This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of
Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.
This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limts the amount of material that may be
For all other permissions and requests, contact the
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
M: This is Kym Morrison and I am speaking with Dr. Helen Safa. Dr. Safa,
please tell me your complete name and when you were born.
S: My name is Helen Icken Safa. I was born on December 4, 1930, in Brooklyn,
M: You are of German descent?
S: That is correct.
M: Both of your parents were German?
S: Yes, my family surname was Icken, my mother's maiden surname was
M: Were they German immigrants, first generation?
S: Yes. My mother Erna Keune came when she was nineteen. My father
Gustav Icken came when he was twenty-three.
M: So they met in the United States?
S: They actually met in the United States even though they came from villages
about ten kilometers from each other.
M: So you were born in Brooklyn, New York, and you grew up there?
S: I was born in Brooklyn, and lived in Brooklyn. When I was four years old, my
mother took me to Germany for a year. I lived there for a year, and came
back to start school. I could not speak English when I started school. I think
it was one of the reasons why I always felt marginal to my own culture.
M: So do you consider being German a very significant part of your identity?
S: I think I consider it significant, but I do not think I have emphasized the
Germanness so much as being an immigrant and being international. So my
German origin translated into a broader international concern.
M: And you took that into your career later on?
M: So you returned to go to elementary school in the United States and then high
school. After that you went on to Cornell [University, Ithaca, New York]?
S: That is right. I went to grammar school and high school in Queens. My
parents owned a grocery store there. Then I went on to Cornell.
M: What made you decide to go to Cornell? Was that a radical decision for you
to go on to college?
S: In some ways it was, because initially I had not even thought I would go to
college. I always did well in school. My father actually went and talked to the
guidance counselor. He came home one day and said, you are going to
college. That was it. German fathers were authoritarian. So he said, you are
going. It was rather late in the year. I had actually planned to go to
something called the Latin American Institute and become a bilingual
secretary. I was then already interested in Latin America and things
international. But he said, no, you should [take] the advice of your counselor.
M: How did you develop this interest in Latin America? That seems sort of
S: I really do not know. Initially I fell in love with the music, and movies, and
things like that. By the end of high school, I had never been to Latin America.
My first trip was actually to Cuba when I was at Cornell [1948-1952]. I went
to Cuba and stayed in a hotel, only because I had a roommate at Cornell who
M: So this was obviously before the revolution?
S: Oh yes, long before.
M: Since your roommate was at Cornell, can I assume that person was of
the higher class?
S: She was not very upper class. Her parents were divorced. They were middle
class. As I remember it, [they were] not affluent.
M: People come back with different perspectives on Cuba, depending on the
social and economic class of people they visit.
S: Right. Even though I visited with them, I went on some sort of package tour
and I stayed in a hotel.
M: I will not dwell too much [on] Cuba even though that was of interest to me
S: My first trip abroad was there, and it satisfied some of my curiosity.
M: When you went to Cornell, did you plan in advance what you were going to do
for your degree?
S: Actually, I was a government major. I thought I wanted to work for the foreign
service. I wanted to work for the State Department. I actually took the exam.
At one point, interestingly enough, I almost attempted to be recruited by the
CIA. I was so naive politically. I did not even know what the CIA was. They
brought us to Washington--there was a whole group of us--and subjected us
to some grueling psychological tests for three days. Fortunately I failed
these. [Laughter] Since I had always been so active with international
students, both European and Latin American, at Cornell, and this was the
height of the Cold War, their idea was to send me as a student to Austria or
Germany to infiltrate student groups. They had actually told me that.
M: They must have realized that you would not put up with that. So what made
you decide to go on to Columbia [University] and anthropology?
S: I did not go to graduate school [at Columbia] right away. As I said, I applied
for the State Department. But as soon as I graduated from Cornell [in 1952], I
went with a friend of the family on a trip to Mexico. I fell in love with a
Mexican. I thought I wanted to stay there for a while just to see if things
would work out. I actually walked into the [United States] Embassy and
applied for a job. This man wanted to hire me. I told him that I had already
filed for my papers. They tried to put [my application] through, but it did not
The CIA, the State Department, and the foreign service applications were all
under consideration. But what happened was that just about the time I was to
be hired, there was a change of administration in Washington. [President
Dwight] Eisenhower came in . They said if I wanted to I could start the
process all over again. At that point, I got discouraged. The Mexican thing
did not work out.
M: What made you go into anthropology?
