Category Archives: Public Humanities

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.

The Humanities and Public Life: Working towards Social Change through Critical Reflection and Creative Solutions

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Doris Sommer, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish at Harvard University, is this year’s Cline Visiting Professor in the Humanities. During her visit this spring, she led the April 4th meeting of the Faculty Fellows Seminar, and was the second lecturer in the Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Series, “Narrative and Social Justice.” Sommer’s discussions focused on how bringing the lessons, activities, and texts of the humanities into public life can foster positive changes in societies across the globe.

Sommer began her lecture by explaining that her current efforts to engage with the world and address social injustice through the humanities came from her realization that early humanities scholars espoused serious and active “engagement with the world” but by the latter decades of the 20th Century dominant theoretical paradigms led many scholars to devalue attempts to use the humanities to work for social change. She shared examples of how the humanities can be used to produce creative solutions to social problems. For instance, a creative and fun use of mimes at intersections reduced traffic fatalities in Bogotá.  According to Sommer, pleasure is perhaps the most powerful incentive to get people to think and act differently, and humanities-oriented solutions effectively produce social change by associating new ways of thinking and acting with pleasure. She also claimed that admiration is conducive to respectfulness and engagement, which are key characteristics of good citizenship. Because the aesthetic products of humanities-oriented solutions are well-suited to inspiring admiration, they may be used to deepen communities’ civic engagement.

Throughout her visit Sommer discussed her own engagement with social issues through the humanities by describing her current project, Pre-Texts, a program that uses theories and techniques from humanities studies to provide literacy training and space for creative and critical reflection on social issues for groups around the world. These have included, for instance,, incarcerated men in Dublin and employees of The Housing Authority of Buenos Aires. During her visit she facilitated several Pre-Texts workshops at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art (which partnered in the residency), offering local educators and children opportunities to experience the creative learning strategies the program employs. During one of the workshops for educators, Sommer asked participants to respond to James Baldwin’s short story, “Stranger in the Village,” by creating and performing short tragic plays inspired by Baldwin’s text. The production of these tragedies allowed participants to engage in “Forum Theater,” a practice created by drama theorist Augusto Boal to allow community members to consider how to address social issues by performatively intervening in tragic plays dramatizing those issues. Workshop participants performed potential solutions to tragic conflicts in each other’s plays by taking on roles in those plays and reversing their tragic plots. In short, participants were asked to creatively represent how their community is and then improvise performances of how their community could or should be. Sommer also led workshops in the Blanton Museum of Art designed to connect reading practices to art interpretation. A workshop for educators asked participants to relate one of the items in the Blanton collection to a theme in “Stranger in the Village,” while a children’s workshop centered on the fairy tale “Rapunzel” and Natalie Frank’s painting, “Rapunzel II.”

In the seminar, Faculty Fellows discussed selections from Sommer’s book, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, which argues for re-engaging the humanities in civic life. Faculty engaged in a lively discussion of how teachers in the humanities should respond to students and other educators’ apparent devaluation of humanities studies. Fellows discussed whether pedagogically emphasizing the value of the humanities’ capacity to produce professional skills in literacy and communication conflicts with efforts to use the humanities to teach students to think critically about social forces and oppose social injustice. Throughout the discussion Sommer emphasized that it is not necessary to choose, and emphasized the importance of literacy for democracy.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.