UC MEXUS News
Number 39, Fall 2002

Anthropologists take a look back

UC MEXUS helped sponsor two presidential sessions at the annual meeting of American anthropologists last year. The sessions reflected in different ways the thematic focus of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting: "100 Years of Anthropology: The Transformation of a Discipline."

UC MEXUS Director Juan-Vicente Palerm set up the 2001 sessions aided by Roberto Melville of Centro de Investigación y Estudios Superiores de Antropología Social (CIESAS) and Robert Van Kemper of Southern Methodist University, Texas. Together they gathered international experts to discuss: "The Manuel Gamio Legacy in Mexico and the United States" and "Long-term Research Projects in Mexico: A Critical Review." Support came from AAA, Wenner-Gren Foundation, CIESAS and UC MEXUS.

"This meeting is not necessarily to honor the work alone," Palerm said, "but to use it as an opportunity to create dialogue and debate on two topics that are of great interest and importance to us." During the last century, both North American and Mexican institutions undertook many field projects in Mexico. The presentations evaluated several long-term binational collaborations in terms of knowledge gained, value of training and impact on the people and communities studied, with a view to better planning future work in light of those findings.

In one review, Van Kemper looked at more than a half-century of study in the small town of Tzintzuntzan, where three generations of anthropologists had put the citizenry under a microscope. His paper traced the change in understanding of the people and the community as residents themselves changed - partly in response to outside forces. Anya Peterson Royce (Indiana University, Bloomington) found that 30 years of research on the Zapotec of Juchitán had not prevented the people from sustaining their cultural identity despite the influence of external forces and internal changes.

Jan Rus, a graduate student at UC Riverside, critically examined the effect of two decades of ethnographic fieldwork by the Harvard department of anthropology on the highland people of Chiapas. Taking the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 as his jumping off point, Rus took issue with the approach of pre-1970s research, which cast the highland people as largely untouched Maya communities, isolated from and resistant to the larger society. Earlier scholarship had focused narrowly on evidence of the retention of Maya tradition. More recently, scholars have studied the groups' interactions with the larger society and their efforts to resist its incursions.

A paper by Carmen Viquiera (Universidad Iboamericana) presented a study of the Jose de Acosta Field Station in Tepetloaxtoc. Her husband, the late Angel Palerm, and the Universidad Iberoamericana had sponsored the Casa Acosta - as a place to study the history and contemporary culture of the local population. Her inventory and analysis of the philosophical and intellectual work that took place demonstrated its impact on Mexican and North American anthropology.

Andres Fabregas (Colegio de Jalisco) and Scott Whiteford (Michigan State University) led a discussion on the production of new knowledge, anthropological training and the effect on the communities and peoples studied as a result of a near century of mostly U.S.-sponsored anthropological study in Mexico.

The following session looked at the work of Manuel Gamio, Mexico's first professional anthropologist who worked in both Mexico and the U.S. and trained under American anthropologist Franz Boas, founder of American anthropology as an academic discipline. Presenters examined Boas' influence on Gamio's work and the mark it left on Mexican and U.S. anthropologists and Latino scholars. The session also provided a forum to announce the imminent publication in Spanish of Gamio's complete works on immigration, under the sponsorship of UC MEXUS and CIESAS. The two-volume work, edited by Melville, Palerm and Devra Weber, is a way to reintroduce Gamio's work to Mexico, where it is less well known than in the United States.

Quetzil Castaneda (University of Hawaii) looked at Gamio's role in shaping the anthropological visions and practices that evolved during Carnegie-sponsored site work at Chichen Itza, the Maya settlement in the Yucatan. Jorge Durand (Universidad de Guadalajara) compared Gamio and Paul S. Taylor's studies of the huge wave of Mexican migration during the '20s. His examination of their early work, which provided a theoretical and methodological model for those who came after, provided tremendous insight into the contemporary migration of Mexican workers.

Jose E. Limón (University of Texas, Austin) hypothesized that Gamio misunderstood the implications of some of his 1920s studies of Mexican immigrants. American values, Limon concluded, were less a lesson for these immigrants to take back to Mexico than a reason to stay in the United States and later help form Mexican American communities.

Melville looked at Gamio's research funded by the Social Science Research Council, because it formed the basis for the U.S.'s forced repatriation of migrant workers in Texas in the 1930s. Gamio had concluded that the returning workers would provide an impetus for improved education and social change in Mexico.

Casey Walsh (New School for Social Research, now at Universidad Iberoamericana) took a longer view, examining Gamio's role over a two-decade period in helping shape the intellectual and political response to large-scale migration and his unorthodox approach in combining racial and cultural elements in his migration studies. In looking at this digression from his mentor's insistence on the separation of race and culture, Deborah Poole (New School for Social Research) traced the influences that molded Gamio's alternative perspective.

Weber examined the people who contributed to Gamio's book, The Life Story of the Mexican Immigrant, based on his interviews with Mexican workers. She looked at the perspectives of his assistant – who conducted many of the interviews – and his editor (University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield) in making decisions about both the work and the interviewees. Such insights into the influences that molded this work, she concluded, allow a better evaluation of the message and an understanding of the interest the book engendered.

Paul Sullivan, Robert Van Kemper and Patricia Zavella lead the subsequent discussion of the papers.

Many of these papers will be available here on the Institute Web site in the future.