S: That took a long time. I actually worked in New York in a series of secretarial
[jobs]. Basically clerical jobs were all I could get until I found work as a
research assistant for [an institution] called the Puerto Rican Study
[sponsored by the New York City Board of Education and the Ford
Foundation, to analyze the difficulties of adjustment of Puerto Rican children
in the New York City schools]. [This was at] the height of the Puerto Rican
migration to New York City. I got the job because I spoke Spanish; I really did
not have any research background.
Then I heard about these fellowships that were available, five- and six-week
fellowships offered by New York University for teachers working in New York.
I applied for one of them. They thought I had a bona fide case [even though I
was not actually teaching]. I got it, and I went to Puerto Rico. That first night
I fell in love with the island. [I] used the time I was there to look for a job, and
I was actually offered a job at the university, teaching English. I accepted that
[offer], but at the same time I was applying for a job that was available at the
local [Puerto Rican] State Department.
Puerto Rico was one of the showcases for what was then called the Point
Four Program, which later became AID [Agency of International
Development]. They would send trainees from all different fields [to Puerto
Rico]. That was the job that I wanted, because it was what I had always felt I
wanted to do.
A friend of mine came down [to Puerto Rico] from New York. We had
planned to go back to the United States together. Then I decided I was not
going back, not even to New York. We went on to the Dominican Republic
and Haiti. I came back and found that I had the [Puerto Rican] State
Department job. So I quit the job at the university the day before classes
M: So you had a grand tour of the Caribbean?
S: Yes, for a brief [time]. Then I started the State Department job. It was
actually through that job that I met my future husband Mano [Manouchehr
Safa-lsfahani]. He was one of the trainees who came through. I worked
there and I was increasingly interested in research. The research I had done
in New York [the Puerto Rican Study] was also of interest to me. In time, [I]
talked them into doing this study of the rural development program.
At that time Puerto Rico was an incredible opportunity. Not only did I learn
the language very well, but also just being a college graduate and being
bilingual, I qualified for jobs. I actually directed a research project. I was a
field director. There was a senior Puerto Rican who supervised it, but I really
carried out all the field work in the rural area. We did a study of the rural
resettlement program. I was interested in development. I was very interested
in Operation Bootstrap. I really thought at that point that also showed how
one was politically involved. I thought Bootstrap and the kind of thing it was
trying to do with education, health, and housing had social, economic, and
M: Could you explain that a little more?
S: Operation Bootstrap was a program instituted in Puerto Rico in about 1950. It
was a very ambitious program. It had the name "Bootstrap" because it
symbolized Puerto Ricans lifting themselves by their own bootstraps. The
idea was to end poverty in Puerto Rico by spending a lot of money on
education, health, housing, and growth, as well as on massive
industrialization. We would help the Puerto Ricans help themselves. The
book I have just finished [The Myth of the Male Breadwinner: Women and
Industrialization in the Caribbean, Westview Press, 1953] and a lot of my
work has been an analysis of Operation Bootstrap. At that point [in the
1950s] I really believed in it and I was working on government programs that
dealt with it. And from very early on, the whole interest in social justice and
equality was also there.
M: So in the development of your early career, you did not face any obstacles
because you were a woman, perhaps because you had so much to offer?
S: I did not feel that I faced obstacles. There were some things that happened in
Puerto Rico, on the job and so on, that would not have happened to a man.
On the other hand, I was also given an extraordinary opportunity. So I
worked and then decided that I would go back to do graduate work. The
reason I chose anthropology was because, at that point, I had experience
with a psychologist in the Puerto Rican Study in New York. This one and
others were primarily educational psychologists. Everything was a number.
With sociologists everything had also become very quantitative. I was not
very keen on that. I wanted to deal with people more as individuals and
Anthropology attracted me also because I have always felt that anthropology
is much more comparative in its approach, although the work I do and even
the methods I use are somewhat sociological. I have never gotten involved in
doing massive kinds of studies on the national level and thus forced to use
quantitative techniques, but I did use survey research. When I decided to go
back, I actually applied for a scholarship from the University of Puerto Rico. I
became Puerto Ricanized at that point. They accepted my application. So
they actually gave me the equivalent of a tuition fellowship to study at
M: Was Columbia the place to be at that time?
S: That was curious too. I had no idea what anthropology programs were like. I
was really very naive. At one point, I thought I would go back to Cornell.
Cornell had offered me a teaching assistantship, but just for one semester.
When I got back to New York again [in 1956], literally just before classes
started, I decided I had been away for two years, I had not seen my family
and friends. I sort of liked being back in the city.
