Interview with Michele McArdle Stephens, Latin American History Professor

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Stephens - Photo

Michele McArdle Stephens is an assistant professor of Latin American history at West Virginia University specializing in Latin American communities. She previously taught as a visiting assistant professor at Denison University, and served as the Director of Latin American Studies at West Virginia University. She was a guest researcher in 2017 at the Max Planck Institute. She has a PhD from the University of Oklahoma.

In the Lands of Fire and Sun: Resistance and Accommodation in the Huichol Sierra, 1723–1930: The Huichols (or Wixárika) of western Mexico are among the most resilient and iconic indigenous groups in Mexico today. In the Lands of Fire and Sun examines the Huichol Indians as they have struggled to maintain their independence over two centuries. From the days of the Aztec Empire, the history of west-central Mesoamerica has been one of isolation and a fiercely independent spirit, and one group that maintained its autonomy into the days of Spanish colonization was the Huichol tribe. Rather than assimilating into the Hispanic fold, as did so many other indigenous peoples, the Huichols sustained their distinct identity even as the Spanish Crown sought to integrate them. In confronting first the Spanish colonial government, then the Mexican state, the Huichols displayed resilience and cunning as they selectively adapted their culture, land, and society to the challenges of multiple new eras.

By incorporating elements of archaeology, anthropology, cultural geography, and history, Michele McArdle Stephens fills the gaps in the historical documentation, teasing out the indigenous voices from travel accounts, Spanish legal sources, and European ethnographic reports. The result is a thorough examination of one of the most vibrant, visible societies in Latin America.

Faktorovich: You say in your “Acknowledgements” that In the Lands of Fire and Sun was a “labor of love” for you for “more than a decade. Did you start working on this project when you started your PhD studies? Did you develop your dissertation into your first major published book? Other than your general interest in the field, what inspired you to write about the Huichols of western Mexico?

Stephens: Well, originally I started studying Native American history at the University of Oklahoma and I had intended to write a dissertation on Cherokee and Seminole women. But I switched to Latin American history because, in the grand scheme of things, it is what I should have been studying all along. I did not choose to write about the Huichols, but instead, my professor who would eventually become my dissertation advisor suggested it as a seminar project in 2006. I wrote probably a 25-page paper on it, and then put it aside to focus on US history. But I was just not satisfied as a US historian, so after my comprehensive exams, I shifted to Latin American history and decided to write the dissertation on the Huichols. So, twelve years after that first seminar paper, the book is now a reality.

Faktorovich: In an earlier interview with the Max Planck-Institute you discussed how you feel safe conducting research in parts of Mexico: “Mérida, Yucatán is actually my favorite place to work in all of Mexico, because while it is a capital city, it never feels overwhelming in terms of size and population. It is very safe as well. Plus, on weekends I get to visit archaeological sites, which is important in helping to develop my cultural understanding of Mexico’s past.” You have traveled across the world not only for your research, but also to present at conferences in Oaxaca City and Mexico City (Mexico), Barcelona (Spain), Lima (Peru), and San Jose (Costa Rica). I lived for a year in Brownsville, Texas and visited Mexico for a single day, coming over the Arizona border in the previous year. There seemed to be a lot of tension under the surface when I was living or visiting these places. For example, a resort in Mexico pushed me aggressively to purchase something from their bar (I bought three closed cans), which in retrospect might have resulted in a drugging similar to the ones that have been plaguing tourists across Mexico. Why and how did you manage to feel safe in a capital city, where statistically the number of kidnappings and murders tends to be higher than in other regions? Are the places you go to, like the archeological sites, particularly safe? In other words, do you avoid going to resorts, restaurants, clubs and other places where drug or other criminal activity might be taking place? Are you careful to drive old, used cars or how do you check on your driver when you travel? Do you use public transportation? If a researcher is considering performing research work in Mexico, but the fear of potential violence or the like is stopping them, what advice do you have for them to practically avoid trouble, and to be safe on such an excursion?

Stephens: Well, things in Mexico are somewhat fluid at the moment, and crimes against women have increased in the last year or so. Nevertheless, Mérida is still really safe, so while I do have to go to other parts of the country like Mexico City, for the most part I take normal safety precautions as I would in any major city in North or South America. I do use public transit in Mexico City, as it’s necessary to get to and from Mexico’s National Archives (AGN) or the UNAM. If I am traveling alone at night, I will usually have my hotel call me a cab. Sometimes I will take an Uber.

