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Interview with Dr. Judith Adler Hellman

Interview with Dr. Judith Adler Hellman
Roberta Rice | July 2016

Pushing the Disciplinary Boundaries: A Conversation with CALACS Distinguished Fellow Dr. Judith Adler Hellman

This conversation took place following a roundtable in honor of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies Distinguished Fellow Dr. Judith Adler Hellman during the 2016 CALACS Conference at the University of Calgary, Canada. It has been edited for publication. Video of full interview with Dr. Hellman and other CALACS participants available here.

RR: What inspired you to study Latin America in the first place?

JAH: That’s an interesting question. I can take it way, way back to when I was in middle school and we all had to choose a foreign language to study. It was thought that French was the language of choice, as it was sophisticated and charming and all the rest. My parents, to their credit, looked around at all the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Spanish-speaking peoples in New York, New York, where I grew up, and they had the daring idea that I should learn Spanish. That became the foreign language I pursued. I took Spanish in middle school and in high school and went off to Cornell University where I continued to study Spanish. But, at that time, I was much more interested in the music and dancing and hanging out with Latin American students than I was in Latin America as a research topic. 

It all came together for me on April 28th, 1965 with the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. Some 22,000 U.S. Marines landed in Santo Domingo. On that day, I went to my Spanish class at Cornell, where I was an undergraduate, where about a dozen of us were to have our “language drills” with our instructor, a Colombian engineering student who was hired as a “native speaker.” This was how many graduate students from Latin America managed to pay their tuition, as drill instructors in language class. So, Señor Ochoa said to us in Spanish: ‘Do you know that your country invaded another country this morning?’ And we did not know that. But everyone knew it was appalling and we all looked down and studied the grain on the wooden surface of the seminar table. He said: ‘Yes. Does anyone know where the Dominican Republic is?’ And I knew where it was but I didn’t want to be a Miss Know-it-All so I continued to study the woodgrain and he said: ‘Well, maybe you need to know more about this place and what’s going on there. There is going to be a teach-in in the middle of the main quadrangle this afternoon led by several professors of Latin American history. You need to know the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America.’ He didn’t call it imperialism but rather “involvement” in order to leave the space open for us to learn. And so off we went and from that point on I was in the grip of Latin American and Caribbean studies. I took every course I could in the field. Once you are bitten by the bug it is very hard to shake off.

RR: Why did you focus your research on Mexico?

JAH: I got to Mexico in a strange way. Cornell University, at that time, had a Brazil project that was run by Cornell United Religious Works. There was a Protestant pastor, Reverend Bill Rogers, who had developed this project in conjunction with Protestant Brazilian students. This was about 1965, and the idea was that American students would go down to Brazil and join with fellow students to go up to the northeast of Brazil to engage in all kinds of social development projects. For the Brazilians, we North Americans were invited along to provide the cover they needed to do social justice work while the military was in power. But the Cornell students couldn’t just sign up go; you had to take a year of Brazilian Portuguese, which I did, as well as a year of studies on Brazil. Those of us who wanted to do it, we became very engaged, but when the time came for us to go, in fact, the word about Project Camelot and CIA involvement in research on Latin America had broken on the scene and it was a huge scandal.(1) Even though there was no question on the part of our Brazilian counterparts that Reverend Rogers was in any way engaged in this kind of spy work, it was just too sensitive for Brazilian students to be running about the northeast of Brazil in the company of Americans. It would cast suspicion on them on the part of other Latin Americans of the left. Thus, the project was cancelled.

Fortunately, sociology professor Henry Lansberger had an ongoing project on ejidatarios and land distribution in the Comarca Lagunera, Mexico about the collective organization of communal lands. I saw him on campus and went up to him and just said: ‘Hey, could you use a research assistant?’ He said that he still had $1000 left on his grant and if I could get myself down there for the summer I could be in his project. And by the way, how is your Spanish? I said, ‘great.’ When I got there, it became clear that I was not ready to interview campesinos, but after a week or so I managed to get up to speed. What is wonderful about that type of introduction to research is that, I wager, Mexican Spanish is clear as Spanish can be. And Mexican campesinos in the north speak very slowly and distinctly and with lots of gestures. So I spent the summer carrying out a survey with Cynthia Hewitt, Henry’s research assistant who later went on to be the Deputy Director of UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) in Geneva, and a life-long friend of mine. Cynthia and Henry were wonderful mentors for me. And from this field experience came my interest in Mexico.

