Meet Jason De Leon, the Mexican-American anthropologist whose ‘Undocumented Migration Project’ earned him the ultimate brainic award – a MacArthur Genius Grant.
De Leon, 40, studies the path undocumented migrants take from Mexico into the U.S. via the Sonoran Desert. And what is left behind as they make that dangerous journey. His migration project collects artifacts left by the living and dead, something it has been doing for nearly 10-years.
The Latino anthropologist recently told NPR he uses “archaeology as a tool to understand the human condition.”
The ‘Undocumented Migration Project’ aims to collect items left in the Sonora desert that runs from southern Arizona to northern Mexico. Items that are found are cataloged in a database and then De Leon and his team from the University of Michigan identify patterns and ultimately the human consequence of U.S. immigration policy.
The six-to-seven day trek from Mexico into the U.S. via the Sonora desert challenges the undocumented with extreme weather conditions, deadly snakes, tarantulas, killer bees and of course violence from cartels looking to rob, kidnap or kill the bordercrossers. More recently some deaths have been attributed to vigilantes and border patrol agents themselves.
An estimated 300 individuals die a year making the trek, and they are the focus of De Leon’s work. It is the articles left behind from the dead that render the most clues into the social process of illegal migration.
Since many die without proper identification or family notification De Leon in many way provides the only memorialization that these people are given. Eventually the archaeologist wants to collect human remains to better understand the causes of death and allow for proper identification.
Last year De Leon won the Margaret Mead award from the American Anthropological Association for his book “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.” The book records the human suffering on the journey to the U.S.with many personal head accounts.
De Leon was born to a Mexican father and a Phillipino mother, growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. According to his biography he received a B.A. (2001) from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. (2008) from Pennsylvania State University. He was affiliated with the University of Washington (2008–2010) before joining the faculty of the University of Michigan, where he is currently an associate professor of anthropology and a faculty associate of the Latina/o Studies Program.
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