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Lewis' Novel Begins Where Anthropology Leaves Off

THE CHILDREN OF SANCHEZ, by Oscar Lewis. Random House. $7.50.499 pp.

By Walter L. Goldfrank

FOR the first time in its short (about 50 years) history, anthropology has produced a book that will become a commercial motion picture, and probably a great one. As this indicates, The Children of Sanchez is far closer in spirit and content to an unfinished epic novel. But for the fact that Mr. Lewis used conventional social science techniques -- tape-recording interviews in the setting of another culture, editing them, and publishing them -- this volume would have no claim to being anthropology at all. By allowing the Sanchez family to literally speak for itself, Mr. Lewis has given us a document whose scientific values lies in its existence rather than any conclusions it draws.

What happens when one begins Children of Sanchez thinking, "Ho-hum, another anthropologist," is that after about five pages, one forgets all about concepts, and avidly enters into a gripping world of often unbearably real people. Yet while Lewis--I'm not sure purposely--redefines anthropology as dramatic novel, at the same time he continues in perhaps the most important ideological mainstream of anthropological thought: giving a voice, and dignity, to the backward and poverty-stricken peoples of the non-white world. An incomplete summary of the history of the discipline will serve to place Lewis' work in perspective.

Not very long ago, Sir James Frazer sat in his leather armchair, distilling an impressive compendia of primitive customs from the reports of adventurous travelers; at the same time his countrymen were rallying to the jingoist battle cries of Kipling. Nor was the primacy of white civilization absent from the American idiom: with the then recent defeat of the last of the Indians, the slogan "Better dead than Red" still meant something. Soon after the turn of the century, however, modern cultural anthropology was born, when Franz Boas left his study and took to the hills in search of the truth about "primitive" peoples. Boas was soon joined by others; that they devoted their attention first to the North American Indians can be attributed to more than geographical convenience; it stands as a clear example of the role of guilt in American intellectual life.

Meanwhile in England, Bronislaw Malinowski was the first to follow Boas' example; his classic studies of the Trobriand Islanders (South Pacific) retain a certain preeminence even today. Yet his attitude toward his subjects reveals a sometime adherence to the rigidly traditional notion of the ignoble savage--a title such as The Sexual Life of the Savage gives this much away. In recent years as well, the most prominent British anthropologists, by refining and applying their method of "structural analysis," have published many brilliant analyses. But by and large they have been concerned as impartial social scientists rather than justifiably guilty intellects.

This is not to imply that American anthropology has lacked scholarship. What must be stressed as well, however, is its tendency to invoke the opposite myths: the noble savage and his gemeinschaft society, unfettered by civilized restraint in a rural paradise with a stable moral order. Such was the picture painted by Robert Redfield of the Mexican village of Tepoztlan; such was the picture that Oscar Lewis challenged when he broke precedent by restudying Tepoztlan. His invasion of another scholar's territory touched off a controversy. Lewis accused Redfield of looking at peasants through rosy-colored lenses; Redfiled damned Lewis' pessimism. The Children of Sanchez could provoke the same sort of hassle, but it shouldn't: by providing a short introduction and arranging the interview material, Lewis kept out of the picture to a great extent.

SEVERAL factors set off The Children of Sanchez from most other writings in the field. Most obviously, its form. Lewis presents a multiple autobiography of Jesus Sanchez and four of his children. Then, too, its subjects represent a new field of study. The Sanchez family are urban slum-dwellers. They are not all literate, but are very well-spoken, indicating perhaps that Lewis' technique could not be fruitfully applied to a culture with a limited vocabulary and a limited range of experience. Finally, the literary structure Lewis presents is a three-act drama (novel?) (each act covering the same time period) with four scenes per act (the story of that period as told by the four children), and a prologue and epilogue in the words of the father.

The protagonists stand out: Jesus Sanchez left his peasant home at an early age, coming to Mexico City, and eventually finding work in a restaurant. At the time of the writing he is 50, still works for the restaurant (in addition to holding several odd jobs), and supports 25 people in three dwellings, two of which are one-room affairs. Jesus is living with one of his three surviving common law wives (he had five, in succession). Immediately impressive is his energy, his strictness, his often fickle generosity. He plays favorites with a vengeance, seemingly contradicting his own heart, as he shelters and feeds his grown children without being able to demonstrate the affection he so clearly feels for them. These four are the offspring of his second wife Lenore, who died when the eldest, Manuel, was 8, Roberto 6, Consuelo 4, and Marta 2.

