Growing up in the generation of Indiana Jones, Jason De León already knew what he wanted to major in when he enrolled at UCLA in 1995 — anthropology. He wasn’t exactly sure what a career in the field would look like, but De León figured he would be focusing on ancient Egypt.
His senior year, a professor invited him to spend a quarter working on an archaeological project in Mexico. This trip shifted De León’s research focus from the pyramids in Egypt to studying Latin America, a region that held a special place in his curiosity since first visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacán, Mexico, when he was 8 years old. But the people he met while working on that project and other excavations in Mexico and other parts of Latin America in subsequent years have had a stronger influence on his career path than the buildings and artifacts he encountered.
“Probably around 2004, I was in graduate school working in central Mexico, and I got to know a guy named Victor who I became very close with,” said De León, who has joined UCLA as a professor of anthropology and Chicana and Chicano studies. “He had just come from Arizona, had almost died in the Arizona desert and was telling me this story about his experiences and those things inspired me. It really got me thinking about what it is I wanted to do, and I found that I was increasingly less interested in the stuff that was coming out of the ground and I was much more interested in the people I was meeting.”
Meeting Victor got De León thinking about migration as a research topic, and ultimately led him to found the Undocumented Migrant Project, which combines his interests in history, archaeology, cultural anthropology and migration. The Undocumented Migrant Project moved to the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA this past summer.
Established in 2009, the Undocumented Migrant Project uses ethnographic, visual, forensic and archaeological techniques to study the experience of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern Arizona. Researchers collect items left by migrants and treat them as historical objects, just like any archaeologist would when dealing with ancient artifacts. De León’s research in the project focuses on understanding the experiences of migrant subgroups such as women, children, LGBT individuals and non-Mexican migrants. His interdisiciplinary approach within the project earned De León a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2017.
“With every experience I was inspired to try something new and to take things in a new direction, and now it feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” De León said about his work in the project.
The project’s work pushed the boundaries of what constituted anthropology and De León had to work hard to fight the narrative that objects left behind by migrants are garbage.
“People for a long time really scoffed at the work,” he said. “We really kept making a case for this stuff and arguing that the things that migrants leave behind in the desert, or in Mexico, or wherever it is they’re crossing, those objects are of historical value.”
De León said he and his team have seen some success in proving the historical value of these items, which include clothing, backpacks and other objects migrants leave behind in the desert. In fact, the Smithsonian American History Museum’s permanent collection now includes materials De León and his team have collected from the Arizona desert.
“I think that was a big victory for us,” De León said.
Researchers just opened an exhibition called “Hostile Terrain 94” that centers around the human toll of migration along the Arizona border after new border policies were introduced in the mid-1990s. The exhibition will eventually show in 175 locations across the country between September 2019 and November 2020. The centerpiece of this exhibition is a wall map of the Arizona desert decorated with handwritten toe tags that indicate where migrants have died while attempting to cross the border.
As part of the exhibition, community members will build the exhibits using materials collected as part of the project. De León said that this makes the exhibits cheaper and more accessible, and more importantly, that by building the exhibits themselves, community members can take ownership of these materials and bring awareness to the issue of migration in a way that truly makes it their own.
De León believes that this interaction provides a crucial engagement that can inform people’s opinions about migration.
“Someone who comes and fills toe tags for half an hour and writes down the names of the dead, maybe they didn’t know anything about immigration,” De León said. “Maybe they had really negative ideas of about what this whole thing is like. Perhaps engaging with the names of the dead for just a little bit will get them to think about this issue in a different way.”
De León is delighted to be back on his old campus. The lab where the project is housed is the same lab he started in as a college freshman. For De León, coming back to UCLA feels like he’s come full circle, and he said it’s been a humbling experience.
“I had no idea what I was doing, what college was supposed to be like. I felt completely lost,” De León said when discussing his experience as a first-generation college student at UCLA. He said he is thankful for the faculty who mentored him and guided him to where he is now. “There were a lot of faculty here who really saved my life in a lot of ways.”
De León considers his return to UCLA a way to give back to students. “I’m just excited to be back here and to be in that role now, to be able to mentor students and to take on a whole new army of undergraduate students who are interested in anthropology,” he said.
The award-winning author of “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail,” De León is working on a new book he has tentatively titled “Soldiers and Kings.” This book will chronicle the lives of Honduran smugglers that move migrants through Mexico. He hopes the book will help people think about smugglers not as the go-to bad guy when it comes to migration, but as a natural product of larger political and economic forces.
“We make smugglers through border policy. We make them through labor desires,” he said. “I really want to give folks a more nuanced insight into this issue of smuggling, because I think it’s something that we really don’t understand.”