Exploring Commodities

An Anthropologist on the Trails of Malinowski and Traven in Mexico

by Scott Cook (Author)
Monographs X, 244 Pages

Table Of Content


This project had modest beginnings several years ago when I wrote a brief statement for the Society of Economic Anthropology newsletter regarding my role in establishing that organization. At the time it occurred to me that a broader initiative leading to a series of memoirs might be in order to stimulate intergenerational communication among the field’s practitioners. Mike Chibnik was supportive of the idea which was then floated among a few members of the American Anthropological Association but it was stillborn possibly due to a consensus that was expressed by one of my well-known senior colleagues that “Nobody gives a rat’s ass about the history of economic anthropology.” Yet, somehow as I reviewed some of my early contributions to the field – especially the critique of substantivism (Cook 1966) and a review of the development of the field that included an exploration of epistemological issues (Cook 1974a) – I decided to forge ahead with my own project, if only for my own engagement and possible enlightenment. Thanks to Leigh Binford’s recommendation I read Peter Worsley’s memoir-autobiography (2008) and was provided with a model of how one might undertake such an endeavor – admittedly, with regard to a much different career, subject matter, and a more limited agenda. I was privileged to meet Worsley when he was a visiting speaker at the UConn Department of Anthropology during his “Three Worlds” period when he was in residency in New York City and relied on his textbook in my undergraduate teaching.

Many other persons, in addition to those already mentioned, read parts or all of many previous versions of this writing project, and made useful comments for fixes or new avenues to explore. Davydd Greenwood and Eileen Kane who were members of my graduate student cohort at Pitt standout in this regard, as do Yvan Breton since his days as my doctoral student at Michigan State and afterwards through collegial and friendly relationships in Quebec and Mexico, and Jorge Hernández Díaz my doctoral student at UConn and a long-standing colleague, friend, and communicant ←x | 1→in Mexican and Oaxacan studies. Also, Manuel Esparza, my longtime friend, colleague, and communicant on things Mexican and Oaxacan, was kind enough to read and comment on my project which overlapped with his own (Esparza 2020).

I owe special thanks to my wife Hilda for tolerating my obsessive devotion to this project during the past five years and for regularly drawing upon her memory bank to confirm facts about people, places, and events. She patiently did her best to help. Also, all three of my offspring – my daughters Dana Lyn and Lisa Veronica, both school teachers living and working in Austin, and my son, Scott Allen, a public health officer in Connecticut, did the same – and also were especially helpful in evaluating the Introduction and Conclusion. My two grandkids, Alexandra and Andrew, now undergraduates at Trinity University and the University of Texas, respectively, were very helpful in that regard as well. Also, my sister, Beverly Ann Newell, confirmed some of my recollections regarding family relationships and experiences.

Finally, I am indebted to the publisher’s anonymous reviewers who appreciated the difficulty of one of the hardest narrative challenges one can take on namely, as one of them expressed it, “how to craft an academic memoir that’s a good story that distills people, events, and insights into a narrative that will illuminate the power and importance of a ubiquitous economic pursuit for a broader audience of literate non-specialists.” My hope is that I have benefitted from their constructive critiques enough to have fashioned a narrative that has merit in meeting the formidable challenge.

For the record, having completed this book as a Covid-19 ‘long-hauler’, I am entitled to commiserate with all those whose lives have been impacted by this global pandemic. ←1 | 2→


Some of my fondest memories involve things that were given to me. When I was 2 and 3 years old living in Pittsburgh it was a wagon and a big red fire truck given to me on my birthday by my parents which enabled me to say, “Oh boy, I’m a fireman!” When I was 5 years old wintering with my grandmother in Florida to escape the punishing Pennsylvania climate which was damaging my health, it was a set of chrome cap-firing cowboy six-shooters. Later on my sixth birthday in San Antonio, Texas where my parents had relocated, it was my dream present, a Daisy Red Ryder carbine-style BB rifle given to me by a business associate of my dad. That rifle, like the six-shooters, put me right in there with all the cowboys, outlaws, and Indians fighting it out in the Wild West especially my heroes, the Lone Ranger and Tom Mix, that I listened to with rapt attention on the radio. What adult doesn’t remember the thrill of opening a gift-wrapped box and being transported by what in economics parlance is known as a “commodity.”

My parents certainly did. From those days to the present, my life has been associated with useful, satisfying, and valuable products which either I or someone else paid for and which had meanings beyond their material forms.

The list went on and became imposing if not overwhelming as my life-cycle progressed from childhood to adulthood. The range and type of commodities multiplied to encompass everything from prosaic items like food, clothing, equipment, books, furniture, appliances, and vehicles to more substantial items like dwellings. Most of us remember when we came into possession of our first vehicle, either a tricycle or bicycle – I remember getting my first bike, a Roadmaster, in San Antonio when I was 7 or 8, and graduating to a Schwinn around my eleventh or twelfth birthday in Austin. Even more etched in our memories is to transition from renting to taking out a mortgage for our principal dwelling – and, as a consequence, being forced to deal with money market rates, investment depreciation and ←2 | 3→appreciation, property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and so on. Those of us who produce documents for a living are apt to remember favorite typewriters (in my case a portable and wide carriage Swiss-made Hermes) and, of course, the computerized word processors that replaced them (mine was a Texas Instruments Pro, an IBM PC clone) and greatly simplified and amplified document production. Once they enter our lives many commodities generate subsequent economic involvements (e.g., buying car or home insurance policies), evoke memories, or have cultural implications.

I remember my first vehicle, a well-used 1940 Ford coupe, which I drove from Texas to Oklahoma and back again in 1952, and the first new vehicle I purchased, a 1962 Volkswagen beetle. Then there was the Volkswagen minibus that took my family and I from Connecticut to Oaxaca and back again in the 1960s, and the four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee that did the same in the 1970s. Today, I drive a Toyota RAV-4 hybrid SUV, a fuel-efficient, high-tech marvel compared to all the other vehicles I have owned. All of these vehicle-commodities carry associations with important relocations at crucial times in my life – the Ford to an unwelcome change of schools during my high school years; the VW Beetle to a career-altering period, following my marriage to Hilda Almenas, a teacher from Puerto Rico who I met at American University in 1958, that involved graduate study and research work in her native island; and the Toyota RAV 4 to my late period of retirement in Texas when this book was written.

The VW minibus and the Jeep Cherokee evoke years of fieldwork in the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico – one of the key areas in the development of Mesoamerican civilization and its world- historically unique peasant-artisan market economy. These latter two vehicles carried me in both periods to and from numerous communities of indigenous peasant-artisans, and with peasant-artisans and their craft commodities back and forth to marketplaces where their commodities were sold. Thus, commodities of modern industrial high-tech origin provided me with the means to observe the production and circulation of low-tech craft industrial commodities.

My office and the walls, shelves and other spaces throughout our home in San Marcos are adorned, and storage facilities stuffed, with craft commodities my wife and I acquired in Oaxaca over the years – wooden masks and figurines elaborately carved and painted; ceramics of various sizes, ←3 | 4→shapes, colors, and textures; textiles woven on backstrap and treadle looms of handspun wool and cotton threads, some (dresses, skirts, and shawls) worn by indigenous women as ethnic identifiers; and with metates, manos, mortars and pestles cut from quarried stone. Also, on display are varieties of handmade brick, and the hand-crafted wooden molds used to mold and position them on the drying floor, and two commissioned landscape portraits of brickworks on the Texas-Mexico border.

Hidden away under lock and key in a storage closet in my home office is my extensive collection of precision airguns and target pistols displaying the skilled craftsmanship of twentieth-century manufacturing in Germany and Connecticut (Colt and High Standard factories in Hartford and New Haven) – all of them with machine-crafted and hand-polished wooden stocks and grips and highly polished blued and case-hardened steel receivers, barrels, triggers, and hand-polished and fitted internal steel parts. On the shelves and spaces of the walls to the right, left and above my computer desk and intermixed with a wide assortment of pre-Hispanic and later Mexican craft products, are several late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century weight-driven and mechanical clocks manufactured by the Seth Thomas factory in Connecticut, and a series of photographs and paintings. I feel attached to them all equally but with different associations.

Artistic work such as oil paintings intended for aesthetic appreciation, like common handmade brick or grindstones or machine-made pistols or clocks intended for utilitarian purposes, share a commodity identity as products of work embodying use, exchange, and symbolic value-realization potentials. Temporally they can be sold or purchased, gifted or not gifted, or retained for a lifetime of enjoyment only to become heirlooms transferred to a new generation of users. Some commodities are perishable; others are more durable, and may last for several generations. Their value component may change over time – utilitarian ends, for example, being replaced by purely aesthetic or sentimental ones. But until being discarded or destroyed, commodities retain cultural significance and the potential for subsequent realization of use, exchange, or symbolic value that each one embodies.

In short, my life is and has been associated with a veritable cornucopia of handmade and machine-made commodities all embodying a varied combination of differing raw materials, tools, and skilled craft labor, and ←4 | 5→the realization of economic value and symbolic content through transfer and use. It is tempting to rhapsodize about our favorite commodities, and even to romanticize those which embody low-tech craft labor. In anthropology the tendency has been to rhapsodize and romanticize most about commodities produced by ethnic others – and the older their origins the better. The received anthropological wisdom is that such commodities have probably been transferred from their actual makers to others through relations of reciprocity, redistribution (including tribute), or barter (perhaps in a marketplace) and embody unique cultural knowledge and have passed through distinctive circuits of symbolic-ritual practice.

These ideas were popularized in early twentieth-century anthropology through the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1921, 1922) in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia. At the same time in Mexico, the work of Geraldo Murillo (Dr Atl) (1922/1980) highlighted the aesthetic or artistic quality of craft commodities. B. Traven, who surely was familiar with Dr Atl’s work, shared the view that each and every product of artisanal labor is unique not only in design and appearance but also because it embodies a piece of the cultural soul or essence of the artisan. However, he also had a broad comparative vision of commodity economy, and probed into the structural features of peasant-artisan life that limited craft production for the market and favored subsistence agriculture (Cook 2004b:46–47).

There are many visitors to Oaxaca with its impressive landscape, filled with pre-Hispanic archaeological sites of Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations and villages of peasant-artisans of pre-Hispanic or colonial origin, who contract the disease known as “pot fever.” That malady’s main symptom is the desire to acquire exotic ancient artifacts for one’s own personal enjoyment. To satisfy this desire there is a thriving replica antique-ceramic cottage industry in Oaxaca, its representatives typically plying their wares in the vicinity of major archaeological sites like Monte Alban, Yagul, Zaachila, and Mitla (Brulotte 2012).

Anthropologists, not archaeologists who are professionally and legally sanctioned and inoculated, are susceptible to this disease, and are presented with opportunities during fieldwork to succumb to it. In every peasant-artisan community I worked in, cultivators plowing in their fields regularly turn up ancient pottery shards or, on occasion, intact pieces providing ←5 | 6→evidence of habitation or evoking the practice of ancient ceremonies and ritual. These peasant cultivators are sometimes prone to further explore such matters under the cover of darkness, not necessarily to profit from a potential find of a figurine (ídolo) or decorative clay pot but to place it on their home altar. I visited many dwellings with such ancient ceramic pieces on display in that sacred domestic space.

