The barrier to understanding
one's social environment is not youth, but lack of experience and the
opportunity to exercise one's sociological imagination. This former Peace
Corps worker is giving his Wabash students plenty of practice exercising
by Andrew Schlewitz
Visiting Assistant Professor of Politcal Science
When I interviewed for the political science position at Wabash last
year, what I saw of Crawfordsville reminded me of me my hometown, Albany,
Oregon, as I remember it from 1960 through 1980. Like Albany, Crawfordsville's
livelihood rests on a mix of industry, farming, and a small college (though
Crawfordsville escaped my town's nickname: "Armpit of the Willamette
Valley"). Though smaller than Albany, Crawfordsville likewise has
the imposing courthouse set in a struggling downtown, with lively commercial
strips on the outskirts, post-WW II subdivisions bounding turn-of-the-century
homes, along with an overwhelmingly white population.
After moving here, another similarity struck me: a small but visible Hispanic
population. Why, I wondered, would Hispanics be moving to what-in my unknowledgeable
mind-was a remote part of the U.S. heartland? Asking around, I found out
that there had been an influx of Latin American migrants in recent years,
largely Mexican. Most were working in for Crawfordsville's largest employer,
R. R. Donnelly & Sons. But I wanted to know more.
I decided to investigate this local demographic shift and drag some students
along with me to help. I taught a course in the fall entitled "Latin
American Migration to Crawfordsville." We explored the causes and
consequences of Latin American migration to Crawfordsville through observations,
interviews, and demographic data. I followed this up the next semester
with a course called "Ethnicity and US Politics: Past and Present."
Using the same research methods, along with archival research, we compared
the current Latin American migration to Crawfordsville with past waves
of Irish and German immigration in the 19th century, and the African American
experience in the 1960s-1970s.
As I experimented with these student-faculty research courses on Latin
American migration, and as I worked with these young men, a series of
questions confronted me. What did I remember of Hispanics as I grew up
in Albany? What was my mind like when I was the age of my students? What
did I know, and what was I capable of knowing at their age? What experiences
and which teachers contributed the most to my knowledge and understanding
of the world?
The answer to the first question was that I do not remember a whole lot,
which troubles me. I picked strawberries and beans every summer until
I was 15. I recall seeing what I assumed to be Mexicans showing up at
the fields, whole families emerging from dusty, beat up station wagons
and trucks. While I messed around, throwing rotten berries at my sister
and so on, they would be working quickly and quietly. I remember adults
talking about Mexican families living in East Albany, the poorer, rougher
side of town. There were Hispanics in my high school, but I cannot remember
even talking with them. Another of my few recollections is seeing three
of them, leaning against the lockers, each with one leg raised and bent
back, foot flat against the locker for balance (a common male pose I would
see in Mexico and Central America, not to mention U.S. cigarette ads).
Thinking back on my high school years, I am struck by how little I knew
of the social terrain in which I lived. Sure, I knew my place in school
and its class structure. I was not up there with the Socs and Jocks, nor
down there with the Hoods and Nerds. I had no chance of dating a cheerleader,
but I didn't go cruising for chicks on the boulevard. If I knew I was
strictly middle class, I still didn't know what that really meant. I did
not think much about who had wealth, prestige, and power, and who didn't,
I lacked what C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination."
That is, I did not see the larger social picture outside my immediate
school environment, nor give it much thought. Since I did not ponder this
picture, I did not know where I stood in it. I could not conceive of myself
as fitting into larger patterns that made up the picture, nor realize
how this picture shaped my beliefs and actions. I saw only what was familiar
to me, and when I did witness something unfamiliar, I saw it as irrelevant,
weird, or wrong. I did not question my assumptions about how the world
does or should work.
Some experiences after high school began to pry me out of complacency
and provoke my sociological imagination. A calamitous period in a fundamentalist
megachurch that sent me scrambling back to my staid Lutheran roots was
one. Another was marriage to a very smart, adventurous woman who permitted
no ruts in life, nor tolerated sloppy thinking. Though largely uninspiring,
my undergraduate education at Oregon State had its moments. Having both
a conservative ROTC cadet and a radical activist as friends did wonders
for my obliviousness.
Three years of Peace Corps work in Guatemala was another powerful, mind-shaking
experience. In 1986, my wife and I were working in a western highlands
village called San Francisco La Unión. Vinicio Cerezo had just
been inaugurated president of Guatemala, the first freely elected leader
in over forty years. Foreign aid money was rolling in to support the democratizing
regime, and the Cerezo administration was sharing it with local governments.
Since I was the head of the local agricultural extension office, town
leaders invited me to participate in deciding how to spend this money.
The meeting quickly divided into two camps, reflecting the split in Guatemala
between Mayan Indians and Ladinos. The Mayan mayor, town officials, and
representatives of various cantones (sort of like a rural ward) wanted
to use the money to build a community salón in the town center
for public meetings, dances, and other events. The Mayan representative
of the canton of Chuistancia, along with Ladino teachers and administrators,
wanted to build a new school in Chuistancia. Two young Ladino men representing
the Cerezo government were there to present the terms of the grant and
arbitrate the decisionmaking. Though ostensibly neutral, they were clearly
siding with other Ladinos in this dispute.
I was not so blind that I could not see the ethnic division in this debate,
nor did I miss how the Ladino government officials smirked when the Mayan
town leaders argued their case in limited Spanish (their birth language
was Mayan Quiché).
Still, I knew that Chuistancia's school was a crumbling adobe wreck, and
a school seemed more important than a community salon, so I voted with
What I did not knowwhat I did not bother to investigate prior to
the meeting was how this issue played out within the context of
local politics and social relations. Later I would find out that this
meeting was one in a string of battles between Mayan town leaders and
Ladino schoolteachers. There also was an ongoing feud between the town
center and Chuistancia, where separatist sentiments had long simmered.
In hindsight, I also suspect the mayor was seeking not only to leave something
for the town to remember him by, but to make the town more independent
of a large Christian Children's Fund school, which served as the La Unión's
junior high, community center, and principal source of welfare money.
Whatever the reason for the Mayor's insistence on a community salon, I
was never invited to a town meeting again, and lost important allies as
I pursued my extension work and efforts to start a community library.
In fact, I unwittingly alienated a number of groups as I blundered through
the town's social terrain without studying it.
I did not even think to examine more closely the town's political alignments,
social structure, and history before acting. I did not carefully consider
how the cultural and historical baggage I brought with me would shape
my work and relations with the La Uniontecos. The "sociological imagination"
was outside my ken. I guess I thought that hard work and good ol' Yankee
know-how would be enough. I ended up, though, being just another gringo,
nice enough, but not much use to the people of La Unión.
I visited these memories of teen years and Peace Corps many times while
working on my PhD. Teaching this past year at Wabash has made them more
insistent. My student-faculty research courses with Wabash students made
me realize that the barrier to a "sociological imagination"
is not so much youth as it lack of experience and opportunity to practice
it. My students dove with enthusiasm into the task of mapping the social
terrain of Crawfordsville and its new Latin American population. They
challenged me to keep working hard on my own imagination-always a work-in-progress.
I look forward to more such collaborations in the years to come.
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