Violence in Mexico tends to be higher where there are conflicts between rival drug cartels over territory. For now, Mexico City is not really contested territory, so there is not the same kind of drug-related violence as in other parts of the country, like Acapulco for example. Crime in Mexico City is like any other major city; in other words, it’s random. So I am not going to be afraid to travel there, just like I would not be afraid to travel to Washington, DC or Paris or Lima.

I behave the same way in Mexico as I would in any other place, including my small town in West Virginia. I never accept drinks from strangers, nor do I walk home late at night alone. I don’t wear lots of jewelry anyway, so that’s usually not a problem. And if locals tell me to avoid a certain place, I listen to their advice.

That said, I have begun thinking of different ways to approach my research should the violence in Mexico become worse. The simple fact is that I am bound to restrictions by the US government, since I am a public employee and my research is funded by a state university or by government entities. Whether academics want to believe it or not, if violence increases to the point that the US State Department issues travel bans, there’s not anything we can do about it. It’s not paranoia to prepare for alternative scenarios; in fact, I just submitted a Fulbright application to do research in Mexico, and it required that I have a backup plan.

Faktorovich: Also in your “Acknowledgments”, you thank several people for their help with your research. In my experience, archivists simply give researchers the folders they specifically request. Can you explain how you negotiate things with them or what kind of help you ask for to solicit the assistance you describe? You especially mention Fray Carlos in Mexico as a contact who assisted by “sharing books and documents” and you specify that Archivo General de Indias in Seville helped you analyze sixteenth-century documents because they were “outside of” your “comfort zone.” Did Fray Carlos create a reading list for you of the relevant materials within your research realm? Did Archivo translate or decipher documents by lecturing you on their contents? You don’t mention similar above-and-beyond assistance from the archivists at the Library of Congress and other places in the U.S. (where you also conducted archival research). Is it more difficult to solicit help from the U.S. archivists, and if so, why do you think this is the case?

Stephens: Fray Carlos at the Franciscan archive in Zapopan was a godsend to me as an historian. He knew his archive better than any other person, and knew what I would need simply by talking to me about my project. No other archivist has done anything remotely as helpful, or has given me more of their time than he did, either in the US, Mexico, or in Europe. In Seville, at the Archive of the Indies (AGI), the archivists were certainly sympathetic, as I am really not trained in Spanish paleography, so reading 16th century documents was not at all easy. But they were patient with my questions, and occasionally helped me confirm a word or sentence, and so that way I was able to determine whether or not a source was relevant to me. Then I had a friend help me make sense of the handwriting so I could figure out what I was reading.

In the US, archivists at the Library of Congress and at the Department of Anthropology archives in both DC and New York (at the Museum of Natural History, NYC) were as helpful as they could be; we must keep in mind that archives are often short-staffed, and employees wear many different hats, so looking after a graduate student or faculty member is not possible when they have so many other things to attend to. But regardless of where I worked, the archivists and other staff were always helpful with my occasionally silly questions, patient with my sometimes awkward Spanish when I was an early graduate student, and generally interested in my project.

Faktorovich: You describe that you have been “well-funded” by the West Virginia University, including a 2014 Senate Grant for Faculty Research, and the 2015 Riggle Summer Fellowship. You specify that most of the funding came in the final stages of your research. What did these grants cover? Did they cover your travels across Latin America, Europe and America to gather the materials from the archives? How important is funding to conduct advanced research (especially in your field)? Did some of the funds go towards paying archivists for digitizing, pulling or otherwise helping you process any of the relevant primary or secondary sources?

Stephens: The funding that I received from WVU allowed me to travel to archives in Mexico, Germany, and Spain in 2014, and Mexico in 2015, to finish researching and writing the first book. I conducted the research in the summers and I wrote during the academic year and sometimes in the summer as well.

I’ve received other funding from WVU to begin my new project, and have been awarded state-level (West Virginia Humanities Council) and international funding (Max Planck Institute for European Legal History) for that work as well. All of the monies received goes to offset my travel and stays in Mexico or Europe. I process everything myself, mostly because I don’t have any urge to turn that part over to an assistant. I am first and foremost a researcher and writer and I find it very uncomfortable to use assistants.

