I am a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist working on publics and the public sphere in Tijuana, located on Mexico's border with the United States. My research looks closely at everyday interactions and narratives in order to unpack how the border’s highly unequal dynamics take root in people’s subjective sense of themselves and of the collectivities – the “we”s – they belong to. Currently, I am writing about the port of entry as a site of visual exchanges and displays, and exploring new interests in the semiotics of mobility.
I am employed as an Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, where I run the linguistic anthropology program and the Linguistic Anthropology Lab along with John Haviland.
In Tijuana, the staging of sovereignty at the city’s main port of entry to the United States – the busiest in the world – proliferates kaleidoscopically. Mass-reproduced images, built environments, and specific interactions all replicate, as if in a reflective chamber, the border’s orchestration of unequal gazes: logics of seeing and being seen that have profound effects on subjectivities here. The chapters of this book-length project unpack the border’s scopic regime through scenarios ranging from the reconstruction of the international port of entry in the 1970s to cellphone videos of state violence, a domestic worker’s trip to Disneyland, personal memories of passage, anti-interpellation tactics in the port, and more.
the vertigo of velocity
Vertigo unpacks ethnographically a basic tension born of processes of capitalist mobility at the border: on the one hand, the demand to consolidate individual agency and, on the other, the sense of subsumption to a system that surpasses one. Across contrasting arenas of practice in Tijuana (the assembly-plant industry, public transport, or the line to cross to the United States), transit emerges as a value in itself. But as the “vertigo of velocity” makes itself felt, it unsettles even the most elemental boundaries between subject, object, and medium of action; it is thus a key point at which capitalist mobility continually breaks down and is repaired at an everyday, intensely embodied level.
Vertigo is a long-term project, with bibliographic research and fieldwork still underway. Nonetheless, I have two articles published that derive from it: “La Racha: Speed and Violence in a Mexican Border City” (Signs and Society, 2017) and “Three Types of Traffic in Tijuana” (Public Culture, 2018).
My mother Carol Yeh (1938-1994) was a graphic artist working primarily with prints and drawings. Some major projects from her early years include a large-format book of prints of Harry Houdini, the Ragtime prints made to accompany E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name, and a Shaker ABC in pencil. Her move to Mexico in 1981 was transformative; it marked a decided turn towards the tactile intimacy that drawing can offer in small formats. She spent the last decade of her life developing, in this vein, a set of interlinked series on the Mexico City earthquake of 1985.
A significant selection of pieces are in the permanent collection of the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, in Mexico; Smith College, too, has several series of her prints. I am currently creating a digital portfolio of Carol’s work.
(to download or to see the publication online, please click on the title)
2018 | Passing: Two Publics in a Mexican Border City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Honorable Mention, Gregory Bateson Prize, Society for Cultural Anthropology
Tijuana is the second-largest of Mexico’s northern border cities, and although it has struggled during the United States’ dramatic escalation of border enforcement, it nonetheless remains deeply connected with California by one of the largest, busiest international ports of entry in the world. In Passing, I probe the border’s role in shaping Mexican senses of self and collectivity. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, the book examines a range of ethnographic evidence: public demonstrations, Internet forums, popular music, dinner table discussions, police encounters, workplace banter, intensely personal interviews, and more. Through these everyday exchanges, I show how the promise of passage and the threat of prohibition shape Tijuana’s communal sense of “we” and throw into relief long-standing divisions of class and citizenship in Mexico.
Out of the nitty-gritty of quotidian talk and interaction in Tijuana, Passing captures the dynamics of desire and denial that permeate public spheres in our age of transnational crossings and fortified borders. Original and accessible, this is a timely work in light of current fierce debates over immigration, Latin American citizenship, and the US-Mexico border.
2016 | To Bind and To Bound: Commensuration Across Boundaries, ed. Joseph Hankins and Rihan Yeh. Anthropological Quarterly 89(1).
articles & book chapters
2021 | Anacleto: Tiempo, don y comunicación en el transporte público (Tijuana, México). Revista de Antropología y Sociología: Virajes 23(1):48-64.
2019 | Narrative Flight: Comics, Cartels, and Crowds across Forty Years of Crisis in Mexico. Anthropological Quarterly 92(4):1229-1260.
2018 | Three Types of Traffic in Tijuana: Heteronomy at the Mexico-U.S. Border. Public Culture 30(3):441-464.
2017 | On the Possibility of Imagining an Open Border. Political and Legal Anthropology Review. 40(2):295-310.
2017 | La Racha: Speed and Violence in a Mexican Border City. Signs and Society 5(S1):53-76.
2017 | Visas, Jokes and Contraband: Citizenship and Sovereignty at the Mexico-U.S. Border. Comparative Studies in Society and History 59(1):154-182.
2016 | Hankins, Joseph and Rihan Yeh. To Bind and To Bound: Commensuration Across Boundaries. Anthropological Quarterly 89(1):5-30.
2016 | Commensuration in a Mexican Border City: Currencies, Consumer Goods, and Languages. Anthropological Quarterly 89(1):63-92.
2015 | “La calle es un río”: El público de los (narco)corridos como “el pueblo”. Revista Colombiana de Antropología 51(1):79-107.
2015 | “Deslices del “mestizo” en la frontera norte,” in Nación y alteridad. Mestizos, indígenas y extranjeros en el proceso de formación nacional, ed. Daniela Gleizer and Paula López Caballero. Mexico: UAM-Cuajimalpa and Educación y Cultura.
2012 | Two Publics in a Mexican Border City. Cultural Anthropology 27(4):713-734.
2012 | “A Middle-Class Public at Mexico’s Northern Border,” in The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography, ed. Rachel Heiman, Carla Freeman and Mark Liechty. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.
2009 | “We’re Mexican Too”: Publicity and Status at the International Line. Public Culture 21(3):465-493.
2020 | "Immigration," in The International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
2020 | Bunkers, Buffers, Borders. Public Books, July 27.
2020 | Review of Hilary Dick's Words of Passage: National Longing and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants, Anthropos 115(1):207-208.
2019 | De-Border Yourself/Desfronterízate. New Global Studies, 13(3): 394-403.
2019 | Desfronterízate. Revista Común, May 6.
2018 | “2017: ‘Mexicano, México te necesita’,” in 1968-2018: Historia colectiva de medio siglo, ed. Claudio Lomnitz. Mexico: UNAM.
2015 | New Middle Classes and their Politics. Political and Legal Anthropology Review 38(2):386-390.
2009 | PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology. University of Chicago
2004 | MA in Sociocultural Anthropology. University of Chicago
2000 | BA in Music, Magna Cum Laude. Barnard, Columbia University
2019-present | Associate Professor, Anthropology. University of California, San Diego
2010-2019 | Junior Professor, Centro de Estudios Antropológicos. El Colegio de Michoacán (Mexico)
UC San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive, MC 0532La Jolla, CA 92093