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Updated: Nov 5, 2022

By Renata



It was at the start of the sixties—only nobody knew then that they were going to be “The Sixties.” Fidel Castro had recently come into power in Cuba and there was a lot of talk about “exporting the revolution,” which annoyed the United States and several governments in Latin America. I had passed the entrance examinations to the University of São Paulo, where students were restless. I was enrolled in the Sociology course. Some of the books available were extremely expensive, but many others were very cheap, printed in Spanish, in (Soviet) Russia so that’s what was affordable for the students. I thought that was very clever of the Russians. The students had set up various political organizations, and new students, like me, were wooed by the Maoists, or the Trotzkyites, or the Stalinists. And strikes were called to end the war in Vietnam (as if that would sway anyone in charge of it), or “hunger in the (Brazilian) Northeast” (as if that could be solved by a student strike). But the Americans had their own strategies for grassroots action, and one of them was facilitating access to one-year full scholarships at a large number and variety of universities. I had decided I did not really like Sociology--though I’m still grateful I was able to take a fascinating course in Anthropology; I loved the idea that different people could think their world in so very different terms from others, and that so many systems made sense. So I applied, and indeed got my fellowship and was assigned to Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio.

I had never been on a plane when I boarded the Aerolineas Argentinas jet from São Paulo’s Congonhas airport to New York’s Idlewild. The flight was uneventful, but on our tail was hurricane Diana, arriving right after we did. I collected my luggage, having found that all flights out had been cancelled, and that I would have to spend the night in that strange, huge city. Customs confiscated the apple I had kept from the flight breakfast for the case hunger set in. I felt lost. But someone directed me to the airline counter, where I was able to rebook my ticket to Ohio for the next day. What about till then, however? I felt completely lost. But a nice policeman took me to the information desk, where I was given the name of a hotel on 6th avenue. I think I took a taxi.

The man at the hotel desk said “Sorry, we are full up.” I started crying.

“Let me see,” he said. “One moment.”

“OK,” he said after calling somewhere. “There are a few Dutch girls who got a room and they said they will let you stay there, and we’ll put in an extra bed. Would that be OK with you?”

Would it ever. The girls were nice. The hurricane did not turn out as savage as feared; the weather cleared, and we decided to go out. We were directed to Times Square (Times Square!) where we found a couple of booths selling deeply discounted tickets to Broadway (Broadway!) shows, and they happened to have a few for My Fair Lady. Talk about luck. Of course I had read the play and of course I knew about the musical. It had never occurred to me that I might possibly be able to see it on my way to Southeastern Ohio.

It was wonderful.

The next day I thanked the girls who had allowed me to crash in their hotel room, boarded a plane to Athens (Ohio), and the real anthropological adventure began.


The Amateur Anthropologist

I have no memory of where I landed, though I know there was an airport that served Athens because later, when I was a reserve on the school team that competed in the College Board TV game, we flew from there in a two-propeller plane to a bigger airport from which to board for New York. I got on the team, by the way, because at the tryouts for the spot, I showed I knew who was the president of the Philippines (Diosdado Macapagal); they lodged us in the Waldorf Astoria (!); I never went before the cameras; the team lost. But that was later.

On arrival, I somehow got to the university, and was directed to my dorm and to my room. My room-mate was from Wheeling, WV, altruistically ready to instruct the backward South American. She immediately joined a sorority—the intellectual one, that had an archive of test questions for all the courses taught at the University to help the sisters prepare. She suggested that I apply, but by then I had learned that they did not accept Blacks or Jews (the latter because they were not Christian, though there apparently was an Arab-descended sister, which, I was told, “is different.” She might have been Christian, of course, but that was not the explanation given). Still, the University at large was beginning to integrate and one of the ways to achieve that was that students were no longer asked to provide a photo with their application.

In the two subsequent years of my stay, I moved from the impersonal dorm where I had started out to smaller houses, and both years I had a Black room-mate. As I think back on it, I am struck by how uncomfortable they seemed. We were friendly, but never became friends. And before the start of my third year I was called by the housing office, to be told that if I wanted to room in that house, I’d have a Black room-mate and they would understand if I preferred to be housed somewhere else… On the whole, the political climate was polite, and nobody was questioning things very much. The one friend who did question transferred to Wisconsin where people thought and acted more along the lines she favored, and we also heard about Michigan and Berkeley and their troublemakers. But as I said, I don’t think the ‘60s actually arrived in Southeastern Ohio till about 1964-5, by which time I had graduated, and I am sure ’68 bypassed it entirely.

