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Anthropologist Jason De Leon Awarded MacArthur 'Genius' Grant


To cross from Mexico into the U.S. without legal permission can mean days of walking through rivers, deserts and mountains and through places where dangerous criminals prey on migrants. Jason de Leon thinks the paths that migrants choose will one day be seen as a kind of Ellis Island.

He's an anthropologist with a past in archaeology, and he uses the techniques of these disciplines to preserve the stuff that migrants leave behind. De Leon is the founder of the Undocumented Migration Project, and he has just won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work. Jason de Leon, congratulations and welcome to the show.

JASON DE LEON: Thank you so much.

MCEVERS: Once someone crosses the border, oftentimes their stories sort of disappear and so does the stuff that they brought with them for the journey - backpacks and toothbrushes and tarps. And that is the stuff that you preserve, right?

DE LEON: Yeah. A big part of this project is trying to demonstrate that archaeology as a tool to understand the human condition does not have to be sequestered in the distant past.

MCEVERS: So how do you do it? Yeah, talk about your process.

DE LEON: So we hike in the desert. We survey vast parts of the Sonoran desert, looking for the things that migrants have left behind. When we find those things, we will stop and map them, photograph them, take GPS coordinates, collect artifacts. They get put into a database and then get stored at the University of Michigan, where we analyze them and we use them in various ways.

MCEVERS: What kinds of things have surprised you that you found?

DE LEON: You know, in the beginning when we started this project almost 10 years ago, you saw a pretty wide range of stuff - so a set of hair curlers, cocktail dresses, high heels, you know, footballs, things that people were taking with them because they thought the journey wasn't going to be very long.

And over the 10 years that we've been doing this, what we've seen is they're much more aware of the dangers of places like the Arizona desert. And so the actual material culture that folks bring with them has evolved now to focus really just on alleviating suffering and surviving.

MCEVERS: Wow. What other stories are these things telling you right now? Like, what are some of the stories that are kind of emerging from what you're finding?

DE LEON: I think that the backpacks and the broken shoes and the bloody socks, those tell one part of this physical experience people are having. And what we've really tried to do is to say these artifacts are very important, but they need to be brought into conversation with the voices of migrants themselves.

MCEVERS: Right. Because we could all look back on this moment and say, whoa, what? That - you know, it's like it could be this moment in history when this massive migration of people - where we all say, how did that work? What did that feel like?

DE LEON: Yeah. The worry is that it's going to get whitewashed, you know, in 50 years. I mean, people reminisce about Ellis Island as if it was, you know, a vacation spot. Ellis Island was a horrible place if you were Italian, if you were Eastern European. The human rights abuses that were happening when folks were migrating here have largely been forgotten with some historical distance.

MCEVERS: This Genius Grant, of course, comes with money. That's part of the deal. What are your plans?

DE LEON: Pay off my student loans, number one.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) A very good use of the money (laughter).

DE LEON: Yeah. I might try to get some Jason Isbell tickets.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

DE LEON: Treat myself a little bit. But, you know, really we see this grant as a way to facilitate the work that we're doing even more and to push it in new directions. It's really exciting to think about all these projects that me and my - many of my collaborators have been workshopping for years now, we're going to have resources to do these things. And so we're looking forward - I mean, I haven't been able to tell anyone this, so that's what kind of sucks, is...

MCEVERS: Right. Because you don't know exactly what the plans are until you get to tell everyone, yeah (laughter).

DE LEON: Yeah. So for the last five weeks, I've been running through these conversations in my head with my collaborators. And finally, today I'll get to tell them that, you know, those ideas that we had, I think we can finally do a lot of them.

MCEVERS: Oh, well, I hope you enjoy that. That sounds like a good day. Jason de Leon is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is founder of the Undocumented Migration Project and a new recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. Thanks a lot.

DE LEON: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And just a note here, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is among NPR's financial supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "CHERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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