“(W)Rap on: Immigration” is the second episode of the (W)Rap On series at AnthroPod, which brings anthropologists into conversation with artists, activists, and scholars from other disciplines and perspectives. The series is loosely inspired by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s 1970 conversation Rap on Race, and was conceived by Hilary Leathem in collaboration with AnthroPod.
Our format attempts to identify and confront some of the problems that Mead and Baldwin’s conversation embodied, such as white fragility, complicity with power structures, and the struggle to create space for different groups to speak openly. We provide a platform for thoughtful and incisive discussions that highlight solidarities and shared commitments. We also highlight frictions and tensions between anthropological and other approaches.
In this episode, anthropologist Jason De León discusses migration, writing, and teaching with journalist Maria Hinojosa. Julio Ricardo Varela moderates the conversation.
Abbruzzese, Teresa, et al. 2018. “Five Things You Should Know about the ‘Migrant Caravan’.” American Anthropological Association blog, November 5.
Buff, Rachel Ida. 2008. “The Deportation Terror.” American Quarterly 60, no. 3: 523–51.
De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.
Doering-White, John. 2018. “Evidencing Violence and Care along the Central American Migrant Trail through Mexico.” Social Service Review 92, no. 3: 432–69.
Frank-Vitale, Amelia. 2018. “From Caravan to Exodus, from Migration to Movement.” NACLA website, November 20.
Olivares, José. 2018. Citizen Illegal. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
This episode of AnthroPod was produced and edited by Arielle Milkman. Our executive producer is Beth Derderian. Thanks to our guests, Jason De León and Maria Hinojosa, and to our moderator, Julio Ricardo Varela.
AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find AnthroPod on SoundCloud, subscribe to it on iTunes, or use our RSS feed. If you have any thoughts on this episode or on AnthroPod more broadly, please leave us a comment to the right or get in touch via Facebook and Twitter.
Music: All the Colors of the World, by Podington Bear.
Arielle Milkman: I'm Arielle Milkman, one of the contributing editors at AnthroPod. Welcome to the (W)rap on Immigration with Jason De León and Maria Hinojosa. The (W)rap On series is inspired by the 1970 conversation between writer James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead. This series was conceived by Beth Derderian and Hilary Leathem.
Arielle Milkman: (W)rap On pairs anthropologists with public figures to take on big topics that we think are important in the world today. We invited journalist Julio Ricardo Varela from Futuro Media to moderate today's conversation about migration. Julio, take it away.
Julio Ricardo Varela: I'm Julio Ricardo Varela, the co-host of Futuro Media's In the Thick podcast. So today in the (W)rap on Immigration I'm going to be moderating - I'm so excited. I'm gonna be moderating conversation between Jason De León and Maria Hinojosa.
Maria Hinojosa: Hey, hey. Julio Ricardo Varela: Jason is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan. And his book The Land of Open Graves exposes the human cost of U.S. migration policy in the deadly Sonoran Desert through archaeology ethnography forensic science and linguistics. Jason is the director of the undocumented migration project at the University of Michigan and a 2017 MacArthur genius grantee. Wow. And I get to introduce Maria Hinojosa as well. Maria Hinojosa, my dear hermana, friend and co-host is a journalist who has spent a 30 year career covering underrepresented and underreported issues in the mainstream U.S. media. Since 2010 she has pioneered a space for her independent media and ethical reporting from a POC perspective as the president of Futuro Media in Harlem of which I am a part of. Maria is the executive producer and anchor of Latino USA, like I said the co-host of our podcast In the Thick and the anchor and executive producer of the PBS show America by the Numbers, Welcome both.
Jason De León: Thank you.
Julio Ricardo Varela: All right well - Jason I wanted to start off with your book in 2015 where you talk about the land of open graves. The book's called The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Like I said, it's based on your years of ethnographic work between Arivaca, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. You're a MacArthur genius in 2017. Your work has been featured numerous popular and academic outlets including that excellent three part series on Radiolab. So tell me a little bit more about the work, how your work is developing, and where you see your current research interests going.
Jason De León: Well you know the work - Well, first of all thank you so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here with everyone. It's just - I feel very honored to be in this conversation, so I just wanted to say that. You know, the work, for me - I'm a traditionally trained archaeologist so for about 10 years my work focused on ancient Mexico and I really had no thought of deep interest in immigration or politics despite the fact that I'd grown up on the southern U.S. Mexico border and south Texas and then also later on Southern California. Both my parents coming from immigrating to the United States, growing up with a lot of undocumented family members and being around this stuff for for most of my life, I went into graduate school not interested really in any of those issues and very interested in social science focused around ancient stuff and what ended up happening was over the course of almost ten years working in Mexico on archaeological excavations. I got to be very close with a lot of the women and men who were hired laborers on these archaeological projects and who had had these traumatic border crossing stories and experiences and it was through the course of working with those folks and hearing their stories that I decided that I needed to shift my attention towards this thing that I thought I knew a lot about just because of the geographic proximity to my life and realizing that I had no deep understanding at all about what had been going on especially in southern Arizona.
