Anthropologist: Jason De Leon

Anthropologist: Jason De Leon

Jason De Leon is a 2013 Emerging Explorer who uses anthropology to document and study migration between Mexico and the United States.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Human Geography

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Jason De Leon is a 2013 Emerging Explorer who uses anthropology to document and study human migration between Mexico and the United States. Jason directs the Undocumented Migration Project, a program to “collect, catalogue, and interpret nearly 10,000 objects left in the desert by migrants making the treacherous, undocumented border crossing from Mexico into the United States.”

“Migrants may shed objects to lighten their exhausting load, to evade border-patrol agents, or to blend in after reaching a U.S. city,” says National Geographic’s profile of Jason. Jason says that these objects become artifacts, revealing clues about how and why people embark on such a dangerous journey.


Growing up near the Mexican border around McAllen, Texas, Jason was always aware of immigration.

“I remember seeing people swimming across the Rio Grande, and being intrigued, confused about this sort of stuff.”

Information about immigration “was always around,” Jason says, “but I never thought about it as a line of research until much, much later.”

Jason earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, and his PhD from Penn State. His dissertation was on the lithic (Stone Age) tools found at the ancient Olmec site of San Lorenzo in the modern state of Veracruz, Mexico. Interacting with other archaeologists and workers, he discovered an entirely new area of study that used his training in archaeology and his interest in the human spirit.

“I worked in Mexico for many, many years as an archaeologist . . . Many people I got to know in that process were local people from rural, working-class or impoverished communities who were getting paid by local archaeologists to work on these excavations.

“One of the tragic jokes I have now is that all Mesoamerican archaeologists have gotten tenure on the backs of migrants, because work on these excavations [is done by local Mexicans] . . . In [the Mexican states of] Chiapas, Oaxaca, there is a lot of great archaeology, and there’s also some of the poorest places in Mexico.

“These people who are working on these projects are migrating back-and-forth. I spent years digging with these guys and women who would tell me stories about trying to cross the river, almost dying.

“I realized,” Jason says, “I had some pretty naive ideas about what immigration looked like. So, I decided I wanted to work on border-crossing stuff.”

Jason remembers a friend and fellow archaeologist making an off-hand comment one night about migrants leaving enough debris in the Arizona desert that “some weirdo archaeologist could do something with it.”

“I am the weirdo! Here was a way to use archaeological approaches to understand this totally politicized, mysterious process.”


“I love students . . . I’ve been truly inspired by my students. Seeing them grow, learn, bridge their interest in science and social issues. That, for me, is really exciting.

“Most importantly, though, it’s talking to people and hearing their stories, and trying to help provide them with a voice. I’m really inspired by migrants.”


Jason identifies two consistent obstacles in his work.

“It’s really hard to always wear the scientist hat . . . It can be really hard to sit down and say ‘OK, now I’m going to theorize about someone’s death’. . . I want to be respectful to the dead, I want to be respectful to myself as a human being, but at the same time the one thing I might be best at is trying to [introduce] that to an academic audience.”

“And also,” Jason says, “I’m super lazy! I’d rather be watching ‘Law and Order’ . . . than hiking in the Arizona desert.”


“Geography is a way for us to think about how we engage with space and our place in the world.”


Jason’s work investigates the intersection of physical geography, cultural geography, and archaeology. One of the ways he examines this intersection is by identifying different stakeholders in cross-border migration. The Mexican and American governments, American employers, and above all the migrants themselves are often considered in discussions about border security and immigration. The role of manufacturers, however, is rarely acknowledged.

“The stuff that we have, that we use on a daily basis, tells us a lot about ourselves. How often do you look at the labels on your clothes? . . There are stories that can be told from the objects that people themselves don’t know about, or aren’t thinking about in those sort of ways.”

The appearance of industrially manufactured black water bottles carried by undocumented migrants is a telling example of such a cultural marker.

“Migrants, for a long time, said that white water bottles reflect a lot of light, so the Border Patrol could see you from far away. So, what you want to do is cover them up. You want to paint them with black shoe polish, you want to put them in black plastic bags. In the fall of 2009, I’d seen a lot of bottles covered in black plastic. 

“Then, this guy walks into a migrant shelter, and he’s carrying a black plastic water bottle. I’m just like ‘Holy [expletive]! Where’d you get that?’

“Here was an example of how archaeology can tell me stories about how technology is changing over time, how there are other players involved in undocumented migration. The people who make manufactured goods used by migrants are players . . . you can really only get at them by looking at the material.”

Using GPS

The Undocumented Migration Project relies heavily on geographic tools such as GPS.

“We use GPS to document sites. We protect the coordinates, though. I never publish migrant sites—I’ll cut off the last three digits of a GPS coordinate. So, you couldn’t go find them.”

The Undocumented Migration Project uses information about the sites to “understand how people are moving across the landscape, depending on distance from the border. So for us, space becomes important . . . Sites vary across the landscape.

“If you’re a day’s walk from the border,” for instance, “you’re typically only going to find consumables: food, water bottles. If you get about halfway, you might encounter a backpack that is completely full . . . [migrants say] about two days in, your bag feels like it weighs twice as much. And then you get to a point where they’re maybe going to get picked up in a vehicle. So, you’ll find these big fields of just backpacks, dirty clothes . . . people try to make it look like [they] haven’t just come through the desert . . . By the end point, you can get some big piles of stuff.

“People are also leaving things that they didn’t mean to leave behind. Your smuggler might say ‘No backpacks, just get in the car.’ And you might have pictures of your kids . . . It’s always kind of sad when you find something that someone did not mean to lose.”

Blending In

Although more Central and South Americans are immigrating to the United States through Mexico, Jason has not found significant cultural markers in his research.

“I talk to more Central Americans than I find their stuff,” Jason says.

“Because . . . Central Americans want to hide their identity. They want to be seen as Mexicans . . . because they want to get deported back to Mexico, and not Guatemala . . . But sometimes we’ll find something. I found a pair of soccer tickets from La Paz, Bolivia!”


Jason encourages students to take classes or consider focusing outside their intended area of study. For instance, he teaches a popular class on the “Anthropology of Rock and Roll” at the University of Michigan. He finds music is a good way to “trick students” into learning about academic subjects. 

“In the end, I say ‘This class had nothing to do with rock and roll. It had everything to do with misogyny, racism, violence . . . Rock and roll gets you in the door, and now I want you to leave here thinking more critically about how you consume popular music.”

Jason’s playlist includes everyone from Manu Chao to Bruce Springsteen. 

“Springsteen has a great quote about learning more from a three-minute record than he ever did in school . . . It’s almost like you’re sneaking it in.”


Jason is a musician and encourages students, families, and teachers to engage in art. Music “is something that a lot of people can relate to,” Jason says.

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National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 22, 2024

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