Gaining Voice through Injury: An Interview with Iván Sandoval-Cervantes

Picture from the field. Photo by Iván Sandoval-Cervantes.

This post builds on the research article “Gaining Voice through Injury: Voice and Corporeality in Animal Rights Activism in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico” by Iván Sandoval-Cervantes, which was published in the November 2023 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Iván Sandoval-Cervantes’s “Gaining Voice through Injury: Voice and Corporeality in Animal Rights Activism in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico” explores the relationship between animal rights activists and injured animals through the concept of voice. This post highlights Sandoval-Cervantes’ ethnographic fieldwork with animal rights activists in Ciudad Juárez, focusing on the act of rescue. It features an interview with the author about his work in Mexico, the meaning of violence against dogs in the region, and his reflections on the importance of voice for his interlocutors.

Clara Beccaro: Could you tell us how you came to do research on animal rights activism in Mexico? What led you to this field site?

Iván Sandoval-Cervantes: Thank you, Clara, for this question. My interest in multi-species ethnography started when I was half-way through my PhD. I was already doing ethnographic research and thinking about my dissertation, when I started reading the work of anthropologists working on human-animal relationships in Latin America. I found this work inspirational and provocative, especially the work of María Elena García and Eduardo Kohn. At the time, I traveled between Oregon, Oaxaca, and Mexico City, and I was looking for ideas and potential future projects that incorporated my interest in non-human animals, particularly in relation to the State. I wrote my dissertation from El Paso, Texas, and after I finished my PhD, I got a temporary faculty position at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), right across from my hometown of Ciudad Juárez, where my parents live. So I visited Ciudad Juárez quite frequently, and I was surprised by the number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the city, and I also learned, through social media, of numerous citizen-led organizations that were involved in protecting non-human animals, either through rescue or adoption or by promoting veganism. This was interesting for various reasons, but perhaps the one that most stood out was the fact that Ciudad Juárez has grappled with a history of violence in the last couple of decades, and I was curious about how animal protection practices and discourses articulated with this recent history of violence. So, I reached out to a few animal protection associations, and I started visiting them whenever I could.

CB: Over the last couple of years, there has been a growing amount of criticism directed at the dominant whiteness of animal rights activism, with organizers and scholars of color calling for a decolonial approach to animal welfare.

How does your work fit into these debates? What are the stakes of doing ethnographic research on activism in favor of non-human animals from the vantage point of the Global South?

In your introduction, you also mention that “[a]t first, Ciudad Juárez would appear an unlikely place for the defense of non-human animals,” due to the violence that characterizes the city (542). With this in mind, I am interested to know if the general assumption that animal rights activists are white, or that they are located in the West, exposed you to any pushback regarding the location of your research?

ISC: This is a great question, and it has appeared in some of the discussions I’ve had at conferences and presentations, and there is a lot to say about this. First, it is important to highlight that animal rights activism exists in many different contexts, but the meaning of animal rights or animal protection varies considerably depending on the context. This apparent whiteness of the animal rights movement often occurs when we depoliticize animal protection and when we limit our perspective to certain geographical contexts or rigid normative discourses. Anthropologists like Naisargi Dave, Radhika Govindrajan, and Columba González-Duarte, among others, have shown that when thinking about animal rights, it is important to see the politics in how people relate to non-human animals, even if we often ignore those policies when we see animal rights discourses in the “Global North.”

In my experience, I often received pushback by scholars when talking about animal protection activism and describing how the term animalista does not refer to a set of moral practices that are exclusionary but rather it describes a personal relationship between a human and non-human animals. That is, when people self-define as animalistas they aren’t always thinking about rigid normative frameworks. They might not be vegan or even considering veganism as a viable option, they might not even be thinking about the cruelty of industrial meat production—they identify as animalistas because they feel a special connection and commitment to some animals and in some contexts. This leads me to a central aspect of my work in relation to the role of “voice” in the animal protection movement that might be more connected to a decolonial framework. Some of the questions I’m asking myself, and that are guiding my research are: What is the role of “voice,” as an artifice, in how we conceptualize the relationship between individuals worthy of justice, through a specific set of rights? Do we actually need to articulate ideas about justice through the concept of “voice”? And, to what extent, is the discourse of animal rights and animal protection linked to producing animal individualities?

