Thursday, Nov 29, 2018
by Erin Wispelwey

Welcome, Sebastián Ramírez! Sebastián joins the Global Health Program as a postdoctoral research associate. In this spotlight, we talked with Sebastián about his background in anthropology, how he thinks about identity and place, and his research with internally displaced people in Colombia. Below is our conversation, edited for space.

Erin: Can you tell me about your background and how you became interested in anthropology.

Sebastián: I moved to the United States, to Queens, with my parents when I was 15. I started at a public high school and I was struck by the diversity. I had not seen the same diversity growing up in Colombia. Bogotá is a very white city, and I was studying in a private school that was cloistered from the rest of the country. I was really excited to be in a public school where everyone spoke a different language and I had friends from all over the world.

After I finished high school, I went to Queens College and I took a class on anthropology. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it sounded cool. The professor, John Collins, was just talking about traveling the world and he was one of these inspiring persons. We read books about not just people in faraway places, but people in New York City that I had seen and walked past and I had never once thought to consider. It opened my eyes to looking at the world differently. So I stuck with anthropology.

Erin: You mentioned reading different books from different people from different places. What perspectives were shared in the books that you were drawn to? I’m curious how you’ve explored reading about other people within the western academic canon as well as outside of it?  

Sebastián: One book we read for that first class was Mitch Duneier’s Sidewalk, he is in the Department of Sociology at Princeton. The book is about people who sell things on the sidewalk of Greenwich Village. Mostly they are black men and some of them are homeless and some of them are not. These are people I had seen for years and this book was a discovery of my own disregard for other people. It helped me ask, how can I wake up and see people in a different way? How could I gain a new perspective or vision of the world around me that recognizes people? I started to recognize that my mind had already been “operated on” and I had already put on the goggles and created stories for the people I saw on the streets—”they must be drug addicts, they must be homeless”…The new vision I gained through this book had a bit of a promise of recognizing myself as well. That is something that continuously inspires me about anthropology—you are making a freaking hard effort to engage with people as they are in life and they are not to be dismissed.

It’s a dual process of discovery that was very new for me at the time. For example, I had never sat down and considered the life of a !Kung tribesperson in Africa. I just didn’t know they existed. But I was also entering these experiences as part of this system that was looking at me as different: I was an immigrant now; I was a person of color—which I hadn’t been before; I was also undocumented at the time. It made me read with an eye that was sometimes cynical, sometimes scared but was often more in awe and wonder because I saw people caring about each other, people going out of their way for one another, people living for years elsewhere and making this effort to connect with other persons. That type of viewpoint is not captured in the starched econometrics of counting how many people live somewhere or the historical lens of the colonizer, but from anthropologists who go out there and live with somebody. That effort to connect with the lived experiences of people was something that I found very inspiring.

Erin: Tell me a little bit more about how you ended up at Princeton for a Ph.D. in Anthropology.

Sebastián: When I graduated from Queens College, I went to the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers which is this organization that helps people from underrepresented communities that want to teach or go into academia and helps them apply for graduate school. That’s how I was able to afford to apply to grad school and I got into Princeton.

Erin: Tell me about your research.

Sebastián: While I was working on my Ph.D., I was very fortunate to work with Carol Greenhouse, who was at that time the chair of the Department of Anthropology and João Biehl. My dissertation research project is about people who have been internally displaced by the war in Colombia. The project looks at how people who have been forced to leave their homes in the hinterlands of Colombia go about remaking their lives in marginal parts of cities. What is it like for them to try and avail themselves of the services the state offers to victims of the war? What changes do they see in their expectations of citizenship and rights? How do they change the way in which the state operates by making new claims and demands? And how is this process of constructing citizenship anew in the aftermath of violence produced not just by the state but also through the interaction between people and the state? My family history is tangentially tied to this which I was not aware of until I went back to Colombia to do my research. My grandfather was killed by the guerillas, and my grandmother was forced to flee her farm with her eight children and start a new life.

Erin: You mentioned that when you moved to Queens you took on new identities—person of color, undocumented immigrant, etc. Has this informed your view of your research?  

Sebastián:  If I read my life through my experiences of people I work with in Colombia, I see this prolonged effort of making sense of myself anew. How do I relate to being Hispanic or Latino? If a university hires me, they’ll probably say, “he was a minority hire.” But my experiences do not necessarily match those of someone who was born here and struggled with racism all their lives. For example, when I was first stopped by the police walking around Queens, I thought it was something exceptional. I was fifteen or sixteen, had just arrived in this country and thought it outrageous to be stopped while doing nothing illegal or even noteworthy. But the friend who was walking with me, a Mexican American schoolmate, took it in stride. While I was sort of aggressively asking for explanations, my friend was more "professional" about the exchange. He had dealt with that many times and knew the dangers of being perceived as threatening in that moment in ways I didn't yet catch. But even if I didn't have the long experience of discrimination he had had, the judgments made about us were entirely superficial. History bore on use differently, but in that moment we were also able to talk about what our identitarian politics were, how we were being judged, what it felt like to be singled out.

