Anthros as activists

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Fri, 12 Jan 1996 01:19:42 -0600

Once upon a long time ago, I thought my special knowledge as an
anthropologist would enable me to lead those who needed an expert to some
sort of promised land. Then I remembered a piece of my own past.

One of the things I once did for a living was work for E.V.Darling & Co.
in the Chicago stock yards. You probably never heard of the company:
they were the folks who salvaged whatever the meatpackers found no use
for in the days when the meatpackers tried to use everything but the
twist in hogs' tails and the squeal when they were slaughtered. The
Darling company was in the fertilizer business, among other things. I
worked as a shit shoveler.

While I was a shit shoveler, I shared the interests of shit shovelers. We
had problems with the job, and we worked together to force solutions to
those problems when we could think of a way out. We did it ourselves, we
did it with the union, we did it by calling down the law when we could.
The day I stopped working for E.V.Darling I became irrelevant to the
concerns of those who still worked there. I wasn't a shit shoveler any
more, and all those wonderful things I was learning over at the University
of Chicago may well have been beautiful and uplifting -- but I was an
outsider who didn't know shit. If I'd gone in and tried to organize them
they would have drowned me in their principal product because mine would
have smelled lots worse to them.

When I did my first field work, I thought I saw some things that Chiapas
Indians could do to improve their lives. Example: Indians usually sold
their surplus corn and beans to Ladino middlemen for a low price. Those
same middlemen sold the produce to government-supported warehouses in the
state capital, for at least twice what they had paid to the Indians who
had grown the crops. And the government program was supposed to benefit
only those who actually produced the crops!

I saw the problem as one of lack of knowledge and lack of transport.
Well, I said to myself, what if I tell them about the government program
AND about the fact that there are always trucks standing around a certain
plaza in the state capital whose owners would be happy to rent them out
on a daily basis, and provide drivers if necessary. Why, they'll double
their income overnight!

Dumb me. I discussed the idea with a friend, who pointed out that the
first Indian who tried my idea would be shot by a pistolero working for
some middleman. And the second, and the hundredth, would also be killed.
I just didn't know enough to be telling people how to run THEIR lives.

A couple of years later, when I had learned that I don't know everything
just because I had some great anthropology professors, I saw how the
Indians solved the problem. They knew about the government program all
along. When a new governor took power, they went to the largest truck
dealer in the state and bought their own trucks to haul corn in to the
government warehouse. It just so happens that the owner of that truck
agency was the governor's brother, and the Indians bought their trucks on
time with low down payments. Now no middleman in the corn trade would
dare shoot people with such large debts to the governor's brother -- you
don't kill people in Chiapas against the governor's will.

Their next solution took longer. They joined with lots of other Indians
from other parts of the state and took their desires through the
political process, all the way up to the national level. After several
years, they finally got the government price support program to set up
branch purchasing stations much closer to where the corn was grown.

The people I studied weren't babies and they weren't ignorant and they
weren't stupid. They knew, and know, lots more about their own situation
than I will ever know. I don't know enough to become an activist on their
behalf. Period. Even if I did, I don't have the right to assume that
they would want me to tell them what to do or what they should want.

In short, I don't know about the shit they have to shovel.

If, as, and when they ask my help, I give it to them as best I can --
AFTER I ask for their advice as to what to do. I've been lucky enough to
help them get improved schools when THEY decided they wanted them, to
help them get a better road when THEY initiated the drive to get one, and
to help in getting better health programs and potable water supplies when
THEY asked for that help. But notice that I said I HELP: it's their
programs, and their solutions, and their work that makes the advances.
They also are perfectly capable of shoving me out of their road when I
get in the way.

Most of the activists I have watched expound their activism on the
Internet seem to think of themselves as somebody else's saviours. I am
just beginning to scratch the surface of my ignorance after nearly forty
years of fieldwork, on and off, in Mexico and Central America. I can't
save some poor benighted savages squirming under somebody's hegemonic
yoke because I don't know anybody like that. The Indians and poor
Ladinos I know are much better able to help themselves than I am, thank
God, because if I were to become an Activist On Their Behalf it would
mean that I would be taking over the hegemonic power.

No thank you.

mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !