This post is by guest author Sarah Foss, one of the 2015 Platzman Memorial Fellowship winners. She is a PhD candidate at Indiana University, and visited SCRC to use collections as part of research for her dissertation, titled “’Una obra revolucionaria’: Guatemalan Indigenismo, 1944-1995”
Over the last two weeks, I had the opportunity to work with the Sol Tax Papers in Regenstein Library’s Special Collections, thanks to funding from the Platzman Fellowship. Although I’ve done archival research throughout Central America, this was my first opportunity to study an individual’s personal and professional papers in depth. Never have I felt that I was getting to know so much about a person by simply reading his or her archive. The intimate look into Sol Tax’s life through these writings showed me his engagement with the world through the discipline of anthropology, establishing a model for all academics to follow.
Academia is full of renowned scholars. Without doubt, Sol Tax was a leading anthropologist, introducing new theoretical and methodological approaches to his field that continue to impact anthropology today. And while his professional accolades are beyond impressive, what struck me while working with his papers was the lasting commitment that he made to the communities where he worked. His informants were not merely a means to gathering information but became close friends to whom he remained committed throughout his entire life.
My dissertation research focuses on Guatemalan history, so naturally I gravitated to this section of his vast collection. Sol Tax conducted fieldwork in Guatemala over the course of several trips between 1935 and 1941, visiting intermittently in the subsequent decades. His field diaries reveal his respect for his host community, Panajachel, as he praised indigenous cultural practices at a time when Guatemalan society largely deemed these as backwards and detrimental to national progress. He built lasting relationships with people from his host community, including Juan de Dios Rosales, a local teacher whom he hired first as an informant, and later trained as an anthropologist.
The relationship that Tax built with Rosales was one of mutual respect and compassion. Whenever Tax was in Guatemala, Rosales helped him navigate local customs, prepared his travel and living arrangements, taught him basic Kaqchikel Maya (the local language), and served as a intermediary figure between Tax and the local Kaqchikel community. It could be argued (and Tax alluded to this in numerous entries in his field diaries) that without Rosales’ assistance, it would have been much harder for Tax to gain the trust and the acceptance of the local community.
Yet Rosales was not merely a paid informant to Tax. On the contrary, Tax and his wife Gertrude were the godparents to Rosales’ fourth child. Tax remained invested in Rosales’ academic development, even securing funding from the Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation for Rosales to study in Chicago and Mexico City. Tax continually argued that Rosales’ work was critical to the development of Guatemalan anthropology and would serve as a model for future students to emulate. Tax repeatedly recommended Rosales for government positions in Guatemala, and in 1954, Rosales became Director of Guatemala’s National Indian Institute, the first (and only) indigenous man to hold this position.
In 1972, Tax received letters from Marta Rosales, one of Rosales’ children, asking for assistance as she had immigrated to Canada and found herself alone, without resources and without family. Tax contacted Marjorie Bedoukian, a social worker in Montreal, and through her, providing emergency funding for Marta and also helped her start the process to receive legal status. The Tax family’s commitment extended beyond their direct relationship with Juan Rosales to a sense of responsibility for his children as well.
Sol Tax last visited Guatemala in 1974 for a brief stay, and unfortunately, changes in travel plans prevented him from seeing Juan Rosales. In late 1976, Tax received a letter notifying him of Rosales’ death. The profound grief that Tax expressed upon receiving this news made me realize what significant meaning this friendship held for Tax. Tax contacted Guatemalan colleague Alfredo Dominguez Mendez, mournfully writing, “I confess that the loss is hard for me to take. Only our closest family have been as close to Gertrude and me as Juan. Forty-one-years-plus simply cannot be dismissed.“ It is obvious that by the end of his life, Juan Rosales was not merely a paid informant, or simply another student to Tax. Rather, he had become accepted as a close friend, family almost, and Tax continued to honor Rosales’ memory by working to posthumously publish his monographs and field notes in the Middle American microfilm series.
Sol Tax’s commitment to Guatemala exceeded his personal relationship with the Rosales family. In the 1980s, when Tax became aware of reports detailing the Guatemalan army’s brutal counterinsurgency, he immediately wrote to his contacts in Washington D.C., including the Secretary of State. Never satisfied to idly stand by, Tax proposed that a student of his, Robert Hinshaw, travel to Guatemala to ascertain the validity of the news. Tax became involved in numerous advocacy organizations in the U.S. to protest the Guatemalan army’s genocidal campaign in the western highlands. Although he had not traveled to Guatemala for nearly twenty years and had last conducted his own fieldwork in Guatemala over forty years prior, Tax’s commitment to the country was one that he never took lightly and that he maintained for the duration of his life.
So what can we learn from scholars such as Tax? How does his legacy impact me, a young scholar just beginning my fieldwork in Guatemala? We can learn that one’s professional commitments should be personal; we should deeply care about our subject matter and actively seek relationships that adopt the mutual influence model so clearly evident in the friendship between Sol Tax and Juan Rosales. We can see that although a scholarly project may finish, our commitment to a place extends beyond the publication date of the book. The academic life should take us regularly beyond the confines of the university. It should compel us to advocate on behalf of our host communities, and it should inspire us to use our academic training to engage in meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with the people and the places that we encounter. The relationship with Guatemala that is evident in Sol Tax’s Papers exhibit this type of academic career, one towards which we should all aspire.
Photo caption:Pictured from Left to Right – Juan de Dios Rosales, David Vela, and Sol Tax. Circa 1937-1941
Source: Sol Tax Papers, Box 98 Folder 2, University of Chicago Library Special Collections