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Fronteras: Backpacks, bottled water, bloody clothes — using anthropology and archeology to understand the migration experience

Many migrants make the 1,000-mile journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands don’t make it to their final destination.

Over 600 migrants died attempting to reach the U.S. in 2021 — the most since 2014.

Anthropologist Jason De León has dedicated his career to study migration from Latin America to the U.S.

De León is a professor of anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s also the executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project.

He examines and collects the items left behind by migrants on their journey, items that would normally be disposed of as trash.

Items left behind by migrants in the Arizona Desert
Undocumented Migration Project
Items left behind by migrants in the Arizona Desert

“Why is it that the things that people's Irish ancestors or Italian ancestors or people who were coming through Ellis Island — those materials were valorized,” he asked, “while the things that undocumented folks from Latin America were leaving behind were considered garbage?”

De León and the Undocumented Migration Project are working to personify and humanize migrant deaths, and explain how those deaths are directly related to inhumane border policies.

A traveling pop-up exhibition known as Hostile Terrain 94 displays over 3,400 toe tags pinned on a large map of the Southwest. The tags depict the migrants who have died on the Arizona-Mexico border.

De León calls it a “testament” and a “vigil to thousands of people who have lost their lives.”

Part 2 of our interview with Jason De León airs next week.

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Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1