Antiquities (antigüedades) were offered to me on several occasions when I accompanied the metateros (metate-makers) into regional marketplaces, especially in Tlacolula and Ocotlán, and in many of the communities in which I conducted fieldwork. I admit to having acquired a few pieces over the years. Also, on two occasions, I witnessed clandestine night-time digs by villagers around mounds (montículos or mogotes) that had telltale signs of residence or ceremonial use by their Zapotec ancestors (gentiles). I do not remember any such expeditions leading to finds of burial goods such as those I reported for San Juan Teitipac involving metateros excavating stone in a quarry (Cook 1973b; cf. 2014:65–68).

During my years in Oaxaca I was privileged to become acquainted with Kent Flannery, an archaeologist whose publications (e.g., 1968a and 1968b) included the application of the concepts of seasonality and scheduling and his analysis of the latter as “cultural activity which resolves conflict between procurement system” in the context of Oaxaca Valley prehistory (1968:74). On one occasion in 1979–1980 my son and I accompanied Kent from Rancho San Felipe (located in San Felipe del Agua on the northern outskirts of Oaxaca City) where we both were residing to the municipality of Mitla to visit an area of caves that Kent and his wife, Joyce Marcus, were excavating. The site was the Guilá Naquitz Cave located some 3 miles NW of the town of Mitla at the base of a cliff about 300 meters above the Valley floor. It was clearly a spectacular early prehistoric site with all kinds of lithic artifacts (scrapers, hammer stones, axe blades) lying around together with small dried up corn cobs (teosinte, an early ancestor of maize) indicating early domestication. I still have some lithic artifacts and teosinte cobs retrieved that day by my son and I on display in my home office. At that site, Flannery and Marcus also found evidence of early domestication of several cultigens including cucurbita (squash), bottle gourds, and beans with the earliest being dated from ca. 8000 BP.←6 | 7→

During 1980–1981 after I had closed my project office in downtown Oaxaca City and moved it to Rancho San Felipe on the city’s outskirts, Kent and Joyce were neighbors driving daily to their work site in the Zapotec community of San José Mogote in Etla district. One evening as we both had returned from our separate field sites, Kent (or Joyce) knocked on my door and invited me over to their apartment to see something of interest. I immediately went and, upon entering their apartment, saw two newspaper-wrapped packages on their coffee table. I sat down and they proceeded to carefully unwrap one of them. It was a striking jade statue of a standing male figure, a foot or so tall, found that very day in their excavations. I coveted that statue but knew that the two archaeologists who found it were conscientious and dedicated professionals, strictly beholden to the rules of conduct of their profession, and always monitored by the watchful eye of the official guardians of Mexican national cultural patrimony (as they should be). That culture-historically significant jade statue ended up shortly thereafter as the “piece of the month” in the state museum in Oaxaca City where I saw it prominently displayed in a separate glass-enclosed showcase. “Pot fever” is indeed a powerful malady that more often than not leads to frustration or disappointment either because the piece coveted could not be acquired or turned out to be fake.1

I will not claim that my relationship with commodities during the pre-economics and pre-anthropology periods of my life determined my eventual specialization in their scientific study. The cultural studies literature launched in the mid-1980s (e.g., Appadurai, ed. 1986; cf. Appadurai 2013:Ch. 1), however, stimulated me to appreciate more the linkage between commodities and social life in my own biography and in all of our lives. Culturalist discourse, when not digressing into ethereal pedantry, raised thought-provoking issues that I had either neglected or rejected and stimulated me to belatedly address them (Cook 2003, 2004b). My experiences related to my dad’s jobs, and my temporary job experiences as a teenager and young adult, predisposed me to think critically about the nature of work and its role in the making, exchanging and uses of commodities in our daily lives. Cumulatively, these experiences made me unenthusiastic about later seeking permanent involvement in a conventional, business-oriented occupation. As will be detailed in Chapter 1, this resulted in a ←7 | 8→somewhat erratic educational and job trajectory before the pathway to an academic career opened up.2

Despite how we relate to or think about commodities in our lives, most of us who participate in our respective societies’ divisions labor as tenured university faculty are relatively privileged in terms of social class but not endowed by heredity as geniuses. We share the same range of genotypes and phenotypes characterizing the populations of our various societies. It stands to reason, then, that our academic careers mostly reflect the social circumstances of our upbringing and education which are inevitably influenced by our participation and immersion in our commodity economy.

As a background exercise for writing this book, I constructed a retrospective chronology of life events based upon my own memories and those of family and friends, cross-checked by available documentary sources including the internet, with the belief that it should cast some light on how and why, in my particular case, I became an academic researcher specializing, during most of my career, in a rather esoteric discipline identified as economic anthropology with a focus on commodities. And, how and why I practiced it in a particular part of the world, namely, Mexico – or more specifically, in the Central Valleys region of the state of Oaxaca and, during a few years more recently, in the northern border area of the state of Tamaulipas. These two quite contrasting areas of Mexico served as my chosen sites for data collection through fieldwork which requires prolonged and intense interaction with the particular people and sites selected as empirical objects of study.

With regard to the Oaxaca and Tamaulipas connection in my work, the explanation is straightforward: Prior research in Oaxaca on the handmade brick industry gave me an incentive to do research in Tamaulipas, once I learned such an industry was located there. I did not realize when that latter project was initiated, however, that Mexican brick culture also extended across the Rio Bravo into the Texas side of the border. So, the project necessarily became bi-national and trans-border in scope and provided me with an opportunity to expand my anthropological knowledge of the border region through fieldwork.

As for the matter of particular specialization in economic anthropology and my radical theoretical orientation, my autobiographical excursion ←8 | 9→suggested that these were formed during the period of my undergraduate and graduate education and modified later in an ongoing interaction with other specialists and their works, and with my research subjects and the accumulated data about their activities. The motive of the interaction was to explain and understand those activities in a coherent way attuned to both sides of the interaction.

I am not inclined to think that the connections and activities specified in the preceding paragraphs developed randomly, fortuitously, or haphazardly. Rather, there are logical and identifiable causes or explanations for them buried in the different life stages comprising my biography and reflecting choices that I made at different existential moments during my life-cycle sometimes under circumstances not of my own choosing. As a working anthropologist I was in places where I wanted to be and engaged in activities I chose, but my agency was more indirectly and diffusely involved in the story of how I became an anthropologist in the first place.

A selective review of my biographical narrative in Chapter 1 points to how a childhood move from Pennsylvania to Texas greatly impacted my life. There can be no clearer illustration of this than the fact that seven decades later this memoir is being written where I reside in San Marcos, Texas located midway between San Antonio and Austin, the two cities where our family lived in the 1940s and 1950s. Specific memories related in this narrative may not strike some readers as having foundational import in shaping my thought and career. I will counter by arguing that they are illustrative of the broader sociocultural milieu in which these were shaped – and also add an element of local color to the narrative.

My undergraduate education began in 1955 at the University of Texas and was completed in 1959 at American University in Washington, DC. Subsequently, I studied at the graduate level and/or worked in Wisconsin (Madison), New York (New York City), Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras and Caguas), Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Mexico (Oaxaca and Tamaulipas), Michigan (East Lansing), and Connecticut (Storrs and Willimantic) before retirement in Texas (Austin and San Marcos) in 2000.

My first trip to the Mexican interior in the summer of 1965 was to participate in a Stanford University field school in Oaxaca where I conducted fieldwork in the Zapotec village of San Sebastian Teitipac and wrote ←9 | 10→a report on its resident group of peasant-artisan stoneworkers. Between 1966 and 1990 I devoted some five years to additional research on the metate industry and on many other craft industries in the Oaxaca Valley. From 1993 to 1995 I did fifteen months of fieldwork on the Texas-Mexico border in a study of the handmade brick industry. In sum: What I have observed, thought, and written about over the years, and the commodities I used or collected, reflect where I have been and the human relationships I developed and experienced in those places.

One matter not yet addressed is why the title of this manuscript refers to B. Malinowski and B. Traven. Addressing it will return us to the opening topic of the world of commodities. Malinowski, of course, was a pioneering figure in the history of anthropology, and Traven was an enigmatic European anarchist revolutionary and writer exiled in Mexico. Malinowski’s work first became familiar to me when I was introduced to the field of anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, twenty years after his death. It was there that I read for the first time his fascinating study of the Kula trade and barter in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia (Malinowski 1961). Buried in detailed descriptions of kinship, rituals, and beliefs were equally detailed descriptions of the manufacture and/or cultivation of an impressive array of exotic commodities ranging from shell necklaces, clay pots, and canoes to garden crops. In this non-market setting Malinowski emphasized reciprocal and redistributive exchanges and their sociocultural, ritual, and political ramifications.

His work became more familiar to me as I developed my interest in economic anthropology during my doctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh and, especially so, for his pioneering study with Julio de la Fuente of the market system and economy in the Oaxaca Valley. Malinowski’s pointed, if fleeting, references to metates (querns or grindstones) as ancient Mesoamerican artifacts persisting in twentieth-century markets, and their ritual role in marriage gifting caught my attention and stimulated my interest in the production and exchange of those craft commodities (Malinowsky and de la Fuente 1957:19–20, 154–155; Malinowski and de la Fuente 1982:61, 189–170).

The work of B. Traven, who approached the world of commodities from a different perspective than Malinowski, became familiar to me first ←10 | 11→as an occasional reader of fiction and viewer of the John Huston film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with a script based on the novel of that title written by Traven. During my initial period of residence and research in Oaxaca in the 1960s I acquired some of Spanish-language editions of Traven’s work published in Mexico and was especially impressed by a collection of short stories Canasta de cuentos mexicanos (Traven 1956). One of them, in particular, was especially well-crafted and provocative: “Canastitas en serie” (1956:8–28).

It is a brilliantly written tale in which the main protagonists were a peasant-artisan basket maker from Oaxaca and a New York City businessman. It describes an ill-fated negotiation between them to supply a mass market demand for a special category of craft commodities, colorful little baskets hand-woven from strips of palm but produced only seasonally for local markets to provide cash income to supplement subsistence agriculture.

Given the conflicting dynamics of two forms of commodity economy, the simple (peasant-artisan) and the advanced (capitalism), insightfully laid bare through the interactions of the two protagonists, Traven displayed knowledge befitting an economic anthropologist – which he was not trained to be. I was so intrigued by Traven’s story at the time that I considered incorporating it into my work but somehow never got around to doing so – after all it was fiction and I had enough of my own fieldwork data and ethnographic materials to address.

Strangely enough, and quite fortuitously in an unlikely setting, the Traven Oaxaca tale was referred to years later by a ladrillero (brick maker) in an informal conversation we had during my first of many visits to his brickworks (ladrillera) in Reynosa, Tamaulipas – far from Oaxaca. I have written in detail about this incident and its ramifications in previous publications (Cook 1995, 2004b:Ch.2), and in this one (see below pp. 165–166).

A decade after this 1993 encounter with Traven in Reynosa, another unexpected turn of events reinvigorated my interest in Malinowski and metates. I submitted a manuscript on Malinowski’s economics to a journal editor for possible publication and one of the editor’s sympathetic anonymous manuscript readers, recognizing that there were gaps in my data sources, identified himself to me and offered to provide assistance. That generous and collegial offer initiated a collaboration between me and ←11 | 12→Professor Michael Young of Australian National University which gave me access to his still unpublished second volume of Malinowski’s biography that covers Malinowski’s period in Mexico and Oaxaca. It also facilitated my access to Malinowski’s previously unavailable fieldwork notebooks from 1940 and 1941, together with an unpublished review by Malinowski of Melville Herskovits’ The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples (1940).

