Thursday, May 25, 2017

Book Review - Land Of Open Graves by Jason De Leόn

Photo from The Undocumented Migration Project website

I finished The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.  It was a gift from my friend Carolina, creator of My (un)Documented Life blog.  It was written by Jason De Leόn, an anthropologist of Mexican descent, who spent 5 years in the field, in his journey to complete this project.  At its heart, his work depicts the violence faced by border crossers “as they attempt to enter the US without authorization by walking across the vast Sonoran desert of Arizona”. Its focus is on the Prevention through Deterrence (PTD) policy enacted in 1993.

The author explained that when the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed in 1994, the U.S. promised economic prosperity for Mexico if it would open up its ports of entry for inexpensive goods. Shortly thereafter, Mexico was abundant with U.S. subsidized corn that put millions of Mexican farmers out of work

Google gave me some background on NAFTA. Its purpose was to expand the flow of goods between Canada, US and Mexico. It eliminated import tariffs and eliminated or reduced non-tariff trade barriers like import quotas, licensing schemes and technical barriers to change. Lastly, it created protections for intellectual property.

I harken back to my reading of In our Image by Stanley Karnow.  In the late 1800s, William Taft advocated for lower tariffs for Philippine sugar, hemp, tobacco and coconut oil. In exchange, duties were imposed on non US products going into the Philippines, so they were more expensive than US products. These decisions during the long term relationship between the US and the Philippines, created the economic landscape. I understood my family’s migration. I appreciated how Mr. De Leόn created the backdrop between US and Mexico.  I am reminded that people wouldn’t risk such a journey if there were other economic options. 

I learned too with NAFTA that Mexico’s wages increased 2.3% between 1994 and 2012.  Unemployment rates were high. Between 1991 and 2007, almost 2 million jobs were lost in the agriculture industry. Also in that time period, the price of tortillas, a staple in Mexican increased 279%. Coupled with the falling price of corn paid to Mexican farmers, it was a blow to the Mexican economy. The displacement of farmers created a surge in Mexican emigration to the U.S. Upon arriving, they lived incognito and competed for low wage jobs.

I learned approximately 11.7 million people were apprehended by the US border patrol in the Tucson area. It is “a craggy, depopulated and mountainous patch” from New Mexico to Arizona, south of Tucson between the Baboquivaro and Tumacácori mountains. The border patrol counts on the terrain. It’s the agency’s not-so-secret weapon in moving more border patrol to populated cities so migrants have to cross in depopulated areas.

The PTD strategy was and is effective. Death was the unintended consequence but the Government accountability office (GAO) identified death as a measurement of PTD’s success.

Mr. De León initiated the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) in 2009 with a goal that anthropology and its 4 fields: ethnography, archeology, forensic science and linguistics could be used to understand migration and the economics behind it. He thought in humanizing the undocumented masses, serious conversations about America’s broken immigration system could take place.

The author refers to the “hybrid collectif”, which are actants that create a hybrid system that is equal parts human, plant, object and geography. This complex relationship, at different moments in time and space, creates a wall of deterrence. The border patrol has used the PTD to do the dirty work while absolving itself of blame connected with migrant death or injury. The author calls it a “moral alibi”.
The author then talks about necroviolence, hostility towards the dead that humans have perpetuated for a millennia. He gave examples of Achilles dragging Hector’s body around Troy, the Aztec’s mounting the heads of conquistadors and their horses on Tzumpantilli as a message to Cortez to evacuate Tenochtitlan and the Catholics feeding bodies of Protestants to crows and dogs during the French Wars. Such acts were “glories” to the perpetrators because torture extended beyond the moment of death.

While in the field, the author experimented with the bodies of pigs. He paid for 5 of them to be shot. Each was dressed in clothing typically worn my migrants. Each body was then placed in different contexts (sunlight v. shade) while the author and his team could observe the rapid decomposition of the body in the desert.

