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Twenty years, the threat of personal violence and two unexpected deaths have not quelled the fervor of Maria Cruz Torres to make visible the travails of the female shrimp traders whose literal blood, sweat and tears managed to carve a niche in a historically male-dominated industry, achieving economic independence and securing hope for future generations amidst the height of chaos related to the Sinaloa drug cartel.
For Arizona State University Associate Professor Cruz Torres’ fearless work as an anthropologist, illuminating the interrelations of gender, labor and resource management in aquaculture and its effects on the political ecology and economy of the U.S.-Mexico transborder region, she was recently elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“She has more guts and courage than any anthropologist I have ever known,” said Carlos Velez-Ibanez, ASU Regents’ Professor and founding director emeritus of the School of Transborder Studies, where Cruz Torres is a faculty member.
Her most recent book, “Voices Throughout Time: Testimonies of Women Shrimp Traders in Sinaloa, Mexico,” features the personal stories of 52 women who made their living in the fisheries and trading outposts of Mazatlan, a resort town along the Pacific shoreline. Her upcoming book, “Until the Sun Today: Gender, and Seafood Economies in Mexico,” looks at the seafood industry in general, from the perspective of commodification with a feminist political ecology point of view.
But why study the seafood industry? And why do it in Sinaloa, when there are plenty of other, safer, places to conduct research?
It’s a question Cruz Torres says she’s had to answer many times over the years. And like most things in life, it happened by accident.Discovering a career
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Cruz Torres attended the University of Puerto Rico where she received a bachelor’s degree in marine biology.
“It’s very interesting how sometimes a career actually chooses you,” she said. “I had no idea what anthropology was at the time. I was a marine biologist, and I thought that I wanted to continue in the sciences.”
But then came an opportunity she couldn’t have foreseen. An anthropology professor from Rutgers University was visiting Puerto Rico for research and invited Cruz Torres to work with her as a research assistant. She accepted, and ended up following the professor back to Rutgers, where she made the switch and pursued a master’s degree and then a doctorate in anthropology.
In 1989, while she was still a graduate student, Cruz Torres chose to do her dissertation on shrimp farming. She originally intended to conduct fieldwork in Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico coast. As it happened, the Mexican government at the time was promoting aquaculture as a rural development tool in Sinaloa, and strongly encouraged her to go there instead.
“At that time, you didn’t hear a lot about drug trafficking,” she said. “It was there, obviously, but it wasn’t something that you had to think about … It didn’t really affect my research. I could move freely from one place to another, it wasn’t a big issue.”
Cruz Torres completed her dissertation but found she was still drawn to the area, a region where still very few anthropologists work, making it ripe for study.
“The seafood industry is one of the most important industries in this region, in the Pacific Coast of Mexico,” Cruz Torres said. “Many families were able to build wealth through the seafood industry ... but it’s been a struggle. And this is one of the few case studies that I have seen in Mexico, and specifically on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, where you have a social movement led only by women.”
In a place severely lacking in economic opportunities, where many resorted to illegal means to get by, the women Cruz Torres met and came to know over a period of twenty years endured persecution, harassment, robberies and threats for the chance to pursue a better life — and not all of them survived.
“Voices Throughout Time” is dedicated to two women killed as a result of drug cartel violence. Their murders are still unsolved, a fact that haunts Cruz Torres to this day.
“I went to their houses, I shared part of my life with them, they shared part of their lives with me,” she said. “Then they were just gone.”
Their households, which had relied upon the women as the breadwinners, suffered.
There were other victims. Daughters who never came home, boyfriends who resisted the influence of the cartel and paid for it with their lives. Victims of senseless violence that Cruz Torres describes as descending on the region like a wave. As the cartel’s power grew in the early 2000s, more and more were left in its wake.
Because seafood is a highly valued commodity in the region, anyone associated with the industry became a target of crime. Robberies and extortion were common. Missing persons flyers plastered the walls in local establishments and reports of brutal killings dominated the news. At some point, Cruz Torres said, it all became too much for her.
In 2011, she fled the region but remained in close communication with colleagues at the University of Sinaloa, without whom, she said, her work there would not have been possible. She now serves as an academic advisor to the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Social Services in the development of their field methodology.
“Anthropology is not just going there and doing the research and just taking the work and coming back,” Cruz Torres said. “For me, it’s also about being engaged, being embedded within the community, and giving back something to the people who really helped me during the research process.”Linking human stories to sustainability
Conditions there have since improved, and Cruz Torres has been back to teach workshops to both students and professors at the university. She still visits the marketplace in Mazatlan and has reconnected with many of the female shrimp traders there whose stories she shared in her book.
Some of them have retired, their children having taken over the family trade or, in some cases, having gone on to become doctors and lawyers, thanks to the financial backing their mothers were able to provide for them to receive higher education.
Cruz Torres hopes her research will get people thinking about the humans behind the commodities we often take for granted.
“The kind of work these women do is informal. They don’t have any social protection, for example. They don’t have job security,” she said. “A lot of the seafood that is produced in Mexico is exported to places like the U.S., and we consume that but we don’t know the labor and everything that it takes to produce. We don’t know the situation of the people and the difficulties they face to be able to provide us with these commodities.
“We talk a lot about sustainability, and look at it from the point of view of the resource, only. I think we have to look at it from the perspective of the people [providing it] as well. Labor should be linked to how we define sustainability.”
At ASU, Cruz Torres teaches courses on political ecology and ethnology of the border; Latin American and Caribbean culture; and gender, culture and development. Recently, she helped organize the conference “De Tripas Corazones: Puerto Rico's Resilience, Creativity and Solidarity After Hurricane Maria,” which took place on ASU’s Tempe campus to foster engagement with the current humanitarian crisis there.
She is currently working on a new research project focusing on food sovereignty on her home island. Just a few years ago, roughly 85 percent of the food consumed in Puerto Rico was imported, mostly from the U.S. But lately, there has been a growing movement of people getting more involved in agriculture.
“That’s really something I’ve always wanted to do because it’s linked to issues of race and gender and class,” Cruz Torres said. “I want to have that intersectionality looking at food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. And it’s becoming more crucial now than ever before.”
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now