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UMass Dartmouth Professor Receives Grants to Study New Bedford's Central American Populations

Dr. Lisa Maya Knauer, an assistant professor of anthropology at UMass Dartmouth, wants to provide insights into the rapidly growing Guatemalan and Salvadoran populations of New Bedford.

"Curiously, these communities are simultaneously invisible -- living in the shadows -- and hyper-visible. You just need to drive along Route 18 in the morning to see Central American workers walking or biking to the fish houses," she noted.

Thanks to funding from the Russell Sage Foundation of New York and university public service grant programs, Knauer hopes to "shed light" on the immigration debate by showing how national and international policy decisions play out at the local level, "in the texture of every day life."

Her ethnographic study entitled, "Central Americans in New Bedford: Politics, Communities and Identities," will combine participant observation, interviews, informal conversations and library research designed to garner understanding about how and why these people came to the city and the kinds of lives and communities they are forming here.

In addition, under the auspices of Organizacion Maya K'iche, a cultural and advocacy group, Knauer will offer an English class in the fall as a way of broadening the scope of her relationship with the populations she is studying.

"This project is very much in tune with the university's mission and the newly revised strategic plan that calls for us to be embedded in the communities and cultures of the region," Knauer said.

Her research will include a two-week trip to Guatemala where she will visit a few towns in El Quiche, the home region of most of New Bedford's Maya population. Knauer will speak to returned migrants who first came to New Bedford and have since returned as well as people who were deported following the March 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement Raid on the Michael Bianco Factory. She also will talk to relatives of people living in New Bedford in order to get "the other side" of immigration.

Knauer will also hold a spring 2009 conference on Central American immigrants in New England to bring together scholars, community leaders, labor activists and others; participate in the Boston Immigration and Urban History Seminar at Boston University in October and co-organize a panel on "deportation as social experience," at the American Anthropological Association meetings in November.

Her other plans include a possible book manuscript, an edited volume based on conference presentations or collaboration on a collection of oral histories.

The researcher will be assisted by UMass Dartmouth students Sabra Moniz of Fairhaven, a sociology/anthropology major and Samuel Adams of Dighton, a Spanish major. Her team will also be comprised of members of the immigrant communities who can help with translations, especially from K'iche, the first language of many Guatemalan Mayans and knowledge about culturally sensitive matters.

Knauer expects that dialogue with community members will help the "shape" of her project to evolve.

"Russell Sage is one of the leading funders of primary social science research in the country. The grant is an acknowledgment not only of my scholarship but it demonstrates that what is happening in the region is of national and international significance," Knauer said. "When I came to UMass Dartmouth five years ago I took very seriously the university's commitment to serve the people and communities in our region."

The grants run from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009.

Author:  "John Hoey"
Date:  02-Jul-2008
Department:   Sociology / Anthropology

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