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Mary Racelis: Engaged Anthropologist

For UP Anthropology Centennial Commemorative publication 2014-2016

While Mary Racelis surely belongs to an earlier generation, she definitely is one person even the youth of today, the new generation of future Anthropologists, definitely know and admire.  Mary’s journey throughout her Anthropology career has been quite serendipitous. Starting from her college days at Cornell University, New York, Mary was looking for her niche as an undergraduate. She happened to enroll in a course on Religion Among the Primitives offered in the Sociology-Anthropology Department, with Morris Opler as her professor. This proved to be a seminal point in her academic career. The inspired wonders of cultural diversity fueled a passion that would direct her future career. Mary Racelis, the Anthropologist, thus began her life course. Many more Anthropologists whom she would meet in the academe and beyond helped shape her path.

As an undergraduate in Anthropology, Mary’s first encounter with fieldwork training was in a class taught by Allan Holmberg of VICOS project fame. Initially, she planned to spend one summer at the pioneering Cornell-Peru applied anthropology hacienda as part of her major. There, in preparation for her return to the Philippines, she felt she could benefit from the Latin American experience bringing anthropological perspectives into development programs. However, an opportunity to study in France that summer plus travel to Austria to re-connect with her ex-Cornell husband-to-be derailed the Vicos plan.

Learning about culture, together with a built-in cross-cultural outlook generated by a Filipino father and American mother, Mary often heard comparisons made between the Philippines and the United States. The concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism served her well, teaching her to resist judgments as to which was “better.” Anthropology gave her the tools to dispute prevailing paradigms and common understandings of what was then called the “Third World,” including the Philippines.  Those tools have sustained her later passions — urban poor communities, gender, children and youth, equity and social justice, and most recently the battle for the passage of the  Reproductive Health Law.

Graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Cornell in 1954, she immediately embarked on a job hunt in New York City. “Anthropology?” the recruiter invariably queried. “Shouldn’t you be applying to a museum?”  Even then she felt that her place was in a multi-cultural environment.  As soon as she could type the required minimum 55 words per minute without errors on a manual typewriter, she applied to the United Nations and was hired as a clerk-typist. Being a college graduate, she was quickly transferred from the typing pool to a position in the Department of Trusteeship and Information from Non-Self Governing Territories headed by Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Ralph Bunche. Working in the exciting multi-cultural environment of the UN and being in contact with countries like Somalia or Pacific islands still under UN Trusteeship supervision, her anthropological training came to the fore. The experience further motivated the budding social scientist to immerse herself in Applied Anthropology work.  The exciting lifestyles and frequent travel of UN officials to intriguing and culturally diverse locations proved irresistible as a future aspiration.

Returning to the Philippines in 1955 as a young bride with her husband, Helmuth Hollnsteiner, she happily settled, in accordance with those non-feminist times, into the role of fulltime housewife and mother, having babies, reading novels and resurrecting an occasional anthropology textbook. Nearly two years went by when one day, engaging in small talk with a neighbor across the fence about their babies, a panic wave hit her. Was that all she would be able to talk about for the rest of her life? Diapers? Vitamins? Baby food? The very next day she rushed to the University of the Philippines Graduate School in Diliman to enroll in Anthropology.

Awaiting her was the Department Chair, Professor Marcelo Tangco, who asked her why she wanted to study anthropology. When she explained her fascination with culture, people and social change, and therefore Anthropology – he countered: “Anthropology has no future in this country. Go somewhere else!” Stunned, she registered for Political Science. Later she realized that Professor Tangco must have meant that the Department’s then focus on physical anthropology and archaeology would not support her strong interest in cultural anthropology.

Soon after, however, a message was circulated announcing that Dr. Donn V. Hart, Fulbright Visiting Professor of Anthropology, would be arriving to handle a six-unit class in Cultural Anthropology. Mary promptly enrolled. That class proved memorable as among her six classmates were Prospero R. Covar, Mario D. Zamora, and Paula Carolina S. Malay.  Dr. Hart must have been quite inspiring as several of the seven students would later on make their mark in anthropology, geography and human rights activism.

The energetic Syracuse University professor inducted them into fieldwork in Obando, Bulacan, Paula Carolina’s hometown. Every Sunday the class would disembark from a borrowed pick-up truck at the village of Tawiran perched along a river emptying out into nearby Manila Bay.  They learned the techniques of interviewing and how to use the Human Relations Area Files for recording and classifying ethnographic data.  Each week Mary felt thrilled at the prospect not only of interviewing the local fisherfolk but also of acquiring esoteric skills, like balancing on the “pilapil” (raised rice paddy paths) to get to the adjacent sitio, learning several ways of cooking crab, or watching how paper and bamboo lanterns portraying shrimps were constructed for the barrio fiesta procession.

The next semester found her shifting from Political Science to Sociology.  Initially, she had resisted that option because her Cornell experience had led her to believe sociology was all about industrialized societies when her heart was with the developing world. Fortunately for her, Philippine sociology was very much focused on rural societies.  She would eventually graduate with a Master’s in Sociology. Her thesis, The Dynamics of Power in a Philippine Municipality (Obando, aka Hulo, Bulacan), was later published by the UP Community Development Research Council and subsequently reprinted to become one of the main references for students of Anthropology.

Mary’s love for anthropology brought her to the attention of Frank Lynch, S.J., at the Ateneo de Manila. Having recently returned to the Philippines with a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, Fr. Lynch was organizing the Ateneo’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology while also setting up the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC). He invited Mary to join both units in June 1960. Thus was launched her lifelong career in teaching, research and community service. She remains on the Ateneo faculty roster to this day.

