Our Laboratory of Anthropolocura

Native anthropologists are building an aspirational anthropological praxis that is unapologetically political, decolonial, and intersectional.

New Mexico is a space-time vortex where ancestral Puebloan ceremonial centers reside in the shadow of Los Alamos National Laboratories. Adobe dwellings and pastoral landscapes form the backdrop for sci-fi fantasies, alien crash landings, and a bankrupt spaceport in the desert. This place of speculation and time-traveling contradictions is a perfect location from which to consider the trappings of modernity and anthropological futurity.

Corn Maidens 13. Santa Clara Pueblo Tewa artist, Jason Garcia (Okuu Pin), blends Pueblo traditional methods, materials, and stories with elements of popular culture to depict the daily realities of his community. In this hand-pressed clay tile, the Corn Maidens defy expectations. They reverse and displace the tourist/anthropological gaze. Perched high on a rooftop, the scene they are observing below remains inaccessible to the viewer. In the background, rain clouds float above adobe homes mounted with satellite dishes. Garcia’s artwork strides seamlessly between tradition and technology, ancient customs and modernity, producing creative spaces for anthropolocura. Jason Garcia

This so-called, “Land of Enchantment,” became a national sacrifice zone at the height of World War II, marking the region’s majority Native American and Nuevomexicana/o inhabitants nonessential and expendable. It was the birthplace of the nuclear bomb and is now a gravesite for radioactive waste. Environmental colonialism contaminates the landscape, from uranium mining and toxic spills in Navajo Country to hydraulic fracking in Mora County. Meanwhile, rural communities have become dependent on the energy industries, which are both a source of environmental ruination and a source of income. High-tech production, scientific exploration, and space tourism benefit the few, while many families confront the depressing reality that their children may not have a future in their ancestral homeland.

While the laboratory for anthropology produced a wealth of knowledge and provided many opportunities for women writers and ethnographers, salvage anthropology composed a past-oriented concept of culture that has gained incredible currency.
The laboratory is a metaphor for the future. It is a place where theories are tested and inventions created, where scientific reason and rationality reign. This site of future-making is also a gated community where only those with access to training and education can participate. New Mexico was designated a laboratory for anthropology at the dawn of the discipline in the early twentieth century. Some of the most notable forebears of the American anthropological tradition—Frank Hamilton Cushing, Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Lewis Henry Morgan (to name a few)—came to New Mexico to study Pueblo Indians. They each contributed in different ways to constructing culture concepts out of the raw materials that living and ancestral Native Americans and internally colonized Mexicans provided them. This material included our lifeways, languages, ritual objects, stories, ceremonies, social and family arrangements, dwellings, and down to our very flesh and bones.

This knowledge is part of the anthropological cannon but is considered antiquated and rarely read outside of introductory courses that trace the historical trajectory of the discipline. In contrast, it forms the foundation of New Mexico scholarship. As New Mexico scholars, we are expected to have digested it and carefully evaluated it, and perhaps to speak against it, while others can toss it aside. In many ways, these uninvited ancestors continue to haunt us.

Within the salvage ethnography paradigm that guided early anthropological methods and motives, the native inhabitants of New Mexico were on the road to extinction. As victims of modernity, we were not expected to exist into the future, at least not with our cultural memories intact. Therefore, the goal was to document or collect the last vestiges of our “primitive society” so that future generations could learn what we (objects of analysis) would not be present or able to teach them. The laboratory of anthropology, which is also our homeland and the place where we do our homework (as opposed to fieldwork), was not created to be a material and intellectual space for us to conduct our own investigations or determine our own futures. Instead, it was intended to enclose us within a particular imaginary of the past.