Jason De León: And so I basically just jumped ship and decided to take on this whole new project but trying to use the tools of anthropology to understand this highly politicized and poorly understood social process. Julio Ricardo Varela: [00:04:29] And María, like this is like for me I get to talk about your career for a second again. You know, your career as a journalist almost kind of matches Jason's career as how we got into what he's doing so tell us what what got you know how your work has developed over the years specifically in this capacity.
Maria Hinojosa: I wasn't born in this country. I think that like from at this point now it's like well that's definitely become a thing. But you know, not being born in the United States, traveling back and forth to Mexico every year with my family, therefore having you know an international experience but that really consisted of driving across that line, that border from the time that I was a little girl up until the time as an adult by land. And then you know I ended up basically - the crazy thing about it is that I've been reporting about immigration for NPR or for CNN or for Latino USA for over 25 years, 30 years, I've been reporting this story. Usually when you're reporting a story and there is injustice as a journalist when you shine light on the issue it's supposed to get better with more information. You know with things coming to light humanity is supposed to take over and these injustices know human rights abuses due process abuses,etc. They're supposed to be responded to by —you know — by laws, by society, and in this case in the United States of America. This story of immigration and immigrants legal and those who have come and overstayed a visa or came without papers. We have become more targeted now than we were 30 years ago.
Maria Hinojosa: And so the horrors actually that the horrors have actually increased, not decreased.
Julio Ricardo Varela: All right, so what I want to do now is because I have this question for both of you and I'm going to just step aside because I want I want the two of you guys to sort of take this question and kind of talk to each other about it. Obviously you raised it, María. Over the past year, even in the past year we're hearing more and more immigration stories. Stories about in the United States about migration. So my question for both of you - and Maria, you can start and Jason and you can jump in after we need more stories about immigration at this point and why or why not.
Maria Hinojosa: Well I would never say no to that question. I would never say no. The reason why we need more stories about immigration. So it is a little bit complicated because the bigger framework of how we discuss immigration and demographic change as a result of immigration or births after immigrants stay in the United States. That narrative has essentially been formed over the last 30 years plus by newsrooms in our country that are majority white male and of class privilege. And so as we recently saw with new data that was reported on by The New York Times a lot of what motivated white America to vote for Donald Trump has to do with the fact that they were concerned about losing their quote unquote their quote unquote place, their power and influence in U.S. society.
Maria Hinojosa: So I guess the question is, if our newsrooms had been run by immigrants and people of color would we over the past 30 years have been posing and reporting on these stories in that same way which was: "Oh my God. Immigrants are coming, look at these numbers - Oh my God. By this year we're going to not be - we're going to be a, you know, people of color majority country and immigrants are coming in and you know they're there they're illegal.” You know they use that term and they say ... What would have happened if there was a different narrative? Maria Hinojosa: So that kind of is the bigger question of you know - we need more stories about immigrants and immigration. But we really need to dissect and do an internal criticism. And I'm saying this to my fellow journalists out there, of their approach to covering immigration and demographic change.
Jason De León: I think that's great. I mean completely agree. I mean, I think we always need more stories and I'm kind of in this moment where I think we need different kinds of stories about the migration experience. We need more complicated ones. We don't need the simplistic, you know, good or bad kind of narratives. And I'm sort of, I'm interested these days in telling you know, the good, the bad, and the ugly with no resolution because I feel like a lot of America is bombarded with stories about immigration whether it's the evil Brown invaders or look at how hardworking these folks are. They're, you know, living the American dream. And I think that we have to think about everything else beyond that because those two narratives have saturated the market. And I want to tell stories these days not about immigration but about people. And if we can tell more complicated stories perhaps the people that respond really negatively to these stories about immigrants can see a piece of themselves in the human story but that's a real — I think a very real challenge — to get out of those kind of those two tropes because they're so pervasive.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Let's focus on the, let's focus on those two specifics, Maria, like, I'm just sitting here like listening to what Jason's saying and I'm like, not what we do. Not to like plug the work that you do, but having worked with you professionally and knowing you, I mean you have plenty of these specific sort of complex stories. Do you agree with Jason - what he's saying? And if so, like what what examples?
Maria Hinojosa: No, I totally agree with Jason. I think that this is this is the kind of nuance that we're talking about. If we had newsrooms were there was a lot of diversity and people who were immigrants or children of immigrants then we would be able to — It cannot be a black, white binary in the sense of not just race but in terms of as Jason is saying, the complexities of the story. I'm thinking of our recent coverage on Latino USA, the story of Estrella, who is on paper a very unsympathetic character and that's why a lot of media did not want to kind of focus on her, because even though her case is one of the first public cases where immigration agents went in on plain clothes sitting in the back of a courtroom and took her from a courtroom where she was getting an order of protection. And Estrella is a trans undocumented woman who was previously deported you know has been convicted of a crime of fraud. So you know she's not - she's got baggage.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Right.