As for sororities and fraternities, the whole “Greek” system was as exotic to me as football (why do they keep stopping the game? Why do they need skimpily dressed girls to jump up and down shaking pom-poms while the game is interrupted?). First of all, the groups were identified by mispronounced Greek letters that did not seem to stand for anything specific. However, whatever random assortment of Greek letters identified them, they all created cliques and had parties--celebrations, always an important function for such clan gatherings, I assume. And they also seemed to have a function in the mating process which played a role in the whole college business: the frat boys were in demand and the girls were very happy when they were “pinned” and serenaded and got to boast of a circle pin on their blouses (known as a “virginity pin,” giggle), a sign they might have achieved one of their goals, if not the main one, in going to college. There was more prestige attached to “Greeks” (the first time I heard the term I thought there were all foreign students from Greece, which did not make sense…) than to students who had high grades.

In the dorm, I had a comfortable bed, that had to be neatly made every day, one sheet and the pillowcase exchanged for clean ones once a week. I had a desk, and half the closet-space and bookshelf. Curfew was 10 pm; “men” (meaning dates and boyfriends) could be received in the lounge till a quarter before ten and if the boyfriend sat beside the dorm girl, three of their total four feet had to be on the ground. At a quarter before ten, girls would be returning to the dorm, and on the porch, the lights of which had been switched off, there was a mass kissing scene; the dorm “mom” or a delegate would blink the lights on and off at five to, and turn them on one minute before everybody had to be inside, to sign in at the phone desk. Lateness would be punished with a “campus,” one or more evenings grounded, depending on the severity of the fault. Juniors and seniors could stay out later, if they had high grades.

I did not take notes, but several things impressed me, in addition to the curfew ceremonies. For instance, cafeteria food, and the idea that Jello cubes counted as “salad.” I don’t really remember the rest of the culinary delights. But I guess that taken all together, these explained why meals were treated as a business to be got through as efficiently as possible. I think I eventually managed to subvert custom by making lunch and dinner into sociable occasions, for which I was sometimes criticized: people did not have all that time to waste on food.

Another instance was an endearing mixture of obliviousness to, and interest in, the foreign: having mentioned to the foreign student adviser that I’d be happy to talk to groups, I was invited by various organizations, like churches or the Lions Club, or the literary club, to whom I tried to talk about Brazilian literature, realizing in about two minutes that they could not have cared less about the topic, so I switched to my usual spiel about samba and carnaval. The invitations generally came with a request that I come in native costume. I’d explain that the native natives would have come naked, and adorned with feathers and shells and such, but that I’d decided to come dressed like the “natives” of the big city I was from. Otherwise, however, I did provide some exoticism.

Or the fact that I had to point out repeatedly that the friendly observation that someone had had two years of Spanish in high school was less useful than they thought for talking to me, since my national language was Portuguese, information met with astonishment and, sometimes, politely disguised disbelief. Or that the high-school teacher whose class I visited had to double-check me when I asserted that the Amazon was the second-longest river after the Nile (she was convinced the Mississippi was longer). I was impressed, however, by the wealth of that high-school: it had not only a fully equipped gym, but also a huge kitchen with several cooking areas, for home-ec. classes. I’d always thought that one learned to cook by being underfoot in one’s mother’s kitchen… And then I discovered that one could actually major in home-ec. in college. The two sweet Ethiopian girls across the hall were majoring in it, the idea being that they would take what they had learned back home, presumably intending to change tradition toward modernity.

I also registered for courses, of course. American Government was obligatory for the foreign students and taught by an older professor who took very seriously his task of convincing us of the superiority of American government and people. I think I made a certain amount of trouble in the class (not an anthropologist’s proper behavior) with questions about race relations and interference in the governments of other nations. I was very proud of the C I got in the course—my only one in those three years, and one of the few in my college career. Other requirements were more fun. I’d had most of the material taught in biology in high-school, but enjoyed dissecting a pig fetus in lab; especially since my lab partner could not bring herself to even look at the thing so I got to do her part as well. Lab was right before lunch and I regaled my friends with reports. I enjoyed all the English courses and decided to major in it. I was particularly happy in the Creative Writing course and Elizabethan Drama, taught by the same, dramatic, Englishman—even though he could not explain why, when he had all the world’s women to choose from, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus chose Helen of Troy, a dead one who had made a heap of trouble when she was alive.

After three years, I graduated and returned to Brazil. I taught English till one day I realized I really did not know enough to teach and managed to get a graduate fellowship to Brandeis, which let me live in the Boston area, a completely different country from the one where I had been before. By then there had been a right-wing military coup in Brazil, and it was under an ever more severe dictatorship—the generals called the coup a “revolution.” It was a kind of “revolution” the US approved of. I assume they stopped giving out scholarships to sociology students whose reading material was furnished by the USSR.

I finished my dissertation, got a job at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, met and married a mathematician from the University of Michigan, moved, started teaching at Wayne State—I stayed on. One could say I went native...

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