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Chapter 5: Studing Anthropology


Photo: Seed maize is stored in the kitchen, to keep it safe from insect damage. Smoke inhalation is a serious health risk from an open kitchen fire.


Painting and drawing were no longer part of my daily practice once I became immersed in PhD studies. I did, however, continue to photograph using a documentary style and a large format camera I brought with me to Mexico. Fisherman mending nets at dawn and pulling in beach seines are among many pictures I made for the Museum of Anthropology in Jalapa and gave to their archive as part of my obligations to the Canada-Mexico exchange program. One of the pictures was adapted to create the cover for the Spanish language report Yvan produced of our work together in Alvarado, Veracruz. In Jicacal and Pajapan, I photographed many of the people and situations involved, including our friend and field helper Gustavo Antonio Antonio. Gustavo, a handsome young man from a family of 10 children, taught me to throw a fishing net and open a coconut with a machete. He also gave us Nahuatl nicknames: totol texis (turkey egg) to refer to my freckled skin and ikstak chagalin (white shrimp) for Jacques’ pale skin. In return, we sponsored his studies for two years at a technical high school. For years afterwards, Jacques and I fondly referred to each other with the nicknames Gustavo had given us. We both came to regret that we did not keep the friendship with Gustavo going when, many years later, he called us from a village in Quebec where he was working as a temporary farm worker. Neither of us went to visit him there. I have occasionally wondered whether he was able to use his bright mind and strong body to create a viable livelihood, or whether he remained poor much like the fishing families of his home village of Jicacal.

Few of the photographs from Jicacal and Pajapan made their way into our book, which was already long and expensive to print. Some were poor technically because of problems I encountered developing negatives in Mexico. Others disappeared altogether. One day when I was taking pictures of port construction, with burning oil fires in the background, I was detained by the Mexican navy patrolling the expropriated area. They questioned me for over an hour, called higher ranking officers, and took all the film canisters from my camera, but allowed me to leave the site.

By then, there were rumours that the port project would not proceed after all. A dramatic decline in crude oil prices, which had started in 1982, quickly threw Mexico into a national crisis and by late in 1984, less than a year after our research had begun, the port project was officially cancelled. A process began to return the expropriated lands to the community. A new round of struggle unfolded before our eyes, including violent clashes among competing interests and groups cutting across the traditional divisions between ranchers and peasant farmers. Hamlets fought with the town, young people moved against their fathers, women gained rights to some land so their husbands could retain rights to other lands. At one point, some 1,500 Pajapeños protested in front of the municipal palace of Coatzacoalcos, demanding the release of jailed representatives and the expulsion of opposing groups occupying their land. Internal divisions, rather than classic class struggles, became more visible, isolating groups from each other. In the absence of a common enemy, the phase of communal action against the port project ended, giving way to factionalism.

Photo: The temporary bridge crossing the mouth of the Laguna del Ostión to Pajapan. It was abandoned by PEMEX after the port project was cancelled.


The intensity and complexity of the siuation prompted me to enter a PhD program at Carleton University and prepare myself for deeper study. I felt I did have something to say about the political and environmental havoc we were witnessing. The experience among fishers along the Veracruz coast, in Alvarado and in Jicacal had also provided me with ideas and data for coursework assignments, making the daunting task of doing a PhD seem more accessible. Working with Jacques in Jicacal, and the prospect of continuing studies with him as my supervisor, gave me confidence in the possibility of completing a study that might be converted into a book and published.

At the time, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University only had a PhD program in sociology (a PhD in anthropology was added many years later). Still, it was a reputable department with a focus on political economy and Jacques was not only an outstanding scholar of peasant studies but also committed to the research topic and Veracruz setting. Carleton offered the prospect of modest funding support and Ottawa, being my home town, made it easy too. While I was tempted by the offer from Yvan to study at Laval, and learn French along the way, these other factors made Carleton University a good fit for me.

Doing a program of PhD studies in the social sciences is a strange and in many ways unnatural way to learn. I took extra courses at Carleton to beef up my knowledge of sociological basics such as statistics and survey work, read massive numbers of books on Marxism and post-Marxism, the theoretical fashion of the day, and prepared myself for comprehensive exams on three distinct topics.