Maria Hinojosa: But just because she has baggage - Is that a reason to then do this? Take someone who is getting an order of protection, who is deserving of protection? And what you're doing is then you're going to take them charge them detain them incarcerate them. This is - it's complicated, right? And by the way, the other side of this story, Jason, is that I know you're seeing this too and this is the cool part right which is that people are taking their stories and their power as much as they can whenever they can into into their own hands. Estrella is kind of owning very much her own story she gave us this exclusive for Latino USA because she understands that she has some power in how her story is going to be told. So in some ways I feel like a lot of immigrants, their children, social media is allowing certain — by the way, it's not everybody, but to to kind of take control of their narrative and flip it from you know victim to something else.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Yeah. Jason, what specific stories come to mind that you feel like are breaking that that simplistic trope?
Jason De León: I sort of think about it more partly because I'm constantly asked about - what's the most heartbreaking story you've ever been told, or give us a good story. And you know - I'm like, man - I can't. I don't think about those things in those ways because that's not how the world really is. Obviously there are stories that break my heart but they're part of much more complicated narratives and I've kind of reacted to it lately. So I'm working on a project right now about smugglers, about Honduran young men, Honduran smugglers who are crossing Mexico, and people get really uncomfortable about writing about smugglers.
Jason De León: Like, "Oh are you going to now humanize these people, is that going to be really problematic?” And I'm like, "Well, they are humans, and they do occupations that make us all uncomfortable if not outright angry, but they don't do this kind of in a vacuum.” And you know - so I've started moving towards things that that both make it more ethically and kind of emotionally challenging for me to tell a nuanced story but also partly to kind of push back to say we can't, you know we can't keep it so simple. It is in fact quite complicated. But you know, part of it too - and I think this you know this idea about letting people tell their own stories. It feels like we're in this moment too where at least some journalists are putting the power back into people's hands and letting them really drive the bus about the narrative, and I think that's a really important moment that we're having because within an anthropology for the longest time, you know the people who are writing about Latinos look you know the ethnographic work in Mexico about Mexicans not done by Latinos. And so you know there's been - which you know, gives you a particular kind of narrative. And I think now that more Latinos are getting into the academy and becoming anthropologists working in their own communities, you're getting a different kind of storytelling which I think is very much mirroring the way in which we're seeing this movement happening within journalism as well.
Julio Ricardo Varela: So Jason let me start with you, because I think it's really interesting as an anthropologist, how you build trust in the field with these voices? Especially when the situation in trust might not be forthcoming. And then Maria as a journalist. But how do you build trust when you are dealing with Honduran smugglers which people go like, "Why are you shining a light?" How is that as an anthropologist? How do you build that trust?
Jason De León: You know for me, the trust building, the sort of advantage of being an anthropologist is that I have a lot more time to work on a single story and so much of the trust building happens with just prolonged visitations you know working in the field for you know for years working with folks for extended periods of time to the point that you know that I've demonstrated that I'm really committed to them. And I think the other part of it, and I take this from a very good friend of mine, an anthropologist named Philippe Bourgois, you know - he says - as an anthropologist you can't write about people unless you love them. And I at first that comment used make me a little uncomfortable, especially now, I'm like I work with these Honduran smugglers who are hard to love. But then you know I've kind of come to realize that I have to be committed to those folks and in some ways I do have to love them even when they scare the hell out of me or make me enraged. I have to be committed to them on this kind of personal level so that then I feel like I'm keeping myself in check about how I'm writing about other people's experiences but that I mean that's a really uncomfortable position to be put in. It's one that for me it's about it's both a trust building through time as well as the constant reflection back on what am I doing, how am I doing this, how am I being viewed by others, am I being disruptive? Am I doing more harm than good?
Maria Hinojosa: You have to actually love humanity, in order to be able to put yourself in that person's shoes. You have to believe in redemption. In my job as a journalist, it's also to ask the tough questions. So I have been with smugglers. I have met them. And you know some are human beings who have a lot to atone for, and others see what they do as a human right. You know I mean one of the great travelers of the world was Jesus Christ, right? Who is crossing borders who was a refugee. So the notion that people have this sense of we are free and we can travel as human beings is actually a deep powerful conceptual thought. But I what I do is I try to communicate through my actions and the tone of my voice and how I'm seeing people. That's what I use to get them to look at me with a possibility of an opening of trust. I think the other thing that happens is that you know people want to tell their - many people want to tell their stories. They're never asked. They're just simply never asked. And so in that sense a lot of being a journalist is asking the questions but then just being quiet and letting people have a chance to tell their story.
