Waiting for José: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America, by Harel Shapira

Lee Maril is riveted by a first-time academic author’s encounters with the men and women who patrol the Arizona-Mexico border

August 29, 2013

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.

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.

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’

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”.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Retired academics calculating moves while playing bowls

Lincoln Allison, Eric Thomas and Richard Larschan reflect on the ‘next phase’ of the scholarly life