Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jessica Piekielek (by Rory N. Finney)
The anthropology text Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches and a now-lost green macramé necklace from a migrant woman in Mexico inspired Jessica Piekielek’s dreams of becoming an anthropologist. In particular, she grew fascinated with the anthropological and environmental concerns surrounding the topic of Mexican migration to the US, which culminated in her PhD dissertation on “Public Wildlands on the US-Mexico Border—Where Conservation, Migration, and Border Enforcement Collide.”
Piekielek’s extensive research assignments have taken her to Latin American rural cooperatives in Brazil and Paraguay as well as Mexico-US borderlands. With Spanish fluency and an intermediate knowledge of Portuguese, she conducted indigenous cultural and natural resource monitoring for the Kaibab-Paiute tribe and National Park Service in Arizona. Piekielek has interviewed hundreds of subjects on topics ranging from female engineering students’ university education experiences to labor and career trajectories in the southern Louisiana oil and gas industry to the public value and use of wildlands in Arizona and New Mexico.
She has also practiced community-based environmental research in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, for the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona, where she completed both her PhD and MA in anthropology. Piekielek earned a double bachelor’s anthropology and Spanish from Guilford College and an IB from United World College of the American West.
During her graduate and undergraduate careers, Piekielek garnered fifteen awards, including the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth Graduate Travel Award, Andrew W. Gootschall, Jr. Senior Excellence Award in Anthropology, Miguel de Cervantes Senior Spanish Excellence Award, Rappaport Student Paper Prize, and the Riecker Research Award.
Her research interests comprise environmental sustainability, social movements, ethnography of bureaucracies, security and militarization, border studies, Mexico, the US, and Latin America. She has taught courses ranging from Environmental Anthropology to Latin American Cultures and Environments to Race, Ethnicity, and the American Dream.
This past spring, Piekielek worked as an ethnographer at the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve in Yucatán, Mexico, where she conducted research on home gardens, including use of native and medicinal plants, in rural communities. Her previous work as an ethnographer involved analyzing border public wildlands affected by migration, smuggling, and border enforcement as well as researching a nonprofit travel education program centered on border and migration issues for BorderLinks. She has also served as a qualitative data analyst for a worksite health evaluation program.
The most recent of her dozen publications is titled “Cooperativism and Agroforestry in the Eastern Amazon: The Case of Tomé-Açu,” which appeared in Latin American Perspectives. Her work has also been published by Arizona Anthropologist, the University of Arizona Press, Human Organization, and Current Anthropology.
Presentations and invited lectures have sent Piekielek city-hopping to New Orleans, Tucson, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Portland, and Washington, D.C. She regularly reviews manuscripts for Human Organization and Arizona Anthropologist. Piekielek assisted with the screenwriting and editorial review of the Sierra Club’s documentary short Wild Versus Wall.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in September 2011
(left to right) Holding Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches and taking notes on her iPad in Hannon Library (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: If you were to examine the artifacts of your own life, what kind of anthropological narrative would you construct to explain how you arrived at your present career?
JP: Marvin Harris’s Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches was the first anthropology text I read for a class in junior high school. I loved that first cultural anthropology class. Although I considered studying other disciplines in high school and college, I always came back to anthropology. Another artifact I would share, but I’ve lost it, is a green macramé necklace with a cross and bead pendant. When I was seventeen, I spent a spring break in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, volunteering at a Catholic church with a soup kitchen and small shelter for migrants. A young woman who stayed a couple nights at the shelter gave me the necklace. One of my first of many visits to Mexico, that trip initially sparked my interest in Mexican migration to the US. Since then, I’ve studied abroad in Guadalajara, Mexico, as an undergraduate, returned to Nogales many times as a graduate student, and most recently taught a study abroad class, Contemporary Culture and Environment in Yucatán, Mexico, last spring.
Organ Pipe border wall (by Matt Clark, Defenders of Wildlife)
MM: Your dissertation is titled “Public Wildlands on the US-Mexico Border—Where Conservation, Migration, and Border Enforcement Collide.” What did your research reveal about the intersection of these three forces?