RR: What has impressed you the most about working with graduate students?

JAH: I would say the fact that graduate students are always at least as excited about ideas, if not more, than we professors are. For this reason it’s very gratifying to work with them and help them through the tough parts of a graduate degree. I think the degree to which I have thought long and hard about my own research experiences, and because I tend to be very frank about the highs and lows, successes and failures of my own research efforts, this become a part of what I can offer to grad students. I think an important part of mentoring is to be very forthright about the mistakes you’ve made. I feel that when we’ve had some rocky moments on the road, these experiences only become meaningful when we can use that material to help other people to avoid some of those mistakes. It is so much fun working with students in this way. The only dip in their enthusiasm comes when they return home; they have their material, and the time comes to write their dissertation and there is that middle period. I always say to grad students that you have to adore your topic because you’re going to have some difficult moments along the way. And just when you think you cannot stand it another minute, you count up and realize that you are just a couple of chapters away from finishing so you might as well just finish up.

RR: How have the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CALACS) and the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CJLACS) influenced your career?

JAH: I kind of came to both the association and the journal through a circuitous route. I had been very involved in LASA (Latin American Studies Association). I chaired LASA’s human rights committee for a couple of years. I served on the Cuba committee and twice on the Program Committee for LASA 1992 and 2006. My colleagues at York University had been very supportive of CALACS over the years, especially Viviana Patroni, Eduardo Canel, and Patrick Taylor. They really urged me to become more engaged with CALACS. Indeed, it was Viviana who, as Director of CERLAC (Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean) wanted to bring the journal to York because it had been floating around. She said: ‘if we suggest your name as editor it will become part of our proposal to bring the journal to CERLAC and we will all help.’ She was very encouraging and so that was pretty much the way I became editor of the journal. I found it to be a wonderful experience. I thought I’d be in a good position to strengthen the journal by encouraging more submissions from Latin America through my travel and research connections there and I know a lot of Latin Americanists and Caribbeanists in my age cohort, such as Howard Handelman, an old friend and distinguished scholar of Latin America. I ran up to Howard at a LASA conference and asked him if he had ever published in Canada. He hadn’t and I said to him: ‘and you say that you have an international reputation?’ I was very blunt about it. I went about it the same way I would go about my research. I ran up to presenters at the end of panels and all but grabbed the paper out of the person’s hands. I was very active. What turned out to be the single most gratifying thing about working on that journal was all the work that I received from junior scholars whom I had never met for whom I felt I could make a real difference by encouraging their submissions and then working with them to cut and polish the piece to make it as accessible as possible. Especially with new authors, as a journal editor you can make a lot of things happen that otherwise would never come about and this is a lot of fun.

RR: What do you think the future holds for Latin American studies in Canada?

JAH: I’m glad that you ask me that. It’s very scary. I have to say it is scary. I mentioned last night when we had the CALACS awards ceremony that the previous week I was on a panel at LASA comparing U.S., Canadian, and British origins of Latin American Studies, and one of the questions I received in the Q & A was precisely this. I have to say to you, as I said at that panel, that I am totally perplexed. At my university, every other word out of an administrator’s mouth is “internationalization,” yet the administration has effectively defunded the undergraduate Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. African Studies is barely hanging on as is South Asian studies. These are small undergraduate programs whose coordinators receive only a small stipend and no course release, and even so, the administration has made moves to end them. We in LACS (Latin American and Caribbean Studies), have rescued the study of the region by moving it into the undergraduate program in International Development Studies. That might seem to be a logical and positive move, but it has resulted in the further decline in area studies. Students feel that development studies degrees look more “professional” and they are not wrong in making this assessment. But this brought about a decline in the number of majors in LACS. When I described this process and outcome at the LASA panel, people in the audience who are based in the U.S., assumed that area studies is under attack but from the “disciplines.” The difference with respect to the area studies crisis in the U.S. is that York University was founded with an explicit commitment to interdisciplinary studies. Thus, at York it is not the disciplines that are trying to do away with interdisciplinary programs like LACS, but rather the administration. And another manifestation of the administration’s perverse policies is the cutbacks we have suffered in foreign language programs, which are the lifeblood of area studies. So, as you can see I have no reasonable explanation for how and why administrators who go on and on about “internationalization” are content to oversee the demise of area studies while there are still so many students and professors who would want to see these courses offered.

