Waiting for Jose
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Armed and dangerous racists with extreme-right political predilections only a mother could forgive—such are the invectives media and academics have heaped upon residents in the United States who have taken it upon themselves to patrol the United States borders in search of unauthorized migrants. These vigilantes (or 'minutemen' as they prefer) are motivated by nativist, Tea Party philosophies and want nothing less than to reclaim (white) America and stem the flow of unauthorized immigration—or so we are told.
Enter ethnographer Harel Shapira. In his book Waiting for José: The Minutemen's Pursuit of America, Shapira adroitly straddles the fine line between investigative journalist, objective social scientist, and minuteman participant, to paint the first comprehensive and - dare I say - balanced account of the sort of anti-immigrant social activism minutemen have championed over the last decade. Having spent over three hundred hours, collectively, at minuteman patrols (mostly in Southern Arizona), other minuteman events, and even participants' homes, Shapira humanizes his subjects and dispels a number of myths in the process. This includes the myth that all minutemen are gun-toting white supremacists. This is achieved most convincingly in Chapters 1, 2 and 3, in which readers are transported into minutemen's camps, homes, and psyches.
However, if this book were engaged solely in the pursuit of demystifying unusual cultures and (what many deem to be) socially unacceptable practices, it would remain merely an interesting read. Fortunately for us, Shapira's journalistic myth-busting is not conducted at the expensive of his larger sociological project. Rather, the case of the minutemen allows Shapira to effectively raise a challenge to long-standing assumptions in social movement literatures concerning what motivates participation in activism. Shapira asks: Why do people (minutemen) participate in social movements (anti-immigrant border activism)?
Shapira notes that the shifting political landscape and a movement's access to important resources shapes social movement mobilization, but he spends very little time discussing this with respect to contemporary anti-immigrant activism. However, given his alternative interest in understanding how identities shape participation, this omission is largely forgivable (and already covered in a number of other related works).
Importantly, however, this sets up Shapira's fundamental methodological contribution. Through an effortless writing style and engaging first-hand accounts, Shapira convinces the reader that studying the everyday, mundane actions in which minutemen engage—rather than the ideologies espoused by leaders on television and talk-radio and the attitudes gleaned from answers to survey questions—is fundamental to comprehending their motivations for patrolling the border. In particular and rather counterintuitively, Shapira suggests that it is how minutemen prepare for their patrols, not their encounters with unauthorized migrants, that reveals the most about their motivations. Above all else, minutemen are motivated by an intense desire to belong in and rage against (what is to them) a scary, changing, unnatural world. Visiting and patrolling the border is less about catching migrants and more about reclaiming a sense of self and creating meaning in an increasingly unrecognizable world in which many participants have become marginalized in a variety of ways. It is the process of soldiering that provides meaning and motivation for many participants, rather than racist ideologies, extreme-conservative beliefs, and support for particular government policies.
Shapira's claims are believable and supported with plenty of evidence. However, I cannot help but feel as though he too easily dismisses the centrality of race (and racism, even of the 'color-blind' variety) in motivating many a minuteman. Moreover, there seems to be an underlying assumption in Waiting for José that minuteman groups across the United States are a homogenous bunch and that Shapira's text somehow adequately captures the authentic and definitive minuteman voice. Readers should remain cognizant of the fact that Shapira focuses on a particular minuteman organization that is itself embedded within a larger movement. If anything, however, when viewed alongside other works on anti-immigrant activism in the United States, Waiting for José reveals just how profoundly complex these groups can be and how divergent they can be from one another.
Given Shapira's entertaining, jargon-free, journalistic approach, this book should be of interest to lay readers with even a passing curiosity in contemporary immigration and border issues. And, yet, the theoretical and methodological contribution is sufficient enough to warrant its inclusion as a compelling case study in undergraduate and graduate-level academic courses in ethnography, qualitative methods, and politics and immigration.
University of Southern Mississippi