Julio Ricardo Varela: I'm struck by the fact that you both mentioned the word love. And Jason you sounded a little bit like - uh that's a little bit like touchy feely.
Jason De León: Oh no, I'm super touchy feely.
Julio Ricardo Varela: So what does that mean? What does that mean - like with love? I mean, I hear Maria talk about it as well.
Julio Ricardo Varela: And actually Maria you tell me that all the time, "Be a journalist with love.” So what does that mean? Like what does love mean in this context?
Jason De León: Well I think people know it, right. When you talk to them, most people have a pretty good sense of why are you here? How do you feel about me? Are you fully present and is there - yeah is there love in the room? I think that you can't really teach that, like teach someone, OK go do this work be an anthropologist be a journalist and love people as you do it. I think if you have it, you have it. And the great journalists that I've worked with and anthropologists I've worked with who I really admire or have observed, they carry it into the room and everybody knows that that that they are there with this good intentions and you know if you want to call it love that's great. I mean I increasingly am calling it love and I don't know what I would have called it before but I guess before I was I needed to be fully present and now over the years as I've worked with people longer, it's just — I've just found a new one a new a new thing to call it.
Julio Ricardo Varela: María, was love being used when you were a young journalist? Was that something that people were saying in the newsroom?
Maria Hinojosa: No [laughs]. But there were a few journalists who I watched in action as a budding journalist. And because they were white men, they were in fact allowed, given, a little bit of space to maybe cross that boundary. I think if you're a woman, if you are a person of color, you know, putting your hands on somebody, showing somebody like a sign of affection in any way might have been questioned. But I picked that up and I was like that's a really good tactic. And I'm a hugger. I. That's how I communicate I'm a very affectionate - and I'm a very funny person, well I think. So I used those. I use those too to break the ice.
Maria Hinojosa: And I think that actually you know, Jason and I know because we're professionals here — we know when to actually extend a hand and when not to, which is an important part of the work that we do, is knowing and kind of trusting that.
Julio Ricardo Varela: One of the things I think both you guys in your work and you have to deal with data and statistics, but also telling these human-centered stories. How do statistics and legal theory give us more context for the stories we tell, policy decisions, and how does it ground you, Maria, in your journalism?
Maria Hinojosa: Well I think the thing about data is that when you talk about it writ large it's really really fascinating. You know on the one hand when you throw out these big trends, but I think of course what we like to do is we like to find that human story behind the data. Or we take a story like you know in Clarkston Georgia, one of the most diverse square miles in the American south, right, south of Atlanta and there you have a man who would you know fit into you know I mean he's a conservative white Christian man in his eighth decade - you know - but he's also, he has a lot of problems with immigrants and people of color kind of becoming the majority but he's also you know a trained Juilliard saxophone musician. And so we showed him doing that. He has a complicated relationship with race that I think is evolving. But we wanted to show like he's also a jazz musician as contradictory as that may seem. Exactly. And that's the way I approach people all the time. I mean I got into a cab, I don't know when it was a couple of days ago, and it was an African immigrant - I don't know of which country - but I assume it might have been Kenya. He was listening to country music.
Maria Hinojosa: [sings] Yippee ay yay, yippee ay oh. He was singing along with it, and I'm just like yeah people in Kenya love country music.
Julio Ricardo Varela: [Laughs] Puerto Ricans love country music, you see my Instagram all the time Maria you probably think I live in Tennessee.
Maria Hinojosa: I don't know any country musicians so then I probably just don't know the songs that you're talking about, but the point is that if we approach our work with a sense of each human being is really complex but still a capacity to see myself, to communicate, to reach into their heart with who I am and who they are. I think it's kind of a beautiful part of the work that we do.
Jason De León: It's funny over the years as my work has evolved I went very much from someone who had been deeply invested in statistics and theory to someone now who, I think statistics and theory are helpful when I need them to be. But you know I've become much more committed to the narrative and using theory and data when it can be really helpful for understanding the entire context or to make a point. But you know increasingly, over the last two or three years I've been increasingly accused of being a journalist by my colleagues. You know I give I've been giving talks this year -
Julio Ricardo Varela: [Laughs] Is that a bad thing?
Jason De León: Well that's the thing, you know. I've been giving talks recently, and in the Q&A and people are like so what's different between what you do and what a journalist does and they say it with this kind of disdain. And I say you know what - if you're calling me a journalist because I'm committed to words, to storytelling, to compelling writing, I will take that any any day. So you know I think that in the ivory tower you can get really stuck with the statistics and the theory to the point where you can take a compelling human story and just kill it. You can overcomplicate it, you can sterilize it, you can do all these things that I think then becomes a way to show off, look at how many how many hundred dollar words I know.
Jason De León: And you know I didn't grow up in that world, and I fit awkwardly in academia. My favorite sort of description of myself is that I'm not smart enough to be impenetrable in terms of writing. I just don't I just don't have it. And some folks that's their kind of bread and butter and I would much rather party with you guys -
Julio Ricardo Varela: We're fun at parties.
