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Cultural anthropologist, NMSU grad collaborate on research of Mexican communities

Creating and understanding a world where we all "fit" is something Christine Eber, associate professor of anthropology, and Rebecca Wiggins, an NMSU graduate, are passionate about. It's apparent through Eber's more than 20 years of on-going research in Chiapas, Mexico and Wiggins's research and social activism in the border region.

New Mexico State University associate professor of anthropology Christine Eber and NMSU graduate Rebecca Wiggins admire some of the items crafted by members of the Chiapas, Mexico community. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

Eber will return to Chiapas during her sabbatical in February for about a month for further work on her newest book featuring the life-story of a Mexican woman, Flor de Margarita Pérez Pérez.

Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, has a tumultuous history including long-standing inequalities in access to land and resources, disease and poverty and non-existent health and educational facilities. To combat these setbacks and to support their families, indigenous groups in Chiapas have formed cooperatives that build upon local knowledge and skills in order to market coffee, weavings or other artisan work, Eber said.

Supporting cooperatives is a major part of the vision of Las Cruces - Chiapas Connection, a volunteer group with goals to empower women in their communities, find fair trade markets for cooperatives and study women's issues and the negative effects of globalization. Eber and Wiggins are members of this group that includes representatives from the Las Cruces community, NMSU and several indigenous communities in Chiapas. The group, which is a project of Sophia's Circle, a nonprofit art and cultural organization, grew out of a delegation that Eber organized in the highlands of Chiapas in 2003. In addition to seeking fair trade markets for weavings, the group seeks funding for scholarships for students in highland Chiapas to attend junior high and high school and study grants for weavers to develop their skills and to teach younger members how to weave.

In Eber's mind the glass is half full but also half empty for women in indigenous communities of Chiapas. "Since the 1980s I have seen how women have gained a greater sense of self worth and confidence in the world in which they live, but they're not yet in strong enough positions to take their rightful places in the political affairs of their communities or the nation," she said.

Eber stresses the importance of keeping dialogue open between communities in the border region and in Mexico, despite recent government initiatives which have created barriers to cross-border work. "I want my students to be 'ears for the earless,' rather than voices for the voiceless," Eber said. "I want them to understand that socially and economically marginalized people, like indigenous women in Chiapas, have much to say, but those in power rarely listen to them."

Wiggins, who conducted her master's thesis research in Chiapas, took a specific interest in this philosophy and has been applying it in her research and advocacy into the humanitarian crisis along the border. "The people of Mexico have so much to teach us. My master's thesis changed my life," Wiggins said. In the small town of Palomas, Mexico, just across the border from Columbus, N.M. she followed the struggles of families fighting to survive. Over 40 people were murdered in Palomas due to drug trafficking and other unknown reasons since the start of 2008. This creates economic hardships on families forcing many to use a trade or skill to assist in generating income, Wiggins said.

"Before Christmas a friend (NMSU grad student April Willeford) and I filled a 17-foot U-Haul with food and clothing donations we collected for families in need. It was very humbling to see so many people choose to donate to this cause from El Paso, Las Cruces and as far away as Ohio and Wisconsin," Wiggins said. They donated the truckload of items to people in the Palomas and Lomas del Poleo, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico south of El Paso.

"Rebecca has realized my hope that students will write about the social conditions in Chiapas and in our border region and also get involved in confronting injustices," Eber said referring to Wiggins's recent articles in The Grassroots Press. Wiggins has written about violence and social upheaval on the border and her findings while observing women's cooperatives. Wiggins is a member of the Lomas del Poleo Alliance, a volunteer organization including members of the community with an interest in seeking justice for the people of Lomas del Poleo who are struggling to keep their land.

"I admire and value all the people I have met along this journey and the courage and strength of the people of Lomas del Poleo. It is a lesson for all of us," Wiggins said.

Another way that Eber has tried to keep dialogue open and encourage students to write is to translate her research into Spanish. Her ethnography, "Water of Hope: Water of Sorrow: Women & Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town," was recently published in Spanish. Eber feels the Spanish edition which took 13 years to complete is one of the most important contributions she has made as an anthropologist. "Finally, Mexican students, both indigenous and non-indigenous, can read what academics in the U.S. are writing about their cultures and history and in turn be inspired to write from their own experiences and perspectives."

For more information about the Las Cruces - Chiapas Connection visit www.lascruceschiapasconnection.com or call (575) 646-2448 or (575) 525-3700. For more information about the Lomas del Poleo Alliance contact wiggins@nmsu.edu