By Robin Roenker
Carmen Martínez Novo can point to a specific event in her childhood that inspired her future work as an anthropologist: as a young child in Madrid, Spain, she witnessed deep-seeded unease and cultural prejudice among her otherwise socially progressive, Left-leaning neighbors when a gypsy family moved in.
That disconnect between intellectual progressiveness and blatant intolerance intrigued Martinez Novo, placing her on a path of study that has informed her entire career.
“That incident made me become very interested in questions of discrimination, cultural difference, and tolerance,” said Martínez Novo, who joined UK’s faculty in September as a new Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Latin American Studies Program. “I think it’s what took me to anthropology as a discipline.”
But Martínez Novo has taken a bit of an unorthodox approach to her anthropological and ethnographic studies. Instead of simply studying a particular ethnic group—say, for example, the indigenous Mixtec peoples of Mexico, the focus of her PhD dissertation work at the New School for Social Research in New York—she often houses her research in the context of what the mainstream culture says and thinks about those peoples.
As such, Martínez Novo has gleaned insight into how not only discrimination but also a subtle and pervasive sense of paternalism can influence how the majority defines and subjugates a minority group.
“Paternalism can be a way of discriminating. It can in fact be even worse than a type of prejudice that’s more open because it’s more widespread and difficult to identify,” said Martínez Novo.
Her work has shown her that what governments, intellectuals, and other elites say about a people isn’t always fair or accurate. Her first book, "Who Defines Indigenous?," analyzes this interplay and how ethnic identities are formed in this intersection between cultures.
Where other anthropologists have tended to focus on differences between ethnic groups, for Martínez Novo, the similarities she has uncovered across different groups of peoples have been the most rewarding and surprising.
When she first met the Mixtec people, she was surprised that they were “not as exotic or different” as she expected them to be. “Their ways, their expectations, their dreams, their goals were very similar” to the rest of us, she said.
Before coming to UK, as a professor and researcher at FLASCO-Ecuador, Martínez Novo spent the last eight years doing field research on political and educational systems of the Kichwa people of the Ecuadorian Highlands and the Shuar people of the country’s Southern Amazon. Typically, anthropologists studying the two groups don’t interact, but Martínez Novo felt it was important to open a dialogue between the researchers—after all, these two peoples have shared similar political struggles.
Martínez Novo plans to continue her work on indigenous groups in Ecuador, even while at UK.
“These are two groups who are seen as very different, but there are in fact many connections between them,” she said. “A lot of what’s been written about indigenous peoples makes them sound very exotic and different, which is almost dehumanizing and incorrect in my point of view,” said Martínez Novo, who positions herself instead in the tradition of anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss in her focus on the common humanity among varying cultures.
“Understanding this common humanity among us is so important to human rights,” she said. “Otherwise, you can construct people as so different that you can justify doing things to them that you wouldn’t accept if you adhered to the idea that they too are human beings.”
In her course on human rights this semester, Martínez Novo is working to show her students that “human rights isn’t only a ‘foreign’ issue. We have to have an eye for identifying human rights within any context in which we might be,” she said.
Next semester, drawing upon her research expertise, she plans to lead an undergraduate course on indigenous movements and a graduate course on the ethnography of corporations and elites.
With the growing American backlash against Wall Street, the graduate class will be particularly timely.
“As a young generation, these students are very critical of businesses and global corporations, so I hope it will be interesting to them,” she said.
As the new director of the Latin American Studies Program at UK, Martínez Novo hopes to bring increased visibility to the array of important work on Latin America being done across many disciplines at UK—not just in the humanities and social sciences, but also in places she did not anticipate, like the College of Fine Arts and the College of Medicine.
She also wants to extend the scope and reach of the Latin American Studies Program beyond the walls of the campus—not only academically, but also in terms of outreach with the growing local Hispanic and Latino community in central Kentucky.
“The Hispanic community here is very diverse. There are people from many parts of Latin America. I want to bring them in and involve them in our work,” said Martínez Novo.
“The University of Kentucky is committed to making our students more aware of their role as global citizens and the ways in which Kentucky is becoming more of a global place,” she said. “That’s one of the main reasons I was attracted to coming here to teach and to work. It’s a great place to be.”
Featured image: Carmen Martínez with Rosa Elvira Mainato, Sisa Duchi, Sarita Duchi, and Father Tuaza in the family's corn field in Cañar, Ecuador - courtesy Carmen Martínez.