Soldiers and Kings: Book Discussion with Jason De León

Apr 9, 2024


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A graphic image with a blue background, the book cover for Soldiers and Kings: Survival and Hope in the world of human smuggling, and white text that says "Book Discussion with Jason De León"

Meet anthropologist and author, Jason De León, at the Museum of Us on Thursday, May 9, to celebrate the launch of his book, Soldiers and Kings: Survival and Hope in the World of Human Smuggling. This free event will feature exhibit walks in Hostile Terrain 94, a panel discussion, and book signing.

Jason De León is Executive Director of the Undocumented Migration Project and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. These two nonprofit organizations collaborate to use research, arts, and education to raise awareness about migration issues globally while also assisting families of missing migrants reunite with their loved ones. The Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition at the Museum of Us was created in collaboration with Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to reflect on the human impact that dehumanizing border policies have on communities.

Jason will be joined by Michael Wells, the primary photographer and artistic adviser for UMP since its inception in 2009. Michael has photographed the project’s ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork in Arizona, New York, Mexico, Honduras, and Ecuador. A selection of Michael’s work will also be incorporated into the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition. They will be joined by Elana Zilberg, cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor of Communications at University of California-San Diego, and Ash Cornejo, Ph.D. student in medical anthropology and 2024 Human Rights Fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Books will be on sale courtesy of The Book Catapult.

Event Schedule

This three-part event will begin at 3:30 p.m. and guests are welcome to come for any, or all, parts of the program. The event is free and advance registration is highly encouraged. Walk-ins are welcome, and registered guests will be given preferential seating for the panel portion of the program.

  • 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. - Experience Hostile Terrain 94 & Toe Tag Workshop in the Museum
    • Meet Jason De León and Michael Wells, learn more about the exhibit, and fill out toe tags as part of the Hostile Terrain 94 participatory map installation designed to raise awareness about the realities of the U.S.–Mexico Border.
    • Guests may arrive at any time to experience the exhibition before the panel discussion at 5 p.m.
  • 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. - Panel Discussion in the Gill Auditorium (next to the Museum)
    • A reading from Soldiers and Kings, followed by a panel discussion with Jason De León, Michael Wells, Elana Zilberg, and Ash Cornejo
    • Seating is limited and registration is encouraged.
  • 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. - Book Signing in the Museum
    • The Soldiers and Kings book signing will take place in the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition.

Additional Details

  • Location: Museum of Us building and Gill Administration Building
  • Date: Thursday, May 9, 2024
  • Time: 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., book reading and panel discussion begins at 5 p.m.
  • Price: Free
  • Registration: Highly encouraged. Seating in the Gill Administration Building is limited.


Political instability, poverty, climate change, and the insatiable appetite for cheap labor all fuel clandestine movement across borders. As those borders harden, the demand for smugglers who aid migrants across them increases every year. Yet the real lives and work of smugglers—or coyotes, or guides, as they are often known by the migrants who hire their services—are only ever reported on from a distance, using tired tropes and stereotypes, often depicted as boogie men and violent warlords. In an effort to better understand this essential yet extralegal billion-dollar global industry, internationally recognized anthropologist and expert Jason De León embedded with a group of smugglers moving migrants across Mexico over the course of seven years.

The result of this unique and extraordinary access is Soldiers and Kings: the first ever in-depth, character-driven look at human smuggling. It is a heart-wrenching and intimate narrative that revolves around the life and death of one coyote who falls in love and tries to leave smuggling behind. In a powerful, original voice, De León expertly chronicles the lives of low-level foot soldiers breaking into the smuggling game, and morally conflicted gang leaders who oversee rag-tag crews of guides and informants along the migrant trail. Soldiers and Kings is not only a ground-breaking up-close glimpse of a difficult-to-access world, it is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

Ash Cornejo is a Psychological & Medical Anthropology Ph. D. student at UC San Diego working on the U.S.-Mexico border. With a background in ethnobotany, Ash’s work focuses on the health and healing of Mexican farmworkers experiencing forced migration. Her work centers on labor, migration, plant medicine, and ritual. She is currently a UC Berkeley School of Law Human Right Fellow, documenting the reunification of families forcibly separated at the border.

Jason De León is a professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies; and Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He authored the award-winning book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (UC Press 2015). De León is a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and between 2013 and 2017 he co-curated the traveling exhibition “State of Exception.”

Michael Wells has served as primary photographer and artistic adviser for Undocumented Migration Project since its inception in 2009. He has photographed the project’s ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork in Arizona, New York, Mexico, Honduras, and Ecuador. A Los Angeles-based photographer, he has created photography projects on post-Katrina New Orleans, the physicality of the US Mexico border in Arizona and California, and Latino communities in the American South.

Elana Zilberg is an Associate Professor in the Communication Department, and the Co-Director of the Human Rights and Migration Program at the University of California San Diego. She is also author of Space of Detention: The Making of a ‘Transnational Gang Crisis’ between Los Angeles and San Salvador (Duke University Press 2011) and co-author of the report Zooming to Border for Human Rights in the Times of Trump and CoVID-19 (2021).

This event is supported by the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.

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The Museum of Us recognizes that it sits on the unceded ancestral homeland of the Kumeyaay Nation. The Museum extends its respect and gratitude to the Kumeyaay peoples who have lived here for millennia.

The Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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