A great raconteur, Manuel reveals himself as an intelligent picaro, with a tragic marriage which ended when his wife died and his mistress married someone else, leaving him with children whom he refuses to care for. Before this trauma, he had lived through a mixed childhood, marrying at 15, but still fatally attracted to his first love. After it, he attempts to start over as a laborer in California, only to return to Mexico City and a life of shady dealings on the open market, gambling, and drink.

Roberto is close in spirit to Dmitri Karamazov. A mischievous youth, he is of darker skin than the others in his family, and he suffers for it. From the start he cannot resist thievery, cannot stay out of trouble. He deserts the army, and back in the city continues to brawl and rob. At the same time, he proves simpler, more genuine than any of his siblings, although he has difficulty in being able to love, especially as he must accept the taboo which prevents his declaring and consummating his passion for his half-sister Antonia. He harbors a just hatred for the police; while admitting his wrongdoings, he has suffered brutal torture at their hands, when they tried to make him confess to crimes he didn't commit:

They gave me the torture called 'del ahogadito' -- the little drowning. They make you strip off every stitch of clothing down to your undershorts, then they distract your attention and when you are least expecting it, you get a punch in the stomach or the liver and before you catch your breath, they grab you by the hair and push you head first into a barrel of water . . . There were other tortures, like 'the little monkey.' In this one they strip the prisoner and put him up on a pole that goes across the room under the ceiling, making him hang head down by his knees. Then they take a live wire and shock his testicles with it. . . .

Consuelo, the elder daughter, is the only one of the four who attempts to rise on the social ladder. Like Manuel, she finished grade school, but she goes on for two years of commercial training. In all her jobs, however, her bosses try to seduce her; it is a coworker, Mario, to whom she gives herself, but she does not love him. Her efforts to raise herself to bourgeois respectability make her an outcast at home, while her attractiveness to hungry employers makes her feel unable to continue working.

Finally there is Marta, who as a young girl was the opposite of her studious sister. She pals around with Roberto and his friends, hitching rides on the bumpers of trolleys, playing in the streets. But at about 14 she runs off and marries a rat, who alternately leaves her and comes back, finally leaving her with four children. Then she meets Baltasar, whom she does not love, but who accepts temporary responsibility for the children. At the time of the interviews, she too is miserable, and with her whole family, living on the generosity of Jesus.

IT would be folly for me to continue describing the lives of these people, for it is impossible to know them without listening to their words. Lewis senses this, for his brief introduction does little more than present a rough description of what he calls the culture of poverty," a culture he finds among the urban poor throughout the world. Marked by instability, over crowded living conditions, an inability to plan ahead, a frequent resort to violence as the only reaction to strain, the culture of poverty is nonetheless not without positive aspects. As corollaries of instability and irresponsibility, one finds a strong sense of freedom, an ability to live, if ephemerally, in the present, and a wonderful lack of concern for possessions (Lewis does not seem to think the latter so admirable).

He also gives a few appalling statistics about the situation of the poor in Mexico, such as that one and a half million of the four million residents of the capital live in deprivation equal to or worse than that of the Sanchez family, and that according to the census 89% of all Mexican families earn less than 600 pesos ($69.) month.

As for his multiple autobiographical method, Lewis says that the several lives serve as a check on each other - the text reveals the consistently human trait of thinking better of oneself than others do. The biggest bone of contention with many critics has rather been with the fact that Lewis "edited and arranged" the material. I cannot agree with those who would see a distortion in his skillful job, however, for there are many spots in the text where the narrative jumps in an unavoidable illogical fashion from one experience to another. Furthermore, he will make the tapes available to any colleague who wishes to check up on him.

Although Lewis will publish his analysis of the material in the near future one does feel that his introduction could have been fuller. What stood out in all of the lives was an incapacity to love, to trust, and there are abundant indications that at the bottom of this fact lies a sense of maternal deprivation. How much of this feeling resulted from the children's early loss of their mother is hard to say, for a good deal of Mexican culture in general seems to reflect, on the one hand, an extreme form of the cult of the Virgin, to whose various shrines frequent pilgrimages are undertaken), and on the other, what seem the predominant characteristics of each sex--withdrawn females who take revenge when they become mothers, and boastful, swaggering males who resort easily to violence and cannot treat a woman as a human. Jesus himself perceives the inaptness behind the pride:

"Yes, at times we men want to be very strong and very macho, but at bottom we aren't. When it is about a question of morality or a family thing that touches the very fibers of the heart, it hurts, and a man cries when he is alone. You must a man cries when he is alone. You must have noticed that many people drown themselves in drink and others grab a pistol and shoot themselves, because they cannot bear what they feel inside."