One of my exams was on the anthropology of fishers, supervised by John Cove, a specialist in the people of the salmon on British Colombia’s West Coast. He gave me a second edition (1966) of the original 1946 book “Malay Fisherman: Their Peasant Economy,” by the New Zealand anthropologist Raymond Firth. Firth, who did his original field work from 1939 to 1941, was a contemporary of Malinowski and also taught for decades at the London School of Economics. His contribution was not methodological, as was Malinowski’s, but rather to the development of the field of Economic Anthropology — the study of human economic behaviour in its widest historical, geographic and cultural scope. My thesis in the Yukon, also completed at Carleton University, fit within that field as did many of my later studies. Firth also had a concern for improving the economic conditions of peasant communities, a perspective that informs much of what later became “international development studies.” John Cove passed away a decade ago so I cannot ask him again why he gave me this book but reflecting on it now brings several things to mind. First, it is a richly detailed study of virtually every dimension of fishing livelihoods one can think of, illustrated extensively with straight forward photographs of people, places and activities. I admired this. Second, it provokes in modern readers a critical yet somewhat sympathetic understanding of the colonial thinking of the time and its attention to so-called “administrative problems” of the British Empire. John, as an academic personally involved in Canadian indigenous politics of the 1980s, was acutely aware of the dangers facing anthropologists who could be seen as government spys. Firth was aware of it too, and in his Preface takes great pains to situate his book between disciplinary concerns (curiosity-based science) and a genuine preoccupation with the improvement of livelihoods (action-oriented assessments). He and others in this tradition got it in the neck from both sides — by theoreticians for being “merely practical” and by politically aware researchers for being (at best) naive about the use of anthropology to advance the interests of Western colonial powers. John had an ironic personality that could embrace both practical work and an “eyes wide open” perspective on who research is for, whose values it promotes and how it might be used. His open perspective also allowed me to include “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville in the reading list for my exam. As an expression of thanks, I did a drawing for him of a traditional Tlingit fort he was fond of. He also attended my wedding when I completed my dissertation.


Photo: Doña Carmen made food for Jacques and I on a periodic basis. I have never tasted tortillas and fish as delicious.


Others in the department were sympathetic to the unusual situation I was in of having started a PhD program after having already selected a topic and completed a substantial amount of field work. This sequence of study is frowned upon as university programs want to make sure the student topic and theoretical approach is agreed upon by faculty before any encounter with the real world. Still, in the course on statistics I was allowed to make use of data from a creel survey (fish count) I had conducted in Jicacal. As it turned out, my sampling method improvised “in the field” totally invalidated the survey findings. This was embarrassing, and made me feel I had wasted not only my time but also the time of Gustavo, the field assistant that meticulously and sometimes covertly counted the fish in the bottom of friend’s canoes. The incident showed me that it was not such a bad idea after all to learn the basics of statistics, a lesson that came in handy later when I had to design more consequential surveys.

Not everyone at Carleton was so accommodating of my patchy training and field orientation. The only graduate course where I did not get an A or higher was in the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs. The paper I submitted, grounded in original research on fisheries in Alvarado, received a B+. The grade formally excluded me from the honour of “graduation with distinction” by the time I defended my PhD dissertation. I have no regrets, however, about integrating my field work directly into my course work and generally trying to be as efficient as possible about moving through the multiple steps of graduate study. I have encouraged every student I advised since to do the same.

Jacques, who supervised my PhD studies, protected me as well by virtue of his reputation. People would not casually challenge his judgement. In later years he became very critical of university studies at all levels, including undergraduate, that is divorced from student engagement with the real world and the crucible this provides for grounded and strategic learning. I was his first experiment in the benefits of a pragmatic and engaged approach to student learning. The department eventually created a PhD program called “Engaged Anthropology,” which Jacques helped to establish. The initial program was a disappointment to him, however, as it treated the challenge as a topic of research rather than an opportunity to fundamentally change how students actually learn the trade and do their own research. Ironically, participatory action research traditions did not become central to the department’s approach to anthropology or hiring, despite the program name.


Photo: Potable water was available only in some sections of Pajapan. At higher elevations in town people used the natural springs bringing water to the surface near their homes.


While making use of practical work was not prohibited at Carleton, there was no getting around the standard requirement of literature reviews, and a heavy dose of Marxist theory characteristic of a department that featured Wallace Clement’s approach to political economy and had the prominent Marxist scholar Leo Panitch working next door in the Department of Political Science. Fortunately for me, Mexican social sciences was at the leading edge of critical thinking on land, conflict and agrarian struggles central to our experience in Pajapan. My fluency in Spanish meant that I could offer Carleton faculty access to the dense theory and rich narrative description of Mexican authors such as Gustavo Esteva, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Roger and Armando Bartra, and Luisa Paré. I moved to Mexico to read them, settling into the tourist village of Tepotzlán near Cuernavaca, Malcolm Lowry’s home when doing his own alcohol soaked research for the classic novel “Under the Volcano.”

