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NMSU anthropologist brings research home

Although Christine Eber has been working with women in Chiapas, Mexico, for 15 years, the New Mexico State University anthropologist says she recently experienced a culminating point in her research.

Eber recently helped bring two women involved in cooperatives in Chiapas to Las Cruces to visit with students and community members. They shared their accounts of living and working in the divided region and sold weavings to benefit women in a weaving cooperative.

To share the work and struggles of the people of Chiapas with her students and the community, Eber helped create an exhibit titled "Cooperating for Their Lives," on display through Feb. 26 at NMSU's University Museum. Based on Eber's research, it depicts the daily life of a family she lived with in San Pedro Chenalho, a town in Chiapas.

"The exhibit is a teaching tool that gives visitors a window into the daily life of an indigenous family," Eber said. "It helps viewers imagine what it might be like to be a member of this family."

Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico. Many of its residents are poor natives. With the uprising of the Zapatistas in 1994, the problems of the indigenous people were brought to the world's attention. The people of Chiapas are seeking improved economic and living conditions and better representation in local, state and federal government.

Residents of Chiapas are suffering tough economic conditions as well as political violence. To support their families women have formed cooperatives, working together to create products they sell to tourists and in foreign markets. The women involved in these grassroots organizations are creating "alternatives to top-down economic models and the competition of the global marketplace," Eber said.

Eber's first experience with the people of Chiapas came while volunteering in a hospital there in 1984. "It opened my eyes to what the indigenous people endure and live with on a daily basis," she said. She saw gravely ill patients walk for days to reach the hospital for treatment, and people die from easily preventable diseases.

Eber has returned several times since then, studying the lives of the indigenous people, especially women. Her training is in feminist anthropology, which she says means maintaining "a continual openness to new views of human experience and a commitment to social justice."

In her research, Eber has worked to understand the situation of the women in Chiapas through their experiences, an aspect of anthropology she feels is crucial. "At times our voices, informed by theory, take precedence over their perspectives," she said. "It is important not to dominate them with my agenda and ideas."

In 1987 Eber lived with a host family in San Pedro Chenalho and shared their experiences of life to better understand their situations. "The most important meanings come from living with people," she said. "We can never know how others feel, but we can get close by living with them."

Eber has tried through her work to understand indigenous people's perspectives, but she cautions against believing there is a single native point of view. People have a variety of perspectives because of differing religions, politics, ethnicities, languages and traditions, she pointed out.

For that reason she is heartened by the women's cooperatives she works with in Chiapas. They bring women with many viewpoints together, working for survival. She believes we are watching a "deep wave of history moving forward with its own integrity and vision of progress."

Eber predicts women, especially young women, will be very important to this time of change. "For the first time in their people's memory women are asserting themselves in the public arena and gaining a sense of their own strength and voices," she said.

Eber brought two such women, Rosalinda Santiz Diaz, head of a women's weaving cooperative, and Ines Castro, from an organization supporting grassroots projects, to Las Cruces. The effort helped the women by enabling them to sell weavings to Dona Ana County residents. The visit helped the students and community by putting a human face on the situation in Chiapas.

The women sold $5,000 in weavings and said they were overwhelmed by the warm reception they received. Eber is looking forward to bringing other women weavers from Chiapas to Las Cruces in the future.

"We need to keep the dialogue open," Eber said. "The fruits are rich and wonderful for both the women and ourselves."