My collaboration with Young resulted in our publication of a jointly authored article comparing the contributions of Herskovits and Malinowski to economic anthropology (Cook and Young 2016), and to a two-part article by me on Malinowski in Oaxaca (Cook 2017b, 2017c). But, most importantly, I was able to confirm a hunch that I had held since my first reading of Malinowski’s Oaxaca markets study – that perhaps he also had a special interest in metates. Not only did his ethnographic field notes reveal that he initiated a study of the metate industry in San Juan Teitipac, where I had done fieldwork in the 1960s, but that he interviewed Inocencio Morales at work in his father’s quarry. Don Inocencio, who later in life moved to Tlacolula but was still in the metate business, was one of my own key informants. For this reason alone I feel a special tie that binds me to Malinowski’s pioneering interest in metates.

The lesson that readers should take from this account is that perseverance in ethnographic research can yield eventual rewards. Properly done, data collection and analysis in economic ethnography require a longtime commitment in one setting by the researcher. When talented knowledge producers like B. Malinowski and B. Traven are attracted to particular places and topics there is almost certainly going to be sufficient subject matter there to sustain generations of future inquiry. That is surely the case with the lives and livelihood of rural Oaxacans. Besides, the Oaxaca Valley is about as hospitable and vibrant a place to linger in and explore as there is in North America.

Aside from research, my roles as a teacher and as an academic program administrator were also an integral part of my career. Between 1987 and 1992 I was Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Connecticut in a Title VI-funded consortium with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Brown University. Between 1996 and 2000 I directed UConn’s Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino ←12 | 13→Studies. A condensed account of relationships and experiences in these roles will be discussed in Chapter 4.

The remembrance of things past is not only an entirely subjective and selective process but one with gaps and conflations, so a memory bank’s retrieved contents must be carefully filtered and examined through disciplined retrospection before becoming part of a written record. The process of recall, especially when dealing with anthropological work, must be dependent upon the published record in every case where relevant materials exist. I have been as forthright as possible in writing this memoir. Regarding biographical background, some material has been included that is not relevant to my career development but may prove of interest to the reader. In sections addressing anthropological content, difficult or stilted language is inherent in the genre but I have attempted to simplify it when possible. The reader is encouraged to proceed perseveringly and selectively.

Chapter 1 summarizes relevant facts and recollections from my life between 1937, the date of my birth, and 1961, the year I began formal training that would lead to a career in anthropology. It suggests that there were causal linkages between my life before 1961 and the choice of anthropology as a career. Chapter 2 summarizes my experiences as a graduate student in anthropology beginning in 1961. Chapter 3 reviews my experiences as a faculty member at Michigan State University (1968–1971). Chapter 4 does the same for my three decades, 1971–2000, at the University of Connecticut. Chapters 5–10 present a chronological and critical review of my research record (from recollections and publications) with a particular emphasis on continuities and discontinuities in my work about themes, issues, and subject matter, critically review selected contributions to the recent literature and, especially in Chapters 9 and 10, suggest possible future research directions.3←13 | 14→

Chapter 1

From Pennsylvania to Texas, Places in Between, and Back Again

I was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania on June 16, 1937. My parents, Howard Allen Cook and Anna Lucille McKelvey, were also natives of Pennsylvania but in 1944 we moved to San Antonio, Texas where my dad had been promoted to assistant branch manager for the meat packer, Armour and Company. After graduation from high school in 1929, the year of the GREAT CRASH, he became a full-time employee of Armour and Co., slowly working his way up the ladder in jobs like running smoking operations and route salesman. He was promoted from Oil City to the Pittsburgh branch in 1939–1940, prior to Pearl Harbor, where he was in charge of fresh beef operations.

Regarding class-background and income-status, my dad probably was more ‘working class’ early on but moved quickly into middle-class managerial ranks when still in his 20s. He was never a union member – although his stepfather, John H. Cook, as a Pennsylvania Railroad engineer, was. My biological paternal grandfather, Howard E. Huff, died of an apparent aneurism before my dad was born, and dad later assumed his stepfather’s surname. Life circumstances have a way of blurring the idealized boundaries between consanguinity and affinity. After his stepfather’s death in a railroad accident, a union pension helped to support my widowed grandmother, Margaret Mary Blackburn, and her five offspring – but dad still had to work to help supplement her widow’s pension. She had immigrated to the US in 1904 from her birthplace in Enniscorthy, Ireland (arriving at Ellis Island on a ship out of Liverpool, England).

My mother was born and raised in middle-class circumstances in Clearfield, Pennsylvania where her dad, Scott W. McKelvey, owned a candy company in the 1920s before the Wall Street “Crash” in 1929. She (and ←14 | 15→certainly her dad) never liked unions and seemed to accept the view that they were mob-affiliated. As my dad moved stepwise, if peripatetically, up the corporate ladder, mom was increasingly pleased with their upward mobility into an upper-middle-class income and lifestyle. She and my maternal grandmother, Isabelle Kauffelt Eaton born in York, Pennsylvania, were excellent cooks and bakers. I fondly remember my Pennsylvania Dutch grandma’s sticky buns – and have only occasionally found matches for them later in life. In the early 1950s they were featured (and pictured) in a “family section” article in the Austin-American Statesman for their “New England boiled dinner” made, of course, with “Armour Star” corned beef brisket.

Mother had secretarial training in high school and secretarial school classes; she knew shorthand and was an expert typist. She was employed as a secretary/stenographer of the manager of the Knox Glass Bottle factory in Oil City, and in Pittsburgh worked for the Dravo Corporation during WWII which manufactured naval landing crafts known as LSTs. She taught me how to type and did a much better job typing a final draft of my doctoral dissertation that I could have done. In the early 1950s she worked for a time in the secretarial pool on the University of Texas campus in Austin.

She was proud of the fact that at Dravo, which was located on Neville Island in the Allegheny River just northwest of our Bellevue neighborhood in Pittsburgh, after a period of training, she rose to be an assembly-line supervisor and, as such, exercised supervisory authority over many college-educated engineers. She was a sort of “Rosy the Riveter” overseer. She was also the family disciplinarian and had quite a temper, and the family bookkeeper and archivist. She was always very status-conscious, upwardly-aspiring, an avid card and board-game player who did not like to lose. Much to my dad’s discomfort, she and I had many a tiff over the years. But she also knew how to relax, entertain family and friends, enjoy her mixed drinks, and her many trips with the family. She was also an inventive and gifted cook. Both she and my dad were clothes-conscious, fashionable dressers – and as the family income grew they were able to participate in a bit of conspicuous consumption in that regard.

I remember going with my mom on many occasions to the large department stores, Gimbels and Hornes, in downtown Pittsburgh, where we would always have lunch in their elegant lunchrooms. Among other things ←15 | 16→during that period, I remember nighttime viewing of fiery slag from the steel mills rolling down a distant hillside after being dumped from railcars mimicking the flow of lava from an active volcano; and the nightly air raid practices (buckets of sand under the bed and my dad in an air raid warden’s outfit).4

The reason why my parents left Pittsburgh during WWII had to do with my poor health. I caught measles and pneumonia in 1942 and then was diagnosed by doctors at Allegheny General Hospital as probably having rheumatic fever. This led to my being sent to Daytona Beach, Florida with my maternal grandmother McKelvey in the winter of 1943 where we lived for a time in a cottage owned by a contact of hers. I thrived in Florida, and especially enjoyed fishing, and going to the beach with my sand bucket to search for cucuna (little bi-valves) and sea shells. Most of the time there were marching groups of uniformed WAAC’s (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) there using the beach as a parade ground (a training center had just been established). They found me to be cute and I enjoyed their attention – much to the dismay of my grandma. At home I would listen a lot to the radio – my favorite programs being Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, and Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy. I still remember the ditty Tom Mix sang to us: “Take a tip from Tom, go and tell your Mom, hot Ralston can’t be beat.” I consumed hot Ralston regularly.

Appropriately, my parents somehow managed to send me a deluxe set of chromed six-shooter-style cap pistols, complete with holster, for the Christmas of 1943. I loved to play “cowboys and Indians” and to shoot the cap pistols until I ran out of caps, which were difficult to procure during WW II. My grandma was pleased about the scarcity of caps, but I continued to play at being a Texas Ranger. It is as if I knew then that Texas was in my future. When I returned from Florida in better health, the doctors prescribed a permanent climate change as my best prognosis. The move to Texas worked in that regard.

My mom and I traveled by train from Pittsburgh to San Antonio, via St. Louis, in the spring of 1944 to meet up with my dad who was already living in San Antonio. We traveled on the Missouri-Pacific “Sunshine Special” from St. Louis to the M-K-T “Katy” depot in San Antonio. Soldiers in uniform were everywhere on the train and in San Antonio which had five ←16 | 17→military bases. As we stepped out of the train into sunny San Antonio, I was struck by two images: orange trees full of fruit in the yard surrounding the train depot (which exemplified “Mission design” architecture), and people of a brown complexion I had not seen before.

Since San Antonio in those days was residentially segregated, I had few opportunities to socialize with Mexicans in school but did have several opportunities over the years to travel to Mexican border towns with my dad and, on one occasion, to associate with several Mexican vaqueros who were ranch hands on a South Texas ranch near Laredo owned by a family friend. The sights and sounds of Mexican life pervaded San Antonio, and I found them to be alluring. For me, it would not be the “Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican” (Delpar 1992) that would later draw me to Mexico but its enticing sensuality and “foreign-ness.”

There was no housing available in San Antonio when we arrived there in 1943–1944 due to a wartime construction curfew. My dad had a room in the Bluebonnet Hotel, and when mom and I arrived we lived for at least two months or so in the Plaza Hotel across the street from the Transit Tower and near the River Walk and La Villita. The two main movie theaters in San Antonio, the Aztec and the Majestic, were not far from the hotel and we went to both regularly. I was puzzled by the fact that Mexicans were lined up at side entrances at both theaters rather than at the main entrance. I did not understand why but, of course, Jim Crow in Texas was applied to both Mexican-descent and African-American citizens equally, even in a city founded by Spanish-Mexicans in a state that was a Spanish colony and then a Mexican territory. Very curious indeed, and solely attributable to the invasive “White Scourge” documented so well by historians like Neil Foley (1997) and David Montejano (1987).

In San Antonio daily we walked along the river, through La Villita, and the downtown streets, sometimes stopping to get delicious fresh fruit drinks at a stand on Houston Street. We also ate ice cold slices of watermelon served outdoors in “gardens” established for that purpose. Despite wartime rationing, it was not a life of deprivation.

