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For my anthropology book review, I decided to read and analyze The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail by Jason de Leon. Jason takes a look at U.S.-Mexico immigration policies from a holistic anthropological view that includes forensic science, linguistics, ethnography, and archaeology. The book’s main argument about immigration is the Sonoran Desert is used by the United States government as a cruel and harsh method of border enforcement. After reading this text, I would highly recommend it to be used as a required course reading because it provides an honest and realistic description of the conditions immigrants face when trying to relocate to the United States.
The first section of this ethnography is titled “This Hard Land”, so I predicted it would be about the geographical challenges that immigrants face coming to America. De Leon and his friend Bob Kee start the first chapter (Prevention Through Deterrence) by walking through the 100-degree Sonoran Desert in search of remains of “illegal” immigrants that the police overlooked in their search. The author talks briefly about how the police and sheriff departments are highly unmotivated to do anything regarding the matter because of the immense heat and the fact that they consider the people to be “illegal”. The book says, “… if they can keep calling them “illegals,” they can avoid speaking their names or imagining their faces. “ (De Leon 66). It also brings up the idea of historical amnesia which is the concept of people forgetting that this nation was founded by immigrants in the 1700s. The book also brings up the idea of Agamben’s State of Exceptions and Space of Exceptions.
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Agamben’s State of Exception is “…the process whereby sovereign authorities declare emergencies in order to suspend the legal protections afforded to individuals while simultaneously unleashing the power of the state upon them.”. From a personal analysis, I can deduct that this is the reasoning authorities give to treat certain groups of people inhumanely and unjustly. On a similar note, a Space of Exception as defined in the book is a , “physical and political location where an individual’s rights and protections under law can be stripped away upon entrance.”. These are most often found in border cities and are cited as matters of “national security”. De Leon says that, ““Having your body consumed by wild animals is but one of many “exceptional” things that happen in the Sonoran Desert as a result of federal immigration policies.”. After his brief narrative about finding human remains in the desert, the author goes on to talk about the immense amount of people that have died due to harsh conditions in the Sonoran Desert.
Over a 14-year span, more than 2,500 bodies have been recovered In the Sonoran and more than 800 remain unidentified. I believe the author uses these statistics to show that although a large number of immigrants are dying, there is little rush or importance placed on identifying these bodies which shows the inhumane procedures in place by the United States government. Chapter 2 of the book is largely composed of a narrative that the author calls a “semi fictionalized ethnography”. In this narrative he uses information from actually stories and accounts to dramatize the difficulties people face . Chapter 3 of the book is the chapter that I took the most out of. If this chapter were to be on its own, I think that would be fine because the main idea of this chapter is a huge deal.
Prior to reading this ethnography I had never heard of the term used before. I had heard of the prefix “necro” and root word of “violence”, but never used together. Necroviolence as described by Mr. De Leon is the mistreatment of dead bodies which in this case are those of migrants. The chapter starts off by describing an experiment Mr. De Leon conducted to see how fast bodies compose in the desert conditions. He did this by killing three pigs and dressing them up in clothing that might be typical of a migrant. His observations determined that after a few days of being deceased, birds and other carnivorous animals would tear these bodies to shreds. Necroviolence and the idea of necropolitics are displayed by the American government as justification for people dying in the Sonoran Desert. He relates this idea to how lynching and other forms of body mutilation were used in the segregated southern United States.
As displayed by the amount of analysis I have on it, the first part of this book, This Hard Land, is the most informational piece of the ethnography. This being said, the other sections of the book also touch on some really important ideas.
El Camino, starts off with the narrative of Memo and Lucho. The story of Memo and Lucho added to the quality of the book because it described the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert based on accounts of actual survivors. When talking about the deportation process, De Leon formally states his opposition to how Homeland Security handles immigrant situations.
Perilous Terrain, focuses on the unfortunate story of Marciela. Marciela was an immigrant from Ecuador who died crossing the Sonoran Desert and wound up as a victim of necroviolence. The author along with other anthropologists searched to find her brother in New York and met with Marciela’s family in Ecuador. The lasting idea that De Leon leaves us with is how the United States uses the cruel and harsh Sonoran Desert to hide behind and justify poor mistreatment of migrants.
An issue that I found with this book was that at no point in it did the author give any potential solutions to the issue of the Sonoran Desert. I understand that he is simply an anthropologist, but I think that the problem will continue to persist if we keep waiting for the “next person” to find a solution.
Overall, I found this book to be really insightful into the conditions that a lot of immigrants have to face when trying to find a better life in the States. I think a common misconception is that all immigrants get to this country by “jumping a fence” or “swimming across a river”, when in reality, the trek to America is dangerous and causes a lot of people to lose their lives. I would highly recommend this book to be read by future anthropology classes; specifically, the first section because it is very descriptive as to the conditions in the Sonoran Desert. The following sections are also beneficial to supporting the author’s argument by providing real world examples to personalize ideas with the audience.
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