Faktorovich: You also thank “anonymous reviewers” at the University of Nebraska Press, and then name them (or perhaps the staff of UNP included in the second half of the sentence): Matt Bokovoy and Heather Stauffer. According to your CV, you have served as a manuscript reviewer yourself for the Journal of Latin American Studies, Rowman and Littlefield and the University of Nebraska Press. What is involved in the work of a manuscript reviewer? What kinds of criticisms or problems are the most common among those you offer on submissions? What advice do you have for researchers submitting their work based on your experience in these roles? Has serving as a reviewer helped you understand the perspective of publishers better, and thus increasing your chances of being published? Do you think having an established relationship with UNP helped you sell your book to them?

Stephens: Matt Bokovoy is the Senior Acquisitions Editor at the University of Nebraska Press and Heather Stauffer is the Associate Acquisitions Editor and both were instrumental in guiding me through the publication process. There were other folks who were helpful as well.

As for the reviewers, they remain anonymous, and probably will forever. To me, that is best. I’ve reviewed manuscripts and journal articles, and I find I can be honest and upfront with critiques; fortunately for me, the works I’ve reviewed have all been of excellent quality, which speaks to how strong the field of Latin American history is as a whole.

I am not sure I will ever understand academic publishing. Why some things get published and others rejected remains somewhat of a mystery to me. When I submit anything, I expect a lengthy process of revisions. It is pretty rare that materials are accepted for publication without revisions, at least in my experience. So patience is key here for anyone looking to obtain their first publication.

Faktorovich: In the “Prologue” you describe the story of Kauyaumari and his tribe and their struggles against an oppressor that forced them out of their homes, where they were near starvation until the gods, including Tamatsi Maxa Kwaxi saved them by giving them the “life-saving gift of peyote.” You explain that the Huichols have used this founding myth as the center of their religious quest for peyote and worship of it. Peyote has been used by Native Americans across Mexico and what is now Texas for millennia before Spaniards invaded the region. The Huichol are one of the indigenous peoples who have utilized this hallucinogenic drug derived from a spineless cactus. You explain that this story is just one out of a rich cultural heritage of these people, which is connected to their ancestral lands, and that the invasion of these lands and attempts to push the Huichols out of them is equivalent to an attempt to wipe out this rich “cultural identity”. Have you tried peyote across this research project, and if so, what was this experience like? Have you interacted with any living Huichol and if so, have you observed them consuming peyote, and if so what effect did it have on them? Why did you begin this book with the retelling of a myth about peyote without really defining what peyote is or discussing the legal or moral significance of the use of a hallucinogenic drug?

Stephens: No, I have not (and will not) take peyote, although I am asked this every time I discuss my research. This is not because of any objection to its use in general, but instead a profound disagreement with the practice of consuming something that is so sacred to another culture of which I am not a part. While there are plenty of “cultural tourism” practices that advertise the consumption of sacred plants or plant-derived products (peyote, ayahuasca), it is not something I have had an urge to do.

The Huichols are very suspicious of outsiders, as I think I make evident throughout the book. This is one of the first things I learned when I began researching this project in depth in 2008. It takes a very long time to “get in” to a community; this is the realm of anthropologists and sociologists I suppose, and for me, not the role I think historians ought to take if, as in my project, there is some historical distance. My book ends in 1930. I did not see a need to do fieldwork. Some disagreed with me on this point, and that’s fine.

Lastly, I did not describe the legal or moral significance because there’s no real need to do so. The story of Kauyaumari provides the context by which the Huichols have consumed peyote. It is the reason I started the book with the origin story. And as for the legality, well, peyote occupied a liminal space in Spanish colonial society. In other words, while the Church frowned upon peyote use, indigenous use of the hallucinogen was never eradicated, nor was it made “illegal” in a way that we would understand it today. Spaniards prohibited its use by Spanish subjects, but the Huichols at least rarely felt the wrath of the Spanish judicial system for using peyote. In modern Mexico, it is technically illegal for anyone to consume peyote unless they are Huichol. But that has not always offered the Huichol protection, and I discuss an episode at the end of my book in which the Huichols faced some legal problems as a result.

