Tag Archives: imprisonment

Soldiers, Kings, and the Ethics of Ethnography

On October 24 the Faculty Fellows seminar was led by Jason De León, Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the prizewinning book, The Land of Open Graves. Previous to the seminar, Dr. de Leon gave a Distinguished Visiting Lecture on his work titled “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” covering research for an upcoming book and a range of topics including masculinity, representation, radical reflexivity and anxiety, and the ethics of ethnography. 

Dr. De León began the seminar with an introduction to his evolving research methodology, beginning with his early career as a Mesoamerican archeologist studying volcanic glass tools. While working in archeological excavations, De León became interested in the narratives and stories of the workmen digging alongside archeologists, including stories of the border and migration. De León’s work evolved into documenting material culture around the border, particularly in the Arizona desert, taking stock of material goods people take to cross the border, and noting what is left behind in the journey or in makeshift “rest stops.”  Having archived 8,000 different objects at UCLA, De León’s work developed into the Undocumented Migrant Project, a multidisciplinary research project that includes his most recent artistic collaboration, Hostile Terrain 94. This latest project is a participatory installation composed of roughly 3,200 handwritten toe tags representing migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. De León noted that his most recent book project will further explore issues at the border, focusing on smuggling and smugglers. 

Fellows questioned De León’s stated uneasiness with both ethnography and exhibition, which he had expanded on during his introduction. He admitted that though he currently views the exhibition and museum space as a place of potential experimentation, he initially worried that museum spaces presented too neat of a narrative, a problem he similarly faced in anthropology. Additionally, he wanted to avoid fetishizing the objects he archived, or setting migrants at a remove from the curator or audience. Yet he noted that the art space provides an opportunity for people to be made uncomfortable, or to be moved, allowing De León more freedom to craft a specific message or statement than in a written narrative. 

Fellows additionally interrogated De León’s depiction of smugglers, namely, how he would avoid either slipping into stereotyping or valorizing his subjects. De León stated that his aim is to undermine the typical narratives of smugglers made by the U.S. federal government and border patrol, presenting smugglers  as people who have done bad–even terrible–things, but also as people responding to a complex set of circumstances, from economic hardship to labor pull to interventionist policies on the part of the U.S. itself. He discussed the issues attendant on choosing to craft this book as one for a more general audience, noting that he wanted to write a book that would have the impact of fiction with the theoretical heft of academic ethnography. Fellows remarked on the clarity and compelling quality of his work, and the seminar closed with anticipation for his book and exhibition (which may be mounted in Austin–stay tuned!). 

It’s Never Too Late

By Anhelo Escalante
Southwest of Salem (2015) directed by Deborah Esquenazi
Southwest of Salem (2015) directed by Deborah Esquenazi

I am embarrassed to admit that, before the film Southwest of Salem was released, I had never heard of the San Antonio Four. It’s never too late to catch up, I thought after I saw it was playing at my local cinema. So I texted my friend Andy and immediately set up our next movie date. After all, as a queer Latinx of adult age, keeping myself informed about the experiences of other members of my own community simply seemed like the responsible thing to do. Moreover, to show support for the women in the story and the women behind the film, it’s exactly what sorority calls for. Continue reading It’s Never Too Late

False Convictions in Texas: Are We Doing Enough?

By Robert W. Hoelscher
Deputy Director, Innocence Project of Texas (ITPX)

Do you believe people in Texas get convicted of crimes they did not commit? If you do, what do you think we should be doing about it? And whatever we’re doing about it, are we doing enough?

Let’s start with the first question. The answer is simple: Yes, people in Texas get convicted of crimes they did not commit. Why yes? Because to believe that false convictions never happen is to believe that the criminal justice system is perfect. Seems a bit of a stretch to believe that anything could be perfect, no?

But for many years, believe in perfection we did. The distinguished federal judge Learned Hand called the prospect of false convictions an “unreal dream.” And although books, films and other media would tell tragic stories about false convictions, those stories were make believe. In the real world, we went right along with Judge Hand. We may have easily accepted the notion that human beings make mistakes. But not THOSE mistakes. Continue reading False Convictions in Texas: Are We Doing Enough?

How We Talk About Women’s Bodies

An Interview with Deborah Esquenazi on Directing Southwest of Salem

Southwest of Salem is a 2016 documentary about the San Antonio Four—four Latina lesbian women convicted of gang raping two young girls, a crime of which they were innocent and which never even took place. The allegations of child rape against Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez surfaced in 1994 in the midst of the Satanic Panic in the U.S., a fear of widespread satanic ritual practice that was deeply rooted in homophobia and which perpetuated the myth that LGBTQ individuals are more likely to target children for sexual abuse. The women spent 13-16 years in prison. With the help of The Innocence Project of Texas and Esquenazi’s documentary, the Four were fully exonerated in November 2016.

Clare Callahan of the Humanities Institute and Andrew Murphy of the Austin Public Library sat down with Director Deborah Esquenazi to discuss Southwest of Salem. Ms. Esquenazi discusses how women’s bodies are talked about and how this language to women’s bodies, animated by misogyny and homophobia, led to the false convictions of four women for a crime that never happened. Ms. Esquenazi also reflects on the film’s representation of the nature of freedom and imprisonment. She briefly discusses her current project Certain Perversions, which takes a deeper look at Elizabeth Ramirez’s trial as an example of the way a woman’s body is adjudicated in our system.

Continue reading How We Talk About Women’s Bodies