Jason De León: You know, so we can - because I just, you know, I want to be true to the people that I work with, and I think the way to do that is to be - is to put them up front and then to use the statistics and the theory when it's helpful to the other stories but not when it’s going to suck the life out of them.
Julio Ricardo Varela: And it's funny you mentioned academia. I want to talk a little bit both of a little bit about academia because both of you do work in and outside of the academic world. Maria, I've actually attended, I've actually spoken to your class. You're the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz chair of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul. Or you taught at DePaul. Jason you're an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.
Maria Hinojosa: My work as a professor is that I'm there for my students and that we are there's a lot of them bringing themselves into the classroom and we also spend a lot of time interviewing people because that's what I do for a living, is to interview people. But it's not like I'm doing research, academic research and then you know writing about that research in an academic setting or teaching that research in my classroom. My classroom is really about the students even for example when I'm doing when they're out journaling and they have to journal, their journaling sometimes makes them have to connect with nature, be out in nature for half an hour and journal which is like the opposite of kind of hardcore political science you know blah blah blah. So the class is really about affirming them and their stories and studying kind of modern topics in our changing world. Right. But as a journalist I'm actually out there interviewing people and researching, so it's kind of like two different hats for me. And by the way, when I teach because I bring a lot of myself into the classroom I really want to create less of a boundary and a barrier between myself and my students. So my my mentor who taught me how to be a professor,m Cecilia Viceman, may she rest in peace - she is the person who said, you know if you're going to demand things from your students you're going to have to give of yourself first. So I'm very honest with my students, they see me, they see me when I'm up. They see me when I'm down and it's all off the record which gives me - that's the kind of freedom where it's like okay so you guys are going to see something that nobody else gets to see because I'm your professor. And we're on this journey together. And in that sense it's really so much fun and quite beautiful.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Jason, I mean how do you approach - you kind of navigate in the academic world and what are the tensions for you?
Jason De León: Maria and I both have very similar teaching style in that you know I tell the students, I come into this room and I want you to know that I want to be here 100 percent and I'm gonna give you as much as I can possibly give you so that we can grow together and have some meaningful interaction. Because I get nothing from coming up and just talking for an hour about things that bore me or that you know that I'm not doing with any kind of - I need some fear, a little bit of fear a little bit of emotion, or a lot of a lot of those things so that I can keep the students engaged. But then also that I can get you know, give them what I'm expecting them to give me and that's what I mean. I love that aspect of teaching. It becomes harder though to move from the classroom into the academic sphere for me at least because of the different sort of constraints that exist within my discipline about what people think I should be doing. So before I had tenure you know I very much had to crank out a series of journal articles that will put you to sleep even though they're probably about interesting topics. I mean it's like man like you're killing me here, and nobody ever said to me when I was going up for tenure or in graduate school, no one ever said to me, "OK you do your work, do good science, et cetera et cetera. And when you write be kind to your reader." Nobody ever said that.
Jason De León: Partly it was because I read stuff that was not kind to the reader. I mean painful prose. And when I started working, when I had to write a book for promotion, I was like oh I don't ever want to write a book that sounds horrible. I got to do this thing I've been doing an article form and now I've got to do it for like a hundred thousand words? That sounds very soul crushing if I have to write it in this way that I've been trying to do it. And so I decided, OK, no more reading academic prose, I wanted to go back to novels and to music and art and the things that really inspire me and see if I can take those things and translate this data into something that has some life to it. And people - I mean remember when the book came out, I had someone say to me, “So do you think this is academic enough for you to get tenure?” And I was like, "Man, that's a horrible question to ask a person who doesn't have tenure." But I was like, Well maybe, maybe not. But I don't care anymore because I really just want to do things that feel good. And I think and put things out in the world that I think are kind of true to myself and to others. And for me that was having to go and think about you know journalism and other forms of writing within a discipline that doesn't always I think value that. And now I guess I'm - if I can help it I'll never write a journal on a book chapter again because I just feel like those are very you know and I've fought with editors in recent years about prose and you know format and I'm like, you know, I don't need this.
Jason De León: I'd rather be doing other kinds of stuff. I mean that that's the one benefit, one of the big benefits of tenure for me is some freedom to to perhaps be a freer thinker. But there's definitely tension within the discipline about, "Oh is what you're doing, is this type of writing, is this type of presentation academic, anthropological or are you doing something else that scares us or makes us uncomfortable?”
Julio Ricardo Varela: This is interesting. I mean now that I figure that both you guys should just form your own learning center or something because I'm hearing similar styles, right. But how much is that - Jason, let me just press you a little bit on that because I'm curious. Having been in sort of this world where people say it's not academic enough, how much you think that has to do with your background, where you're from? Or does that have anything to do with it, or do you feel like you're living in a colorless ethnic-less world where it's all about merit?
