Nancy Scheper-Hughes Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Studying the Human Condition: Habits of a Militant Anthropologist: Conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor of Anthropology, U.C. Berkeley; 12/14/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Nancy, welcome.

Thank you, Harry, it's great to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

In Brooklyn, New York. Williamsburgh, which was an immigrant section of New York City, and part of the time also in Queens, New York.

This setting was a very diverse one for a young girl growing up.

Yes, in the post - World War II period there were waves of various kinds of immigrants coming in, people that had still been displaced after World War II, so it was a large Eastern European community. It had been an Irish community, they had been displaced. And then in the early fifties, when I started grade school, the Puerto Rican community began to form. And so overnight, seemingly, it became a Spanish-speaking community.

How did your parents shape your character?

Well my mother was a first-generation Czech-American. We lived on a block, South Third Street, Brooklyn, that was dominated by the Znojemskys. photo caption below: The Znojemskys. That was my mother's family, so it was a bit of a matriarchal line. My mother and her eight sisters and brothers married and lived there. My dad was of German Lutheran background, many more generations back, but like all the men in this clan they came to move on South Third Street. And we lived together as an extended family and we thought of ourselves as a clan. And we lived cheek by jowl with people that had just recently arrived also from Lithuania, from Poland, from Russia, and also a large Hasidic Jewish community. So we lived close to each other, not always understanding each other.

And this neighborhood was in the presence of a major sugar operation?

Well, the "sugar house," as we called it. We lived just down the block from a sugar refinery, Domino's sugar refinery, but also there was also Esquire Boot Black Company, and there was Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and there were a variety ... at that point there was still a viable industrial base in Brooklyn and most of the people worked in one or another of the factories. But the sugar house dominated.

And so it was a working-class setting.

Yes it was poor to working-class, a little bit forming underclass at the same time. As the Puerto Ricans arrived they were mainly sugarcane cutters that came from the hills of Puerto Rico and they came without too many resources at that point.

What was your schooling like in this setting?

I began in public school, which was right next door, and spent kindergarten and first grade there. And then because I was raised also in a pretty intensely Catholic community, I requested to go to the nuns. And so by the second grade I crossed the street and went to St. Peter and Paul's church school.

Any books that you remember now that you read as a young person?

As a very young person, if we're talking first grade and second grade, my father was an avid reader. Both of my parents were self educated and had not been schooled, really. But they took advantage of the library and so almost daily at night my dad would read to me. I think my favorites were Grimm's Fairy Tales. And for me, I guess, born pretty much into a slum, these fairy tales were a great escape.

In what sense?

I loved anything that was rural. I loved stories about forests, I loved stories about peasants. And I think that this had an indelible mark on me, in terms of at least initially wanting to pursue rural life and understand more about that. And then I came back after many years to look at people who lived in slums, newly arrived, in shanty towns and squatter camps, which I think reproduced some of the things I wasn't quite ready to face when I first started anthropology.

Do you have any recollections of any significant mentors? I know the nuns identified you as someone who should be given the opportunity to have more advanced schooling.

Yes, I think my first grade teacher, Mrs. Winreib, was terribly important in that regard. She was a mentor who, among other things, taught us to be proud of the fact that we were citizens even if we were newly arrived ones, and not to be ashamed that many of us in the classroom were accepting family assistance and welfare of one kind or another. And I think in one of my more recent pieces, "Two Cents for Welfare," I talk about a little ritual that Mrs. Winreib had established where, after the distribution of cookies and milk, she would line us all up and ask us to contribute something to welfare. Now I don't know where that went, whether it was just to supply money for cookies and milk for those that didn't have any, but we were to come up in front of the room and raise our two cents or three cents and say ...

Literally two cents.

Literally: "Mrs. Winreib, I give two cents for welfare." And the nuns were very formative as well. Every year in school they would ask you what you hoped to be when you grew up. They called it your vocation. I had very traumatic event when I was, I guess, in third or forth grade. My parents not only took advantage of the library but also the museums, and one of the museums my elder brother and cousins were brought to on a pretty regular basis was the Museum of Natural History, and I became completely enamored of that museum and what it had to offer. And so in one of my essays I wrote that I was going to be a naturalist when I grew up, and sister Mary Theresa took me aside and, with horror, said "Nancy, you can't be a naturalist." And I said, "Sister, why?" She said, "You must always keep your clothes on."

I see. So you went into anthropology as a compromise. Now, as an undergraduate you went to Queens.

I started in Queens College.

But you were caught up in the turbulence of the sixties.

That's right.

How did coming to maturity in the sixties affect you?

