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Bachelor's Degree With Individual Concentration

Fall 2007 Newsletter
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Faculty Spotlight

A Glimpse into the Life of a Faculty Supervisor Henry Geddes Gonzalez, Social and Behavioral Science Supervisor
By Kate Cessna

Henry's Mission in Mexico Henry in Mexico

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this was certainly the case when I sat down to hear the story behind a mystery photo found in the BDIC archives. The photo, taken about ten years ago, depicts five men, only one of whom I recognize. They are dressed in thin cotton clothing colored white and tan. They wear hats, probably to shield them from sunshine so abundant that its languid rays managed to penetrate the tall, thriving flora surrounding them, basking the scene in an ephemeral glow forever captured in this photo. The scene is not only exotic and beautiful, but it inspires curiosity. This is, I suspect, why I was asked to interview the only person I recognized in the photo, Dr. Henry Geddes-Gonzales, for the story behind it.

In his typically easygoing manner, Professor Geddes-Gonzales, who works at the university as both a Communication professor and a BDIC faculty supervisor, agrees to be interviewed despite the fact that I have given him only five minutes' notice of my intent to do so. After taking a moment to study the picture, his answer to my first question, "Where are you?" merits a brief geography lesson. The location is Quintana Roo, one of 31 states comprising the state of Mexico. Located in the Southeastern part of the country, Quintana Roo has coastal geography and is a part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Two of the region’s main characteristics, a rich Mayan cultural history and the flourishing tourist industry in Cancún, a city founded in the early 1970s, are what first attracted the researchers to the area.

The project with which Professor Geddes-Gonzales is currently involved was begun in the early 1990s by a group of UMass anthropologists who invited the Communication faculty member and a few others from his department to join them shortly after the project got under way. Since the UMass team members were working in conjunction with researchers from UNAM, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the composition of the pool of researchers was not only interdisciplinary, but international as well. To formulate a unified plan of study, "mutual challenges" associated with the pursuit of multiple agendas had to be overcome.

In Quintana Roo, Professor Geddes-Gonzales explains, the objective of the Communication faculty was to determine how the media portrayal of tourism has functioned in society at large, while the goal of the Anthropology faculty was oriented more toward understanding the nuances of "how people live their everyday lives." Other distinctions, such as whether one "arrived from the air" by plane or "over the ground on foot," were indicative of the initially tense atmosphere, and had to be mitigated to work toward the researchers' advantages. In essence, goals had to be synchronized, which was one of the major challenges early on. Professor Geddes-Gonzales elaborated, adding, "We were a team, and in every way we had to negotiate our work together... I'm not an anthropologist, but I learned Anthropology... and they [the anthropologists] learned Communication."

While the research continues today, more than ten years of observations have yielded some interesting results. One thing that has become evident to researchers is that the native people have suffered widespread negative socioeconomic, geographic, and environmental impacts from the burgeoning tourist industry and the media's selective portrayal of the area. Professor Geddes-Gonzales explained, for example, "the disconnect between what the tourists see and the underlying reality. They [the media] show a paradise, a sunny beach. They won't tell you that it's polluted. That it's had a real impact on the reef." Furthermore, Professor Geddes-Gonzales explained that high demand for service sector jobs, the result of a shifting economy, have forced indigenous people to make dramatic lifestyle changes. "The men migrate," he explains. "These are people who have a history of being able to sustain themselves through agriculture. What tourism has done, it takes people off the land, and in that sense, it's very disruptive. This is the fastest growing part of Mexico. These guys start picking up all of these habits. They start drinking- and are maladapted to come back [home]."

The bright side is that tenacious, unified efforts are still being put forth by the same team of researchers who began the project over a decade ago. Professor Geddes-Gonzales himself has visited about six times since his involvement began, and plans to return this summer. Financially, he explains, the interdisciplinary approach to research has been vital to the continuation of the program. Money, he explains, has been less difficult to obtain with "more avenues for funding." Anthropology, he continues, is an older and more established discipline, and as such enjoys a wider base of resources from which support is possible than does Communication, which was not a recognized discipline until the mid-twentieth century. Funding from educational grants such as Wenner Gren and support from the University office of Latin American Studies and The Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino studies has been key to the continuation of the project.

While the constant observation and analysis is hard work, the team does make time for fun. "I can't deny that we did stay on the beach," Professor Geddes-Gonzales confesses with a grin, but quickly explains that such accommodations were necessary in the scorching sunshine, especially given that trips usually occur "during the summer months", to allow ample time for research. When I asked him why his team undertook the topic they did, he replied, "we could do research on anything. We picked this because it offered an opportunity to intervene in the production of knowledge... and hopefully try to empower the people who have been marginalized... most tourists never really understand the consequences of them being there...if they knew, they might take action or do something to change." Professor Geddes-Gonzales assures me that the situation is "not completely bleak. Some people manage to live decent lives because of tourism." Imparting cultural wisdom he has gained from years of work with the natives of Quintana Roo, Professor Geddes-Gonzales is still hopeful. "It's important to point out," he reminds me, "that the Maya have been adapting for a very long time [to change]. These people are very savvy; they engage modernity." Leaning back in his chair, the professor pauses pensively before concluding, "I guess the real test is how they're going to adapt to these very, very dramatic changes."

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