By the summer of 1944 my parents had managed to acquire a newly constructed house in Alamo Heights, so we moved out of the downtown hotels. For a while after moving we traveled downtown on the Broadway ←17 | 18→bus line that was only two blocks from our house. My dad still had only a company car, a two-door Ford coupe, but by the time my sister, Beverly, was born later that same year he had acquired a 1937 four-door black Packard from a Chinese restaurant owner who was a customer of his. Thus, began our weekend trips to various south and central Texas locations, often to state or roadside parks from Uvalde to González; and sometimes longer weekend trips to Corpus on the Gulf, to Harlingen in the Rio Grande valley, or to Laredo on the border with Mexico. We continued to go downtown often to make purchases at Joske’s (now Dilliard’s), a big department store near the Menger Hotel and the Alamo. My dad would be fitted for suits at either of two men’s stores, Frank Brothers and Frost’s, to the south of Alamo Plaza. He was also particularly attentive about his business-style felt hats and his shoes (later wearing hand-crafted Church’s from England).

In the afternoon of April 12, 1945, I was participating in marching exercises in San Antonio’s Mahncke Park on Broadway with a uniformed group known as “Junior Yanks of America” that my mom had enrolled me in. Our activities were abruptly suspended by the announcement that President Roosevelt had died. The atmosphere was solemn, and we were all very shaken by the sad news.

My dad told many stories of his experiences during his time with Armour and Company in San Antonio and Austin. Two stories standout. Once he was on a sales trip to the Rio Grande Valley from San Antonio with one of his salesmen driving the car. One morning as they were on the highway from Alice to McAllen through the middle of the King Ranch they saw a dark mass ahead on the highway and, as the car was being braked, it hit and skidded through the mass which turned out to be a large cluster of rattlesnakes apparently driven out of the surrounding mesquite and prickly pear thickets (chaparral), their natural habitat, by land clearing. During the skid, rattlesnakes were flying up onto the hood and roof of the car; and windows were quickly rolled up. My dad never forgot that incident. Who would?

The Armour and Company branch in Austin was located on 3rd and Lavaca (appropriately named “the cow”) streets in the so-called “warehouse district” along a railroad siding. A short walk up the street to the next block at 4th and Lavaca was the Miller Produce warehouse, better known as the ←18 | 19→“Hidehouse.” It was a foul-smelling tannery supplied with raw hides from livestock slaughtered in the city-owned abattoir on Waller Creek. Tanned hides were sold as one of many income-generating businesses owned by the portly Miller brothers (Clark-Madison 2003). I visited the place only once with my dad and saw nothing but piles of still-bloody hides everywhere, and still remember the unbearable stench.

Jim Miller managed the Hidehouse. Tom, the elder brother, was mayor of Austin at the time (an elected office he had held since 1933) and was also chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. Dad was friendly with Jim, and a regular visitor to his office at the Hidehouse. On one such visit, dad noticed that Tom’s chauffeur-driven black Cadillac was parked in front of the business and, as he walked into the office, he noticed that Tom was on the telephone. Tom nodded to him and then said something like “Hi Howard, I have someone on the phone who wants to say hello to you.” My dad took the phone and a recognizable voice said, “Hi Howard, this is Harry Truman, pleased to talk to you.” Dad, flabbergasted, mumbled something like “Thank you, Mr. President” and handed the phone back to Tom. Of course, Tom as mayor and chairman of the Texas Democratic Party was on the phone with US President Harry Truman quite regularly, so it was no big deal for him to talk to the President, but he knew that it would be for my dad, and it certainly was!

Dad left Armour and Company and went to work for Oscar Mayer and Company at the end of my first year of high school. This resulted in several family relocations affecting my schooling. My second year of high school was split between Oklahoma City and Alamo Heights in San Antonio, where I reunited with some of my elementary school friends. My final year of high school was in Davenport, Iowa where my dad had been promoted to sales manager of a large Oscar Mayer plant.

Dad eventually resigned in disgust at Oscar Mayer when he had policy differences with a new generation of junior executives with MBAs – without a pension after years of productive, dedicated service. He had been hired by Oscar Mayer Jr, met Oscar Mayer Sr, and felt comfortable working for the family. But their influence had waned through death and corporate reorganization. His final corporate job was with a family-owned ←19 | 20→peanut processing company (oil and peanut butter) in Enterprise, Alabama (Sessions Company) where he was both plant and sales manager.

My parents were not particularly interested in politics but they tended to be supportive of the Democratic Party, especially FDR but also Truman. In 1948, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was voted into the US Senate, he was replaced in his congressional seat by a neighbor of ours in Tarrytown, Homer Thornberry, who my parents knew and supported. They were disturbed by LBJ’s razor-thin victory over Coke Stevenson, however, and were sympathetic to Stevenson’s post-election charges of “ballot stuffing.” In later years, my mom and I used to argue a lot about politics, but my Dad remained mostly silent. In retirement he regularly read newspapers, listened to cable news, and became more outspoken about politics, usually to the detriment of Republicans.

Mom was a sort of “Maude-like” (reference to the character played by Beatrice Arthur in the television series “Maude”) opponent of racial discrimination regarding “blacks and whites” but had a somewhat harder time dealing with Latinos. She always insisted that our cleaning ladies, whether white or black, sit down at the kitchen table to have lunch with us. I felt uncomfortable with this in my junior high school days and my mom reprimanded me for my discomfort with the exclamation, “They are no different than we are.” I think language was a main barrier in her relations with Latinos.

When I was growing up in San Antonio and Austin, my parents (and grandma McKelvey who lived with us) were regular church-goers and choir-members in mainstream Methodism. My mom, reflecting her own dad’s fervent religiosity (I read a letter he wrote to her on one occasion), was always more of a Methodist than my dad was. When I announced to the family early in my freshman year at UT that I would no longer attend services in the University Methodist Church with them on Sundays, my mom (and maternal grandma) were quite upset, but my dad never uttered a word. My decision, among other things, reflected my discomfort at having to ritually recite the Apostles’ Creed, not a word of which I believed. I did find some of the presiding reverend’s (Dr Edmund Heinsohn) sermons to be thoughtful and well presented but simply could not relate to biblical ←20 | 21→stories, to the God postulate, nor to the idea of personal salvation. All of this struck me then, and still does, as implausible.

Before my dad retired, I was visiting my parents in Alabama on Thanksgiving break from Pitt on the day JFK was assassinated (November 22, 63). My mom and I had been playing golf on the local country club course next to their home (incidentally I had my second lifetime “hole-in-one” on a 160-yard hole that morning), and we learned about the tragic event when we got home. Later that afternoon, we were visited by the pastor of the Methodist church my parents were attending. He expressed his delight regarding JFK’s demise. My mom was appalled by the good pastor’s remark and essentially ushered him out the front door. The pastor’s delight, I think, reflected his dissatisfaction with JFK’s Catholicism and of his support for civil rights, whereas my dislike for JFK at the time was due to his foreign policy blunders in Vietnam and Cuba. I do not think my parents ever attended that pastor’s church again.

My parents got along well with my wife Hilda’s family in rural Puerto Rico where she and my Dad lived on our small farm in Yabucoa’s Barrio Guayabota alone for two months one winter in the early 1990s. They drove around Puerto Rico’s narrow and winding mountain roads when they were in their 80s. They also traveled to Mexico when Hilda and I resided there and, after retirement, drove a mobile home to south Texas and to California, and spent one or two winters in the Costa del Sol in Spain.

After retirement, dad developed a business relationship with my brother-in-law, David Newell, that took him to Asheville, North Carolina where he operated a craft business in a large interior decore emporium owned by my brother-in-law (Interiors Marketplace). Among the items sold in my dad’s Mexican crafts shop, El Gallo del Sol, were many supplied by me during the years I was researching the border brick industry. He had clearly developed a fondness for Mexican crafts during his several visits to the Mexican interior during the years that I worked there. Among his best-selling items were attractive ironwood (palo fierro) figurines of land and sea animals, originally handmade by nomadic Seri Indians of the Sonoran Desert but later being machine-carved in urban mestizo workshops in Sonora and distributed by Nogales-based intermediaries. During my period of research on the border brick industry, I was able to acquire ←21 | 22→these craft commodities from street vendors in Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas and ship them to North Carolina. My dad passed away on June 19, 2011 at the age of 100+ years in Hendersonville, NC, having outlived my mom by some four years.

Early Education and Mis-Education

I do not remember learning much in elementary, junior high, and high school beyond the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. To learn about Texas history in junior high school, I remember reading a comic book printed by Magnolia Petroleum Company which sold Mobiloil and Mobilgas in a chain of gas stations under the iconic sign of the Flying Red Horse (Crisp 2005:7–9). In San Antonio one such station was located in Alamo Heights on the corner of Broadway and the Austin Highway. The people and incidents depicted in the comic book history went from 1821 when Anglo settlers started arriving in Mexican Texas until 1846 when the Texas Republic became an American State.

Many of the depictions were clever representations of stereotypes most of us had already absorbed through popular culture. The Mexican soldiers in the nineteenth century were portrayed much like the Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II: as vicious weapons-wielding cutthroats and torturers (Crisp 2005:9). Other images were less strident and more accurate in acknowledging ignorance of Mexican history and language on the part of Anglo settlers, and the prevalence of ethnic prejudice – Mexicans calling Anglos “Gringos” and Anglos calling Mexicans “Greasers” (Crisp 2005:23). We did learn that Texas had been a slave State in the Civil War but, earlier under Mexico, had prohibited slavery (Crisp 2005:17). The implications of that correct information were not discussed.

Most striking, in retrospect, was that Mexican-descent Texans (Tejanos), even heroic and politically-involved figures like Juan Seguin, were absent from the narrative. Caricatured sombrero-and sarape-clad Mexicans were juxtaposed with white Anglo-Texans portrayed as freedom-fighters against Mexican tyranny including heroes like the knife-fighting, ←22 | 23→land-grabbing (by marrying into the Mexican elite), Louisiana slave trader, James Bowie. The Alamo was, of course, viewed as a shrine of freedom and much was made of how the Anglo dead were burned and desecrated by order of the victorious but ruthless and bloodthirsty Mexican general Santa Ana. Again, the Tejanos that suffered the same fate were ignored. This was all part of the reproduction of Anglo-Texan identity and the embellishment of the creation myths of the Anglo-Texas Republic through a series of visible, if chaotic and hardly epic but bloody, military skirmishes which distracted from the real story: the realization of Manifest destiny and the establishment of Anglo-American hegemony in territory that had belonged to New Spain and then to independent Mexico after the early 1820s (Hamnett 2006:141–142; De la Teja 1995).

The history of Anglos and Mexicans in south Texas during the nineteenth century is complex. Minimally, its proper understanding requires a careful reading and evaluation of three key studies: Carey McWilliams (1948), David Montejano (1987), and Armando Alonso (1998). Although McWilliams study was more comprehensive in scope and less dependent on the archival record or primary sources than those by Montejano and Alonso, it established the canon and the paradigm for examining and interpreting Anglo and Mexican relations in the region as an asymmetrically conflictive process. The newly arrived Anglo-Americans were interloping actors, longer-established Mexicans were defensive actors. The Mexican population was divided by class and national loyalty – during and after the establishment of the Republic of Texas in 1836 as independent of Mexico, a process in which Texanized Mexicans or Tejanos played a supporting role (McWilliams 1948/1968:101–102). This contradictory scenario continued in the subsequent decade culminating in the 1846 annexation of Texas by the United States, and during and after the US-Mexico War it precipitated.