Well, I think it began for me really as a senior in high school, in a little Catholic high school. I was sent to the Soviet Union to debate with students. It was the first time I was ever outside of New York and the first time on a plane. And I was surrounded by people who thought about the world in very, very different ways. I was supposed to be defending Pope Leo XIII's encyclical on labor, and people found me very humorous, but I was extremely affected by seeing Europe for the first time and realizing that ideologies were, necessarily had to be, contested; because I came back with a very different view, not so much of the state of communism but actually of young people who were atheists, who saw the world in a different way. And that was the message I brought back. Needless to say, the nuns stopped me giving talks.

So was this a radicalization, in a way?

That was the beginning, I think, of a radicalization. And then in Queens College ...

This would have been what year, by the way?

This [trip to Russia] would have been around 1959, 1960.

So the height of the Cold War?

Yes. Then in 1962 -- so it was '61 - '62 -- I went to Queens College and got immediately involved in the student peace movement there, and the civil rights movement. And actually stayed only two years. photo caption below: Hortense Powdermaker In 1964 two recruiters came to campus, one talking about Mississippi Freedom Summer, and Sargent Shriver talking about the Peace Corps. So I applied to both programs, much to the dismay of the really greatest mentor I ever had in my life, who was Hortense Powdermaker, an anthropologist at Queens College. She said, "Well, I guess I can't dissuade you from dropping out of school. I did it myself. I joined a labor movement. I went to Chicago, and so forth." And I accepted the first one that came through, which was Peace Corps, and went to Brazil. And I always had, I guess, a moment of doubt about that, because one of the people that I knew who had signed up for Mississippi Freedom Summer was Andy Goodman. He was in my creative writing class. Andy, of course, died in Mississippi.

<font size="-2"> in that period of the civil rights movement.

When I heard about that, I was in Peace Corps training in Brattleboro, Vermont, and at that point I said, "I'll go back and I'll replace Andy when I'm done with the Peace Corps work," which I did about two and a half years later.

In the Peace Corps -- we'll go back to the civil rights in a moment -- you went to Brazil.


It was a community in some ways like the one you had come from, where sugar was an important and an oppressive industry, I guess you would say.

It was the other side. I was brought up in a family of factory workers, some of whom worked in the sugar house, and it wasn't by any great choice of mine that I was sent to Brazil. In fact, I had requested Africa. photo caption below: Sugar Mill. But I was told by the Peace Corps that since I really wanted to do community organizing, the best place to do that would be in Brazil. And they said, "Don't worry, you'll love Brazil. It's just like Africa!" Not quite right, except that the Afro-Brazilian community was very strong. And so yes, this was to a community in which at that point some 80 percent or more of the [local] people were living in newly formed squatter camps around a market town and were employed in cutting sugarcane. So I got to see the other side of how sugar was produced and the kind of debt-peonage relations in which sugar workers were kept, in which they were always in debt and always, therefore, obligated to return to work, and never quite earning enough. There were various relations of labor, from being sharecroppers to being peasants working in between the sugarcane, to a sort of detached, proletarianized labor force that had been thrown off the plantations and who sold themselves in small contracts. My work there was primarily in health.

So on the one hand, you were getting a big picture, a sense of the economic and social inequalities, but on the other hand you were trying to minister to people's needs in things like a daycare center, right?

Right. I helped to open a daycare center for working women because many of the women in this newly formed squatter camp, which at that time had about 4,000 people, worked in sugar cane weeding or helping stack cane. Women weren't supposed to cut, but a great many women that I worked with actually dressed as men -- they could make more money by pretending -- cutting cane and bringing their children, often, with them. The babies that were altogether too young they would often leave at home locked up in the little mud huts that they lived in, sometimes with an older child taking care of them, sometimes with a senile older person. And that contributed in part to the very high rates of infant mortality. And since I was working primarily with mothers and children, it was rather a shock for me to, day after day, hear the bells ringing of Nossa Senhora das Dores church and have to be helping mothers bury their babies.

And you would come back [later] and study this, but we'll talk about that in a minute.

Next page: Civil Rights Work in the U.S.

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Photo captions

The Znojemskys: "The Znojemskys, Scheper-Hughes' mother's family; South Third Street, Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, early 1940s. Grandma (center) was born in a small town not far from Prague. She worked as a hotel cook in Vienna before joining Grandpa, a boot-maker (not shown), who had emigrated to Brooklyn. When Grandpa died at an early age, Grandma became undisputed head of the Znojem- sky clan. The rule of matrilocality was enforced, and all married children returned to South Third Street to live close by 'Mama.''

Hortense Powdermaker: "Hortense B. Powdermaker of Queens College; mentor and friend to Scheper-Hughes; photo by Lotte Jacobi"

Sugar Mill: "Into the Belly of the Beast: Scheper-Hughes taking note and taking issue with Seu João, manager of 'Aguas Pretas' sugar mill. 'You mean to tell me that sugarcane cutters still make only a dollar a day?' she is asking incredulously. Cuaranji, Pernambuco, Brazil, 1988; photo by Jennifer Hughes