Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the smiling thinker
by Luis Hernández Navarro
In a photograph taken in the summer of 1949 in the valley of San Quintín, the young Rodolfo Stavenhagen, aged 17, with the hint of a slight smile, appears with his right arm across the shoulder of an indigenous Lacandon person who looks with surprise and wariness at the lens of the camera. In another snapshot, captured in the same region of Chiapas in 2003, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be seen surrounded by five “hach winiks” (real men), who happily, fix their gaze confidently at the photographer.
The 54 years that separate one image from the other tell the passionate story of a German, Jewish boy, a victim of Nazism, exiled in Mexico with his family, who founded and committed his life to the cause of indigenous people. They show two key stages of a cosmopolitan immigrant who put down roots and got deeply involved in the transformation of his adopted country. They also are testimony to the difficult process of the reconstruction of indigenous communities.
Stavenhagen’s trip to the “Desierto de la Soledad” (another name for the Lacandon Jungle), guided by Getrude Duby-Blom, flying in a 5-seater plane, walking for hours, cutting a path through the jungle with a machete, crossing the river in a canoe, and sleeping in a hammock was an experience that marked him for life. It open his eyes to other worlds, and that was where his enthusiasm and the idea of studying anthropology were born.
By then, Rodolfo already had the seed of being different within himself. He had grown up in an environment rich in cultural diversity. His parents, Kurt (a jeweller) and Lore, loved Pre-Hispanic cultures and collected Pre-Columbian art, their home was frequented by others living in exile: artists, writers, intellectual Mexicans who held enthralling social gatherings and discussions. Diego Rivera painted a portrait of his mother.
Stavenhagen discovered Latin America in the 1950s as a student at the Mexico’s National School of History and Anthropology. His friendships with students and academics from other countries in the Southern Cone helped him to learn about the political conflicts in their countries, their need to go into exile, and their desire to return to participate in the revolutions that were to come about. Some did, and several of them, who joined the guerrillas of Central America or other countries in South America, lost their lives in the attempt.
In the field work he did as a student, he became closer to the Mexican indigenous peoples. At the age of 21, in the second year of his degree (having previously studied for two years at the University of Chicago), he undertook his first field research. The study looked at the Mazateca communities, who without being consulted were to be displaced by the construction of the Miguel Alemán dam at one of the tributaries of the Papaloapan River on the border between Oaxaca and Veracruz. There, he learned first-hand, the human drama wrought upon the indigenous peoples in the name of progress, and how human rights abuses were justified in the name of development.
A year later, he was in the village of Nueva Ixcatlán where the Ixcatlán community had been relocated. In addition to the pain and rage of those affected by the Temascal dam (as it also is known), or genocide in gestation, he also encountered the PRI’s local power-holders and the divisive use of the political party’s institutions.
Some time later Rodolfo Stavenhagen met “the other”, the third world. While studying for a doctorate in sociology at the University of Paris, he met and became friends with students from Africa, the Arab countries of Southeast Asia. They broadened his mind with their stories of the terrible consequences of colonialism and used it to explain the national liberation struggles they were involved with. In colonial France of those years, Algeria’s struggle for national liberation was intensely alive and the Mexican student was changed by it.
These were lessons he brought with him when he went to work at the UNESCO Center for Social Research in Brazil, where he had his first direct contact with the problems of Latin American nations. He participated in many discussions on the reality of the hemisphere there, and from this experience, 50 years ago, he set forth one of his most known and influential works, “Seven Misconceptions about Latin America”, which was originally published in the newspaper “El Día”.
For more than five decades Rodolfo Stavenhagen’s production of theory was, at times, vast and profound, and few authors have had the impact in Latin American social sciences that he had. Further, his actions went beyond academia. His life was a practical example of how critical theory, which seeks to explain reality, can be usefully intertwined with public policies and activism.
Doctor Stavenhagen was, in the broadest sense of the concept, a vital public intellectual. He denounced injustice in all forms. He was invited by the EZLN to be the first co-ordinator of the San Andreas Peace Accords follow-up commission. He was active with the group Peace with Democracy, along with his friends Pablo González Casanova and Alfredo López Austin. As part of this initiative he expressed his solidarity this year in July with the CNTE struggle against the education reform.
His work was key to the indigenous communities gaining recognition of their human rights. The indigenous communities treat him with respect, recognition and genuine affection. In 1979, he stated that there was no national conscience about a multi-cultural reality. Years later, he maintained that there was persistent pattern of historic violations of the human rights of the indigenous communities. Basically these violations have to do with indigenous people’s rights to land, territory, and the generalised discrimination they face as victims of racism and the denial of their cultural rights as indigenous nations.
In a tweet following the death of Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Manuel Gil Anton described him as a thinker who smiled. The more adverse the challenge was, the more Rodolfo was like that.
Translated by the UK Zapatista Translation Service.