Violent episodes of the Texas Rebellion like the battle of the Alamo were certainly sufficient as subject matter for myth-making in popular and political culture in the Hollywood film industry. In this semi-mythical history, which has been a high-yield debunking ground for historians (e.g., Crisp 2005), there were only hints of the later nineteenth-century expropriation and despoliation of the Mexican-descent population by ←23 | 24→intruding Anglos in vast areas of south Texas. The nineteenth-century Anglo-American settlers arrived first from the slave-plantation-ridden Deep South or from its Appalachia. In the early twentieth century they were recruited from Midwest farming country by land developers.

Starting after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which ended the war in 1848 and continuing into the early decades of the twentieth century, deep south Texas was reorganized administratively into a tiered series of originally seven and then thirteen sprawling counties (Montejano 1987:133–135). On the eastern or Gulf side – Nueces, Wells, Kleberg, Kennedy, Willacy, and Cameron; in the central zone – Duval, Brooks, Hogg, and Hidalgo; on the western side – Webb, Zapata, and Starr. Seven of the thirteen counties, including the largest Webb with Laredo as the county seat, were predominantly ranching, two (Duval and Starr) were mixed, and four including the southernmost group of Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo (the heart of the Rio Grande Valley) were predominantly dedicated to farming.

The story of Anglo-Mexican relations in these counties from can be inferred from their names but verified only through records of land and livestock (cattle and horses) sales. The surnames of the counties reflect Anglo dominance politically which often, but not uniformly, was matched by records of land and livestock transfers. Those records from 1850 to 1900 present a mixed picture: For example, livestock transactions in Hidalgo County show about a 60–40 split between Mexican-descent and Anglo sellers whereas those from Webb county show a preponderance of sellers of Mexican-descent (Alonso 1998:291–300). However, even Armando Alonso, who interprets nineteenth-century Anglo-Mexican relations in south Texas less harshly than either Carey McWilliams or David Montejano, concluded his study with the following generalization: “Land loss proceeded haphazardly until the 1880s, when Tejanos lost control of their lands in a rapid fashion…it is the period between 1885 and 1900 in which most Tejanos became minority landholders in their own land” (1998:283). By 1920 in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, Mexican ranching had been displaced by Anglo farming and Mexicans became landless laborers who cleared Anglo-owned land of brush and tended the crops (Montejano 1987:114; cf. Rubel 1966:35–36).←24 | 25→

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the establishment of vast agricultural and ranching enterprises in south Texas, mostly under Anglo proprietorship. The “Magic Valley” irrigation project and the urbanization of the Rio Grande Valley in the early twentieth century involved the replacement of many Mexican-owned cattle ranches by Anglo-owned farm enterprises, and led to the formation of a Mexican agrarian proletariat seasonally split between local and migratory field labor (Montejano 1987:Ch.5; Richardson 1999:8–10).5

In my school days, there was also a humorous current of thought regarding Texas’s pre-Alaska statehood boastful status as the “biggest state” in the form of a map of the United States (available as a post card, placemat or wall hanging) with a hugely oversized Texas juxtaposed with an undersized north and northeast “ Damn Yankee Land.” There was definitely an undercurrent of loyalty to the Confederacy in this anti-Yankee sentiment, although my recollection is that the Texas state flag was much more prominently displayed in neighborhoods and public places than was the confederate one. Aside from not being allowed to date a girl that I liked in junior high school because of her dad’s prejudice against Yankees, I did not have any difficulty in assuming a Texan identity – and, ironically, I was identified as “Tex” by some acquaintances during my senior year at the Davenport, Iowa high school.

Round-Up on the Ranch and Early Job Experiences

In 1952, when I was in junior high school, I spent a few days during “round-up” time on a south Texas ranch outside of Laredo owned by an Austin neighbor and friend of my parents, Earnest Roberts Armstrong. A friend of mine and I stayed at one of the Armstrong family’s houses in Hebbronville and traveled out to the ranch each morning to return to town in the early evening. The ranch was large, had lots of cattle grazing throughout the vast and almost impenetrable chaparral consisting of endless thickets of thorny mesquite bushes and trees interspersed with clusters of spiked nopal cactus and rattlesnakes everywhere – especially ←25 | 26→lying in the shade provided by the mesquite and nopal. Not a hospitable environment. There were endless numbers of jackrabbits (liebres) which we shot with our .22 rifles and gave to the vaqueros to be skinned, roasted and eaten that way, or in stew.

Round-up consisted of mounted vaqueros going out into the chaparral to herd cattle into corrals or holding pens (and shoots) where they could be branded, castrated, and vaccinated and otherwise treated medicinally. We mostly observed, but were given saddled horses and a few times accompanied the vaqueros on the round-up. On one such day my horse was frightened by a bunch of rattlesnakes in a mesquite thicket and proceeded to bolt through the chaparral until one of the vaqueros helped to get the beast under control (which I could not). As a result of that experience I learned why the vaqueros – despite brutally hot conditions – wore heavy canvas jackets over their long-sleeved shirts, leather chaps over their jeans, and heavy gloves covering their hands. It was to protect their face, arms, hands, and legs from being mangled by the thorny, spiked chaparral. I was not so protected and was pretty scratched up during the above incident – but it could have been worse.

The vaqueros also humored us by allowing us to go into the corral for the purpose of bull-dogging (throwing them down on the ground) calves and holding them in position for branding. They laughed raucously as we were unable to bring down or hold the smallest calf! We were treated to “mountain oysters” as a reward for our mostly-failed effort – namely, calves testicles removed by castration, hung up to dry on the fencing enclosing the corral, and then roasted by hanging from a branding iron in the fire used to turn heat-up the branding irons.

At the end of our visit to the ranch we drove into Laredo where Mr Armstrong met-up with some of his rancher buddies in a local café. My friend and I were seated at an adjacent table but I was intrigued by some raunchy conversation I overheard about queridas (girlfriends) on the other side of the border.

The name of the ranch was “El Sordo” and Mr Armstrong’s share was only about 693 acres, a small portion of the 23,400 acres of his original family ranch. It was located 12 miles southwest of Hebbronville off Highway 16 (Alicia Garza, Handbook of Texas Online) in Jim Hogg county.←26 | 27→

Every summer after that ranch visit, starting in my last year of junior high school my dad arranged jobs for me – either linked to his own place of employment or to acquaintance’s businesses. I worked at a supermarket in Austin as a stock-boy and bagger and also as a “rod-and-chainman” on a survey crew, and later in Davenport, Iowa for two summers (1955 and 1956), as a vacation replacement meter reader for the Iowa-Illinois Gas and Electric Company.

In Davenport, I read gas and electric meters on routes of vacationing regulars, following instructions annotated on each sheet of the route book for each residence or business establishment visited. This was especially useful regarding “dangerous” dogs (the meter reader’s number one enemy) – but, unfortunately, did not prevent me from being bitten on the arm by a German shepherd protecting her newborn litter hidden on the floor underneath several electric meters in the basement of an apartment building. I also read meters for the company across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline, Illinois.

Aside from the “dog bite” incident the other most memorable incident as a meter reader was in downtown Davenport when I read meters located down an alley inside a ground floor “apartment.” It turns out that the apartment was a well-known local brothel and the regular meter reader had an arrangement to record a “favorable” reading in exchange for a “freebie.” I saw no reason to interrupt that established practice.

Although I graduated from high school in Iowa, I never seriously considered attending college anywhere but the University of Texas, especially when I learned that my dad’s new job at Oscar Mayer put him in charge of opening up new markets and distribution centers for their products starting first in central Texas. After my graduation from Davenport High, and at the end of my first summer working as a meter reader, we moved back to Austin temporarily. That was convenient since I had already enrolled at the University of Texas for the fall semester. I had no set plans regarding an undergraduate major, and naively considered everything from engineering to pre-law but ended up with economics. I had no counseling information or aptitude test data to guide me but knew that I had more difficulty getting good grades in math and science courses than I had with everything else.←27 | 28→

Undergraduate Education in Texas and Washington DC: Hell Week and Hell Month

Two episodes stick in my mind from the period from 1955 to 1957: “Hell Week” and “Hell Month.” Prior to or just after graduation from Davenport High School, one of my friends and I capriciously decided to join the US Marine Corps on the “buddy plan.” We went to the local recruiting office and signed up to enter boot camp during the summer of 1955 for a four-year hitch. My parents were appalled, since they wanted me to be the first family member to attend college. Dad immediately went to the recruiting office and negotiated a deal that waived my active duty commitment and re-enlisted me in the Marine Corps Reserve. Consequently, during my two years at the University of Texas I attended weekly drills at the Marine Corps Reserve facility. When I transferred from the University of Texas to American University in 1957, I was notified by the USMCR that I would have to report to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina for one month of training prior to my discharge in order to be released from two additional years of service.

My “month of hell” was served in that mosquito-infested, sweltering Parris Island swampland in the summer of 1958. I remember seeing two signs posted in the recruit reception room at Parris Island Depot: “Profanity Will Not be Tolerated in This Command” and “Profanity Is the Crutch of the Intellectual Cripple.” As we filed out of the reception area to get our gear, including an M-1 rifle, the kindest epithets I heard shouted by the drill instructors was “fucking maggots,” “numbnuts,” and “tearing of new assholes.” These insults and many others were shouted at us with regularity during our drills, exercises, and marches led by our drill instructor who was proud of the fact that the Corps gave him his first pair of shoes.

We endured much verbal abuse and punishing activities such as holding our rifles over our heads at swamp side and forced to allow mosquitos suck our blood without moving an eyelash or muttering a word. The drill instructor kindly reminded us of the rationale for not trying to defend ourselves from the aggressive mosquitos by shouting “Them skeeters got to ←28 | 29→eat too.” There were also endless marches on the parade grounds usually in the glaring afternoon sun. I actually enjoyed time spent on the rifle range.

Violation of commands or inability to follow routines meant being verbally abused and possibly removed to a “Psychological Observation Unit” (POU) for special mess hall or janitorial duty until discharge. A good number of the hundred or so “college boys” in my entering group at the PI Depot ended up in POUs, and we never saw them again. They simply would not obey the rules, tolerate the discipline, and keep their mouths shut.

On my last day at Parris Island. I was ushered into a small room with some smooth-talking officers who were recruiting for immediate entry into Marine Corps Officer’s Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. I thanked them for their interest in me but rejected their offer, turned in my military gear, picked up my civilian clothes, and headed for the long-term parking lot for my car. On the way back to Atlanta where my dad was then heading-up a new plant for Oscar Mayer, I thanked him in my mind a hundred times over for saving me from four years of active duty in the United States Marine Corps. Admittedly, I have never been in better physical condition in my life than I was after experiencing that “month of hell” at Parris Island.