The Ateneo College of the 1960s was an institution with exclusively male students and an all-male faculty. Mary Racelis became the school’s first woman undergraduate professor. Years later she joined the successful fight for co-education. As an IPC Research Associate her initial assignment was to transform her thesis into a UP-CDRC publication. Simultaneously, she would write, “Reciprocity in the Lowland Philippines,” her utang na loob classic.  After she had participated in several research projects, Fr. Lynch assigned her to direct a study of an urban low-income neighborhood in Tondo. Because Procter and Gamble Philippines had a factory in Vitas, the manager wanted to understand the neighborhood and its people better as part of a new corporate social responsibility thrust. Her resulting first urban article, “Becoming an Urbanite, The Neighbourhood as a Learning Environment” appeared in in 1972 in The City as Centre of Change in Asia, Hong Kong University Press.

Mary’s expanding series of articles on everyday life in Tondo neighborhoods and the disparities between people’s views and those of government officials and policy makers attracted a new set of partners. Community organizers like Denis Murphy working in the adjacent informal settlements of the Tondo Foreshore invited Mary to work with them, contributing her anthropological insights and strong commitment to social justice.  Thus began her long association with the Philippine Ecumenical Council on Community Organization as Board member and later Chair, and the Zone One Tondo Organization, which PECCO had helped organize. This grassroots experience made her realize that she should not take it upon herself to represent the people’s views to the policy makers; that was the people’s right.  Rather, her role was to assist them in making their voices heard in the corridors of power. The trust she earned through intense interaction with People’s Organizations and their support NGOs over the years enabled her to continue writing and speaking about their lives and their issues. That is when she began identifying herself as “engaged anthropologist.”

Working with NGOs and People’s Organizations convinced her that they were often more attuned to sociocultural change and sound analysis of social issues than many academics. This brought about a new advocacy—linking academics and NGOs/POs. With the increasing violence of the Marcos regime, military arrests and detention of PO leaders and community organizers in the Tondo Foreshore were increasing. It was at that point that human rights lawyers Lorenzo Tanada and Francisco Soc Rodrigo asked her to write an article on community organizing as a valid strategy for social change and development, emphasizing that CO was neither Communist nor subversive. They planned to include the article in the defense dossier during the military trial for subversion of ZOTO leader, Trinidad Herrera. Mary wrote the article and has always wondered whether her contribution helped in Aling Trining’s subsequent release from torture and detention.

By 1970, Mary had taken over as IPC Director, enabling Fr. Lynch to give greater time to his own research.  She became a role model for women able to pursue a professional career while also being a wife and, in her case, mother of five children.  In 1975, De la Salle University awarded her the PhD in Social Sciences, honoris causa, while the Ateneo de Manila followed suit in 2003 with an honorary doctorate in the Humanities. Traveling widely to speak at numerous conferences in the Philippines and abroad, she always emphasized the importance of combining quality anthropological research with support to community initiatives.

In 1977 the United Nations Children’s Fund asked her to write its policy paper on children in urban slums. Soon after, she accepted a UNICEF position in New York as Sr. Policy Adviser, Family and Child Welfare. This designation she soon expanded into Women’s Development and Community Participation. Her community organizing and negotiating experience served her well when she was elected President of UNICEF’s Global Staff Association.

Mary’s exemplary work in UNICEF then led Executive Director James Grant in 1983 to offer her the position of UNICEF Regional Director, Eastern and Southern Africa, based in Kenya.  When she countered that she had little experience in Africa compared to Asia, he replied, “You studied Anthropology didn’t you? I want a leader like you who understands culture and social change in Africa.” How could she refuse?

Nine years in Africa exposed her to diverse cultures and ethnic communities in the 24 countries of the region. Many had been the subjects of ethnographic monographs during her Cornell days.  Initially, as she met with high-level government officials, NGOs, academics and people organizations to help them design and carry out programs for children, she would think secretly to herself, “Anthropology at Cornell taught me about your tribal kinship systems and sexual mores. But it didn’t teach me about promoting national development in the 1980s!”

Her return home upon retirement from UNICEF in 1992 coincided with yet another international appointment, this time as the Ford Foundation’s Country Director in the Philippines. That position eased her reintegration into Philippine society.   Focusing on community-based upland development, local governance, and reproductive health, Ford’s program provided grants to NGOs, academics, and government to enhance their capacity for people-centered action projects. Research likewise factored in. Upon her retirement from the Ford Foundation, Ateneo de Manila asked her to serve once again as IPC Director.  Her extensive experience with NGOs and the academic world led in 2004 to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s appointing her to his Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations – Civil Society Relations.

Now at 80, Mary is solidly back in the academe as IPC Research Scientist still publishing articles written in an academic but popular style for a broad readership. She is a much sought anthropology professor at both the UP and Ateneo de Manila University. Her various NGO involvements and advocacy for the rights of the urban poor, women and children make her a favored speaker at social science events. Ranked highest on her list of priorities, however, are her 13 grandchildren, 10 in New York and three in Quezon City.

The life and times of Dr. Mary Racelis are indeed inspiring.  The account of her decades in professional work and personal commitments shed light on her current passions and endeavors.  Little wonder that many young scholars in Anthropology look up to her as their mentor, their role model, a mother figure, even their idol.  Only a handful can replicate Mary’s achievements in her exciting career.  Fewer still can match her passion for making Anthropology relevant to grassroots groups and for training ordinary people to become their own ethnographers. Dr. Mary Racelis finds no inconsistency in these roles, for in her words, “You can be an Anthropologist or have a non-Anthro job; regardless, if you have studied Anthropology, you possess our special advantage – seeing the world through other people’s eyes, appreciating their cultures and affirming their dignity.”