A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg.
Photo by Laura McTighe. A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg.

We were all together in a past life, doing this work.

Otherwise anthropological involvements can happen (in) any time: the support of future making, possibility seeking, and world building cannot be unmoored from the present’s deep and wide roots, erasures of pasts, arrhythmic occurrences, jangles of simultaneity, any or all so-called alternative or nonlinear temporalities. Much as I was called by Shi as our Colectiva de Mujeres was coming together and feeling so capacious, anthropologists may be called by their colocutors to realize and enact deep ancestral entanglements, complicities across generations, and to do reparative work in today’s enfleshments of those and other historical inequalities. “The radical contemporaneity of mankind is a project” (Fabian 2014, xi) with terms we do not set. An anthropologist of otherwise is charged instead with accepting invitations into coevalities that reorient our lives and level ethical demands that shape our degrees of involvement in longstanding local struggles, smuggling our resources of institutional funds and epistemic capital in emerging keys of fugitivity (Rosas 2018).

In our midst, these “discrepant temporalities” (Rifkin 2017, 3) and radical coevalities (Birth 2008) are borne of modernity, neither prior nor grandly alter (Thomas 2016). Toward modernity’s institutions they shall be mobilized.

I speak now of colonialism and the American carceral system. Contemporary incarceration of Latinx youth and adults, according to my colocutors in Chicanx-Indigenous healing and justice collectives in California, is a palimpsest of colonial violence. My arrival at this juncture was, perhaps, borne in those same traces, a fated cyclicality, a reunion across reincarnations, together in past lives with unfinished business lingering—how or why else would/could this white Canadian woman, with ancestry routed through old Spain, turn up in the heart of agricultural-carceral California at that moment in 2013 when there was so much work to be done?

The continuities of slavery and mass incarceration have been amply evidenced in texts like The New Jim Crow and 13th, but the parallel-to-colonial condition of Latinx and Indigenous carceral dispossession remains less legible. This enduring relationship is resolutely obscured by the carceral system itself, which only partially and unreliably acknowledges the number of Latinx and Indigenous peoples in its institutions at any given time. In its selective production and dissemination of inmate demographic data, carceral institutions invisibilize their captives, substantiate bogus claims about inmate behavior, and ward off challenges to their terrain. Among my colleagues, complex concerns about surveillance and legibility coalesce around persistent miscounting of incarcerated Latinx youth, who often get shunted into inaccurate and problematic racial categories, and do not show up in what’s glossed as “the data.” As one Maestra, a respected elder and juvenile policy advocate has put it, “too often, in the juvenile justice system, Latinx, Chicanx, Indigenous youth still get counted as white.”

In my early days of fieldwork, as these nascent collectives sought traction in reducing the bed count of a local juvenile hall during the public consultation phase of its rebuilding, conversations often circled back to the same lacuna: we need the data on who is locked up in there, for what and how long, to convince planners of the need for viable pretrial and detention alternatives, reduced facility volume, and more on-point programming inside. These colleagues, “systems-involved” or sometimes formerly incarcerated themselves, knew from experience, relation, and intuition who was in there, but aimed to communicate that with the epistemic cache of data. I wondered how my Spanish ancestors might have been colonial-systems-involved and felt an itch: what kind of data interventions could be leveled from ethnography through these temporally deepened, revealed-as-reparative ethics? The issue was greater than this one facility: despite likely overrepresentation within carceral systems, and heavy surveillance both inside those walls and outside among corollary institutions (Flores 2016), the exact number of Latinx youth in juvenile facilities in California is unknown.1

Data makes worlds: legible, violable, but also malleable. Visibility is tricky in carceral situations. The surveillance state’s whole, predictive gaze must be stemmed and stymied at every corner, its certainty jammed with creativity (Browne 2015). Strategic visibility for dispossessed and incarcerated populations can have disruptive potential, and Chicanos have long challenged U.S. state power at the site of the pinta, the prison or prisoner (Olguín 2010). We might need the data but the solution is not more data, an expansion of carceral visibility; rather, different data, leveraged to tell a different story about pinto/a pasts and possibilities in the meantime as well as the involvements others may already have with the carceral-colonial. With the long view on abolition, but in pace with those working to piecemeal dismantle this vast system through disrupting its purported temporal certainties and retraining its gaze, our coevalities call us to experiment with forms of data through other temporal frames that bring different ways of being together into view.

Contemporary justice and colonial reparation share conditions of possibility: retooling judicial systems and rebuilding a world in which one and all one’s relations can be realized in their ancestry, formed in the imperial bleed between colonialism and criminalization. This wildly heterotemporal staging poses the co-presence of historical eras supposedly separated by centuries and borders: the “uncanny persistence” (Saldaña-Portillo 2016, 23) of the subjugations and displacements wrought by Cortez’s arrival in the Americas, enfleshed in the social death issued by a settler colonial–carceral state that (in this case) uniquely targets Mexican Americans while pushing them “outside the frame” (Browne 2015). An otherwise anthropology not only grasps this but lives it, scheming alongside in mobilizing it strategically. Did you know that 100 percent of currently and formerly incarcerated Mexican American juvenile offenders have ancestors who were impacted by colonialism? Or that an estimated vast majority of Americans are systems-involved in their consumer and civilian reliances on exploitative inmate labor?

So, we level hermeneutic disruptions (Zigon 2019) to the epistemic and temporal core of demography itself and the many technologies of settler time. We coauthor and do concept work, claiming space in the citational landscape, staking epistemic capital in the face of a Latinx data lacuna and its attendant erasures of peoples and ongoing pasts. Organize, mobilize, decolonize, my colleagues always say. It takes time; it begins with and in time.


1. The statistical intake instruments are varied across the state’s fifty-eight counties and imprecise, with Hispanic (an imposed distinction of colonial genealogy) figuring as an additional, imprecise, and occasionally expendable ethnic modifier to a set of (limited and limiting) racial categories. Carceral intake instruments likely “deliberately obfuscate” (Olguín 2010, 263) the profile of these populations, varied year-to-year to prevent any diachronic or even straightforward synchronic understanding of incarcerated populations via demographic data .


Birth, Kevin. 2008. “The Creation of Coevalness and the Danger of Homochronism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, no. 1: 3–20.

Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press Books.

Fabian, Johannes. 2014. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press. Originally published in 1983.

Flores, Jerry. 2016. Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance, and Wraparound Incarceration. Oakland: University of California Press.

Olguín, B. V. 2010. La Pinta: Chicana/o Prisoner Literature, Culture, and Politics. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Rifkin, Mark. 2017. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rosas, Gilberto. 2018. “Fugitive Work: On the Criminal Possibilities of Anthropology.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, September 26.

Saldaña-Portillo, María Josefina. 2016. Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2016. “Time and the Otherwise: Plantations, Garrisons and Being Human in the Caribbean.” Anthropological Theory 16, nos. 2–3: 177–200.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2019. War on People: Drug User Politics and a New Ethics of Community. Oakland: University of California Press.