Before we can ponder anthropological futures, we must reckon with its colonial past because these legacies have broad implications. While the laboratory for anthropology produced a wealth of knowledge and provided many opportunities for women writers and ethnographers, salvage anthropology composed a past-oriented concept of culture that has gained incredible currency. It has underwritten an entire culture industry including heritage preservation, museum exhibits and collections, volumes of literature on tradition or traditionalization, and also grassroots cultural revitalization movements. In New Mexico, the drive to preserve disappearing cultures, which defined early anthropological research and collecting, is deeply entrenched within the logic of cultural institutions, legal frameworks, ethnic art markets, and the popular imagination. Struggles over natural resources, claims to place and space, and notions of local citizenship get couched in cultural preservation in order to get heard or become mired in authenticity testing. This preservationist framework cramps collective movements for social change because the legitimacy of our claims, our voices, and our aspirations for a better future so often hinge on our ability to prove cultural continuity.

Anthropolocura is a combination of critical discovery (scientific, collective, and personal) and madness. It thrives on the stuff your professors warned you about: personal enmeshment, family ties, durable commitments, challenging emotional work, and unsettling ethical dilemmas.
As Arjun Appadurai (2013) has noted, the future can be defined as the collective capacity to aspire. This capacity to aspire for improved conditions of living must be cultivated at all levels of society but especially among marginalized communities who are often left out of future-making projects (or incorporated in problematic ways). Native anthropologists, hometown anthropologists, Latinx anthropologists, however we choose to define ourselves and our community work, are engaged in aspirational practices of activism and collaborative research within our communities of origin. We are reclaiming the laboratory for ourselves to build an aspirational praxis, one that is unapologetically political, decolonial, and intersectional. Futurity rides on the tenacity of what Alex Chávez (2017) calls the “anthropology of dissent” in the classroom and in our scholarship. Positioned at the margins of the discipline, our work is too close to home, muddled in cultural bias, overly political, applied rather than theoretical.

However, our preference for homework—a collaborative learning process that challenges anthropology’s preference for the faraway field—is a natural outgrowth of our abiding interest in documenting and participating in acts of resistance and movements for social change in our communities and in our hometowns. It also stems from our discomfort with the sticky colonial legacies of the laboratory of anthropology. The native anthropologist is duplicitous, partly because all researchers and writers are suspect in Indian Country and nativeness is a matter of degree. Therefore, we are not interested in giving consejos or making predictions at this point. We can talk about anthropological futures when this field has healed.

It is time we dialogue critically about anthropology’s laboratory and its productions of futurity. Do we allow it to become a ruin in the light of the resolana or do we occupy its laboratory for ourselves and “others”? What writing will be produced in this laboratory? Will it generate critical anthropologies through which our/their stories can be written in conversation with local sensibilities and knowledges? We do not have easy answers to these questions. Instead, we propose a new space, let’s call it a workshop or taller, for anthropolocura.

Anthropolocura is a combination of critical discovery (scientific, collective, and personal) and madness. It thrives on the stuff your professors warned you about: personal enmeshment, family ties, durable commitments, challenging emotional work, and unsettling ethical dilemmas. Anthropolocura is insurgent and unruly, adhering to alternate realities and radical forms of dialogue and codes of respect. It is a borderlandia steeped in the interdisciplinary, incarnate (as opposed to abstract), genre-bending, queering, and experimental. Its locuras (or theories) emerge from homework and methodologies derived from ethnic studies and subjugated other/othered knowledges. At its heart is decolonial sanación. The future must be an anthropolocura que cura.

Aimee Villarreal has been practicing anthropolocura in her hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico for over a decade. Her research focuses on immigrant rights activism, sanctuary cities, and transnational religious movements. She is currently assistant professor of Mexican American studies at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.

David F. García, PhD, is an anthropologist and scholar in residence at the Center for Regional Studies at the University of New Mexico. He writes about land-based agriculture movements, popular education, and foodways as they relate to water sharing and sustainability. He is also a community musician who has participated in Indo-Hispano ritual dance traditions for more than 20 years.

Cite as: Villarreal, Aimee, and David F. García. 2018. “Our Laboratory of Anthropolocura.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.920

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