In the article, I explore this question to some extent by arguing that the emphasis on “voice” produces individuals, but that this individuality has to be linked to an injured body and this process cannot be inclusive, and it ends up producing animals that are worthy of protection and others that aren’t either heard or seen. This connects to the last part of your question because the idea of “voice” is used in other cases were humans are involved, and justice is seen as responding directly at those voices. So in some instances, trying to listen to those non-human voices is seen as not important, at least not as important as listening to human victims. And in the case of Ciudad Juárez, there so many stories of violence that haven’t been heard, so talking about animals victims of abuse that are getting attention does, occasionally, produce shock.

CB: Your article focuses mostly on dogs—the forms of violence they undergo, how they are rescued, and the work that animalistas [animal rights activists in Ciudad Juárez] do to obtain justice for them. Yet, I noticed that in your analysis, you prefer using the term “non-human animals.” Could you tell us more about that term? Is it different from “non-human” or “animals”? What work does it do for you?

ISC: This question comes up frequently in discussions. Although for this article I did focus on dogs, animal rescuers and animal protection associations also work with other species, although not as often. For me, the term non-human is useful because it allows me to mark ideas about human language and, thus, voice. Humans can attempt to speak for any non-human animal, even if dogs are often preferred because of the social proximity many societies have established with them.

CB: In your piece, you mostly follow Alicia, the founder of Eco-Canis, in her attempts to give voice to and obtain justice for Justicia, a brown and white pit bull she rescued. At some point, you write, “[a]lthough Alicia claimed to be the voice of the voiceless, specifically of the dogs she had under her care, the voice of Justicia remained largely absent, though the possibility of retelling her story lingered in the air.” Your ethnographic work accounts for many of these in-between states, where “voice” is both present and absent, valued and dismissed, embodied and disembodied, etc… How did you manage these tensions in the field? Were there instances where it was difficult to hold together the multiplicity of voices at play?

ISC: In the context of Ciudad Juárez, where people committing abuse against animals are in many cases in positions of authority, animalistas have to find a way to balance their attempts at voicing injustices and their own safety. So there is always this tension in what they do, there are always multiple interests and actors at play, including neighbors, family members, donors, and others. When animalistas rescue dogs or other animals, they often engage in situations that are potentially dangerous and not only because of the danger of rescuing a stressed animal. I tried to reflect these tensions in the paper. But as I wrote and revised the paper, I also started thinking that the potential of the “animal voice” existed in its promise, so even if it never actualized, the fact that activists claimed that voice made it exist in a way. So, there was this tension, too, of the promise of the voice that would sometimes morph into something else, like in this case, in the voice of a human trying to balance their own personal lives and their activism.

CB: As concerns about climate change and environmental collapse intensify, the issue of whether non-human entities, such as animal species or ecosystems, should be granted legal personhood has emerged as a pressing topic.

With regards to your fieldwork, I would be interested to know how your interlocutors made sense of using the law—a human-made, social contract—to bring justice to non-human animals? More specifically, I was wondering if there were any instances where they discussed what they thought a court order or a settlement might mean for the animal they represented—not just practically, but also emotionally.

Finally, since you draw on Naisargi Dave’s work (2014), I was hoping you could tell us a bit more about what the process of “giving voice” to animals does to the animalistas? Were there any moments in the field where you would say that “becoming a voice for non-human animals” turned into becoming a non-human animal (557)?

ISC: Thank for this last question. In the case of Mexico, I think a lot of the efforts by animalistas are not seen as not practical, they’re emotional. I say this because most of their efforts will be completely unfruitful, and they tend to know this, and they still do it. In a climate of impunity, like the one in Mexico, attempts at obtaining justice through the law are not seen as necessarily practical or even viable. In many of these cases, I believe, there is an element of transmitting discomfort, and even rage, when trying to make the cases of animal abuse visible. However, there’s still a lot of blurriness on the other side, on what happens after these cases become visible and viral.

In regard to the second part of your question, I do believe that many animalistas seek to selectively “become” non-human animals. That is, there are ongoing discussions in activists circles and on social media on how non-human animals can exhibit some qualities that we associated with humanity. So it’s not uncommon to see social media posts talking about animals being “more humans than humans” in the way in which they show love and help out other animals. Of course, these posts are always very selective and framed in specific ways that seek to keep moral qualities of humans at the top, while arguing that animals are now able to exercise those qualities better than humans do. It’s a complicated logical argument that seeks to humanize animals, while allowing animalistas to claim some sort of animal innocence by proximity.


Dave, Naisargi N. 2014. “Witness: Humans, Animals, and the Politics of Becoming.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3: 433–56.