I am honored to be featured on the inaugural Franz Boas Podcast of the San Francisco State Anthropology Department. The interview is available HERE.
Interview with Dr. Adrienne Pine, conducted by Dr. James Quesada
San Francisco, Nov. 14, 2014
JQ: My name is James Quesada. I am a professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at San Francisco State.
And I am pleased to be inaugurating our first podcast from Franz Boaz Radio, and I am especially pleased to inaugurate this with a dear friend and wonderful colleague, Dr. Adrienne Pine. She is a professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. She is well known in her work not only in Central America but also in Medical Anthropology, particularly around issues of labor and medicine, as well as human rights and social justice issues.
So I would like to begin by asking you, Adrienne, you have recently been working with the whole issue, contemporary issue, of Central America and unaccompanied minors coming into the United States and how that has created moral panic, producing strong xenophobic, nativist reaction. What can anthropologists do to provide a much more insightful - and hopefully incite a much more humanitarian - response to that?
AP: Well first of all, thank you so much for having me on this program. It's truly an honor to be on the inaugural podcast, and I think anthropologists' involvement in this unaccompanied child migrant debate is incredibly important given how misinformed much of the media coverage - much of the mainstream media coverage - has been.
I think what we bring to the table is an offering of context and historical and cultural understandings that can really challenge some of the narratives that blame culture for the crisis. And also blame the crisis in terms of a sort of demographic xenophobic crisis at the border.
The crisis is [perceived to be] that these children are coming into the United States. It's not [perceived to be] that they're fleeing incredible violence in their own countries. And for anthropologists who work in Central America, of course, we understand the crisis from an on-the-ground ethnographic perspective as one which is not at all a crisis of bad Central American culture, of gang culture, of bad parenting, of misinformation about immigration policy in the U.S. - which is what have been painted as the causal factors for this crisis here in the United States. But rather, it's an ongoing crisis based in decades of U.S. intervention in the region, of treating Central America as its back yard, of militarily intervening in the most horrific and violent ways leading to series of wars, and of course most recently supporting the coup in Honduras in 2009, which has unraveled into a situation of the worst violence that I think has ever been seen in a peace-time country.
Honduras since 2010 has been the most violent country in the world and that's really a direct result of U.S. intervention to prop up the coup that took place in 2009, which has insured that there has been an environment of impunity and incredible militarization supporting a neoliberal project that is deeply usurping the sovereignty of Hondurans and leaving them with very few options for survival. Not even for economic survival but for physical survival given that the murder rate is the highest in the world.
So if we accept the mainstream narrative, we're missing the entire context of why this is happening. And that's a context I think a lot of migration/immigration activists understand, but it's a context that anthropologists have the luxury of really spending years working on deeply and thinking about and writing about and articulating in a variety of ways. Not just in an advocacy forum but in a more in-depth theoretical way that enables us to be perhaps even more useful when we come to the table as advocates, as activists.
JQ: A follow up from that - and this might be a difficult question - but what do you account for the intransigence and the denial in the American body politic to really take into account the broader context? Is it because it doesn't fit into really easy, 90-second sound bites?
AP: First of all, yes. I think that it doesn't fit into 90-second sound-bites, which is what we have become accustomed to with the increasing narrowness of the corporate media and the kinds of messages that can be broadcast within the corporate media. But above and beyond that, we have a certain idea of ourselves as a human-rights respecting country, as a democracy-exporting country, and I think when people begin to understand the history of Central America, and understand it ethnographically, it becomes very clear that the United States as a nation, as a government, is exactly the opposite of what we believe it to be. It's a democracy-destroying, a democracy-preventing country. It's a violence-creating country. It's a human-rights abusing country. It's a militarizing country. And that implicates all of us. And I think it's a really hard message to hear if you feel good about this country.
And I think that there are ways that we can continue to feel good about the ideals of this country and fight to make those reality, rather than blaming people who prove that the ideals of this country are not currently reality. And those people are migrants. I mean, the fact that they are escaping the violence of U.S. foreign policy by coming to the United States is confusing for a lot of people, and it belies our narrative about ourselves.
JQ: I love your overview and understanding of that. And I'm just wondering whether you can say something about what kind of activism - not just only anthropologists - but how we could stimulate mobilization and activism around this issue.
