constructing the ideal migrant type. And I’m guilty of that too. You know, the notion that migrants are noble people who are migrating solely for economic reasons and they suffer and we should be sympathetic to them. And while most of the people that I work with would be put into that category, I think that we are not spending enough time on just how complicated and gray this process of movement actually is.

DD: It seems like one thing that connects your earlier research with your study now is this notion of the border-crossing industry, which you describe as this political economy of vendors, coyotes, and migrants. And we can extend that to the U.S. military industrial complex on the border, with the use of drones and surveillance. We can include as well the labor markets in the U.S. and the drug and arms trade going back and forth over the border. So, coming back to our conference theme, is it coherence or incoherence that structures this border-crossing regime on the macro level? Or is it some of both?

JD: When you scale up, it starts to look quite similar. The book project I’m currently working on is basically a photo-ethnography about the U.S.-Mexico border compared to the Guatemala-Mexico border. You go down to southern Mexico now and it looks like southern Arizona. You’ve got these things that are happening there that mimic what’s going on farther north.

DD: The border there is very militarized as well?

JD: Oh my God, yeah. Absolutely. When you get close to the physical movement of people through Mexico ethnographically and archaeologically, it becomes hard to comprehend because it’s all over the place and it’s way more graphic up close. Sitting on the train tracks in Chiapas, Mexico brings you into close contact with the everyday violence that Central Americans experience while migrating. It is brutal and an order of magnitude more complicated and difficult than on the northern Mexican border. But when you move back then things start to look very, very similar across both of Mexico’s borders with just different players. The Central American migration experience, like the Mexican experience, does have a logic. It’s just an unpleasant logic. And I think the research I am doing now is kind of a natural progression of what the UMP has been doing. However, some might think, “Oh, well, he was doing archaeology in the desert and now he’s taking photos of gang bangers!” We are doing a mix of ethnography with some archaeology, mainly the archaeology of boredom; i.e. how migrants are passing the time.

DD: I think boredom is a very understudied topic. Also, boredom as a reason for migration, I think, is really underestimated. People obviously migrate for economic purposes, but sometimes individuals also want a certain type of life that they can’t live in their home country.

JD: It’s funny- I think there is always a push back against characterizing the migration experience as having an element of adventure. We often want to frame in strictly economic terms. But, man, you hang out with teenagers, these kids. Sure, they’re poor. But they are leaving home for a whole bunch of reasons. Maybe they want to reunite with family or leave a broken home. At the same time, a lot of these young men, which is who I often have the most access to, are drinking caguamas on the migrant trail, they’re smoking weed, they’re picking up girls. There are a whole bunch of things that push people to leave and a diversity of experiences en route. Sometimes it’s the lifestyle that they want to live that compels them to leave home. Perhaps they can’t come out in Honduras or in Mexico. So, there’s all this other stuff that’s happening that can’t be reduced to economics. There’s a lot of work to be done. Graduate students I am working with come in and they want to do research on migration. So, I ask them, “What new questions can you ask?” We know a lot about the economics. But there’s so much more going on that I think is really fertile territory for coming up with new types of understandings of migration. Maybe that’s why I moved away from the research I was doing in Arizona, because I wanted to try and offer some counter-narratives to the ones that I’ve been involved in constructing. Let’s look at phenomena that are more difficult to generalize about and show people with their warts and all. While I think we should be doing that because that’s the reality, at the same time, I also worry about unintentionally demonizing people.

DD: Yes, and even your more archaeologically-inclined work shows a real concern with human experience. In relation to that, what are the ethical issues archaeologists work through when they’re dealing with objects? Is it different for you because you are working with (mostly) living people and their objects? Do you have differing ethical concerns from other archaeologists?

JD: I do. I worry that the objects are distracting. I worry that they tell us more about ourselves than about the people that left them behind. There’s an edited volume coming out on migration and heritage. My colleague Cameron Gokee and I wrote a chapter for that book (J. De León and C. Gokee [under review]. ‘Site Formation Processes and the Erasure of America’s Undocumented Migration “Problem.”’ In Cultural Heritage, Ethics and Contemporary Migrations, eds.C. Holtorf, A. Pantazatos and G. Scarre. Routledge Press) where we critique how the objects migrants leave behind have been used in museum exhibitions, including the exhibits we’ve been involved with, such as “State of Exception,” that has been going on since 2013. This exhibit, which is a collaboration with curator/artist Amanda Krugliak and photographer Richard Barnes, features a giant wall full of backpacks. And people react to it very strongly. It’s quite overwhelming. It’s several feet tall. It smells like dirt and the desert. It elicits a very visceral kind of reaction. In the first exhibition iteration, we tried to give very little context, partly because we wanted to see how visitors would react to objects in isolation. We didn’t tell them how to think about them. We said, basically, “These backpacks are from migrants who crossed the Arizona desert. This is what it looks like when we encounter them in the field. We’ve modified the objects a little bit because we ordered them in this exhibition space but for the most part you’re seeing them how we’re seeing them out in the desert.” So, we let the exhibition run once without any migrant voices. And people were saying things like, “This is so moving. I’m so impacted by this. Thank you for giving a voice to the voiceless!” And I kept saying to myself, “There is no voice here! What you’re hearing is your own voice!” Right? And so that started to really bother me. I felt like people were fetishizing these objects to the point where it was about them and their experience and not about these individuals. So now we’ve changed the exhibit somewhat: the walls have gotten much bigger but we’ve inserted speakers into the backpacks so that when you get close to it you hear all these different interviews and voices, people talking about the desert and other things. It’s a hodge-podge of audio. When you interview someone about a particular topic, they often will go off the rails, talking about all sorts of things. When we put the audio together for the exhibition I just said, “We’re not going to edit this stuff. I’m not going to translate it. I’m not going to put it into any kind of order. We’re just going to play it as it is. As it was recorded. People can have that kind of experience.”

DD: Talk about incoherence.

JD: Yeah, my God, right? This person’s rambling on about a dog for two hours and I’m trying to ask him about the desert or why he left Mexico. (laughs) So, we started doing that and much of that sprang from my own discomfort with how easy it is to empathize with an object if that’s your only encounter with the migrants. After all, we can make up all sorts of stories about those objects. We can construct a narrative that we like, whereas for me ethnography makes it impossible for me to ever be in that space in which I could privilege the object. The Smithsonian has an exhibition coming out in 2017 on the history of American immigration and they’ve got a few objects from our collection. I wrote an essay for them and they really wanted to pick evocative objects that people can really empathize with. I know what they want but I don’t like thinking about it those terms because ethically for me that’s really kind of dangerous territory.

DD: Going back to the Doritos bag- the Smithsonian probably wouldn’t want that in the exhibition. That’s something that “we” use. That’s perhaps a little too close to “our” own experience.

JD: Believe me, I tried to give them something like that but no one wanted to put a Doritos bag in a display case. So, when they came through my laboratory they cherry-picked the things they thought were the best and the most moving and so I tried to write about that as well: how when we are left to deal with the material as a viewer we can pick and choose whatever we want. We can fit it into a neat, understandable kind of box whereas the ethnographer or the anthropologist knows that the realities that we’re trying to understand don’t fit into these neat categories.