“Vehicle for Information”, Dr. Cymene Howe, Anthropology

The first time I went to Latin America, I was traveling with a friend and her family. She was a good friend of mine; she lived half a block away, and we had been friends since we were three years old. Both her parents had been in the Peace Corps, and they were pretty entrenched in the 1960s ethos and had joined the Peace Corps right after it had started. Her parents were very adventurous in that sense. They had lived in the Philippines, they had lived in India. From California it was very easy to go to Mexico. We would go and get in their van and go to Mexico. It was an adventure!

Later as an undergraduate, I did a more structured program. It was through something called the Sierra Institute. I don’t know if they still exist. It’s a study abroad program, except that you are not located in a university. It’s more like a field study, so you’re moving all the time. We went all over Guatemala, all over Belize. You would meet with different community leaders and you would meet with different academics and intellectuals in different towns and regions. But you’re constantly moving to different places and learning from that, from where you are. Sometimes we stayed in little hotels but we also camped a lot and did a lot of rainforest ecology. We would meet with farmers and talk about crops. We spent a lot of time in the highlands of Guatemala talking to people whose families had been victims of the genocide in Guatemala and the civil war. So to meet with them and talk to them was very anthropological and it was very hands-on in that way—meeting people and kind of “roughing it” too because the conditions were sometimes rough. I will never forget having to hike twenty-two miles through the rainforest in knee deep mud only to find that our only source of drinking water was a large puddle on the ground that was rife with insect larvae twitching and thrashing around in this murky water. Not microscopic mind you, but fully visible to the naked eye. Our task was to drop a water purification pill in our water bottles filled with this live water, wait a minute until the larvae stopped moving and then, “bottoms up!” It was pretty horrifying. In that sense, it is maybe surprising I became an anthropologist!

I was always very committed to pursuing my interests. From the very beginning, I declared my major in Women’s Studies as an undergraduate. I declared that major in my first semester of my first year. I just really knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I was very sure, and I never regretted it. So I think I really enjoyed my intellectual experience at that level. When I was thinking about going to graduate school, I did consider doing master’s programs. For example, there was a joint program in Latin American Studies and Public Health that would’ve been a great program to do certain development work in Latin America. I mean, you’re not a doctor, per se, but you can manage those projects. So that was a consideration, but then when I looked at the coursework in anthropology and the kinds of classes that were being taught, I just immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was inspired by the intellectual work that was going on at the doctoral level in cultural anthropology. I was also very influenced by a book, an ethnography about Nicaragua that I read while I lived in Nicaragua after finishing my undergraduate degree. So that book too was part of the reason for switching from Women’s Studies into Anthropology.

Later on my dissertation research took me back to Nicaragua. The activists for sexual rights who I’ve worked with there were very interested in getting their story told. I was working with activist groups who are marginalized in their own country and whose country is marginalized in the world. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. In these difficult economic conditions and given other factors, political, historical and cultural, these activists are very proud of the work they’re doing. They feel like they’re making changes, so they would say to me all the time, “Please tell the gringos what we’re doing here. We want you to be our mouthpiece. You’re the researcher, you’re the anthropologist, you’re the one who’s going to write the book in English. Go tell them what we’re doing.” So there was a strong feeling of support for the research project among the people that I was working with. So that is good for me to hear and to know. I get to feel like I’m a vehicle for getting that information out to others in the wider world.