Wall of Death
A "Big Mac" is bringing attention to Jason De Leon's harrowing work on the southern border.
From the May, 2018 issue
Tattooed and wearing a black cowboy shirt, U-M prof and 2017 MacArthur Fellow Jason De Leon slips casually into Modern Languages Building Auditorium 3. He's there to deliver his penultimate anthropology lecture of the semester, and the auditorium is nearly full.
De Leon starts by projecting a YouTube video of Pete Seeger singing the old union anthem "Which Side Are You On?" and tells the class that he won't cross the picket line if the U-M's lecturers strike. He follows with a CNN clip on President Trump's decision to send the National Guard to the southern border, supposedly to protect Americans from dangerous illegal immigrants.
Then, in a passionate lecture dosed with profanity, De Leon explains who's really in danger on the border. He talks about two guys he knew who survived a long walk through the desert--and his own experience finding the bloated body of a woman who didn't. He tells of later meeting the woman's family and learning that she came from Ecuador and had gone north to find work to support her kids. A few months later, her fifteen-year-old nephew also disappeared at the border. He'd tried to join his mom and dad, who'd made the crossing to earn the money to pay for his sister's expensive medicine. He's probably dead, his body eaten by vultures and his bones scattered across the desert, but the family will likely never know for sure.
"The desert is our wall," De Leon closes, "the kind that kills people."
On RateMyProfessors.com, most students like him a lot--though others complain he's too dogmatic and obviously leftist. It's hard to tell from the class's reaction. No one seems to be listening; they're nearly all on their screens and phones.
"You could be on fire up there, and they'd still be on their computer screens," says De Leon later in his crammed West Hall office. "You just have to block it out."
Born in San Francisco in 1977 to a mom
from the Philippines and a dad from Mexico and south Texas, De Leon "grew up in the era of Indiana Jones," he says. "Very early on I wanted to be an archeologist, and it just evolved over time where I went from archeology to whatever the hell it is I do now."
What he does is called the Undocumented Migration Project, which his website describes as "a long-term anthropological study of clandestine migration between Mexico and the United States that uses a combination of ethnographic, visual, archaeological, and forensic science to understand this violent social process."
Even before that mash-up of interests and disciplines won him the MacArthur, De Leon won the 2016 Margaret Mead Award for his book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. "The work I do now is no different from the work I did five years ago," he says, "but five years ago people hated me!"
The award includes a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000. "I don't know quite what I would do with it, because I have funding from other places," De Leon says. But he's grateful that the announcement bought the Undocumented Migration Project "a lot of press. The book's doing really well. We've been able to raise awareness about this issue."
His sons Ignacio and Lorenzo, ages two and five, aren't as impressed. (Mom is fellow anthropologist Abby Bigham.) "The day the announcement came out, I was driving with my son, and the radio came on with the interview with me, and I was 'Dad's on the radio!' And [Iggy] was 'So? I'm hungry! Give me a cheese stick!'"
[Originally published in May, 2018.]
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