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Alexa Hagerty is an anthropologist researching science, technology, and human rights. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and is an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge. Her research has received honors and funding from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Ethnological Society, among other institutions. She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wired, Social Anthropology, and Palais de Tokyo. Her book Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, won the 2024 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.

How did you become interested in the study of anthropology and human rights in Latin America? 

The book is based on the fieldwork that I did for my PhD. I'm a social anthropologist, and the fieldwork that I did was to accompany forensic teams who are searching for mass graves (mostly clandestine mass graves) and then exhuming them to identify the victims of political violence in Latin America. 

What's particularly interesting, maybe from a historical perspective, is that forensic exhumation for human rights is now understood to be a very important thing in the wake of political violence as part of the judicial process for justice, but it's also important for families and communities alike. Forensic exhumation for human rights started in Latin America, and then that knowledge got shared from Latin American practitioners to the rest of the world. I was so surprised to learn that forensic examination for human rights began in 1984. Originally, I wasn't going to go to Latin America. I got very interested in explanations for human rights and Latin America is the birthplace so that's how I ended up in Latin America. 

I was always so curious and wanted to know, “What makes us human?” I took lots of philosophy and literature [courses]. Then, much later, I found my way back into anthropology. I get the opportunity as an anthropologist to actually really see what things are like on the ground. And that, to me, is always so interesting, because we always have ideas about how things are or how things should be. And then there's reality, right? And reality is really messy. So I feel very lucky to be in a field where that messiness is welcome. Being able to have that experience of being in the real mess of the real world with real people hearing real stories that are complicated and full of contradiction is, to me, the great strength of anthropology.


What challenges or experiences did you encounter while doing your research in Latin America, especially after investigating these painful crimes? 

In my research, I mostly spoke with people who were interested in exhumation - certainly the [forensic] teams, but in the families as well. Most people I spoke with wanted to exhumate. Now, that doesn't mean that everyone is thinking exactly the same. That's the joke about anthropology - the answer to every question is, “It's complicated.” So it's complicated. For example, in places like Guatemala, there's been a lot of impunity. Most of the perpetrators of these terrible crimes have never gone to jail and are just living in the communities, living side by side with victims and families of victims. In a circumstance like that, a family might feel that [supporting exhumation] will be dangerous for them. There are real stakes to that decision. 

Very early on, at some of the earliest exhumations in Argentina, [some members of] the Mothers of the Disappeared, who had themselves become this incredible political force during the dictatorship, did not want exhumations. From their point of view, they felt that the exhumations were kind of like a political trick. Instead of having this category of disappeared victims of the dictator, exhumation was a means of hiding the mass atrocity of what had happened and turning this into this private grief. It's not that we are as a society going to confront what happened to not just your child, but all of these children.


From your research, what did you learn about how different communities view justice?

I think justice really has to do with acknowledgement and accountability - that [human rights crimes are] not a secret. I think most people think justice is ‘if these soldiers killed somebody, then those soldiers have to have a trial, and if they are found guilty, they need to be imprisoned.’ But of course, in Latin America, as in many, many places in the world, there have been some periods in which the justice system was more responsive, and then other periods where there's been a lot of impunity. That's the case in both Argentina and Guatemala. 

It's always been this very complicated thing for families, because sometimes justice in the sense of the judicial system was just not available, or it will be available for a little while, and then suddenly, the whole thing would get overturned. I'd say that families have been quite creative in the way that they think about justice. When trials are not available, when there's impunity, there might be other ways to seek justice. 

That's why I think testimonials, particularly in Guatemala, have been very important because maybe you can't go and tell your story in front of a judge in the court, but you can tell your story publicly, in front of other people. And there can be this kind of accountability, where you name the names, and then people know what happened. 

Journalists have come in, and just getting those stories out into the world has been very important for families so that these stories don't just get hidden away. So that's been a form of justice. 


What do you hope people take from your book and what do you hope changes in the future with the process of justice? 

One is that I would like the teams and the families to have their stories heard, because their kind of way of seeking justice has been incredibly powerful and profound, and that story deserves to be told. I think that we  in the U.S. can learn from that story. I think we're in a very dangerous political moment. People sometimes think, ‘Dictatorships only happen in places far away, like places like Guatemala or Argentina,’ but democracy is fragile everywhere. We need to look very carefully at how people resisted tyranny, and take notes and pay attention. No one is going to guard our democracy; that's up to us. We need to understand how tyranny takes hold; it can happen subtly. Tyranny is not only a coup d'etat when everything gets leveled - it can mean that structures slowly don't function in the way that they were meant. 

In the book are stories of ordinary people. The forensic team that started forensic exhumations for human rights were undergraduates. It wasn't that they could not find any professional anthropologists who would go out and look for bodies, but that was too dangerous. The students decided to go do it themselves, and they didn't really have the training. They had to figure it out as they went along, and there was no protection for them. If the generals had come back into power, which they absolutely could have, and almost did, the students would have been in enormous trouble. They would have been the first people to be kidnapped and taken to a secret prison. It was very courageous what they did.

There are other ordinary people, like the Mothers in Argentina who stood up to the dictatorship. They would all say in their interviews, ‘I was not particularly political.’ They were scared [to speak out], but they did it. So that's what I'd want people to think about: How much courage can I enact to protect the things that are most precious to protect the democratic systems? Or to protect people who are vulnerable? How much? That's what I'd like people to feel inspired by. 

The thing I think is incredible about these stories is that these are stories of teams. These are stories of people, students who came together and worked in the team, they're stories of families who came together, they're really stories of solidarity. How can we all build in some small way our muscles of courage and solidarity? We need it, because we are not in a good safe place as a democracy.


What advice do you have for students studying human rights and justice?

It's very easy for people to get into burnout mode because all the problems feel so big. You're not going to do anyone any good if you are not eating and sleeping and taking care of yourself. A lot of students I talk to now feel really overwhelmed, and they feel discouraged, like it's just too big. How can I blame anyone for feeling discouraged? It's like the planet is on fire, and there's injustice everywhere you look. 

In my talk, I plan to tell a story that means a lot to me, which is about the first exhumation that the team went on. They didn't have the right tools, but they had a spoon, so they just started digging. I really value that because most of us, we just have a spoon. That's all we have. We don't like it, but we can use our spoon wisely, and we can use it with other people. Alone, we can't do much, we're just gonna get completely burned out and overwhelmed. And then we're going to quit, and that's the worst thing of all. 

So do something tangible, but also, you need some humility. In many, many cases, you are not the center of the story. What you really need to do is listen. People know what they need, and they know what needs to happen, and you just need to support them. You don't actually need to figure out everything from ground zero or give a big speech or something. You just need to hear people say, ‘Okay, this is what we need’. And then you can go out and help.