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The Land of Open Graves by Jason de León

“If we are to avoid the trap of becoming infatuated with our own intellectual-cum-magical capacity to render the world intelligible, then the vocabulary ‘we’ all too glibly project onto ‘them’ must be tested continually against the various and changing experiences of actual lives” (anthropologist Michael Jackson cited by De León 2015, 222).

Since I met Jason de León at one of the Friday Anthropology Colloquia last year at CU Boulder, I have been looking forward to reading his work. His talk was as gripping as the book is. I almost cried. Knowing that there have been anthropologists and scholars who are bravely conducting research like his, it inspires a young ethnographer like me to continue pursuing my research project even though there are voices around me constantly gearing me towards all sorts of potential research projects – for the sake of my own safety. Here is why Michael Jackson’s quote above resonated with me. Which authority do we have to decide which voices/stories are worthy of telling and worthy of interpreting? De León has shown sometimes there is no interpretation to be done but narrating voices of the participants could just suffice (see Chapter 6).

In Introduction, De León notes that this project is a result of his post-dissertation research and a product of reinventing himself as an ethnographer from an archaeologist. Surprisingly (or not so), I found The Land of Open Graves ethnographically rich with detailed stories interlacing throughout the book. Just like Paige had said earlier, it is written for beyond academic public. Perhaps, this is a reason why the book is published in the series of Public Anthropology by the University of California Press. (On a side note, I am curious under which condition an ethnography is considered publicly-engaged these days although The Land of Open Graves is an obvious example?)

I also appreciate De Léon’s overt claim as to reason why he chose not to join the migrants on the journey of border crossing but only to reconstruct the memories and experiences journeys from a composite of multiple narratives, which blend together as a single narrative or “semifictionalized ethnography” (43). This choice to me is not only a scholarly one but also an ethical one. The former reason is to recognize his own privilege as a professor and a US citizen with no potential harm even if to be caught by the border patrol. The latter is not to raise the voice of his own suffering above those of the migrants whose bodies are in the process of perpetual motion captured in “incomplete, sometimes chaotic, and always morphing” ethnographic accounts (127).

Throughout the book, De León’s ethnographic storytelling is so alive that the fear and desperation of the people described seep into the reader’s mind. I found myself cringing when Lupe had to drink her own urine while waiting for Javier and Marcos to be back with help in Chapter 2; worried when De León and his friend could not find the lady Vincente had to leave in the desert in Chapter 3; relieved alongside Lucho and Memo when they explained they had a pact to turn themselves in if one of them get sick in the desert in Chapter 4; laughing at Samuel’s joke teasing at De León that he was looking for a Mexican girlfriend at the shelter when away from his wife in Chapter 5; and more.

Some may not like the book because of its right-at-your-face kind of depiction of violence – both through words and through visuality. I agree with De Léon’s justification to include photos. These stories of migrants are not merely stories with empty words, but they are real stories told by real people. I reckon De León’s careful decision to include photos as attempts to present these stories as real as they can be even when they are constantly being shaped. We have been fortunate enough to witness them with our own eyes in this book without having to experience the brutal nature of “hybrid collectif” at work in the Sonoran Desert and within Latin American even prior to crossing. By putting names and faces on these migrants, De León makes room for their agency to shine.

One ironic thought I was left with is ways in which we must use our bodies in order to treat those bodies – both yours and your loved ones – nicely and comfortably. In the process, we lose those bodies even to the “bone dust” (27). At the end, no material presence remains but only those of immaterial stay with us. And now with De León’s book, the memories of Maricela, José among those who went and are still missing in the desert; those waiting to try again at the Juan Bosco shelter; those selling their undocumented labor cheap in the US to support the families they have not seen for years back home; they will forever remain alive.

© 2023 By Lion with a Flowing Mane.

All Myanmar Image Courtesy by Chu May Paing.