Graduate Student Spotlight: Noe Lopez
Thu, January 19, 2017
The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Noe Lopez, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.
How would you describe your graduate research project? What are you looking at exactly, and how are you planning your field research?
My dissertation is an ethnographic project on the everyday life of Ñuu Savi (Mixtec) indigenous migrant men who have sex with men. These men migrate from Oaxaca, Mexico to southern California (USA) to work as farm workers in industrial agriculture. They are part of the Ñuu savi diaspora. My work defines diaspora as sociopolitical processes formed by transnational and transborder community formations across the United States and Mexico.
Current literature on Mexican indigenous migrations often relies on community political and social formations. These studies do not acknowledge same-sex experiences. They do not provide nuanced analysis beyond a heterosexual model. In this regard, my work correlates with Gayatri Gopinath’s ideas on the “queer diasporic subject”- a subject whose desires are rendered impossible in heterosexual and nationalist, diasporic cultural formations. Therefore, I seek to study the formation of Ñuu Savi diaspora from the ordinary life of Ñuu Savi men who have sex with men.
I do ethnographic work in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, Mexico as well as in the agricultural communities within southern California. I ask questions such as: how (and why) Ñuu Savi same-sex sexualities are shaped by mechanisms of power like immigration law, labor exploitation, health care institutions, as well as their own families and communities.
You are interested in indigenous transnational/transborder communities. What exactly is a transborder community, and how does it differ from a transnational community, or are they the same?
Transnational and transborder communities are different models of analysis. “Transnational” community refers to models proposed by Linda Basch et. al. in the anthology Nations Unbound (1994). The authors propose “transnationalism” to refer to the political, social and economic ties of an immigrant social group with its nation of origin. In the Ñuu Savi case, Anthropologist Michael Kearney used it to describe the social and political ties that indigenous migrants create to live in Mexico and the United States.
On the other hand, the term “transborder” emerged as an intervention to transnationalism. Lynn Stephen proposed to go beyond the nation-state model. Stephen argued that indigenous migrants in the United States and Mexico cross other borders such as patriarchy, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and generations.
Within transnational and transborder communities, how do groups navigate the physical and cultural borders of identity? Does it promote integration, or social division, or both?
This is a really good question. It all depends on what kind of identities you refer to. For instance, I am working with indigenous migrant men who have sex with men. These are people that continually move across spaces, cultures, countries, communities, and institutions. Their histories are also influenced by dominant identities such as Latino culture, Mexican nationalism, and Gay identity. They also “disidentify” with dominant identities, as Jose Esteban Muñoz refers to describe the process in which minority groups create and perform politics based on dominant cultural norms. They might be “indigenous” in certain spaces and “latinos,” or “Mexican,” in others. Indigenous subjects navigate Mexican cultural forms in different ways. They might consider themselves “Mexican” or they might not. It all depends on time and space. This also applies to sexual identities.
There are instances when I am questioned: “what is the real indigenous sexual identity?” this question has some essentialist notions. It demonstrates how we, as academics, tend to position indigenous sexualities on a pedestal. We render indigenous sexualities to the past without analyzing the historical processes that influence the present. I think my work challenges me to be more critical. I do not plan to seek this historical nostalgia and romanticize past or present alternative social norms and identities. I seek to understand how today, hegemonic power shapes the lives of everyday people and how resistance takes on various forms.
In your opinion, how does the presence of a physical, geographic border maintain and also perpetuate conflicts of cultural identity?
Geographical borderlands shape cultures drastically. Dominant national discourses make us forget borders exist. So we have to critically analyze borderlands along with national hegemonies so that we understand their effects on current conflicts of identity and culture.
For instance, Mexico divided the Mixteca region in three states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. People from the Mixteca region live in borderlands within Mexico. That is really difficult for many people to understand. Those are open wounds that many Ñuu Savi people in Mexico are dealing with right now. These wounds are constantly reopened through racism, coloniality and patriarchy.
Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala is an example of the conflicts of cultural identity. It is border between Mexican cultural hegemony and Central American cultures. Central American migrants seeking to enter the United States experience intense violence as they travel through Mexico. Mexico’s southern border is also a manifestation of settler colonialism. Anthropologist Aida Hernandez studied how the Guatemalan-Mexican border disrupted Maya communities by dividing their land through the Guatemala-Mexico border. It divided Maya communities in two nation states.
Your work deals with the political economy of agricultural labor. Why did you decide to focus on this in particular, and how does it shape your research?
One cannot study Ñuu Savi diaspora without an analysis of California’s agricultural industry. The California agricultural industry has historically relied on migrant labor for profit. It has also played a huge role in the creation of California’s rural communities since the 20th century.
My passion for political economy and agricultural labor was sparked when I was an undergraduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). I worked with emeritus Anthropology professor Juan Vicente Palerm. Working with him, I learned how California’s agricultural industry is influential in the formation of immigrant communities and the everyday life of migrants. The industry has shaped so-called colonias and barrios since the early 19th century. Nowadays, indigenous migrant farmworkers are creating businesses that cater to other farmworkers. At UCSB, I loved doing ethnographic work in immigrant agricultural communities. I learned about space formation (parks, markets, fields), immigrant’s socioeconomic mobility, and the creation of culture.
I continued this mode of analysis in my graduate studies. For my Masters thesis at UT I studied policies that influenced forced migration and its sociocultural influences on indigenous communities. Also, Kathleen Stewart’s class Anthropology of Place helped me experiment with ethnographic writing about California’s rural communities and indigenous Diasporas.
Now that I am focusing on sexuality in my dissertation, I try to highlight that apart from studying sexuality and social worldings, I also study the historical political and economic mechanisms that shapes people’s ordinary life. For instance, the life of indigenous men that have sex with men is shaped by displacement. Displacement disrupts their intimacies and creates different social worlds. Displacement creates challenges and complex opportunities.
Do you think there is a difference between Diasporas and migrant communities? If so, what are the differences? If not, why?
“Diaspora” and “migrant” communities are more similar than different.
I look at Diasporas as a cultural process of people and communities in movement.
Migrant communities create culture as they reside in places of settlement and long to return to their places of origin.
My approach to diaspora is influenced by the British school of cultural studies composed by scholars such as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.
I also pay attention to what Juan Flores calls Diasporas from below; migrant subjects that are not acknowledged in national cultural constructions such as black and indigenous bodies. I also think that the lives of migrant people and the creation of Diasporas are influenced by power and hegemony. Not all migrants are forced to migrate. There might be class privileges that permit people to move.
In my work, I look at migrants that are forcibly displaced by various factors such as, structural violence, neoliberal and colonial policies, and labor. The migrants I work with have created a diasporic culture through nostalgia and socioeconomic connections to their land of origin.