At one point Lewis notes that "the most effective tools of the anthropologist are sympathy and compassion for the people he studies." Indeed, it was a mean feat to establish a rapport strong enough to permit the frankness and depth of the interviews. At the same time, he claimed that his method avoids "sentimentalization and brutalization. The latter, yes, but when he later states that the poor are "the true heroes of contemporary Mexico, for they are paying the cost of the industrial progress of the nation," he confuses heroes with victims in an unabashedly sentimental fashion. I doubt that any Sanchez thinks of himself as a hero: to the often great extent that they see how much they are victims of themselves as well as of social crisis, they emerge as a family that tells us that people are about much more accurately--and of course, movingly--than any social scientist can hope to, if he wishes to remain a professional. The terrifying reality of The Children Sanchez lies in the essential identity these people and oneself; like occasional other human documents, it strikes a chord deep inside one, a chord that sounds even through any academic fiddling one performs in order to keep control.

As for his multiple autobiographical method, Lewis says that the several lives serve as a check on each other - the text reveals the consistently human trait of thinking better of oneself than others do. The biggest bone of contention with many critics has rather been with the fact that Lewis "edited and arranged" the material. I cannot agree with those who would see a distortion in his skillful job, however, for there are many spots in the text where the narrative jumps in an unavoidable illogical fashion from one experience to another. Furthermore, he will make the tapes available to any colleague who wishes to check up on him.

Although Lewis will publish his analysis of the material in the near future one does feel that his introduction could have been fuller. What stood out in all of the lives was an incapacity to love, to trust, and there are abundant indications that at the bottom of this fact lies a sense of maternal deprivation. How much of this feeling resulted from the children's early loss of their mother is hard to say, for a good deal of Mexican culture in general seems to reflect, on the one hand, an extreme form of the cult of the Virgin, to whose various shrines frequent pilgrimages are undertaken), and on the other, what seem the predominant characteristics of each sex--withdrawn females who take revenge when they become mothers, and boastful, swaggering males who resort easily to violence and cannot treat a woman as a human. Jesus himself perceives the inaptness behind the pride:

"Yes, at times we men want to be very strong and very macho, but at bottom we aren't. When it is about a question of morality or a family thing that touches the very fibers of the heart, it hurts, and a man cries when he is alone. You must a man cries when he is alone. You must have noticed that many people drown themselves in drink and others grab a pistol and shoot themselves, because they cannot bear what they feel inside."

At one point Lewis notes that "the most effective tools of the anthropologist are sympathy and compassion for the people he studies." Indeed, it was a mean feat to establish a rapport strong enough to permit the frankness and depth of the interviews. At the same time, he claimed that his method avoids "sentimentalization and brutalization. The latter, yes, but when he later states that the poor are "the true heroes of contemporary Mexico, for they are paying the cost of the industrial progress of the nation," he confuses heroes with victims in an unabashedly sentimental fashion. I doubt that any Sanchez thinks of himself as a hero: to the often great extent that they see how much they are victims of themselves as well as of social crisis, they emerge as a family that tells us that people are about much more accurately--and of course, movingly--than any social scientist can hope to, if he wishes to remain a professional. The terrifying reality of The Children Sanchez lies in the essential identity these people and oneself; like occasional other human documents, it strikes a chord deep inside one, a chord that sounds even through any academic fiddling one performs in order to keep control.

"Yes, at times we men want to be very strong and very macho, but at bottom we aren't. When it is about a question of morality or a family thing that touches the very fibers of the heart, it hurts, and a man cries when he is alone. You must a man cries when he is alone. You must have noticed that many people drown themselves in drink and others grab a pistol and shoot themselves, because they cannot bear what they feel inside."

At one point Lewis notes that "the most effective tools of the anthropologist are sympathy and compassion for the people he studies." Indeed, it was a mean feat to establish a rapport strong enough to permit the frankness and depth of the interviews. At the same time, he claimed that his method avoids "sentimentalization and brutalization. The latter, yes, but when he later states that the poor are "the true heroes of contemporary Mexico, for they are paying the cost of the industrial progress of the nation," he confuses heroes with victims in an unabashedly sentimental fashion. I doubt that any Sanchez thinks of himself as a hero: to the often great extent that they see how much they are victims of themselves as well as of social crisis, they emerge as a family that tells us that people are about much more accurately--and of course, movingly--than any social scientist can hope to, if he wishes to remain a professional. The terrifying reality of The Children Sanchez lies in the essential identity these people and oneself; like occasional other human documents, it strikes a chord deep inside one, a chord that sounds even through any academic fiddling one performs in order to keep control.

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