Jason De León


Emerging Explorer

Picture of Jason De León

Photograph by Michael Wells

Jason De León, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, directs the Undocumented Migration Project, a study of clandestine migration between Mexico and the United States. By using a range of anthropological methods, such as documenting what migrants leave behind in the desert, he seeks to provide insight into their experience.

A spiky cholla cactus bristles in the scorching Sonoran Desert sun. Caught on its thorns—a baby diaper. Miles away, a tattered backpack contains one roll of toilet paper, a love letter, and a prayer card. Beside it, a tiny child’s shoe. Until Jason De León arrived on the scene, it was all considered garbage, or never discovered at all. But since 2009, the anthropologist has directed a project to collect, catalogue, and interpret nearly 10,000 objects left in the desert by migrants making the treacherous, undocumented border crossing from Mexico into the United States.

De León’s Undocumented Migration Project, through the University of Michigan, seeks to provide a more long-term, nuanced understanding of the immigration experience, exploring the process from myriad perspectives: American, Mexican, migrant, citizen, law enforcement, and smuggler. His novel approach applies rigorous, systematic anthropological and archaeological techniques to a highly politicized issue. “We use archaeological surveys, linguistics, forensics, and ethnography to document how people prepare to cross the border, who profits from helping them, how they deal with physical and emotional trauma during their journey, and what happens to those who don’t make it,” he explains.

His interest goes deeper than just the scientific. De León’s grandparents were born in Mexico, his mother emigrated from the Philippines, and he grew up watching migrants swim across the Rio Grande. “Being raised on the border in a bicultural household with a long immigration history makes me very attuned to issues of cultural identity and discrimination,” he says.

Migrants may shed objects to lighten their exhausting load, to evade border patrol agents, or to blend in after reaching a U.S. city. “As trained archaeologists we don’t cherry pick the items we collect,” says De León. “We inventory mundane survival-based items like water bottles, food wrappers, and first-aid supplies as well as very personal belongings such as letters, baby photos, Bibles, and rosaries.” Traditionally, archaeology examines the distant past, but De León’s project captures a snapshot of the modern day. “Immigration is an active, unpredictable, moving target; things can change overnight. We’re fighting against the clock to collect items before they’re destroyed by sun, weather, or animals, or taken to a landfill.” His latest efforts tackle the grisly forensic question of how quickly migrant bodies decompose in the desert, data not previously reported in a systematic way.

The human experiences that the objects denote are gleaned from interviews. “I can give you statistics about water bottles and backpacks, but it’s missing the narrative of migrants themselves,” he notes. “I use their stories to understand what the material record represents. You learn that each physical object can tell 50 nuanced stories of encountering bandits, hiking steep mountain paths, drinking from bacteria-laden cattle tanks, and weathering extreme heat.” De León cites a broken pair of women’s sneakers with the soles tied onto the shoes with bits of a bra strap and twine. “Imagine crossing rugged, dangerous terrain wearing something like these.”

He sees the materials as fragments of history and believes exhibiting them will highlight the complexities of the migrant experience and help the public consider it in less obvious ways.

A portion of the collection was displayed in the University of Michigan exhibition “State of Exception” and will travel across the country. Several major U.S. museums have expressed interest in permanently housing materials from the collection.

“My work constantly reveals close encounters with death, trauma, and suffering on both sides of the border. It’s heartbreaking, but migrants are some of the most optimistic, resilient, inspirational people I’ve ever encountered. Giving them a voice, recording their stories, and bringing scientific credibility to their struggle keeps me going,” he explains. “It’s an emotional subject, but my focus has to be science first. By using a range of anthropological methods, such as documenting what migrants leave behind in the desert, he seeks to provide insight into their experience.

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—Jason De León


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