Anya Peterson Royce

September 7, 2016

The chance to study dance in Latin America — and a longer-than-planned stay caused by a broken-down Volkswagen Beetle — are a couple of early experiences in the life of IU anthropologist Anya Peterson Royce that converged to forge a powerful, nearly 50-year-long connection between herself and the Isthmus Zapotec people of Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Recently, this native community recognized Royce’s lifelong devotion to interpreting their story with the “Medalla Binniza,” or Medal of the Zapotec People. She is the first non-Mexican recipient of the honor, which was awarded June 3 at the Casa de la Cultura in Juchitán, Mexico, coinciding with the opening of an exhibit of Royce’s photography.

“The award of the medal was an unexpected gift, and very humbling,” says Royce, IU Chancellor’s Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Departments of Anthropology and Comparative Literature. “One of the most rewarding part of the experience was the opportunity to share some of my earliest photos of Juchitán with not only my oldest friends in the community, but also their children, and children’s children.”

A city of 120,000 on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest point on the southern tip of Mexico, Juchitán is the center of Isthmus Zapotec culture. Royce first traveled there in 1968, a year after she originally encountered the Zapotec while observing and photographing traditional Mexican dances through a Ford Foundation fellowship as an undergraduate at Sanford.

“At the end of five hours in the sun at a festival in Oaxaca, the people of Juchitán came onstage,” she says. “I was just blown away by them because they had a real sense of who they were, and a sense of pride. I just thought, ‘This is what I want to do and where I wanted to be.’”

Royce’s journey into the Mexican countryside was preceded by five weeks studying at the Ballet Folklorico, Mexico’s national dance company, also under the fellowship. Royce was a dancer.

Her first trip to Juchitán in 1968 was also when her car broke down. Ultimately, it took two months to fix the Volkswagen, by which time she and her newlywed husband — Ronald R. Royce, a linguistic anthropologist who is an expert on the Isthmus Zapotec language — had grown absorbed by the area’s culture and the traditions.

It was also on this trip that Royce met Delia Ramírez Fuentes, a Juchitán woman she had seen dance a year earlier and whose relatives are now like a second family. Royce returned to the city again in 1971 to conduct field work as Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.

She has gone back almost every year since, taking inspiration in part from her mentor at Berkeley, Elizabeth Colson, who also practiced an increasingly rare form of long-term field work, spending 70 years working with the same community in Zambia, eventually relocating permanently to the country, where she lived until her recent death at age 99.

“It’s not always easy being somebody who joins a community from the outside … but by the end of that first year, I felt so comfortable, I came back — and kept coming back,” says Royce, whose work focuses on the Zapotec people’s social, economic and political strength in Mexico, unusual for a native population. “What can I say, I fell in love with the community and the people.”

Royce’s books on the Zapotec include Prestigio y Afiliación en una Comunidad Urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca, published in 1974; Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity, published in 1982, and Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death, published in 2011. Her first book was reprinted in 1991 as one of the “100 most important books on the indigenous peoples of Mexico,” and again in 2016 as one of the “25 most influential books about the Isthmus Zapotec.”

“It’s their story,” says Royce, who notes she always remains open about her research with the Zapotec community. “They’ve got a right to know about what I am writing about before the rest of the world.”

Over the years, Royce has also brought IU students to Juchitán, most recently through the Field Program in Oaxaca, Mexico, a part of IU’s Overseas Study program, which has taken undergraduates to the region every other year for nearly the past decade. The program is a collaboration with IU archaeologist Stacie King and linguist Daniel Suslak, also of the Department of Anthropology, who also conduct work in the region.

The exhibit of Royce’s photography, “Guidxi Stine’ Ne Ca Xpanda,” or “Reflections on a Community of the Heart,” remains on display in Juchitán. The images — a small selection of the 11,000 photos she has taken over the years — were enlarged and printed in collaboration with IU’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Eventually, Royce plans to digitize the 4,500 of these photos shot on film to make her complete collection available to the people of Juchitán.

Currently, Royce is working a book about Zapotec visual art, music, and poetry with support from the IU Office of the Vice President for Research and College Arts and Humanities Institute.

Previous recipients of the Medalla Binniza include some of Mexico’s greatest scholars, writers, and distinguished citizens of Zapotec descent.

–This article, written by Kevin Fryling, originally appeared in the Inside IU Bloomington e-newsletter, September 7, 2016.