When ethnographers have the uncommon good sense to discard their jargon in favour of presenting their subjects’ own words, feelings and perspectives, the reader can be rewarded with difficult truths. In Waiting for José, Harel Shapira, a promising Israeli doctoral student, heads out from the safety of his classes at Columbia University to the desolate Arizona-Mexico border to document the hardscrabble American Minutemen. (Yes, named after those very same gun-toting patriots who in 1776 started that little revolution in the colonies.) Says one borderland local complaining about gated communities popping up in what he sees as his and his fellow Minutemen’s own private desert: “It’s only a matter of time until we lose all this; pretty soon there’ll be a fucking Starbucks down here with its grande latte processed bullshit.”
Shining a spotlight on the Minutemen (and several women) who briefly stormed on to the national and international media stages, the gems Shapira collects shine through what otherwise might have been another dull research effort. We learn how Minutemen, armed to the teeth, rushed to defend the nation’s frontiers from the threat of terrorists soon after the events of 9/11. Following Earl, Mussels, Blowfish, Shannon, Robert, Frank, Wage, Floyd, Chad, Tom, Susan and others, we watch as they patrol the “line”, the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the US.
When one of the Minutemen shows Shapira where he has hidden his shotgun, he tells him nonchalantly, ‘Now look, I’m rolling down the window so you can crouch down, grab it, and shoot through the window if you need to’
At its best, Shapira’s book shows the human face of the camouflaged, booted, heavily armed citizens referred to in the media either as vigilantes or patriots, according to ideological taste. In their heyday of 2005-07, the Minutemen were seen to personify the complex concerns about immigration that had heretofore been ignored by many Americans. Further polarising political ideologies, a media circus hoped to record their dramatic captures of undocumented immigrants. But for all their efforts, José, the Minutemen’s name for an illegal alien, remained a virtual no-show. In a field of study plagued by shaky statistics, Shapira accepts the Minutemen’s claim that for every 50 hours on the line, there is barely one actual sighting of an attempted crossing. Countless journalists sent to cover the story returned to Chicago or Paris with only photographs of guns or profiles of Minutemen cast against a border sunset.
But unlike what was to be gleaned from those media reports, here we learn at first hand who these Minutemen are, what they do, and why they do it. And forget what you’ve heard. Typically veterans of America’s wars, Shapira’s Minutemen are seeking to be useful in their later years “and find a renewed sense of meaning and purpose” by expressing their patriotism.
But these very same Minutemen can be as petty as they are dangerous, and Shapira highlights the distinct Minutemen hierarchy. Says one about an encounter with two other Minutemen, “Did you see that Harel? Did you see how they said that? They didn’t have to say that. Like there was really something wrong with where I put the car. He wants me to move it another two inches.” When one of the Minutemen shows the author where he has hidden his double-barrelled shotgun, he tells Shapira nonchalantly, “Now look, I’m rolling down the window so you can crouch down, grab it, and shoot through the window if you need to.”
When we are not hearing directly from the mouths of Minutemen and those around them, what ultimately saves this book from doctoral-committee-driven penchants is the frequent brilliance of the writing. Think of David Foster Wallace or Loren Eiseley (author’s reveal: we named one of our daughters after the latter), or Ian McEwan in Solar.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, this is a promising, accessible book by a first-time academic author who describes the Minutemen he finds as, at heart, the detritus of lost wars and people who are “afraid of America turning into Mexico”.
Waiting for José: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America
By Harel Shapira
Princeton University Press, 208pp, £19.95
Published 26 June 2013