Faktorovich: Texas does not allow for the drug use of peyote by non-natives even in Native American Church ceremonies. All U.S. states allow for non-drug uses in ceremonies by the Native American Church. In Mexico, peyote is only allowed in religious rituals. What is your opinion on the current debate over the legalization of marijuana? Are you for or against it? What about LSD or mushrooms? What separates the use of these hallucinogens from the ritual use of peyote by the Huichols? Should peyote be fully legalized alongside marijuana, or should it remain a Schedule 1 controlled substance outside of these religious uses?

Stephens: If I could solve the legalization question, I’d be rich. Or at the very least, I would probably have a different job. Personally, I think marijuana should be legalized and regulated like tobacco. This would certainly not solve the issues of cartel violence, as criminal organizations have already begun shifting their business to other illicit substances and activities. I don’t support uncontrolled legalization of any other drugs, including LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms. I certainly do not think peyote should be legalized for use outside of indigenous ritual. I’ve seen it sold as potted plants in markets in Barcelona. That was really strange.

Faktorovich: Where do you see the boundary between modern culture and ancient culture? For example, can a group of college students claim that they are following a cultural ritual if they annually meet to consume peyote or another hallucinogen? Would it become a cultural ritual if they invented a religion, or claimed that they were worshiping Huichols’ religion?

Stephens: I take issue with so-called “cultural appropriation.” It bothers me to see indigenous war bonnets on the heads of white people at the Coachella music festival, for example. This does NOT mean that non-indigenous people should avoid studying or learning about indigenous societies and cultures. But I have a fairly dim view of anyone who claims they want to commune with gods that they don’t really understand, when what they really want is to get high. We see this a lot with ayahuasca ceremonies in South America. The Huichols do not use peyote for the high. I tried to make that pretty clear in my book. Their religious beliefs are incredibly complicated and I make no claims to understanding them all; but I’ve spent my professional career trying to figure out parts of their religious system, and I’d venture to say that random people who want to take peyote certainly don’t understand Huichols or their religion.

Faktorovich: What would you say if somebody objected that the Huichols (instead of witnessing the death of their culture) were being assimilated into Mexico’s government and culture when their settlements were attacked and they were forced to leave their lands or abandon their cultural practices?

Stephens: I think the world is closing in on the Huichols, as it is for many indigenous peoples around the world. But they’ve not assimilated yet nor have they lost their culture, and I certainly hope that never happens. In the 1890s, Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian botanist who figured pretty heavily in parts of my book, believed that Mexican society was just about to overtake the Huichols. Well, it’s 2018 and they are still a vigorous part of Mexican society that have managed to maintain their cultural identity. Being part of society while simultaneously distinct from it is possible and I think we see that in the Huichols of the 21st century.

Faktorovich: Why do you think peyote is disappearing from the Huichols’ ancient trails: can it be that non-natives are collecting peyote to sell it in the illegal drug market?

Stephens: We’re seeing it disappear I suppose because non-Huichols have no idea how to care for peyote. You can’t just pull it up out of the ground; the Huichols know that the root system must remain intact so that more will grow. Destroy the root system and the plant is gone.

I’ve heard of peyote being sold on the streets everywhere from Mexico, to the US, to obviously in Europe as I noted above. But I have no idea what the actual market is for peyote.

Faktorovich: You discuss the Huichols’ annual return to the state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico, as a reclaiming of their “Holy Land”. Their claims to this region have been confirmed through carbon dating of millennia-old ashes. You discuss how they did fight for their rights and became a Nation-State, before their started to lose territory and power across the nineteenth century. Can you clarify: have the Huichol people organized political movements to reclaim this region or a portion of it as their own reservation to maintain their ancient culture (as Native American groups have done with large-scale reservations in the U.S.)? Have they attempted to separate from Mexico into an independent state or country; are their numbers too low for this?

Stephens: There are no reservations in Mexico and the Mexican government’s system of treating its indigenous populations has been different historically than that which occurred in the US. Not better or worse, just different. But what that means is that for the most part, there have been no attempts to form independent indigenous states in the 20th century. The Huichols did not form a Nation-State in their history. They simply have fought—successfully I might add—to maintain their ancestral homelands from exploitation. That does not mean that they haven’t lost land—some Huichol towns were devastated by land laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But on the whole, they have kept their lands mostly intact.

