Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains (Crown, 2023) by Alexa Hagerty is the winner of the 2024 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America. The four judges were unanimous in their choice of the winner.
Hagerty will accept the award and talk about her work during the 2024 Spring semester on the Duke University campus.
This is the fifteenth year of this prestigious award. The award is supported by the Duke Human Rights Center@the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Human Rights Archive at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
In Still Life with Bones, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty describes her work with forensic teams and victims’ families to investigate crimes against humanity in Latin America. This beautifully written and richly researched story explores what science can tell us about the lives of the dead and the grief of the living for the loved ones they’ve lost. Hagerty is meticulous and unsparing in her exploration of the intricacies of finding, cataloging, and returning remains in Guatemala and Argentina, very different cultures united in loss and the yearning to recover the lives violently taken and uphold the rights of the dead and the obligations of mourning and the quest for justice.
Deborah Jakubs, University Librarian Emerita at Duke University, wrote that the book’s “great beauty lies in the many ways Hagerty weaves together the dark histories of the state violence that occurred in Guatemala and Argentina with the complex and touching stories of individuals affected by those crimes, whether victims or survivors, and with her own very personal reflections on mortality, grief, and memory. With great humility, she candidly details her powerful emotional journey as she takes part in exhumations at multiple sites and in the recovery and reconstruction of human remains encountered there. This fine book is part indictment, part lamentation, and part memoir.”
María McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, a Méndez judge, former winner, and acting deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, commented, “Hagerty’s reflections on the impact of forensic anthropology, both on the family members of the disappeared and on the people doing the work, woven throughout the book, felt profound and revealing. She connects the difficult, daily, and often dangerous work of the excavations with the history behind the bones they uncover and the lives of people today, in a stirring way that also created a powerful sense of urgency. These stories aren’t in the past, they’re also shaping the present. Hagerty also treats her subjects with tremendous care, even love, which allows the reader to feel close to them and want to keep reading instead of turning away from the horrors she describes.”
The other judges included Prof. James Chappel, a member of the DHRC@FHI executive committee and the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor in the History Department at Duke; and Robin Kirk, the co-director of the DHRC@FHI and Professor of the practice in the Cultural Anthropology Department at Duke.
When notified of the award, Hagerty stated, “I am deeply honored by the judges’ recognition. I share this honor with the families of the missing and the forensic teams whose stories are told in the book. They have taught me, and I hope whoever reads these pages, a profound lesson about human rights: that where there is violence, there is also resistance, the labors of justice, and the invincible human spirit.”
First awarded in 2008, the Méndez Human Rights Book Award honors the best current non-fiction book published in English on human rights, democracy, and social justice in contemporary Latin America. The books are evaluated by a panel of expert judges drawn from academia, journalism, human rights, and public policy circles.
For more information on the award, event, and previous winners, see https://humanrights.fhi.duke.edu/current-programs/juan-e-mendez-book-award/.
For more information about Still Life with Bones, see https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/706009/still-life-with-bones-by-alexa-hagerty