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Professor returns from Chiapas to write life story about Mexican woman

The water source for Flor de Margarita Pérez Pérez and her family is a hole in the ground with coffee-colored water about a fifth of a mile from their house up a steep trail.

http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/eber_perez.jpg CUTLINE: New Mexico State University associate professor of anthropology Christine Eber, left, works on compiling the family history and life story of Margarita Pérez Pérez, right, outside of her house in Chiapas, Mexico, in February 2009. (Courtesy Photo)

Water from a running faucet, indoor plumbing, kitchen appliances. Such everyday luxuries, most Americans take for granted, but not the Pérez family in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.

These everyday hardships are what Christine Eber, professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University's College of Arts and Sciences, witnesses each time she returns to Chiapas. Eber has developed a friendship with Pérez Pérez over the last two decades of her research.

Eber returned from a recent visit in the spring semester during which she recorded interviews to incorporate into her next book, which is the life story of Pérez Pérez.

"After knowing Margarita for over 20 years, I have had the opportunity to see the changes through her eyes," Eber said. "With this book, we would like to reach a broad audience and help them understand the conditions of life in Chiapas for indigenous people."

As part of these efforts, Eber recently had her first book translated into Spanish. Eber intends to make a bilingual edition of the life story called "Restless Spirits: The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman." She will submit the manuscript for publication in fall 2009.

Chiapas 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.

"Margarita has been involved in many cooperatives and social movements since she was a teenager. Through her life story, we would like to give a glimpse of the struggles her people go through, and how life has changed in highland Chiapas since the 1960s," Eber said.

When the armed uprising of the Zapatista movement took place in 1994, Pérez Pérez said she was unsure what it was, but thought that the Zapatistas were going to help change the way of life for the better for indigenous people in highlands Chiapas. She is still committed to the struggles of social injustices but doesn't see change happening overnight.

"Although I was very excited at first, later as they were saying, 'We're going to win, we're going to win a better life,' as the years passed, I didn't see any triumph. I began to think, 'Ah, the triumph will not come now.' All we can do is to struggle and struggle more and not give up," Pérez Pérez said.

"I could die in a week, or in a few months, so it's better that I not focus on triumph. It's better just to struggle so that something might change in the future," she said.

In "Restless Spirits," Eber is also trying to explore some of the differences and commonalities between women in the U.S. and Mexico. Through the story of how Pérez Pérez and her family have confronted the stresses of poverty and social injustices, Eber hopes to illustrate links between the fates of the people of Mexico and the U.S. in the context of the economic crises in both nations.

Eber is also applying knowledge gained through her research in Chiapas as a member 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. The group, which is a project of Sophia's Circle, a nonprofit art and cultural organization, grew out of a women's delegation that Eber organized to 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.

To view video clips of life in Chiapas captured by Eber in spring 2009, visit NMSU's YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/newmexicostateu and browse the keyword "Chiapas."

To learn more about the Las Cruces - Chiapas Connection, visit http://www.lascruceschiapasconnection.com.