That hellish month at Parris Island had been preceded by “Hell Week” at the University of Texas in the spring of 1956. That was the term used to describe the ritual initiation period suffered by new members (pledges) to fraternities. Two of my boyhood friends who lived on the same street in Tarrytown (McCulloch) were upperclassmen and members (“brothers”) of Sigma Nu – indeed, one of them was president of the UT chapter. During my first semester I had proudly become a “GDI” (God Damn Independent) which was how the non-fraternity majority of the student population was referred to in those days. Apparently, the designation “Independents” for non-fraternity and sorority students at UT, always a large majority, started with John Connally in 1936 (later as Texas governor shot while accompanying JFK on his fatal trip to Dallas) to counter the influence of Greek culture at UT (Hollandsworth 1991). But the pressure from two boyhood friends from Tarrytown who had joined Sigma Nu, and from the mom of one of them directly to my mom, was persistent.←29 | 30→

Toward the end of the fall semester and over the winter break, I was once again subjected to pressure from my Sigma Nu friends to become a pledge. The pledge captain, an especially charismatic, friendly, smooth-talking, and savvy member of a well-to-do Austin family, was assigned the mission of recruiting me. My friends knew that I had a high fidelity system mainly for classical music listening and, by coincidence, he was a hi-fi aficionado who had the newest state-of-the art amplifier, turntable, and powerful high-quality speakers. They knew that I would be impressed. He offered advice and helped me upgrade my own system, and later drove me to his own separate quarters on his family’s property in the exclusive Austin riverside neighborhood near Barton Springs in his MG sports car to listen to his system. Afterwards, we went on a scenic, winding drive on Mount Bonnell road above the dammed Colorado River known as “Lake Austin” during which he expounded upon the advantages of fraternity life. I finally relented, became a pledge, and Sigma Nu “Hell Week” began during the early weeks of the spring semester. Ironically, two years later I was informed that the pledge captain did not survive a crash in his MG on that same road.

Only those who have experienced them can truly appreciate the bizarre and dehumanizing nature of fraternity initiation rites at the University of Texas in the 1950s. These were conducted in unsupervised, unmonitored secrecy presumably with a wink and nod from university and public authorities. Pledges were forced to attend class during the entire week with little sleep and wearing a combination of prickly burlap and female panties under our regular clothing. Our temporary “home” was in the unfinished portion of the basement of the large, two-story fraternity house. That unfinished part of the basement apparently later became known as the “pit.”

One hazing incident occurred in the finished part of the basement, a rec room, where pledges had to lie face-up on the floor as upperclassmen screamed “open the mouth pledge” and dumped bottles of Louisiana hot sauce into our open mouths. Two other hazing events stand-out in my memory: (1) the “late night city storm-sewer crawl”: a man-hole cover on a city street was opened, pledges bound to a rope line went down into the storm sewers and crawled through to resurface through another open manhole a block away (one claustrophobic pledge barely survived); (2) the ←30 | 31→“hill country night-time hands-and-knees race”: a tree-cleared rocky space about 50 yards long in the cedar-forested hill country a few miles outside of Austin was chosen as the race site. A galvanized tub with a mixture of alum and gasoline was placed at one end of the clearing and a bonfire burned at the other. The race consisted in pledges having to suck up mouthfuls of the volatile mixture, crawl on hands and knees to spit the fuel into the bonfire which would flame-up as a result. The alum caused the mouth to pucker up to make spitting difficult. After the “race” was finished, pledges were lined up, chained together – chain-gang style – and told to walk several miles back to a designated pick-up spot. We barely made it back by dawn (cf. Morris 2000/1967:156–158).

I survived all of the above hazing incidents and became a bonafide “pinned” brother of Sigma Nu, along with about fifteen or so of my fellow pledges. Two cars full of newly installed “brothers” celebrated with a trip to “boystown” (red-light district) in Nuevo Laredo. My dad had agreed to loan me his brand-new two-tone Chevrolet Bel Air sport sedan overnight (he was unaware of our itinerary), so I drove three or four of my “brothers” to Laredo (about a three-plus-hour drive). Among those accompanying me were a frat brother from Corpus whose dad was a refinery executive, another who was the son of a Ralston-Purina executive from St. Louis, Missouri, and, if my memory serves me, a non-frat friend of mine from Crystal City. On the return trip, in the early hours of the morning. I was driving (perfectly sober) on a deserted highway at a high speed and had the misfortune of hitting a speed trap somewhere around Cotulla or Dilley (south of San Antonio) and was issued a ticket for about $100; fortunately, a collection from my frat brothers helped to pay the fine.

This had not been my first experience in border boystowns. I had a few such trips during my high school days in San Antonio (Alamo Heights), accompanied by my friend who was a San Antonio obstetrician’s son who lived in the exclusive Olmos Park neighborhood, and a few additional trips during my two years at UT. Only someone from my generation can truly appreciate the lyrics from a Ry Cooder song “The Old Skin Game” for the soundtrack of the movie entitled “The Border” which says repeatedly “A boy becomes a man in Mexico.” Incidentally, aside from Jack Nicholson’s acting, the music soundtrack was the best thing about that rather sappy movie.←31 | 32→

In those days, when few of us had steady girlfriends due to our resistance to the restrictive customs of dating culture and also faced legal restrictions regarding alcoholic beverage consumption, respectable Mexican restaurants and bars (e.g., the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo) welcomed us and treated us as adults. Within the boundaries of the red-light districts and their many striptease parlors and cabarets, we were free to play the field regarding female companionship.6

Aside from racism, there was an unquestionable element of class snobbery and social climbing plus status confirmation at the heart of Greek culture at UT. Once I became a “brother” I was immediately encouraged to enter an arranged dating system with sorority girls; I went only once or twice to get-togethers at sorority houses but never paired-up with one of the girls. Prior to my resignation from the fraternity, I insisted on finding my own date to invite to a formal dance at Sigma Nu house. I had made the acquaintance of a petite, pretty unpretentious girl from a working-class family in Pasadena (Houston) in one of my classes, and invited her to be my date. She resisted owing to misgivings about mixing with the fraternity-sorority crowd – she lacked appropriate formal clothing and clearly was aware of the snobbery factor.

Nevertheless, I insisted, convinced her to be my date for the occasion, and actually drove to her home in Pasadena where she had go to pick-up a proper party dress. She was clearly uncomfortable and felt out of place at the event, and I received some criticism for bucking the system and not dating a proper “sorority” girl. As it turns out, I shared Willie Morris’ revulsion over the class control and snobbery element in fraternity-sorority culture. He neatly described “hell week” at UT as “a four-day ordeal of petty torture and sadism which preceded ‘initiation’ as a full-fledged brother,” and also observed: “Led by the organized structure of the fraternities and sororities, the great hotbed of philistinism in the 1950s, this campus … reached unprecedented heights of carefully planned frivolity…” (Morris 2000/1967:156, 170).

Before the 1956–1957 fall semester began, I had decided that frat life was not for me because it was phony, frivolous, time-wasting, and would interfere with, rather than assist, my studies. I was better off as a “GDI,” living in private student housing, and hanging out with fellow classmates. ←32 | 33→I submitted a letter of resignation to the fraternity, and ceased all contacts with the “brothers.” After all, when I first entered UT in the fall of 1955, I had no intention of joining any campus organizations.

In retrospect, with regard to fraternities, two key questions are: (1) Why would any young man in his right mind continue to participate in an organization requiring such barbaric initiation rituals under the pretext of lifelong male bonding? and (2) why would he wish to maintain bonds with men who failed to quit the offending organization after experiencing Hell Week?

My self-identification as a “GDI” at UT was not an indication of my conscious participation in a political movement, a precursor to the 1960s civil rights movement, that was associated with well-known campus personalities, Ronnie Dugger and Willie Morris, and reflected in their journalism at the Daily Texan and the Texas Observer – both of which I regularly read. The term “GDI” may have originated in frat lingo as disparaging of the non-frat majority but was proudly embraced as a self-identity by independent students.

In those years my political views were in flux and contradictory. I was naïve but in the process of developing a cynical posture regarding partisan causes and movements, and was developing more as an independent critical observer rather than as a supporter of or believer in anything smacking of religious or political faith. I did, however, believe in selective fact-gathering and knowledge acquisition, personal experience and judgment, and a sense of rightness and wrongness in human affairs; and in the practice of straightforward discourse, telling it like it was. The last thing I was interested in those years was the happenings in the Texas Legislature regarding higher education or any other matter. My main focus was on pursuing opportunities to further my own higher education and intellectual development.

It is not at all surprising that the UT chapter of Sigma Nu was finally shutdown in 1990 in the aftermath of a notorious hazing incident which was later revealed to have involved the television actor Jon Hamm of Mad Men television series fame. Hamm, then twenty and a sophomore, participated in beating a pledge brother with paddles and brooms, lighting his pants on fire, forcing him to do strenuous exercise, and leading him around the rec room by the claw of a hammer hooked under his genitals. The pledge ←33 | 34→ended up in the hospital. Arrests were made, court proceedings initiated, three Sigma Nu brothers served thirty-day jail sentences. Hamm negotiated a plea deal, completed probation under the terms of a deferred adjudication, and charges were dismissed in 1995 (Argetsinger 2015; Hollandsworth 1991; Wikipedia “Jon Hamm, Early Life”).

Thus ended the history at the University of Texas of the Sigma Nu house, founded in 1886 and one of the university’s oldest and, allegedly, “most distinguished” fraternities, claiming among its alumni dignitaries men like Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Although Jon Hamm left UT and completed his undergraduate education at the University of Missouri, I propose that he be invited back to UT and presented with a Distinguished Service Award for his role in ridding the campus of at least one noxious fraternity.

Economics and Russian History at the University of Texas

As a freshman, I think I took only one or two courses in introductory economics but took several more advanced economics courses during my sophomore year. I had several excellent teachers of economics – marginalists, Keynesians, and institutionalists – as an undergraduate at the University of Texas. Until the early 1960s the department was located in Garrison Hall with history and other social sciences and apart from the School of Business.

Ironically, one of my teachers, Murray Polakoff, I found out later, had been a graduate student of Polanyi’s at Columbia (Polanyi et al., eds, 1957:vi). Still, I do not recall him ever mentioning Polanyi in his course on money and banking. Nor was Polanyi’s name mentioned in lectures I attended by institutionalists at that university – including Clarence Ayres who was a Veblen enthusiast and long retired. Surely, if I had remained at UT to complete my undergraduate degree and taken a course with Walter Neale (1957), I would have been introduced to Polanyi’s thought. I later met Neale, after he had relocated from Texas to Tennessee and got along well with him. We corresponded and I learned a lot from reading his publications.←34 | 35→

My formal introduction to socialist economics was in a course on labor taught by W. Campbell Balfour (a visiting professor from the London School of Economics) at the University of Texas in 1957. I distinctly remember his first lecture when in his thick British accent, the professor told us, somewhat condescendingly (he knew the limitations of our educational backgrounds), that every American student should read the autobiographical novel by one of our country’s greatest author’s, namely, Jack London’s Martin Eden. Reading it, he assured us, would be our best introduction to the topic of labor economics, not assigned economics textbooks. I do not remember Balfour specifically lecturing about Marx but I came away from his course with a good overview of the trials and tribulations of the working classes in Euro American capitalist societies and, of course, with a copy of Jack London’s book which I acquired and read immediately following his recommendation.

Other memorable economics teachers at the University of Texas were Herbert Liebhafsky who taught a course on the social control of business which focused heavily on relevant policies and institutions of the New Deal, and Wendell Gordon who taught several courses on international economics. Gordon was also an institutionalist but eclectic in his overall approach to economics, and also a well-prepared and lucid lecturer (see Adams 1996).