With the job I had in Puerto Rico I had met a lot of people. I had always been
invited to receptions whenever they had foreign dignitaries there. One of the
persons I met was the New York State Commissioner of Housing. He called
one day on the phone and said, how would you like a job doing a research
project? I said, well, I really came to do my graduate work. He said, well, I
think we could work it out on a part-time basis. So I walked into the offices at
Columbia. These are things I think one could only have done in the 1950s. I
walked into the offices at Columbia and talked to Professor Conrad
Arensberg, and told him a little of my background. I said I had been admitted
[at Cornell]. I had not even applied to Columbia. He talked to me for half an
hour, wrote a little note, and I was admitted on a provisional basis. That is
where I ended up staying, and he ended up being my advisor.
M: You just happened to have a lucky break, in that it took no research to find
out where you should go to school? Who was going to give you the best
S: Well, I actually worked. I worked for twenty hours a week, and took a fairly
full load of classes.
M: I mean it just seems that you fell into the best school in the country at the
S: At that time, Columbia was probably much better than Cornell. I would have
probably ended up being an Andeanist or something.
M: Tell me a little about the environment at Columbia at that time [1956-1962]. I
guess people like Leslie White were still there.
S: I do not think White was still there.
M: Do you remember Julian Steward?
S: Julian Steward had gone. So I was the generation after Sidney Mintz and
that whole generation. I did not get to know them until after.
M: Margaret Mead [1901-1978] was still there?
S: Yes. I studied with her, but I was not one of her proteges. She was on my
thesis committee and actually quite helpful. She had real distinct proteges,
but I was not interested in the culture and personality school that she was
interested in, which she focused on at that point.
M: Is that because you were a social anthropologist and Columbia was more
directed towards cultural anthropology?
S: No, not at all. [Columbia] was not that cultural at this point. It was actually
quite social. So I worked with Professors Arensberg, Mead, and [Charles]
Wagley before he came here [at UF since 1971, graduate research professor
of Anthropology]. He went on leave the semester I had to defend my
dissertation. So Professor [Marvin] Harris [also presently graduate research
professor at UF] substituted for him.
M: At that point, Dr. Harris was a fairly young professor [of anthropology], and
new to the department?
M: Were you at Columbia for four years?
S: No, six years. After Cornell, I spent some time working in Puerto Rico, and
then started graduate school [in 1956, completed MA in 1958 and Ph.D. in
1962]. I was also a somewhat older graduate student than many of my
cohorts. I have never regretted that. I actually advise many students to do
that, to take some time off between undergraduate and graduate school.
M: Let us talk a little about your research towards the thesis and dissertation,
and how that shaped your future.
S: I knew that I had to go back to Puerto Rico, because I had this scholarship.
One of the obligations of it was that I had to work for the Puerto Rican
government, with pay, but for the same length of time that I had the
scholarship, which was two years. I thought the logical thing was to go back
to Puerto Rico and find a job in which I could do research, and at the same
time work off my obligation. It was wise that I did so. I ended up getting
married right after I got my Ph.D. [in 1962].
Also I knew Puerto Rico. I knew my way around, so I had an advantage. I
did not even attempt to apply for grants at that point because I knew I wanted
to go back there. I was again able to talk them into doing the research [and I
was hires as a consultant for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Urban
Renewal and Housing Administration Research Office].
At one point, I wanted to do a study of the middle class which was just
beginning to develop with suburbanization. They said, "What we really need
is a study comparing problems typical of public housing. There were far more
shanty town areas and we would like somebody to look at that." So I
switched. It actually ended up being a very interesting topic. They not only
paid me a salary but also provided a research team.
M: So they allowed you to continue your dissertation?
S: Right. There was some difficulty later on when the time came to publish. It
got to be a very hot political issue. At one point, they tried to stop publication
of part of it in the local journals. It was an internal fight.
M: So you received your Ph.D and you were now married?
S: As I said, I met my husband. He went back [to the US], and I came back from
Puerto Rico. Then I did have an NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health]
fellowship. I was also very fortunate because I was one of the first urban
anthropologists in the United States. There were Lisa Peattie and myself.
They tried to recruit me to go to Venezuela, and join the MIT project. I was
very tempted. I wanted to do that. I went back to see Joe Stycos, whom I
had actually met in Puerto Rico. He said, you have spent enough time
abroad. It is time you start a career and get into an academic post here
instead of flying off again. I was also expecting my future husband. He had
come back, and I thought I did not want to go running off again.
M: That was a decision you made that did not really compromise your career in
S: No, on the contrary my career [was enhanced]. Lisa Peattie went on to work
at MIT. She took the job they were interviewing me for.
M: At that time your husband was in the United Nations, and you were both
working on a project in Syracuse [New York]?
S: You mean when I finished?
S: When I finished the Ph.D, I was one of the first few urban anthropologists. Dr.