Jason De León: You know, it's funny I mean the discipline where a lot of people study things like inequality, racism, sexism, hate and then they can they can study and be analytical about it in other places and critique it and then reproduce it within their own, you know, kind of workspace. And so the tensions within the discipline are very much you know you know racism and gender and class and hetero normative prospect. All of those things come to bear. And I think really do influence the ways in which people evaluate other people's work. It's inescapable. And so I think race oftentimes does does come into play when people critique things get uncomfortable about certain things and get on the defensive. So yeah, it's definitely something that we are struggling with as a discipline. And I'm hyper aware of it, I'm constantly being reminded that you know the scholarship that I do is shaped by my race, class gender and all it. And my kind of feeling out of place in the academy.
Jason De León: I mean, I work with people whose parents are professors. You know, I'm the first person in my family to go to college. So it's - those things are constantly torn up, and I used to be really kind of a shorthand of those things or try to downplay the sort of differences or my uncomfortableness and you know these issues about imposter syndrome. And now I just really own it and say, "Yeah, it's fine." You know and I'm happy to talk about these things out loud and say these things out loud. And so that's always there and I think... But I think the other part of it too is that not everybody gives themselves to the work completely. You know like to say, I do anthropology and it's shaped by this love of people. I think there's a lot of folks who are uncomfortable by that. And so when they present something that is relatively safe and someone presents something that's like, heavy, I think that there's like this, oh well, you know, you're all touchy feely because you're a Latino or because of something else. And that's less scholarly. Julio Ricardo Varela: I raise it because there's I'm just sitting here, Maria, like thinking how Jason's comments, what he's saying in his field, like really apply to the work that we do.
Maria Hinojosa: It's really interesting. I actually lectured yesterday and I told my students that I found it really challenging to wrap my head around the fact that that I was feeling Imposter Syndrome 35 years ago and the thought that they are feeling it even more deeply than me is really sad. The flip side of that you know is that I'm also having them look at themselves as the total bad asses that they are.
Maria Hinojosa: I have three students who are mothers this time for the first time in in one class. I have three students who are moms and so I look at them and I'm like you guys can do anything you want. Like if you want to be president, you could be because you're a mother, you're working two jobs, you've got a little kid and you're full time in college like you can do anything. So I flipped the narrative on them so that they are not seeing themselves as that you know - powerless and struggling to finish sad, overwhelmed - they are those things by the way but I'm actively fighting. Two weeks ago I did like a commercial break in my class. I was like, "This is a commercial break to tell all of you how amazing each one of you is, the fact that you are here in class, that you have made it through all of the challenge. You are amazing. It was literally like a little commercial break because it came the week after this president was saying that he wanted to put troops on the U.S. Mexico border.
Maria Hinojosa: So I also think that what Jason is saying in terms of the not academic stuff about - is really important because I feel like there is so much intelligence that my students are bringing in from DePaul because of their life experience. And I need to give them props for that. You know like you guys - you may not have read The Odyssey when you were in high school because maybe your high school didn't do that. And yes, I read it and it would would be hard pressed to quote The Odyssey to you today. I'm an okay person, you know?
Maria Hinojosa: So I really want to encourage my students to own the power of their narrative, of their own form of looking at the world, of really appreciating their moms and their grandparents their moms and dads and grandparents as you know total like kickass people. Maria Hinojosa: So I think that maybe you know - is it a professor? Is that part of my role is to be you know championing my students? I'm sure that there are some professors at colleges - Ivy League or not - who would say no. Your role is to teach an academic subject. I challenge that as a Latina academic. I say I'm there to do something else. Not just for the kids of color by the way. For my white students, the work is just as deep and just as profound and just as important.
Julio Ricardo Varela: You mentioned about how your students were reacting to Donald Trump's announcement that he wants to send the National Guard to the border. And it kind of brings up the issue of the symbolism and the material consequences of border militarization or the fact that, history of fencing and sending troops to the border. Like there's a context to this.
Julio Ricardo Varela: What's being lost, Jason? How do you look at all this, this type of symbolism this type of rhetoric right now this year in - during this administration as an anthropologist or just looking at it more long-term for years, because knowing that this has sort of been an ongoing issue on different levels right of intensity and extremes?
Julio Ricardo Varela: But how do you deal with this? How do you how do you start addressing this?