During my sophomore year I took a course on the history of the Russian revolution from Oliver Henry Radkey, Harvard-educated and a polished lecturer, who presented compelling first-hand material on major Bolshevik and Menshevik protagonists and on the politics of the revolutionary period. Professor Radkey was always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie in Ivy-League style, and was always followed into the lecture hall by a graduate student assistant carrying maps. He had the habit of regularly inviting students to lunch at the El Matamoros Mexican restaurant on Red River Street just off the campus. I went one time and remember telling him during lunch that I was interested in Latin American studies. He frowned upon hearing my statement and commented rather disparagingly that, in his opinion, “Latin American Studies is an intellectual desert.” I was puzzled by his comment since I knew that his own department had a few well-known professors of Latin American history. In retrospect, I can only ←35 | 36→say that Radkey was born and raised as an Anglo-Texan in the coastal bend of southeast Texas, and clearly was more respectful of Europe and Russia than he was of our neighbors south of the border.

If I had remained at UT as an economics major, I would probably have entered the graduate program with a concentration in Keynesian and institutionalist economics and a minor in Latin American Studies. I found Clarence Ayres’ particular brand of institutionalist economic anthropology to be rather nebulous, eccentric, and difficult to understand, much like some of Veblen’s work – although it was intellectually challenging. Professor Bob Montgomery, who was a colorful, much-admired lecturer on institutionalist economics (cf. Morris 2000:175) would have been much more to my liking. Still, at that early stage of my study of economics, I was much impressed by the logic, precision, and coherence of Keynesianism and Neoclassical marginalism.

Liberal Arts and Economics at American University

American University, which I knew to be where one of my favorite economics professors at the University of Texas, Wendell Gordon, had studied for his MA (PhD from NYU), and considering its location in the heart of Washington DC, seemed like an attractive new environment and a good place to pursue my education in international economics and diplomacy. I discussed with Professor Gordon my plan to transfer and he seemed to be supportive. My course work at Texas was accepted for credit at American University, so I decided, somewhat rashly, that it was time for me to get the hell out of Texas. My parents were skeptical but agreed to support (and finance) my move.

Although majoring in economics, I was able to cobble together a liberal arts education of sorts at American University – including courses in intensive conversational Spanish, philosophy, comparative literature, art history, international relations, and Latin American politics. The main campus was in the elite NW suburbs of Washington DC (Ward Circle on Massachusetts Avenue) but there was a downtown campus on F Street ←36 | 37→right in the heart of the federal government complex of buildings where I also took a few courses. There were libraries on both campuses but several of my research papers were based mostly on consulting materials at the Library of Congress and the library of the Pan American Union. My art history class was often conducted in the National Gallery of Art. In short, the resources available to any serious student at any university in DC are truly impressive.

One of the concrete benefits for students contemplating a career in government service is that many faculty members at American University were adjunct, had full-time jobs in the federal bureaucracy, and taught evening classes at the downtown campus. On at least two occasions, I visited adjunct economics professors in their federal government offices to get a sense of what they were doing – one in the Commerce Department, Prof. Virgil Salera, and the other, a public finance expert whose name I have forgotten, in the Treasury Department.

Since American University was known for its “Washington Semester” program which was established to accommodate students from other universities, I explored the possibility of entering that program during the second semester of my junior year and to transfer back to UT to complete my senior year. Everything was approved to do so, but I decided to remain at American.

At American University I had made friends with two graduate students who were in the School of International Service, and we decided to find an apartment to share for the 1958–1959 academic year. We found one near DuPont Circle on Connecticut Avenue, and it worked out well for all of us. Since I had been seriously considering applying to the graduate program in the School of International Service, I questioned my apartment-mates constantly about their experience and prospects; nothing I learned from them inclined me towards pursuing that route. For me, then, time spent at American University was valuable in terms of education but did not present me with concrete opportunities to employment in the federal civil service as I thought it might.

One of the most stimulating course experiences in my senior year was in comparative literature taught by Rudolph Von Abele, who ranks among the most intellectually stimulating and eclectic professors I ever had. The course ←37 | 38→covered novels by Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Proust, Mann, Kafka, and Melville. I did a term paper on Melville’s short novel “Billy Budd, Foretopman” which fascinated me as a morality tale. My framework for approaching Melville came from my reading of Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism which I had acquired at the remarkable Saville bookstore in Georgetown. Von Abele was ecstatic about my paper, gave me an A+, and wrote a note to me below the grade on the title page saying something like “Why don’t you consider graduate study in comparative literature?” I was flattered, but realized that if I followed up on his suggestion, I would have to learn several foreign languages aside from Spanish to pursue a degree in comparative literature at the graduate level. That was too intimidating a path for me to follow.

A topic of interest to me at that time was addressed in another term paper I wrote as a senior focused on the inter-American economic system and especially the role of Adolph A. Berle in shaping it. I had learned about Berle in my coursework at UT and read his famous book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, but I wanted to further explore his role as an economic diplomat in Latin America. Marx was simply one of several classical economists covered in a course on the history of economic thought with Melville Ulmer that I took during my senior year at American University – but I remember spending most of my time reading and re-reading excerpts from Adam Smith on value, markets, and the division of labor; from Marx on commodities, value, and capital; from David Ricardo on theories of value, differential rent, and international trade/comparative advantage; and from Carl Menger on marginalism and Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics. Polanyi was never mentioned, but Schumpeter was spoken of often. I took several other economics courses there including intermediate price theory, fiscal policy, comparative economic systems, and international trade.

The undergraduate student body at American University was more ethnically and regionally diverse than that at the University of Texas with, perhaps, the largest percentage coming from New York and New Jersey, but many also from the DC suburbs and DC itself – except no blacks. There was also a contingent of offspring of international diplomats – including many Latin Americans.

One morning during the fall semester of my senior year I went to the cafeteria on the main campus and noticed several attractive Spanish-speaking ←38 | 39→young ladies of what I identified to be of either Latin American or Mexican descent seated together at a table. I managed to engage in conversation with them and learned that they were a group of teachers from Puerto Rico on leave to study English for a year at the university’s language institute. I had absolutely no knowledge about Puerto Rico at the time – except a vague memory of a US congressional shoot-out involving political terrorists from that island. Little did I realize then that my future wife, Hilda Almenas, was among that group, and that my entire career would be shaped by that breakfast encounter. In the spring of 1959, Hilda and I were married without family knowledge or participation by a Unitarian minister in Rockville, Maryland.

Meanwhile, my dad had been promoted yet again at Oscar Mayer, and now had the titles of sales manager of the main Madison, Wisconsin plant and “general distributive manager” of all regional operations across the country. It was during his tenure, I now realize, that Oscar Mayer became a major player in the national market for processed meat products. So, I explored graduate school offerings at the University of Wisconsin as a possibility for continuing my graduate education. I knew that the Wisconsin economics department had a strong institutionalist tradition (Veblen and Commons) and might present similar opportunities to the University of Texas for graduate study.

Graduation day at American University was a happy occasion for all concerned and attended by my parents and sister, my two surviving grandmas, and Hilda. Immediately following graduation at American University, we drove to Oil City, Pennsylvania to the home of my paternal grandma and, after visiting paternal relatives there, we drove to my parents’ home in Madison, Wisconsin. That summer Hilda and I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin where she took a course in Spanish literature, and I took a course in economics and another in Spanish grammar.

From Wisconsin to Borínquen via the “Big Apple”

During the summer of 1959, I applied for a teaching assistantship in the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin and was ←39 | 40→fortunate to receive one for the 1959–1960 academic year as an MA candidate. I was making a sort of trial-run with graduate study in the field of economics but was really in search of interdisciplinary program oriented toward a career involvement in Latin America, perhaps as a specialist involved in economic diplomacy or business. I was not then committed to the prospect of doctoral studies, nor specifically to an academic career. I had learned during the summer that the University of Wisconsin had a graduate program in Latin American Studies, and decided to attempt to pursue an advanced degree in that program with a concentration in economics. Hilda was contractually obligated to return to Puerto Rico in the fall of 1959 to resume her job as an English teacher, and we had agreed to have a formal re-marriage ceremony there during the 1959–1960 winter break.

Although my winter break trip to Puerto Rico and the re-marriage ceremony did occur, I had found out that the Latin American Studies program at Wisconsin was in disarray due to faculty turnover and was in search of a new director. Consequently, I was discouraged from following an interdisciplinary course of study. However, in view of the disarray in the Latin American Studies Program at the time, and of my lack of enthusiasm about an Atlantic history course I took with Philip Curtin discouraged me from pursuing that option. Curtin was a specialist in African history, the slave trade, and Brazil, and was one of the few Wisconsin faculty members then, outside of the Spanish department, with Latin American studies credentials. His Afro-Brazilian material and focus was completely new to me at the time, and I would surely have responded to them more intelligently a few years later after my training in Puerto Rico. I was simply unprepared to do so as an economics student in 1960.

My experience in the Wisconsin economics department also confirmed that, like UT, program emphasis was trending away from Institutionalism and toward Keynesianism and Neoclassical marginalism. I was disappointed to learn that the trend was more pronounced at Wisconsin than at UT where there remained a strong contingent of faculty inclined toward Institutionalism.

As a teaching assistant at Wisconsin, I was charged with leading undergraduate discussion sections for students who were enrolled in introductory ←40 | 41→economics taught by Professor H. Edwin Young, the department chair (later president). I also was assigned to tutor a freshman football player who was taking introductory economics taught by Young. The student’s name was Pat Richter who would become a two-time All American tight end, Rose Bowl hero and, subsequently, athletic director. I was able to handle the semester’s teaching assistant duties with a two-course load but did not look forward to doing so with a heavier load.

In any case, my graduate course work had left me with contradictory feelings regarding my intellectual commitment to the discipline of economics. I was stimulated by the lectures and readings on economic development and underdevelopment in a course taught by Paul Ellsworth. Especially enlightening was the textbook by Benjamin Higgins (1956, 1959) that included material on Indonesia and summaries of Furnivall’s “plural society” and Boeke’s “dual economy” theories. A course on microeconomics, ably taught by the author of the assigned textbook, Professor Joseph Coppock, was simply a more advanced version of a course I had taken at American University. Its abstract, logic-driven, and graphical approach to economics was less challenging to me than the more interdisciplinary approach of development economics. I remember sitting in the University of Wisconsin library poring over page after page of graphs depicting relationships between supply, demand, cost-price, marginal productivity, marginal utility, indifference curves and a seemingly endless array of economic variables, and asking myself, why was I doing this?

My most memorable experience at Wisconsin occurred one morning on the first day of the summer session (1959) as we were awaiting the arrival of Professor Coppock in the designated classroom. In walked a scraggly-bearded man, with greying hair and wearing glasses, very casually dressed, and struggling to carry a tall stack of books. He proceeded to the lectern and, without any introductory remarks, began talking in a thick German accent about historical sociology, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings or his audience. Clearly, I surmised, that this was not our economics professor.

We listened politely, yet were spellbound by the words of this charismatic lecturer for a few moments – until someone (presumably a sociology department representative) entered the scene to inform Professor Hans Gerth that he was in the wrong classroom. Gerth, who I subsequently ←41 | 42→learned was an exile from Nazi Germany, an expert on Max Weber, and a prize student of Karl Mannheim, had been a distinguished member of the sociology faculty at Wisconsin since 1940 where he formed a lasting collaborative relationship with C. Wright Mills. He was only in his early 50s when the above incident occurred, but seemed to fit the classic stereotype of the aging, absent-minded professor. On the basis of books I subsequently read by professor Gerth, my graduate education at Wisconsin would probably have been better served if I had followed him as he left our classroom and enrolled in his course.

