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More Than a Club, It's A Research Community

The Chiapas Project

By Carol J. Greenhouse

"It's more than just the bricks and mortar that make up the buildings. It is building these good relationships with people. Every year, we can reach deeper into the Indian view of the world."

DURING THE spring, they hide it under a starred upper-level Soc Rel course description. During the summer, they call it the Harvard Field Studies Program. But the Chiapas Project--its director calls it a "perfect anthropological laboratory"--is an on-going and well-loved enterprise that belies its forbidding catalogue number and stodgy label.

The state of Chiapas is deep in southern Mexico. Its highlands border on Guatemala to the east; to the west are the steamy lowlands and the famous Aztec ruins. The Harvard field station in San Cristobal (which Mexico on $5 a Day calls the least "civilized" of the major Mexican cities) is in a lush valley almost eight thousand feet high.

Evon Z. Vogt, professor of Social Anthropology and director of the Project, says that it was the countryside that first attracted him to the area. His office is lined with blown-up photographs of tall pines and mountains rising above clouds, and he has hundreds of slides of very impressive scenery.

But there are also 125,000 Indians living in Chiapas, and they were what made the area "fabulously interesting" for ethnographic work. For the past thirty years, the Mexican government has been trying to "Ladinoize" the Indians, and Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) has mobilized several studies of culture change in the Indian villages all over Mexico since 1950.

Vogt saw Chiapas for the first time in 1955, when Dr. Alfonso Caso, director of INI, invited him to Mexico to visit potential sites for applied anthropology. Chiapas seemed ideal for several reasons. First, the Indians in Chiapas are the descendants of the ancient Mayans, so knowledge of their customs goes as far back as the Spanish Conquest. Second, the Indian communities are in the midst of a slow urbanization process that is challenging many of their traditions. Third, the countryside was beautiful and the climate hospitable.

Vogt was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford at the time, and he applied for a "small grant" from the Center to develop a project near San Cristobal las Casas, former capital of the state. The first group of students did not go down until summer, 1957. By then, the National Institute of Mental Health was financing the Project.

THE PROJECT was very different then--Vogt calls 1957-1960 "Phase I." The Indians believed that white men would kill them to make lard to oil their machines, and they were so frightened and suspicious that they would run when approached. Vogt recalls that the Americans "were just as frightened as the Indians" and spent much of that first summer building a house for themselves and observing from a distance.

In 1960, "Phase II" began. The Carnegie Corporation offered to finance the Project as part of its worldwide research program in culture change. Columbia and Cornell were also invited to participate in the program, and the first undergraduates were accepted to do field work. The modern Chiapas Project began taking shape. Field workers learned Tzotzil, the Indian language, and lived with native families rather than in houses they built themselves. The increased contact paid off--the Indians began to trust the anthropologists enough to believe that their presence would cause them no harm.

Later, the National Science Foundation agreed to finance Phase II; now Harvard's Department of Anthropology and the Center for Behavioral Sciences support the fifteen Harvard graduate students and undergraduates who go for three months during the summer.

The Chiapas Project has come a long way since that first season in 1957. Although all the students rent rooms in San Cristobal, they alternate their time there with stays of a few days to several weeks in Indian villages. Each has his own project, with seminars and meetings during the summer to coordinate field work, provide supervision and synthesize some of the results. Students live with native families when they are in the field, improving the Tzotzil they studied back in Cambridge and working in either Tzotzil or Spanish (many of the men speak at least some Spanish; almost none of the women do). In marked contrast to their fearful elusiveness that first year, observers are now allowed to participate in and even to photograph ceremonies.

IT TOOK four seasons before the Indian community developed enough confidence in the Project to give the field workers the freedom necessary for a broad, open-ended project. But now, Chiapas students have almost no restrictions on the scope and depth of their project. Another indication of the Project's success is that it has expanded from the original municipio of Zinacantan to a second, Chamula, where working conditions are more sensitive because the people are not thoroughly used to the American presence. Vogt plans to start work in a third municipio soon.

A municipio is a cluster of villages around a "ceremonial center," where there are the town hall, jail, church, marketplace and a school. In the municipio of Zinacantan, for example, most of the 7600 Indians live in the surrounding hamlets, called parajes, moving in to the center only when they hold one of the many religious or political posts, or have protracted business in the market. Travel between the center and the villages is frequent and routine. Each paraje has its own political structure, and the political system in the municipio draws on all the parajes. The Zinacantecos have an agricultural economy, but their cornfields are in Tierra Caliente ("hot country") at a lower altitude. Wealth is measured in corn, and it is a staple food as well as the most marketable product in San Cristobal.

The ethnographic data from Chiapas fills two rooms and several walls on the fourth floor of William James. Much of it is in the form of bound field notes and field reports, as well as some of the 80 monographs and articles, 18 of which are in preparation or in press. The Project files also boast 11 doctoral dissertations, and seven senior theses. A twenty-minute film on the life of Zinacanteco women has just been completed, adding one more dimension to the Project's multimedia facilities (there is also a set of Tzotzil language lab tapes). But by far the most impressive part of the Project's machinery is the aerial photo lab, also in William James. Rolls of film are stored in a large metal cabinet, and by matching their numbers with the numbered sections of a map of the whole valley, it is possible to locate small details when viewing the films on a machine similar to a microfilm reader. The reading machine also prints 12 by 18 inch reproductions of individual frames. For those really interested in the terrain, there is a Bausch and Lomb binocular microscope that makes the image look three-dimensional.

The photographs are used not only to study geographic features, but for taking censuses, and mapping trade routes and settlement patterns. Aerial photography was "Phase III" of the Project, financed by NSF in 1966. It is the butt of many jokes--some call it "Vogtie's thing"--but he defends it on the grounds of both teaching and research.

COMBINING teaching with research is the essence of the Chiapas Project. "It's really fifty-fifty," Vogt says. "And that puts us right on the cutting edge of the behavioral sciences." The Project means different things to different participants, but for most of the undergraduates who go every year, much of the program's value lies in the fact that it allows them to conduct research under optimum conditions. The city and the other group members are never far away if they want advice or old friends; most of the Indians with whom students work have been visited before and are fami- liar with the procedure of observation and interviewing. The Project now enjoys a history of good relations with the Indian community and has won much confidence and cooperation, so that researchers can be settled and working on their projects after only two or three days in the field.

Vogt cites this working atmosphere in his definition of the Harvard field station on the outskirts of San Cristobal: "It's more than just the bricks and mortar that make up the buildings. It is building these good relationships with people....Every year, we can reach deeper into the Indian view of the world."

Not only do the bonds link the group members to the Indians, but there is also a strong sense of community within the group itself. Perhaps because they know they will be some-what dependent on one another in the field, the new members make an effort to know one another well, and after they get back, they keep track of one another. Vogt knows some 75 alumni of the Project, and he can tell you who is doing what, and what he has written, and where he is working. Getting to know undergraduates has been one of the greater joys of the Project, according to Vogt and his wife, who also goes to Chiapas, and perhaps it is they who give the group so much of the unity that students back from the field speak of with such warmth.

The Harvard Chiapas Project is really more than the sum of its parts, which are impressive enough. Unlike many things at Harvard, it is not club and it isn't a cult; what makes it more is continuing excitement on the part of those who work with it all the time, and enthusiasm and a kind of self-image that goes along with participating. When Vogt returned from a recent sabbatical trip around the world, someone asked him if he had a found a place that he would like to return to "after Chiapas." And he answered that Chiapas was better than any place he had seen

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