AP: That question is really the central question of public anthropology: how can we make a difference? And I think the answer in a nutshell is, 'Every way possible.' I think we have to write those academic articles that are only read by ourselves on the one hand because that really helps us with our analysis, and it's what gives us the institutional stability to have a position for advocacy. But I think more importantly than that we have to be writing in a very broad range of public venues. And perhaps more importantly than that we have to be working directly in solidarity with the people who are suffering even more from the kinds of structural violence that affects all of us. Suffering much more of course. You know, as a college professor, I'm embedded in a system of neoliberal academic violence, but it is nothing compared to the kind of violence that the people with whom I work - and with whom I feel great solidarity in Central America - suffer on a day-to-day basis. And in particular, when they come to the United States border, which, with the huge expansion of customs and the border patrol as an agency now encompasses the whole country and much of the world.
So I think working directly with those people and following rather than leading people who are affected by extreme structural violence is what is important to do. And so, for me, that's taken a wide variety of forms, from translating articles written by activists from Spanish into English, to helping to organize rallies, vigils, protests. I live in D.C. so we have a lot of places to protest - State Department, Congress, wherever it may be - to holding public informational events. You know, I think there's so much that can be done, and it really depends on the particular context. And I think it's also important to think strategically - and to not confuse tactics with strategies as an anthropologist. I mean, I think this is something important for anybody that's an activist, but I think particularly as an anthropologist. So sometimes it really is strategic to publish an article but doing it in collaboration with grass-roots organizers who are planning to have a protest at the same time. And that can help to give background, to draw more people to a protest. But always with an eye on these larger structures.
So I think if you get too narrowly focused on any one particular issue, and forget the larger structures of imperialism and militarism and corporate governance, then it's not as affective as if you are working on those local and global levels at the same time.
JQ: I really appreciate that. And it really belies the fact how you are a partisan and militant anthropologist. And I would be derelict if I didn't ask how this might affect you professionally. You are a tenure-track junior faculty member at the Department of Anthropology at American University, and to be engaged and vocal about the human rights and social justice issues in - dare I say - the belly of the beast, in the navel of the beast, Washington, D.C., how does that affect you professionally and in terms of your career?
AP: Well, I'm going to take that question on a more general level I think, because there are a lot of anthropologists today who are really dedicated to this project of public anthropology, of militant or engaged anthropology.
And I think everybody who sees themselves as an activist and an anthropologist in an inseparable way really faces a challenge that people who are just going a sort of non-activist scholarly route don't face. Because it can call into question the seriousness of our scholarship if we are engaged in these ‘partisan’, as you call them, struggles.
And so, I mean, I think what we really have to do - unfortunately given the structure of academia which sees activism as a negative rather than as a positive - is that it's more important for activist anthropologists than for regular anthropologists to publish, publish, publish. To publish those scholarly articles to make sure that we have the time and the legitimacy to be able to do the activism as well.
So what that really means, as junior faculty, pre-tenured faculty, we need to work twice as hard if we care about activism, if we care about social justice. Because the only way that we can get tenure is by proving beyond a doubt - despite our commitment to social justice - we also are good scholars.
JQ: Yes, I think that's a good point. I think that the other thing, though, is that here you are doing this on your own as a junior faculty, what does that mean in terms of extending out into a network or a community of other anthropologists in terms of trying to build a community of like-minded scholars?
AP: Well, for me from the start, my commitment to solidarity and activism has been more important than my career. And I think that that has enabled me, and it's given me more freedom than people whose life-long dream is to become a college professor. And while I love being a college professor and I adore my students, and I love my colleagues, it's more important for me to have this community. And building this community and being part of it has been the most enriching part yet of my career as an anthropologist.
JQ: Thank you very much, Adrienne. Thank you for inaugurating our first podcast and I look forward to reading more of your work. And your last book from U.C. Press - Working Hard, Drinking Hard - to my mind is one of the most important recent books on Central America and in particular Honduras that I use in all my classes. And I just want to thank you for the work that you've done.
AP: Thank you so much.
JQ: This is James Quesada saying, "Learn, Think, Do." Thank you.