Ángel Alfonso Escamilla García
PhD Candidate in Sociology
Ángel Alfonso Escamilla García is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences. His research focuses on how migrant youth negotiate high-risk environments. His current project uses ethnographic methods to explore the different strategies that Central American youth use to migrate through Mexico on their way to the United States. Ángel was recently named a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern University.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I research how Central American youth migrants—the ones you read about in the news—plot out and survive their migration through Mexico on their way to the US. The shortest route from Mexico's southern to northern border is about 2,000 miles. That trip requires migrants to pass through many different geographies, navigate rural and urban settings, and face different types of violence. This begs the question—how do young people, who are typically undocumented and poor, take on this daunting task? Through my ethnographic work in Mexico, I have found that youth migrants are not passive when facing risk, but rather strategize and adapt as they migrate to move in the safest way available to them.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
One major twist has been my move from anthropology to sociology. In undergrad in Mexico, I studied social anthropology with a strong focus on the study of culture. But when it came time for graduate school, I had become interested in the way social forces impact individual lives on a much broader scale, and sociology was a better fit. Looking back, I initially envisioned myself being an ethnographer studying specific communities. I'm still able to use the ethnographic skills I learned as an anthropologist, but I use them to study migration across many locations.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
One mistake I made when I began my current research project was to underestimate the capacity of young people. When I started my fieldwork, I initially viewed youth migrants as helpless in the face of the violence they encounter while migrating. I quickly learned that while these youth are vulnerable and face tragic circumstances, they have an incredible capacity to deal with and adapt to the conditions they face. I say this not to downplay the inhumanity of their situation, but to appreciate how strong, wise, and capable they can be despite their age.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
The most rewarding part of my research is the unique opportunity I have to get to know young migrants. While conducting fieldwork in Mexico, I get to share meals with them, hear them laugh, and help them celebrate their joys and successes. While much of what they face is grim, they are resilient and inspirational. On the other hand, such closeness creates the most challenging aspect of my work—the mental and emotional toll of seeing intense and unnecessary human suffering and knowing that while I can leave the field and come back to my academic life, those that I have met and others like them have no similar escape.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
The topic of migration has become increasingly socially and politically salient since I began my research. By understanding how Central American youth move through Mexico on their way to the US, my work can help inform the ways both academics and the popular media understand and talk about youth migration. My work is also timely in a global context. The number of migrants crossing through other countries on their way to their final destination has increased in past years. For example, Central Africans are moving through the countries of Northern Africa on their way to Europe, and Southeast Asians move through Indonesia to reach Australia.
How do you unwind after a long day?
My favorite way to relax is to play squash. I started playing when I was a teenager as part of a state-sponsored sports program in my home state of Chiapas. Since then, I've enjoyed the game and its intensity as a way to take a break from my work and meet new people.
What books are on your bedside table?
I'm currently reading The Other Side of Assimilation by Tomas R. Jimenez for academic purposes and Las hijas del capitán (The Captain's Daughters) by Maria Dueñas just for fun.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
I would advise a younger me to never forget the great responsibility of conducting research with vulnerable populations. Such populations have already suffered many types of harm, and their participation in research should not cause further harm or further expose them. Instead, we as researchers must constantly work to be conscious of the implications of our work for individuals and to be aware of the consequences of our research.
Published: January 21, 2020
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