The combination of transitional disarray in the Latin American Studies program and my ambivalence regarding graduate coursework in economics, led me to decide to give up my teaching assistantship in the University of Wisconsin economics department at the end of the 1959–1960 fall semester. Because I was now tied by marriage to Puerto Rico, my planning for the future no longer included returning to the University of Texas but toward either graduate study or employment on the east coast, especially New York City, or in Puerto Rico.

Statistical Quality Control Inspector at Oscar Mayer

Withdrawal from the University of Wisconsin in January 1960 meant that I had to find a job. Thanks to my dad’s connections, I quickly got a job at the huge Oscar Mayer plant in Madison. At the time, it was the world’s largest facility for hog slaughter and processing – several hundred hogs, hooked onto overhead conveyors, moved through the horrific assembly line per hour as men wielding long knives punctured their throats until they bled out and moved on to be fully eviscerated and butchered. I had been exposed to a hog kill floor in a small locker plant my dad operated for a time in Georgetown, Texas between jobs at Armour and Oscar Mayer; a small number of hogs were killed and processed either as fresh-frozen meat in familiar cuts or smoked as hams and bacon. But my job there, one summer, was simply to operate an ice cream machine and fill pint, quart and gallon containers for freezing and sale. The kill floor at ←42 | 43→any meat processing facility will quickly make any outside observer seriously consider vegetarianism.

Fortunately, my job at Oscar Mayer and Company did not involve the kill floor or the unpleasant-smelling cook room where sausage products (i.e., all processed meat products) were mixed and cooked, but the packaging room where different products including everything from sliced bologna to hot dogs were packaged. My job consisted in grabbing different products randomly off the conveyors, weighing, and inspecting them. Any serious variations in specified weights or sealing problems in packaging could lead to shutdowns in the assembly lines – especially if detected by federal Department of Agriculture inspectors who roamed throughout the plant. My job was to avoid USDA shutdowns by finding problems before their inspectors did. Even though I was working in the company’s interest, and was an executive’s son, I would still get shouted complaints from the foreman if I spotted a problem causing a brief shutdown of a production line – which I did on occasion. He was caught between the union representative and the USDA inspectors and did not want to shut down the line on the basis of my findings.

Any outside observer who sees and smells the boiling vats of meat parts and spices in the cook room of any meat processing company will be hesitant ever again to consume hot dogs or luncheon meat. Oscar Mayer meat processing was a nasty business but it provided an executive’s salary for my dad and, of course, funded my undergraduate education. One morning, as I was entering the main gate of the plant which had several thousand employees, I remember being greeted by smiling Hubert Humphrey who was shaking hands on his US presidential campaign (unsuccessful) that year (1960).

During the Christmas-New Year’s break at the University of Wisconsin in 1959, I traveled for the first time to Puerto Rico to visit Hilda’s family in urban (Caguas) and rural (Yabucoa) parts of the island, and to get officially re-married in a religious ceremony. Aside from occasional visits to Mexican border towns during the years I was growing up in Texas, this was my first experience in a Latin American environment. Puerto Rico at the time was still in the throes of transformation from agrarian to urban life and the contrast between life in the two sectors was stunning. Since ←43 | 44→Hilda’s family was involved in both sectors, I was exposed to Puerto Rican middle-class urban life and to that of the jíbaros, the subsistence and cash-cropping (tobacco, plantains, citrus, mangos, papaya and a variety of root crops) peasants of the mountainous interior. I had never seen anything like the life of the jíbaros and found it to be fascinating. We traveled from Caguas to San Juan and Yabucoa on públicos, an inter-city public taxi network – a very convenient and efficient way to travel – if sometimes a little scary due to high speeds and/or curving roads.

It was on that trip that I experienced my first earthquake. In the middle of the night I was suddenly awakened by a rumbling noise and the bed shaking, and I found myself on the floor looking up at the ceiling. Scary – but, fortunately, there were no noticeable aftershocks as there would be later in Oaxaca.

The job at Oscar Mayer during the spring of 1960 was only temporary until I could either continue graduate study or find another job that would suit my rather ill-defined, but Latin America/Puerto Rico-oriented, career aspirations. With that intention in mind, I responded to an announcement in the New York Times regarding a newly established Graduate Institute of Book Publishing at New York University. Interviews were being scheduled for applicants at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago.

I submitted an application and supporting materials, was interviewed by the institute’s designated director, John Tebbel, who confirmed that the new program would include apprenticeships in a New York City-based publishing houses, and an MA degree upon of completion of coursework and the apprenticeship. All accepted applicants were to receive tuition waivers and a stipend to be determined in conjunction with the apprenticing publisher. Tebbel’s recruitment presentation convinced me that publishing held promise as a long-term, if offbeat, career option. Shortly after my Chicago interview, I was informed that I had been accepted with a fellowship into the NYU program. Hilda had satisfied her teaching obligation in Puerto Rico, and in the summer of 1960 had returned to Madison. In late August, we left Madison for New York city. Our first child, Dana Lyn, was born in NYC on February 20, 1961.

To make a long story short, after moving into a furnished efficiency apartment in a building on 14 Washington Place near the Washington ←44 | 45→Square NYU campus, and making daily visits to the fledgling Institute, I was unable to get reliable, concrete information regarding stipend, apprenticeship, and related program details. It became clear that the Institute’s start-up process was slow-moving, and I became impatient with the situation. I cannot recall the exact specifics of the matter but the end result was that, after several days of unsuccessful efforts to formally register in the program, get my stipend, and find placement as an apprentice with a publisher, I decided to withdraw from the Institute before it was officially up and running.

Obviously, I had no immediate alternative job prospects but, thanks to my earnings at Oscar Mayer and to Hilda’s savings, we had enough money to tide us over until I found a job. I began looking for a job that had the potential of relocation to Puerto Rico. It was a trying time.

Curacao Trading Company, Inc. on Wall Street

After a few days of job interviews (Hertz International and W. R. Grace), I found employment as assistant to an export-import manager at a Dutch trading company, the Curacao Trading Company, Inc. at 120 Wall Street. The unique art deco building in which the office was located was built in 1930 with its original anchor tenant as American Sugar Refining Company, a dominant player in the US occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898 and afterwards. In the 1960s the building was the only major high rise (thirty-four floors) on the East River downtown waterfront and was near Pier 11, the Wall Street Terminal.

My job at CTC involved activities such as typing endless bills of lading and other documents, researching suppliers for a whole host of general merchandise products by paging through the Thomas Register, and calling new suppliers I had identified, or repeat suppliers, to get current price quotations for general merchandise that included most manufacture products ranging from fire trucks to tallow and various chemical products for soap-making. Sometimes interesting but not very challenging or creative work – but you had to start somewhere.←45 | 46→

The export manager for the general merchandise section was Alejandro Avilés, a friendly, unpretentious and serious Mexican married to the daughter of a Venezuelan general. He never really got angry with me for my mistakes or slowness in meeting deadlines, and was patient in teaching me the details of the business. Mr De Jong, the general manager of the entire office sat behind a big desk encased in a glass-walled office with a view of all of his nearly 50 or so employees. He was a rather dour man who would now and then bellow out orders but he mostly allowed his separate managers run their own departments. His main interest seemed to be in following raw commodity prices for cacao and coffee which the company was heavily involved in trading.

I became friends with the export manager for textiles, Vincent Accardi, who was a long-term employee and had spent time in Guayaquil, Ecuador where he had met and married his wife, Leonora. He lived in Brooklyn, where he was born and raised in a Sicilian family, with Leonora and his son. I visited him at home for dinner on one occasion.

Vince and I would lunch together every day, usually in a Chock-Full-Of-Nuts shop not far from our building, and then stroll along the nearby wharves or through Battery Park talking a lot about the export industry, current events, world problems, or the vicissitudes of life in general. My conversations with him led me to believe that there was little likelihood of a job in the New York office would lead to permanent posting in the Caribbean or Latin America with Curacao Trading Company. Vince never had the opportunity to go to college and urged me to continue my graduate studies wherever they led. I corresponded with him for several years after that year we walked and talked together in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.

Chapter 2

Graduate Study in Anthropology at the Universities of Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh

To the Island of Borinquen

One evening in our Greenwich Village apartment Hilda called my attention to an announcement posted in a Spanish-language newspaper El Mundo (San Juan, Puerto Rico) regarding the availability of fellowships for a graduate program in the social sciences, under the auspices of the Department of Social Affairs of the Pan American Union/Organization of American States, at the University of Puerto Rico. I immediately applied and was accepted to enter that interdisciplinary program with a tuition-waiver and fellowship. That acceptance shifted my career trajectory onto a new and different path. I had already determined by then that the export-import business was not for me, and was exploring ways to further my graduate education including at The New School for Social Research which was only a few blocks from my apartment.

In the early 1960s, Puerto Rico was in the midst of its Operation Bootstrap/Showcase of Democracy phase under the leadership of Luís Muñoz Marín and his Popular Democratic Party. It was a staging area for US government, OAS, and UN developmental and foreign technical assistance programs. The University of Puerto Rico under the leadership of its dynamic chancellor Jaime Benítez, a protégé of Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, was hosting academic involvement in Third World-focused development projects.

One manifestation of this role was a collaboration with the OAS/PAU through the newly established Institute of Caribbean Studies and its founding director, the historian Richard Morse. The OAS/PAU program, officially designated as the Inter-American Program in Advanced Social ←48 | 49→Sciences (Programa Interamericano de Estudios Superiores en Ciencias Sociales en la Región del Caribe), was essentially the brainchild of Angel Palerm, the Spanish-Mexican anthropologist, who administered it from Washington DC as Director of Social Affairs for the Organization of American States/Pan American Union; and it also operated in Mexico (I think at UNAM). Palerm was involved in the recruitment of participating faculty like James Blaut, Hugo Nutini and Gabriel Ospina, and also in curriculum design for the program. Fellows in the program took courses offered by both program and UPR faculty. Later in Mexico, I got to know Palerm and benefitted from his counsel and writings.

As a program fellow at UPR, I studied social anthropology and Mesoamerica with Hugo Nutini, cultural anthropology and Caribbean religions with Donald Hogg (who became my graduate thesis advisor), cultural geography with James Blaut (program director), Puerto Rican and Caribbean history and politics with Thomas Mathews and Gordon Lewis, Latin American community studies with Gabriel Ospina (who had received his doctorate at UCal-Berkeley through participation in George Foster’s original Tzintzuntzán project), and sociology with Howard Stanton (expertise in social theory and Robert Merton) and Harmanus (Harry) Hoetink (1967) from whom I learned about pluriethnic societies in the region.


X, 244
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 244 pp., 10 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Scott Cook (Author)

After completing undergraduate studies at the University of Texas and American University (BA Economics, 1959), Scott Cook did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin (economics), the University of Puerto Rico, and completed his doctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968. Subsequently, he served on the faculty at Michigan State University (1968–1971), and at the University of Connecticut (1971–1997) where he is currently a Professor emeritus. At UConn he also directed the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (1987–1992) and the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Institute (1996–2000). His most recent book is Land, Livelihood, and Civility in Southern Mexico (2014). Several earlier books, including Understanding Commodity Cultures (2004) and many journal articles dating back to the 1960s address various themes in economic anthropology, peasant-artisan studies, Mexican studies, and border studies, and draw upon extensive fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border.


Title: Exploring Commodities