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Humanizing Deportation: The Faces of Contemporary Migration

A UC Davis video crew followed people deported to Mexico to see their stories

By Leigh Houck, former News and Media Relations Intern, on October 29, 2020 in Driven by Curiosity

Robert Irwin, a professor at University of California, Davis, has been working on a community-based digital storytelling project, Humanizing Deportation/Humanizando la Deportación, since 2016. Irwin, a professor of Spanish, and teams of UC Davis graduate students, as well as collaborators from several Mexican institutions, have carried out fieldwork all over Mexico and California, facilitating the production of hundreds of personal stories on issues relating to deportation.

Woman paints a muralUC Davis graduate student Lizbeth de la Cruz Santana is a Humanizing Deportation team member. Said de la Cruz Santana about the project, "It has allowed me to grow, not just academically, but also personally." (UC Davis video still)

The project website describes their mission and contains over 300 digital stories of more than 250 different people. These testimonial audiovisual shorts focus on the issues that migrants want to highlight regarding their experiences and their thoughts on the contemporary phenomenon of mass deportation.  The archive also has incorporated stories of migrants in transit through Mexico, such as Central American refugees who risk deportation upon arrival in the U.S. as well as while traveling through Mexico.

portrait montageHere are portraits of some of the more than 250 community storytellers featured on the Humanizing Deportation website. (Leopoldo Peña photos)

The documentary

In 2019, a Strategic Communications video crew from UC Davis accompanied Irwin and his team on one of their trips to Mexico. They created a documentary on the project, delving further into several migrants’ stories and illustrating the continuing effects of heightened border securitization and deportation in both the United States and Mexico.

Migrants talk about their attempts to make a new life in the country they’ve been sent back to, or of their living with the risk of deportation. Some repatriated Mexicans have no memory of their “homeland,” and for many Spanish is their second language. While many have found jobs and reorganized their lives, others are living in homeless shelters or on the streets of Tijuana, many miles from their true homes of San Diego, Los Angeles, or other cities. Many feel they live in danger every day.

In total, this project goes beyond mere statistics of the 3 million deported since 2008, instead sharing the personal stories of several hundred of them.

“Neither media coverage nor political discourse adequately accounts for the degree of human suffering that deportations have generated,” Irwin said. “Our project aims to communicate its human consequences in all their complexity.”

Irwin and his team hope that their project will educate, gain political traction, and contribute to policy change.

The project continues.

Humanizing Deportation/Humanizando la deportación is funded by various grants and institutional sponsorships from both UC Davis and four Mexican partner institutions.

Just the Beginning

Humanizing Deportation has served as a catalyst for other projects on deportation

Lizbeth de la Cruz Santana, who appears in the documentary, is one of the graduate students who was a member of the fieldwork team that Irwin began working with in Tijuana on Humanizing Deportation/Humanizando la Deportation in 2017. Over the course of her three years collaborating on the project, de la Cruz Santana was inspired to create a mural on the Tijuana side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. She said she wanted to use public art to investigate what it means to be a childhood arrival who has been deported in an interactive, collaborative border mural.

The finished mural depicts seven different migrants who arrived in the United States as children. QR codes are incorporated into the wall, allowing viewers to follow a link to information about the people represented in the mural.

Douglas Oviedo, one of the community storytellers in the documentary, is a Honduran migrant of the fall 2018 caravan who has written a book about his experience. Titled Caravaneros, it was published in collaboration with the Humanizing Deportation team a few months ago by Festina Publicaciones. He hopes to raise awareness regarding the profiles and experiences of contemporary migrants, in an era in which they are often portrayed negatively, and suffer significant harm in their interactions with governmental institutions.

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The writer, Leigh Houck, is a current graduate student in Spanish at UC Davis.

Media contact: Karen Nikos-Rose, News and Media Relations, Office of Strategic Communications, 530-219-5472, kmnikos@ucdavis.edu