Watch the Video: Jason de León’s talk “The Land of Open Graves”

When death is not the end

By Ever Osorio, M.A. candidate in the Politics Department at The New School for Social Research.

Sometimes death is not the end. This is not a religious or metaphysical predicament, but a material reality for thousands of families whose fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters have migrated “illegally”, and “irregularly”  from the global south to the United States and found death in their way, particularly in the desert of Arizona. Their deaths are not the end, because they become, desaparecidos, missing persons whose deaths are never actually confirmed, their bodies never found, and buried, their families in a perpetual limbo of uncertainty, of not knowing their loved ones’ destinies. A missing person (the disappeared)  is technically neither dead or alive. It is within this context of loss and oblivion that Jason de León, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, presented the findings of six years of fieldwork in the desert of Arizona.

One of the main arguments that De León presented at his lecture entitled “The Land of Open Graves: Necroviolence and the Politics of Migrant Death in the Arizona Desert”, was that migrant death casualties in the desert are actually the expected result of the border policy prevention through deterrence, which was established in the early nineties in order to diminish and deter migration flows. The idea, he quoted official sources, was to “force migrants over more hostile terrains” so that migration would be less likely to succeed. In effect, de León showed that the Sonoran desert was mobilized as the border itself. One of the consequences of this policy was that migrants’ lives became expendable to the political order and racism was formed or reinforced against undocumented migrants.

De León himself has experienced what it is like to walk in this hostile terrains, he talked about his experience in the desert and made clear how hard it is to walk miles under unbearable weather conditions, and how it is nearly impossible to survive the routes through the desert. He shared stories, pictures, and anecdotes from his migrant interlocutors. For Jason though, the nagging and persistent question concerned the other reality of the Sonoran desert. Not the reality of crossing, but the reality of being trapped in the desert and made to disappear by the harsh and arid elements. In many cases, only a small bone fragment remains alongside tattered boots, and torn up garments. De León’s interest is to show the politics of decomposition and the way in which such a border policy can lead to the dismemberment and disappearance of human bodies. Regarding the question of migrants gone missing in the desert and the search for them, he shared the results of an experiment that he and his team had done with a pig corpse (due to similarities between the pig’s flesh and a human’s). He left the corpse alone in the desert and recorded it for 24 hours. The result during that span of time was atrocious: vultures gnawed and ate the corpse, bone scattered across a fairly wide radius. Very little was left to make the remains identifiable. This means that in less that 24 hours a deceased body may practically disappear with few or no traces.

Taphonomy, a concept he introduced in the lecture, is a notion from paleontology that refers to what happens to an organism after it dies and then reappears as a fossil. Contemporary archaeology and cultural anthropology is using this term to problematize, understand and explain the politics of undocumented migration in the desert and the emergence of the land of open graves, as De León names this territory. The lack of interest in rescuing migrants, the policies that exposed their lives to death and the quick disappearance of all traces show how physical decomposition is a political process.

With great concern and emotional affection De León spoke about the impossibilities of mourning for the family and friends of the missing persons, the humanitarian crisis it produces and the lack of justice for thousands of people. He also shared his personal experience working with migrants and the ethical problems he faced while doing ethnography. His book  “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (University of California Press) will be published this October.

This lecture was sponsored by the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility (ZIMM) and The New School for Social Research on Thursday September 17, 2015.  

Video available here

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Renée de la Torre has a Masters degree in communication studies, from ITESO, and a PhD in Social Sciences, specializing in Social Anthropology, from the University of Guadalajara. Since 1993 she has been working as a Researcher and Professor of Anthropology at CIESAS (Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology), in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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