RR: Which book are you most proud of and why?

JAH: Do you know the way people say of their children that they love them all the same? Well, I love my books all the same. Each one was written at a different stage of my life. For instance, Mexico in Crisis (1978), I wrote because the things I had read about Mexico seemed so inadequate. It was written under contract with Penguin, but they suddenly dropped their Latin American series while I was under contract, and I have to say that this payout was the most money I had ever received for not publishing something. The book eventually did come out but with Heinemann in Britain and Holmes and Meier in the U.S. and it was a big surprise to me and others when it caught on, not the least because I was an absolute nobody and I was certainly not the only person thinking critically about the accepted paradigm which was that Mexico was a one-party democracy. Yet, any reasonably observant person who spent more than four days in Mexico would have understood that it was not. So I collected the material I needed on the lives of peasants and workers to demonstrate that Mexico was not a “democratic model for the Third World,” as so many had said, and I wrote it up in as accessible a way as I could and it just caught on and was adopted all over the place. And this is what first gave me an international reach; and it became something like a passport for me. How could I not love that book?

Then there was a whole period of my life when I did work on Italy and on Italian women’s movements (Hellman 1987). That research was hugely fun. My research subjects became my very dear friends. I compared different kinds of organizations in five different Italian cities. The most difficult part was that I was studying women who were passionate in their positions on issues and not in agreement with women in other branches of the women’s movement. It was a challenging situation but still a lot of fun. And these women are still in my life today almost forty years later.

The biggest move for me, however, was Mexican Lives (1995) because that book came out of the switch I made to journalistic writing based on personal narratives and oral histories. What was interesting there was that almost everyone with whom I shared my plans in North America said, ‘that sounds kind of strange—just a collection of stories?’ But when I got to Mexico, people were very supportive and Mexican colleagues plugged me into all sorts of networks that I would not have been able to access otherwise. That book was really widely adopted in courses and by this time we had the Internet so what was especially gratifying with that book was that I would receive emails from Chicano students in Texas and California. They would say that their high school teacher or their professor had “made” them read the book and they told me that for the first time in their lives, they understood their parents.

And then this last book, The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place (2007), I love dearly. It looks at Mexicans in Los Angeles and in New York. The book starts out in Mexico and answers the question of how and why people migrate. That is the rock. Why do people leave, what are the push factors? And then there is the middle part of the journey, which describes unbelievably bold ways to cross the border, and then finally the hard places, which are New York and California. What I feel very strongly about that book is that many people who are involved in immigrant advocacy, especially in the U.S., who are pushing for immigration reform, seem to feel that the way to rouse their fellow Americans into action is to show how victimized and oppressed immigrants are. But when you run around Los Angeles and New York in the world of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants, you actually meet people who are very much enjoying their lives in so many ways. Of course they have their just complaints and some very bad moments, but, on balance, they create very rich, often very satisfying lives for themselves. Rather than presenting as victimized people, they overwhelmingly strike you as self-reliant, spunky, and funny as can be. Really, some of the most amusing people I have ever met in my life are in this book, because they are people who know two societies and perceive the absurdities in both. It was a lot of fun from my point of view, because, for the first time I was interviewing people in my own society, and I found I could really be useful to the research subjects in concrete ways which was not a satisfaction that I claim in my previous research experiences.

RR: What can we expect next from you?

JAH: My new main project I launched at my session at CALACS today. I gave out the citation for it: European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (2015), the 50th anniversary special issue. This is something I want to do more of. It is a hard-hitting article that I hope people read and send the link around to their friends. It focuses on the tremendous limitations imposed on field work in Latin America—and this ties in to your question on the future of Latin American Studies—by the profoundly ill-conceived, ill-advised, and badly understood ethics protocols. The protocols require people to promise to do a series of things that are very inappropriate to do upon their arrival in foreign lands and indeed in situations that are potentially dangerous and about which, by definition, they don’t know very much precisely because they are at the beginning of their study. The university administrators who are enforcing the protocols require you to promise that you will disclose things about yourself and your research project to potential interviewees whom you don’t yet know. This is what you are supposed to do upon meeting these possible research subjects: provide them with your information and the contact information of the research office of the university to whom they can complain. There is just a total disjuncture between the actual reality of the field and people literally sitting in the research tower of the university who seem to think it imperative that impoverished and powerless people in Latin America and the Caribbean are somehow going to be in contact with them via email. I believe this happens because the vast majority of the people administering these protocols have not, themselves, conducted research in environments outside of their own worlds. For instance, if you are doing research in the Ecuadorian Amazon on extractive industries, where indigenous people are themselves at odds with one another over the issue, this is not a situation where you want to go in declaiming who you are and what are your hypotheses. Instead, you go in with appropriate timidity and good manners. It is not good manners to approach someone and before they can even say, ‘buenos días,’ you suddenly unload information on that person.