Jason De León: Oh man, how much time do you have? I didn't think in 2018 we would be talking about walls. I really didn't. I man it's the stupidest, the stupidest symbol for so many different things. And the fact that we're having we're not just having kind of philosophical conversations about this stuff but actual you know concrete, where is the money going to come from kind of thing. When is it going to go up? That's been really really challenging for me and I sort of moved away from the U.S. Mexico border about three, four years ago to start working in Mexico with the smugglers and I've just recently come back to start working in Arizona again. And I don't know - you know my thinking about it now is it's there, I'm sort of conceptualizing the sort of immigration situation in relationship to the border wall into the hyper militarization but I'm trying to get in there and tell other kinds of stories now. So I'm working with a lot of the U.S. citizens who live in this town of Arivaca. So we're trying to get at - what does that nuanced perspective on the border wall or on immigration or on Trump or on the border patrol? Can telling people's stories who live in that context help shine light on the stupidity of the wall and these other kinds of things. But I'm sort of, I've avoided kind of engaging with that directly because I think when I do that it's just a lot of expletives and I'm just, oh man. And so now I know I want to come in and that's a problem too with with the border in general is that it's saturated. And so if you're gonna work in that context how are you going to tell something that you can tell a story that has that is different from what's been told before. And that's that's interesting. That is the real job. I tell my students like, "You should avoid the U.S.-Mexico border now because you can't throw a rock without hitting a anthropologist or a journalist."
Julio Ricardo Varela: Maria, what do you think?
Maria Hinojosa: Yeah, it's sadly, you know, again the fact that some of us have been reporting about for so long. It's really, it's very complicated to feel like, Well I'm so glad that you're at the border here and looking at this story. I wish you would have remembered 20 years ago you know when we were saying, "Report here, go there. Talk about it."
Maria Hinojosa: I mean, I have to be very honest with you. There have been a couple of times over the past couple of weeks and this is this is frankly sad to admit but - because I'm very upfront about my emotions. There have been some moments when I have just said, "Well, my body of work as a journalist really fell flat."
Maria Hinojosa: I was not effective. If I had been effective then we would not be where we are today because the entirety of my career has been to try to add nuance and humanity to these very politicized stories. And so sometimes I just I feel like, "Wow, I really tried but I wasn't, it wasn't enough to really impact the narrative."
Maria Hinojosa: On the other hand, you know I'm really happy when like on Saturday Night Live you see them talking about dreamers or DACA or immigration in a way that is more thoughtful of course now you know in the immigration rights movement.
Maria Hinojosa: Most people don't want to use the term Dreamers because it's so exclusive to only one segment of the population. And a lot of people are highly critical of DACA as a concept because what really should have been argued for from the beginning was comprehensive immigration reform where it's not splitting up families and children from their parents and their grandparents So this is now very confusing. And we've gone down a rabbit hole, and I was one of those people who - you know when all the academics and all the politicians frankly were saying well we're just going to have to do this piecemeal. I was like, "Wrong decision, wrong place to go down, wrong rabbit hole to go down." And here we are.
Julio Ricardo Varela: I guess this, is a question I have for both you because first of all Maria, like if you said what you said about your journalism impacting like then you're wrong because you know, this young journalist, a little younger, I'm a little bit, I'm still an old dude like - I was inspired by you. So you know that. And I tell you that.
Julio Ricardo Varela: But is it because I guess it's this it's because the work that was being done ahead of time like you, Jason and you Maria, that it does feel repetitive? It does feel like, like here we go again, like I have to remind people that this has been ongoing for 20 years? Like how do you deal with that in a human way? Because you both have been out there.
Maria Hinojosa: Well I don't think I have an impact on much of anything at least not on a policy level. I gave up that hope a long time ago because it's it's such a heavy weight to carry. That my work is going to do this thing. And I'm committed to the work and I love it and I love people and I don't. Partly I also don't know what else to do. You know, I'm like: This is- I know it's so important and I'm okay with just fighting the good fight because it energizes me on a daily basis even when I'm so depressed about the news and about - Oh my God, another question about the wall. Are you kidding me?
Jason De León: I balance that out with you know, I got work to do, I got stories to tell. I've got people to connect with and I just want to keep putting the stuff out into the world. And for me I think about - because I get the policy question a lot. Like what would you recommend as a sort of policy change or are you engaging with policymakers? Like I've given up on those guys. I think because the policy makers understand a lot of this stuff and they either don't make decisions because their hands are tied or because they don't care or because they're invested in the way that the system is in place already. What I want to do then is what is motivate the individual reader to become more informed, to learn more, to be impacted and then let them decide what they're going to do with that. That for me feels feels kind of more doable. You know, when I go back- I just got back from Arizona a few a few days ago, and one of the guys that I worked with for the book, a main character, a guy that I called Memo - I had lost contact with him for about a year and a half. And I went to his house and he's basically dying of drinking. And so we spent, I spent three days doing this kind of intervention and just left Arizona so depressed and just been trying to figure out, OK what are we going to do next for him kind of thing and do I tell that story? And you know part of me is like yeah, you know, people need to understand that the border wall, immigration immigration reform kind of thing, you know the American dream, I mean the American dream is not - it's the American nightmare for a lot of people. And I saw it and it's I want to stay close to them, I want people to be impacted by those individual stories, hope that they can take something away from it. That's much bigger. And that will go out into the world and do something. And that's what keeps me less depressed about this current political moment.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Yeah. I mean I think one of the things I'm hearing from both of you - kind of saying - the focus is not the U.S. Mexico border and both you guys are doing work looking outside of that. Like looking at the U.S. You know, everyone seems to be focusing on the U.S. relationship with Mexico.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Like for example Jason you're looking at smugglers working between the US and Mexico. And Maria, I mean the reports that you've been working in Central America, I mean, Latino USA won a Peabody in 2014.
