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Writing Couple Goes Back to Go Forward

Writing Couple Goes Back to Go Forward

By Roberto Rodriguez & Patrisia Gonzales

After having spent our careers in journalism – 12 years as nationally syndicated columnists — the decision to return to the classroom continues to be a bit numbing. We decided to apply to graduate school at the persistence of a Native professor, Dr. Patty Loew, who insisted that our work be rewarded with doctorates. Our work at the time centered on the topic of origins and migrations of North America’s Indigenous peoples. Since then, we have continued this work, though we have pursued individual research focuses.

RODRIGUEZ: I have not stopped writing. Writing, researching and teaching are not mutually exclusive. As a columnist, I am used to taking on experts of all kinds — from academics and politicians to government officials. I am used to being a watchdog of government and power brokers, particularly in the post-Sept. 11 world. Yet beyond that, particularly when writing about origins and migrations, being columnists has enabled us to create narratives about what it means to be human, about the future of democracy and humanity and about the meaning of indigeneity in a nation that considers brown people like me suspect and alien.

After being gone from the classroom an entire generation, I have found myself in awkward situations, often biting my tongue because nowadays, I can get penalized (graded) for disagreeing with the professor. I say this in jest, yet, academia — like the media — is still seemingly unaware that there’s a knowledge-base beyond Euro-America. There’s a very rich Indigenous and multicultural documented history of this continent, one that goes back many thousands of years.

GONZALES: I’ve often joked that my Ph.D. will stand for something different — promoter of herbal doctoring. I descend from several generations of traditional healers (Indigenous doctors, bonesetters, herbalists and midwives.) So I won’t be the first “doctor” in the family, but certainly the first with a Ph.D.

I didn’t decide to pursue a Ph.D. until I could envision how the academy could play a role in preserving and strengthening Indigenous medicine. While I was teaching in journalism departments in the Southwest, mentors and department chairs encouraged me to obtain my doctorate. I was writing books and our syndicated column and pursuing my avocation as an herbalist, promotora tradicional (or community health worker in traditional medicine) and apprentice birth attendant, in keeping with my family legacy. When Roberto and I interviewed a ceremonial leader for a documentary on Indigenous memory, she noted that “birth is a ceremony.” I realized she had determined my research project. I have had the unique opportunity to have a Native advisor who understands my work on Indigenous communication and medicine, plus several Indigenous scholars on my committee and a department that has encouraged my intellectual development on these two topics.

RODRIGUEZ: My dissertation centers on the importance of maize and migration to the people of this continent, particularly in regards to shaping identity and peoples cultures. It is about the connections and relationships of Indigenous peoples throughout the continent. This work has allowed me to draw from ancient Indigenous codices, historic maps, chronicles and rich oral traditions that tell us that maize culture — with roots in Mesoamerica — is alive and well on the entire continent. The strong support we have received from our department has allowed us to exhibit our research, “Aztlanahuac: Mesoamerica in North America” at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin-Madison; create a documentary on origins and migrations called “Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan — We Are One;” and to develop and teach innovative Indigenous and maize-based curriculum at both universities.

GONZALES: Much of my work addresses how Indigenous technologies communicate and transmit sacred knowledge surrounding ceremonies, rituals and healing. I examine older technologies, such as the Mesoamerican painted book tradition, pottery, symbols, oral tradition and prayers. Certain materials from daily life and the human body, such as a woman’s shawl or braids, are technologies in Indigenous medicine that have physical and spiritual implications in birth, healing and renewal, and are part of “therapeutic landscapes.” There are also varied ritual practices that are nonverbal communication in the landscape.

RODRIGUEZ: What I want to do as a professor is to continue with this research, as it applies to peoples whom Mexican scholars such as Guillermo Bonfil Batalla and Enrique Florescano consider
de-Indigenized (mestizos) peoples. My goal is to create a national and collaborative oral history project that is focused on gathering, preserving and interpreting these stories and oral traditions and in contributing to the expansion of this memory and the knowledge-base of these communities. More than that, the objective is to make it available to these very communities.

GONZALES: My doctoral research addresses how Indigenous Mexican peoples today have practices that share similar values expressed in Mesoamerican medicinal and ritual texts. This knowledge manifests in material and popular culture today, as Indigenous peoples continue to relate and reassert their relationship to these ancestral technologies, as well as use contemporary technologies such as video and the Internet.

I believe that Indigenous medicine can empower students, by teaching women about birth and the power of their bodies and by connecting students of color to Indigenous knowledge about self care and cultural stress. My future research will continue exploring how traditional medicine is transmitted and communicated in both hidden and public ways and will include developing curriculum and health communication campaigns. Understanding the role of communication in culture is crucial to the survival of this knowledge.

— Rodriguez and Gonzales will receive their doctorates in 2007 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Department of Life
Sciences Communication.

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