JP: I did most of my research at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, and its sister park in Sonora, Mexico. I wanted to know how public land managers were handling dramatic increases in migration, smuggling, and border enforcement in protected areas like Organ Pipe. The ecological impacts of migration, smuggling, and enforcement were many and were interpreted in multiple ways. For example, trash left by migrants has changed the landscape of Organ Pipe in some places, but the cultural and scientific meanings of trash were politically charged and contested. Border Patrol’s attempts to reshape the border landscape to better fit its militaristic strategies for border security clashed with conservation projects to create and maintain wilderness in the borderlands. Where the Park Service had worked for years to create a recreational wilderness and outdoor ecological “laboratory,” the Border Patrol now wanted a field for conducting military-like operations, complete with roads, walls, stadium lights, and high-tech communication towers. In the context of strong national political pressure for a “secure border,” the Park Service was limited in its advocacy for environmental protection vis-à-vis the Border Patrol, even within park bounds. There emerged at the park a culture and landscape of fear that reproduced justifications for increased enforcement in the Organ Pipe area, even though enforcement threatened the ecological integrity of the park and placed undocumented migrants at greater risk.
MM: You completed your PhD at the University of Arizona a year before the controversial Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was passed. Having lived in Arizona, you have an insider’s view of the state’s political climate. As an anthropologist, how would you interpret what this bill says about the culture—or more accurately, subculture—that created it?
JP: There are many different social forces at work in Arizona’s political climate that led to the passage of SB 1070. One is fear—fear of cultural difference, fear of perceived disorder, fears related to the financial crisis and the perception that undocumented immigrants take jobs from American workers and overwhelm public services like schools and hospitals. Some Arizona politicians tap into this fear, even going so far as to exaggerate the risk of violence, like Governor Jan Brewer wrongly asserting that border officials had found decapitated bodies on the Arizona-Sonora border. Another force at work is the growing private prison industry complex in Arizona. If implemented, SB 1070 would mean the need for more prison space to hold undocumented immigrants while they await trial and deportation. As immigration laws become more restrictive, the private prison industry sees an expanding market opportunity.
MM: You delivered a lecture on the topic of how environmental campaigns are affected by border and immigration politics, which begs the question, how are they affected?
JP: Before the 1990s, people working on conservation issues in southern Arizona didn’t need to worry about how undocumented immigration or drug smuggling or Border Patrol work affected wild places in the Sonora Desert because it just wasn’t an issue. For environmentalists, the challenge was not simply figuring out how to mount campaigns to protect the environment in the face of dramatic increases in migration, smuggling, and border enforcement. People who work for and support conservation organizations have different ideas about immigration and run the gamut from vehement immigration restrictionists to ardent open border advocates. So environmental groups were also challenged to negotiate the internal divisions among conservationists.
Conducting research in Brazil (courtesy of Jessica Piekielek)
MM: What does an ethnographer do—and can you give some examples of projects on which you served as ethnographer?
JP: Ethnographers tell stories, stories of particular groups of people in particular moments in time. They use all kinds of social science research methods to develop the story: participant observation, interviews, surveys, census data, video, photography. Often ethnographers try to tell a story that is multilayered and broad, or holistic, instead of specific. One of the things that I enjoy about anthropology is that it’s a holistic field; anthropologists are interested in the connections between things like human biology, nutrition, and teen angst or evangelism, changing gender norms, and economics.
As a graduate student, I worked for a research project on rural cooperatives in Latin America. We worked on writing mini-ethnographies, or case studies, of a handful of agricultural cooperatives in Brazil and Paraguay. We visited the cooperatives, surveyed members about their farms, interviewed staff, compiled cooperatives’ histories, and tried to understand each cooperative in its unique political, economic, and social climate. One of my colleagues from the project, Brian Burke, and I wrote an article about some of the political challenges for cooperatives in Paraguay (which was under dictatorship until 1989). The article should come out in the winter volume of Human Organization, an applied anthropology journal.
MM: I’m also curious about what you’ve learned about the ethnography of bureaucracies.
JP: I learned that doing ethnography in bureaucracies can be difficult. All anthropologists have to negotiate entré into the community where they work, whether that’s a tiny village in the highlands of Bolivia or a nurses union. Negotiating entré into a bureaucracy can mean jumping through a lot of hoops or being denied access all together. In my dissertation, I had hoped to conduct ethnographic research with Border Patrol agents as part of my research project but found that the agency was very closed. Unlike other government agencies that let me attend meetings, interview anyone, and accompanying staff in the field, Border Patrol would only let me talk to public relations officers in a conference room in their Tucson station. This didn’t make for very interesting participant observation. But it did tell me something about the closed and controlled nature of Border Patrol as an organization.