The work that we do should make us reflect into who we are and hopefully push us to be a little better and be conscientious about the decisions we make and how we relate to the people around us. Spending time in the shelter with displaced persons, for example, made me consider the ways in which well-meaning folks come into these spaces and demand that people retell stories of violent dispossession. It is often an effort to connect with them, but it often has the effect of alienating and hurting those made to relive painful memories when there is no existing relationship on which to ground this disclosure. You need time and trust to build that, and painful memories are often not the best ground to do so. As a listener, you have to be aware of the fact that your life trajectory has made this stories available to you in a particular way, at a remove, and that this distance is a benefit of power and privilege. The experiences of others are not irretrievably out of reach, but making connections takes time and effort, and demand we think of our own positions with regards to others. In these moments of reaching out and engaging seriously with the experiences of others, of truly attempting to see the world from a different perspective, we are also opening a look back at ourselves. This sort of reaching out and back hopefully invites us to consider our privileges, how we are enmeshed in the lives of others. It is a responsibility that we must abide and that gives a common ground on which we can connect across difference. This is the value of the anthropological method of going there and being there for a while and being attentive to those dynamics.

Erin: What are you looking forward to as a postdoc?

Sebastián: Princeton is such a fun place. There is an embarrassment of riches here. There are all kinds of talks, it’s like I’m a kid in a candy store that gets to go to all these fun things. I’ve enjoyed teaching here in the past as a graduate student, but now I get to teach my own class, with my fellow postdoc Jerry Nutor, “Grassroot Power, Health and Social Change through Collective Action.”  The class will be very focused on practice, so we have designed it to speak to students' experiences of engagement through and outside of the University. We are working with the Program for Community Engaged Scholarship (ProCES) [formerly CBLI] to get a better sense of the kinds of outreach students are doing while in Princeton. The idea is for students to critically inquire about how change is imagined and achieved, and what kinds of contributions can be made from different kinds of engagement. We will have lots of visiting lectures and a few field trips to get a sense of how folks are doing the hard work of improving the lives of others right here in New Jersey and how we can help. During these trying times, these are issues that are at the core of the GHP program and of engaged scholarship more generally. One of my favorite things about Princeton is the enthusiasm and commitment of students for real-world issues, so I'm really looking forward to having these conversations.

Erin: Global health is inherently interdisciplinary. What do you, as an anthropologist, bring to the field?

Sebastián: Anthropology gives texture to a lot of things. What we bring to the fore is the methodology of participant observation. This can alert us to unlikely connections, and on the other hand, it can reaffirm people’s agency in their own care. What fascinated me the most from my time in Colombia was how these people who have been labeled victims come together to help each other. For example, lines are often portrayed as time wasted, or stolen, from claimants. But for the people I worked with, they were also very productive. They often waited for and alongside each other, exchanging stories and guiding each other through networks of aid. While they wait, they come up with strategies to better get state aid, or make demands from their employers, or simply where to find a cheap and good place to eat. They are not just sitting waiting to be given a attention, they are engaging in the hard work of securing it and giving it to each other. These are mundane efforts of care that are nonetheless crucial in remaking a world torn asunder by violence. That’s the expertise of anthropology that I value for global health particularly. Anthropology alerts us to wider contexts. Sometimes we provide a warning signal, telling us where aid is falling short, or alerting us to populations that are being left behind. Sometimes we provide an impetus to look further. Sometimes we provide a corrective—you’ve been looking at this for way too long, let’s look at something else.

Erin: How do you engage with other disciplines in your research?

Sebastián: I’ve worked with a lot of social workers over the years, and I’ve recently been collaborating with artists to engage other issues of representation. For example, in my fieldwork with IDP, I work with Meghan Keane, an artist who painted something 15 beautiful very big portraits of the people with whom I was working. I didn’t want to take pictures of them, but I still wanted to let them hold the representation that was being produced of them through my writing. My second project is about how art helps those who have had traumatic loss mourn especially in the absence of formal psychological interventions. I want to look at how art gives them closure, and help them make claims about their loss(es) to the wider public. I’ve been working with a photographer on this project and I’ve been working with some local groups of kids that have done some graffiti, made rap songs, and plant gardens of remembrance. This kind of collaboration is important, even if it does not appear academic. It tells us something about what kind of healthcare is possible, what kind of subjects of rights and of health people want to be and it alerts us to a bigger horizon of well being than what biomedical science usually allows.

Erin: Do you have any advice that you would want to give to the undergrad students who want to have a career in global health?

Sebastián: Princeton is a wonderful place that gives you opportunities to explore your passions, however weird and recondite they might be. Follow that and don’t be afraid to stumble into things. There is a value to that, but as you do that, be aware that you might have an effect on the world and don’t just imagine your passage through Princeton and your work in and whatever might follow that as something for yourself. Be very critical of yourself as you go through it. What effect are you having in the world? I don’t mean that you should be frozen into inaction, but rather, you should self-reflect.

Erin: If you were to have dinner with one or two people from your field—dead or alive—who would you choose?

Sebastián: I would like to have dinner with Margaret Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson. Mead was an anthropologist in the first half of the 20th century. By all accounts, she was a very interesting character. I’ve read so much about her life that I would just like to sit her down and be like, “what are you actually like?”  In Bateson’s book, Steps to the Ecology of Mind, he talks about neural networks and all kinds of things that are way ahead of his time. If I got to have dinner with him today, I would say, “everything you said was going to happen happened—what is going to happen next?”

Thanks so much for sharing your time, story, and wisdom with us, Sebastián. We look forward to having you at Princeton and learning from and with you for the next two years.