After the pigs were killed, they were dressed in clothing one might expect on a migrant. “Someone put a wallet in each of the pockets along with other personal effects, including several coins and slip of paper with a phone number written on it. A black backpack with a bottle of water are placed next to the body”.

After 120 hours turkey vultures are attracted by the stench. They feasted. In about 6 hours the bones are de-fleshed. By day 3, the pig body is a shell of what it used to be. The clothes were torn. The shoes and pants were nowhere to be seen. Maggots worked on the remaining tissue between the vertebrae. When he body was light enough, the birds picked up and moved it around to access whatever meat was left. Skeletal elements and personal effects were recovered over 50 meters from the original location. The turkey vultures fed on what remained. The experiment stopped after 14 days. The author and his team collected what bones they could find.

Photo from The Undocumented Migration Project
The mutilation and eventual erasure of bodies in the dessert as a result of PTD is intended to send a message to others who consider the journey.  At times the author wondered about the act of using pigs in migrant clothes for his work. The animals served their purpose of showing him, his audience, us, that the terrain traversed by migrants was chosen with the intent of their demise. It is a warning against other crossers that they should not enter our borders. Death awaits them.  Horrors will come to pass beyond death. Given the amount of bodies recovered in Arizona and the technology used by border patrol (drones, night vision goggles) “suggests that a war on non-citizens is in fact taking place on US soil”.

My Google search on ethnography has informed me that ethnographers observing a culture, within the setting as both participant and observer form lasting bonds with the people they observe.

The latter half of this book is about the author's contact with two gentlemen, Memo and Lucho that were aids at a migrant station. They were also border crossers. He refers to them as his friends and his brothers. He writes of their time helping other migrants, their own preparations for their crossing and what their lives were like after the journey. Never mind the near death experience of traversing the dessert. Their lives in the US had also taken its toll. With the author's background and intimacy with the language, he talks of their individual hardships, detectable within the dialogue.

The author then talks about finding Maricela. Maricela, who loved to sing and dance, had a husband and children. She crossed having seen what her brother in law was able to provide his family through remittances. She wanted the same for her children.

She was found lying face down in the dirt. She wore generic white and brown running shoes, black leggings and a long sleeved camouflage shirt. She collapsed mid hike. Her fingers had curled with rigor mortis. Her pants were stained with excrement and were bubbling with copper colored fluids expelled from her body upon death. When her body was loaded onto a plane, she became a documented Ecuadorian citizen with rights and privileges. Never mind that she had no face and hands. The author explained to her family that the authorities probably needed her finger prints. Her hands had stiffened with rigor mortis. “The fingers curl and they had to soak the skin to get the finger prints”. Mr. De Leόn told her family that animals had not mutilated her.  Maricela was one of the exceptions since her family had the opportunity to bury her.

Photo by Michael Wells
This book was a difficult read. I am reminded of my privilege. My journey to America was via airplane. We had meals and a suitcase of personal items. When we arrived in the spring, our family had coats for us. My migration had its trauma but none of it reduced us to bare life, the way the nameless undocumented endure. The author has focused on the PTD policy but there are so many systems at play that would have the U.S. government enact such a strategy.  It is evident that the economic data is a priority.

I am grateful of the author’s reminder that the lives taken by the dessert are not statistics. They are individuals that just like Maricela deserve the rights and privileges afforded to any human.  

I made contact with the author. He was kind enough to provide the image of the pigs (photo courtesy of the Undocumented Migration Project) and Maricela (photo by Michael Wells). 


  1. Thank you for the thoughtful in-depth review. I shared in on FB in my modest attempt to spread empathy for immigrants. My respect for the author is tempered by his lack of empathy for animals, however. The pigs he shot were sentient beings who had a right as people do to live their lives in the pig-like pursuit of happiness and not be shot for someone's project, no matter how worthy. Regardless, I am grateful that this project was brought o my attention by you. I wish more people would have empahty for those who struggle to reach the US, rather than demonizing and marginalizing them.

  2. I promise the author also struggled with the killing of the pigs.


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