The village was quiet, and one day I met and fell in love with a Mexican doctor living next door. In less than a year we were engaged. Rosa Maria was a Mexican nationalist, from an upper middle class family in Mexico City. She spoke English very well, having completed a Masters Degree in Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but was proud of her strong Mexican accent. We always spoke together in Spanish, and she told me that my fluency and Mexican-style accent meant that she was not embarrassed to be dating a pale-skinned and bearded North American. I did not, however, have what she needed in the way of secure ties to the country and reasonable livelihood prospects. To compensate, I bought a brand new pickup truck on credit and put in an offer on a small property in Tepotzlán. Eventually, however, she broke off the engagement, and helped me sell the truck. I was heart broken, but stayed in Tepotzlán long enough to finish reading the Mexican theorists.


Photo: "The Madonna". A peasant woman caring for the child of a middle-class Mexican family in Queretaro.


Luisa Paré was the most consequential of the authors I read, not just because of her pioneering work on “the Mexican rural proletariat,” but also because we later worked closely together in the Sierra de Santa Marta and became good friends. While in Tepoztlán, I sought her out at the offices of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and learned that she was originally from Quebec City. Neither of us recall anything from the meeting, which was undoubtedly comprised simply of me asking a few predictable questions about her work and influence on the agrarian literature of the time. Luisa was a firebrand among very sophisticated and politically engaged intellectuals at UNAM, and had just completed fieldwork on the ecological decline of Lake Chapala bordering the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacan and impacts on fishing communities. Her tenacity was reflected in her strong jaw and intense gaze, making her a formidable activist as well as an effective researcher.

Happenstance brought us together again two years later when she visited family in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa. She, Jacques and I met at a patio restaurant across the street from Canada’s international development agency (CIDA), and hatched a plan to write a proposal for an action-oriented research project. We called it “Sustainable Development of the Sierra de Santa Marta,” later funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) as a joint project between Carleton University and UNAM. Our book on the Gulf Nahua, still in draft form at the time, was the basis for the proposal and ideas about how to mobilize people around conservation and livelihood objectives.

The proposal was an opportunity for me to create my own job, and launch my professional life as a married man. In the spring of 1988, I had met Debra Huron, my future wife. Our first date, at an outdoor patio restaurant, was all I needed to know this was the woman for me. She wore a single silver snake earring, spoke of her indigenous and Spanish heritage and feminist perspective on the world and showed a keen interest in the outdoors. We fell in love, and married in less than a year. The marriage plans hung, however, on completion of my dissertation. Debra, a practical person, did not want a lingering PhD project hanging over our married life so she made completion a condition of the marriage agreement. I obliged, just barely, by submitting the final version of the dissertation to my committee 24 hours before we got married. While not yet defended before a committee, this was good enough for Debra. I was a happy man.

Finding a job afterwards proved to be more difficult. While a PhD graduate, I was not a good candidate for the few university positions available in Canada at the time. In the late 1980s, most universities were well stocked with forty-something white, male faculty and hard pressed by declining budgets and stagnant student numbers. Women and visible minorities were the only graduates getting interviews for entry level university positions. This made sense to me, of course, and I was not so committed to university life that I would not consider other livelihoods.

As an Ottawa resident, reaching out to the Federal Government was simple enough but here too I met with resistance. I knocked at a lot of doors, and was greeted with polite indifference to my doctoral degree. One official at CIDA remarked after listening to my pitch, “We only hire people that have worked for us before.” I guess he meant that I needed practical work experience in government to prove that I was more than just an academic with my head in the clouds. Perhaps what I really needed was a better designed C.V. and elevator speech highlighting my non-academic life and bush skills. What I could do, however, is write so I put time and energy into writing a grant proposal with Luisa and Jacques that included a modest salary for me.

The proposal also meant Debra would move to Mexico, pregnant with our son Ryan. For me, with my Spanish language skills and deep knowledge of Mexico’s geography and people, this was a reasonable adventure. For Debra, however, it was a leap of faith. She showed remarkable courage, and was willing to put on hold her own career as a journalist and editor. Her explanation now is that youth, and nine months she had spent a few years earlier in Botswana working on an anti-apartheid campaign, made her think she was invincible. “People disappeared in the middle of the night there,” she said of the situation in South Africa and Botswana at the time, “Mexico,” she went on, “would be relatively tame in comparison.” She felt excited about the prospect of starting our life together as an adventure far from the suburban lifestyle of most Canadians of her age and professional situation.

So we moved to Mexico, although not to pick up coordination of the Sierra de Santa Marta project as planned out in the proposal. The grant application was successful and the funded project went on to eventually establish the region as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and support many livelihood initiatives with the indigenous population. It did so, however, under Luisa’s leadership and as a feature of a different dream job in Mexico that came my way.

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