Faktorovich: Can you recommend how the Huichols might fight to prevent future developments such as mining by the First Majestic Silver company or roads being built through sacred lands?

Stephens: I think they’re doing a pretty good job currently. The Huichols work with outsiders when necessary, and their ability to partner with different NGOs has helped them ward off development in their lands in Jalisco (and in the west more generally) and in the peyote lands of San Luis Potosí. Mining is a significant threat, as is unchecked development in rural Mexico, and the rise of eco-tourism.

Faktorovich: Since you visited archives in Mexico, why didn’t you take some pictures of the modern Huichol people for this book? You use a few great archival images of their art and photographs from a few decades ago.

Stephens: Well, I’m not an anthropologist, so I did not work in Huichol communities in Mexico. I like to keep a pretty significant historical distance from people or events that I study. I feel a bit awkward asking modern Huichols for their photograph when I am not writing about the present day.

Faktorovich: Are you connected to the Huichol culture personally? Are any of your relatives from this region? Do you identify with their beliefs? You discuss having a very large family in the front matter of the book, but mention that you have not seen most of them since 2000 as you have been busy building your career. Are the relatives you are referring to outside of the U.S.? Why haven’t you been able to see them despite missing them? If not, other than a general curiosity about the history of native peoples, what interests you in the Huichol in particular?

Stephens: My entire family lives in the US and for the most part, in the northeast US. I moved to California shortly after graduating with my BA in History from Rutgers University, and have mostly lived away from New Jersey (where I was born and raised) ever since. I’m third generation Irish and Italian-American; my relatives came in the 1900s from Ireland and Italy. I am not Latin American or Latina or indigenous.

Faktorovich: You are currently working on your second book, Women, Violence, and Legal Culture in Yucatán, Mexico, 1900-1930. You mentioned in the interview response I quoted that Yucatán is one of your favorite places to visit. This state is on the opposite side of Mexico from the Huichols’ ancestral lands. The Yucatán are on Mexico’s tip on the Gulf Coast (near some of the major resort cities), while the Huichol live in the center of Mexico, a state away from its Pacific coast. The Yucatán has some of Mexico’s major archeological finds, like the Temple of Kukulcan. Other than both regions being culturally rich, they do not seem to have much in common and you have jumped from primarily studying the nineteenth century to the twentieth. Can you explain why you made this switch? What interests you about the Yucatán? The title of this book suggests that you will be studying crimes against women such as rape, sexual assault and the like; is this the case? Why is this topic a particularly significant subject to study regarding this particular region and time?

Stephens: There are elements of this new project that interest me a great deal personally and professionally. Being a historian is in some ways like being a detective. Working on historical crimes, against women in this particular instance, allows me to be a detective without actually having to engage with a deceased or abused victim, something I am not certain I could do. I much prefer working in the past than in the present.

Violence against women is a significant problem in much of the world, and Latin America is no exception. Femicides—or the murders of women simply because they are women—have skyrocketed in Mexico. The government there seems powerless to do anything about the increase in violent crime against women and girls. So this new study I’m working on can perhaps shed a little light on violence in the past. In other words, is the increase in crime today unique, or does it have some historical precedents in other periods?

The geographical shift in my work is based on two things: first, I like Yucatán. Mérida is smaller than Guadalajara and I am comfortable working there, because second, it’s much safer than Jalisco. The state of Yucatán is the safest for women; Jalisco is somewhere in the middle.

Faktorovich: Do you have any advice for researchers who are just starting graduate school and hope to win research fellowships, become assistant professors and eventually publish books with top academic presses? What can they do to increase their chances of success in this tough academic market?

Stephens: My only advice is to be patient and open-minded. I was on the market for three years before I landed my job at WVU. That was in an academic climate that is far better than what we’re seeing now. I also suggest that graduate students develop plans beyond becoming a professor. Learn how to market the very valuable skills that we have as historians. The ugly truth is very few PhDs get tenure-track jobs. I worked very hard, but was also incredibly lucky.

Faktorovich: Thanks for participating in this interview.


One Response to “Interview with Michele McArdle Stephens, Latin American History Professor”

  1. Mike Dineen October 17, 2018 at 7:17 pm #

    That was a very wide ranging interview and interesting. It’s sad to see the loss of cultural identity all over the world. But it’s great to see Ms Stephens recording it.


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