Conducting re-vegetation and road rehab work at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (courtesy of Jessica Piekelek)
MM: Another one of your research interests is social movements. What methodology does an anthropologist employ when analyzing a social movement?
JP: Many anthropologists study a social movement by becoming a part of one. Participant observation, participating in whatever social phenomenon you’re also studying or observing, is an important research method in cultural anthropology. My environmental anthropology class last year read the ethnography Polluted Promises by anthropologist Melissa Checker, who studied environmental justice movements in the South. She volunteered her services to a small African-American neighborhood organization for a year, writing grants, hosting workshops, and doing whatever else needed done. In exchange, she became very familiar with the organization, its history, and the many people involved in the movement.
In my dissertation, I was interested in looking at how American and Mexican environmentalists were responding to increases in undocumented migration, smuggling, and border enforcement in Arizona and Sonora border wildlands. When I met with environmentalists, I often offered to volunteer. I helped draft the script for a short documentary produced by the Sierra Club called Wild vs. Wall. I also volunteered a few times at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, near Organ Pipe, and did trash pickups, too.
MM: What do a society’s attitudes towards security and militarization reveal about its culture?
JP: Wow. That’s a question someone could spend an entire career working on. I had an interesting conversation about violence and culture with SOU students in Anne Chambers’s class last year when I interviewed for my position. They were concerned about the desensitization to violence through television and video games, racism, and the links between gender inequality and violence. We had all read a chapter from the textbook for Introduction to Cultural Anthropology about the cultural construction of violence. One of the questions from the chapter was about how some societies are organized to reduce violent conflict. Or, put differently, what makes some societies more peaceful? That’s a question I’d like to revisit with students when I teach Introduction to Cultural Anthropology this fall.
Visiting the seed bank with her class (by James Callahan)
MM: What is the difference between cultural and applied anthropology—and how does each area relate to archaeology?
JP: Doing applied anthropology just means putting research to work for a purpose beyond expanding our knowledge of people and societies, past and present. Applied anthropologists work for government agencies, for corporations, for social service organizations. Last spring, I conducted a small research project on home gardens in rural Yucatán, Mexico. I’ll share what I learned about the native and medicinal plants people are cultivating with staff at the biocultural reserve Kaxil Kiuic, which has started a seed bank. They hope to preserve native plants and also make seeds and seedlings accessible to local residents.
Archaeology can also be applied; many archaeologists work in historic preservation, heritage tourism, or cultural resource management for government agencies, museums, or private firms.
MM: Community-based research is one of your areas of interest, and that is also at the heart of a Southern Oregon University education. How do you anticipate incorporating community-based research into your own classes at SOU?
JP: The joy and challenge of community-based research is that you never know quite where it will go because, ideally, it’s community-driven. I’ll need some time to get to know southern Oregon, and I’m looking forward to working with other faculty in the SOU Research Center (SOURCE) to help me make some community connections. I hope to get students involved with the growing Spanish-speaking immigrant community in the Rogue Valley, which would tie nicely to an Anthropology of Immigration class I would like to teach in the future.
At the whiteboard (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: How do you teach critical thinking in your courses?
JP: Good question—and one that I revisit regularly as I reflect on teaching. One way I encourage students to think critically is to introduce them to new ideas and perspectives. Learning about something like the existence of a third gender in another culture usually invites students to ask some questions. I think an important first step in critical thinking is to formulate interesting questions.
MM: As you begin your first year at SOU, what are you most looking forward to?
JP: I’m looking forward to meeting and working with SOU students! I’m really excited to be part of an institution that values a liberal arts education that is widely accessible.
September 23, 2011 | Filed under Anthropology, Social Sciences and tagged with anthropology of immigration, applied anthropology, border patrol social issues, border politics, cultural anthropology, environmental impact of immigration, immigration politics, Jessica Piekielek, Sociology and Anthropology Program, SOU, Southern Oregon University.
Tags: anthropology of immigration, applied anthropology, border patrol social issues, border politics, cultural anthropology, environmental impact of immigration, immigration politics, Jessica Piekielek, Sociology and Anthropology Program, SOU, Southern Oregon University