Jason De León Delivers Distinguished Visiting Lecture on Human Smuggling Across Mexico

Stephanie Holmes, HI Undergraduate Assistant

The Humanities Institute continued its Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series on Wednesday, October 23 with a visual presentation by Dr. Jason De León, Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and Director of the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). Dr. De León’s presentation, “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” shared his experience with human smugglers bringing migrants from Central America to the U.S./Mexico border.

Cropped faces, blurred motion and monochrome photos helped tell the story of the men Dr. De León came to know personally. “I’m not here to humanize smugglers. They are human,” said Dr. De León, “I’m just trying to show you their humanity, even in its most disturbing forms.” His presentation focused on how human smuggling is currently organized, what can be gained by using a camera, from a photoethnographic approach.

He discussed the importance of gangs involved in human smuggling, specifically the MS13 gang. He expressed how gangs control the market and, although dangerous, offer the safest way to travel across Mexico and the border. Throughout his presentation, he gave anecdotes of the time he spent with gang leaders and members. These stories span moments where his naiveté proved helpful to moments of sadness from seeing a friend deported – potentially due to his association with De León.

De León briefly mentioned the political factors that have played a role in migration, emphasizing that both the Obama and Trump administrations have put pressure on Mexico to stop migration from Central America.

For Dr. De León the camera served as an important tool in his ethnographic practice to understanding this new world. He shared various reason for why he takes pictures, such as to convey things that cannot be explained through words and to catch things that he could not see with the naked eye. “I am hoping to product new layers of understanding, through the use of visuals that can complement, contradict, and complicate the ethnographic authority that I claim to own,” said Dr. De León. He discussed the importance of framing, effects, and vantage points in photos and how they can affect the photos and the subjects in them.

There was also De León’s struggle with the ethics of representing these men in images, like his friend Chino. Dr. De León shared how there is a social contract created with the people staring back at you in the photo. This affects how he wants to depict smugglers like Chino and the difficulties they face. For example, he discussed the implications of showing the audience the version of Chino who is a solider, a drug addict and enjoys trading women and the Chino who is a “vulnerable youth, caught between violence and poverty at home and violence and poverty on the migrant trail,” said Dr. De León. De León left the audience with many questions about smuggling, the politics and economics behind migration, and the ethics of representation.

About the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP):
The Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) is a long-term anthropological study of clandestine movement between Latin America and the United States that uses ethnography, archaeology, visual anthropology, and forensic science to understand this social process. In Fall 2020, The Humanities Institute plans to host the Hostile Terrain exhibit, a project facilitated by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP).

To receive information about the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series and the upcoming exhibit, please stay tuned to the Humanities Institute’s website and sign up for our mailing list.

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