I just want to say one more thing about this project of mine. When our university research officers come around to talk with the grad students, their line is always something like: ‘We know these protocols on informed consent seem like a lot of stuff and bother, but you must understand that they do sensitize you to important research issues.’ The problem is that these administrators are confused because most often they haven’t conducted research, let alone written up the material that might be collected in the field. The protocols sensitize you to the wrong moment in the research process. They sensitize you to the moment you are speaking to someone and you have to persuade that person to open up to you. Well, sooner or later every researcher gets to talk to “subjects” and hear what they have to say. The crucial moment, the dangerous moment, is when you have gained research subjects’ confidence and they have told you lots of important things. This is the sensitive moment because you can have some fantastic material that, in the end, you just cannot use. You have to recognize this. You cannot use it because people have told you things that can compromise them. We have to realize this and be wary and conscious of this. My argument is that research protocols have us focusing on the wrong moment in the research process. The real issue is not gaining access to interviewees but what we do with the material that we have collected from our encounters in the research setting.

RR: Did you learn anything about yourself from the roundtable in your honor at the 2016 CALACS conference?

JAH: Yes, I learned that I had wonderful students who really did understand and appreciate what I was trying to do. I really was moved. Laura Macdonald and Lucy Luccisano, who were my students, and Judith Teichman, who is my contemporary, talked about my work and our friendships. They had a lot to say about the impact I had on the field and on them as a mentor. I was amazed because you try to help people, you push and you shove and you comfort, and you always hope that they understand why you are doing what you are doing, and, it now is clear to me that they did. It worked for them. I was very pleased to learn that. It was very, very nice. Thank you.

1 Project Camelot was a counterinsurgency study on targeted countries, especially in Latin America, that was conducted by the U.S. Army in 1964 under the direction of the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) at American University. The objective of the project was to increase the U.S. military’s ability to predict and influence domestic developments in Latin America and beyond. The military-sponsored project was officially cancelled in July 1965 under intense criticism by academics and activists. For more information see Horowitz (1967) and Rohde (2013).

Notes on Contributor
Judith Adler Hellman is a professor of social and political science at York University, Canada. She is the author of Mexican Lives (1995) and The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place (2007), as well as Mexico in Crisis (1978) and Journeys among Women: Feminism in Five Italian Cities (1987). Dr. Hellman’s fieldwork and writing on Mexico date back to the 1960s, when she first interviewed peasants in the countryside and social movement activists in the cities. She served on the executive committee of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CALACS) from 2001-2006 and as editor of the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CJLACS) from 2001-2004.

Hellman, Judith A. 2015. “New Challenges for Fieldworkers in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, No. 100 (50th Anniversary Special Issue): 99-110.
Hellman, Judith A. 2007. The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place. New York: The New Press.
Hellman, Judith A. 1995. Mexican Lives. New York: The New Press.
Hellman, Judith A. 1987. Journeys among Women: Feminism in Five Italian Cities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Hellman, Judith A. 1978. Mexico in Crisis. London, U.K: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
Horowitz, Irving L. 1967. The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship between Social Science and Practical Politics. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
Rohde, Joy. Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Judith Hellman, York University, CALACS 2016 from Latin American Research Centre on Vimeo.

Roberta Rice received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of New Mexico, USA in 2006. She holds a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University. Dr. Rice is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. Her book The New Politics of Protest: Indigenous Mobilization in Latin America’s Neoliberal Era (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012) was nominated for the 2014 Comparative Politics prize by the Canadian Political Science Association. Her work has appeared in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Latin America Research Review, Comparative Political Studies, and Party Politics. She is currently working on a comparative project on Indigenous rights and representation in Canada and Latin America funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Her cases include Yukon and Nunavut alongside Ecuador and Bolivia.