Maria Hinojosa: Well it was actually on on Latino USA-- I don't know how many years ago maybe, I don't know, eighteen years ago, I was saying things like, you guys, migration from Central America. That's what the future looks like. It's Central America. Everybody is focusing on Mexican immigrants. The Mexican economy is growing. Focus on Central America. That was like 20, 25 years ago. We did under the direction of Maria Martin a series of reports about 20 years ago about Central America. So we have been telling this story because a lot of ways the story of Central America is the story of the United States and its entanglement with Central America. The fact that people kind of think of this area as Central America and they're like “Why are all of these people from Central America now coming here?” and it's like - well there is a long history - you want to hear about it? It goes back to you know I mean not and I'm not even I'm not a historian so I should not take -- you know, I have to be careful here. But you know from the early nineteen hundreds, 1930s the United States was involved in intervening in Guatemala, in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Nicaragua. It takes a lot for the national media to understand a region unless there's a war and the wars ended the official wars ended in Central America a couple of decades ago. So people have kind of moved on and it's like you know our relationships with these countries have not moved on. They've only gotten more intense and now of course you know young people from Central America are all being labeled as members of MS 13 just because they are young, maybe have a couple of tattoos, they're immigrants from Central America they're all now carted off into this and that is a very scary part of other people taking control of this narrative.
Jason De León: You know I think you guys have a different level of frustration than I think the anthropologists who work in the region because you're reporting on this stuff so constantly and the historical amnesia and the American public is really striking, like oh my god. So you know I really have a lot of respect for you guys because I think the grind is so much more intense you know because I can kind of lock myself up in a room for three years and then something comes out at the end of that period but to be reporting on this stuff continuously and then to be have to be constantly explaining to people: Look there are numerous problems in Central America and it's many of them are our fault. The American public. That is a very, very aggravating conversation to kind of keep having. And you know when I have lately - it's dangerous even with you know with the journalists who are reporting in the region. I had someone ask me once, they said, OK - a British journalist. What would be comprehensive immigration reform for you, what would that look like? And I said, "Well, you know, you gotta stop the drug war in Mexico, stop sending weapons to Mexico, meddling in politics in Central America, you know all these kinds of things. And stop snorting the cocaine in the U.S. that's produced in these different places, you know all these kinds of things. And then people saying to me, "Well don't you think it's those countries’ problems?"
Jason De León: You know, I'm going, Oh my God, you're like the Latin American journalist for your agency and you don't understand this. And then when I'm not talking about, you know the Mayberry Gazette, I mean this was a big big agency and I was just like oh my god, like you don't understand this how can we then expect the American public to understand this? So it's really you know for me it's trying to show these connections and maybe that's kind of the different stories that I want to tell. I mean with the whole smuggler thing it's - I want to tell the stories of smugglers as as both people caught up in these difficult situations but also as products of these much larger systems that have deep history. And so when we say we're going to build a wall when we deport people gangbangers from L.A. to Central America, when Hurricane Mitch devastates a region, all of these things function to create then a scenario where then the smuggler becomes an important person. And those are the kind of stories that I that I want to tell now because I feel like if I can tell it through the lens of an individual and then you know I want you to remember their names and their kind of life experiences within the context of this much larger thing that I think can be really forgettable. I mean all of sudden now like oh my god the kid from Central America coming. People don't remember 2014. I mean, 2014 has been erased from the from the popular imagination which is like very very striking. And then so when you say to folks try to get them to understand the longer history of of American integration and you bring up the Chinese Exclusion Act. You bring up in Japanese internment camps. You bring up Ellis Island and the how horrible it was to be Irish in the early 20th century. People are like - What? You know that's a real bummer.
Julio Ricardo Varela: Well you guys aren't bummers, you guys don't bum me out. Keep telling your stories. Keep sharing those voices. Jason De León and Maria Hinojosa, I just want to thank you for your time. I thought this was really interesting.
Jason De León: Thank you so much.
Maria Hinojosa: Thank you.
Arielle Milkman: This episode of AnthroPod was produced and edited by myself, Arielle Milkman. Beth Derderian is our executive producer. Many thanks to our guests this time, Jason De León and Maria Hinojosa, and our moderator Julio Ricardo Varela. We’ll see you next time on the (W)rap on Series about gender and sexuality.