Arensberg heard about a job at Syracuse where they were going to do a
study of public housing. He knew about the work I had done in Puerto Rico
and they were interested in having an anthropologist and two sociologists. I
interviewed there and they offered me the job. I said, you all are going to
want me to finish my dissertation first. They interviewed me in the spring [of
1961]. I said I could finish by December. I was due to start in January .
Summer came and I was not done. I panicked and said, I cannot come in
January. I was afraid of going up and accepting a new job and moving
without having finished. They decided since they had waited that long, they
could wait a little longer. So they waited until April. I actually went up with the
first draft and defended afterwards. That was when I went to Syracuse.
M: Was that when you were the consultant for the New York State Commission?
S: No, that was when I was working on my dissertation. It goes back to 1962,
when I was senior research associate, [Youth Development Center] and
assistant professor [of Anthropology] at Syracuse University, 1962 to 1967.
Again one of the peculiarities about my career was that I have never been just
a full-time teacher. I have always either combined it with research, which was
my first love, or combined it with administrative work.
M: During this period from 1962 to 1967, I am just wondering how you managed
marriage and family life?
S: That was very difficult. Actually, I do not think Syracuse got very much out of
me. I went up there in April . My future husband came in August. We
were married in December. I got pregnant the following spring [with Mitra].
On top of that, he also came with a built-in family. He had two children
[Kaveh and Arya]. We had to buy a house. They [Syracuse University] were
extremely understanding, let us put it that way. I did do the work for them,
and I had a couple of articles published on that research, but it never became
a major publication. But it was a time of great transition.
M: So they allowed you to split your duties between teaching and [research]?
S: My main appointment was a research position. Because I wanted to move
over to an academic calendar, I did sort of split it between research [and
teaching]. I never taught a full time semester.
M: This seemed to be a crucial period with most academics and their
development, in terms of planning articles, thinking about the dissertation,
changing that into a book, and all of that. I am just wondering how did you
S: It was very difficult, especially when I was combining so many things. In
some ways, I was very glad I finished the dissertation before I got married.
On top of that, my husband was also studying for his graduate work. He had
just finished his [master's degree]. He spent the first year at Harvard, and
then commuted to Syracuse. He got his master's at Harvard, at what is now
the Kennedy School. He then transferred to Syracuse for the Ph.D. They
offered him a part-time research position while he worked on his doctorate in
public administration. Again he was lucky. It was somewhat easier in the
M: For the most part, did you have the responsibility for the children while he was
away at [school]?
S: No, the children were not with us for the year he was at Harvard. His stepson
[Kaveh] was still in England. His daughter [Arya] was in California [with] her
aunt. She came at the end of the year when we actually had a house that we
lived in. [During that year] he commuted on weekends. He traveled on the
Greyhound bus between Boston and Syracuse. Then we bought a house. In
the interval, my father had died. I convinced my mother to give up the
business and come and live with us. I knew that with two children plus a
newborn, I would not be able to manage. So she came and lived with us until
M: So what direction did your career take at this point?
S: I was interested in urbanization and public policy, not particularly in gender
issues. I was always interested in issues of inequality, but they focused more
on class and race. The University at Syracuse was also interested in mobility
and urbanization. In fact that was interesting because I had come out of a
Puerto Rican setting and gone to work in an African-American ghetto area in
Syracuse. I could not find anything very similar to what I had done. I found
[people in the ghetto] really quite different, much more alienated and
fragmented. I have written one article on exactly what I was thinking about
["The Case for Negro Separatism: The Crisis of Identity in the Black
M: How did you make the next big move to Rutgers [University, New Brunswick,
S: Again, my husband was finishing his Ph.D. The assistantship he had
at Syracuse had ended. He had to move to New York. So actually the
last year [1966-1967] I also had a grant [from the US Office of
Education, to analyze data on upward mobility in low-income families].
I lived off the grant. He was finishing his Ph.D and working on a grant.
I felt that I should wait because I was in a more advantageous position
than he. I wanted to wait to see where he might go. We were married.
He was in his mid-forties. He was a father. I knew it would be more
difficult to find something. After a year of doing consulting with him, he
actually landed a job in New York. So when I knew we were going to
stay in the New Jersey area, I started looking.
Through one of my contacts, Stanley Diamond, I actually found an opening at
Rutgers. He was a well known anthropologist. Also [at Syracuse] they told
me they recommended me for the job at Rutgers. That was very exciting.
That was a very formative period as well because I became part of a planning
team for a brand new college, Livingston College at Rutgers. For two years
before it opened, I was part of the planning team. It was a new college,
designed to work with the urban working class and minority groups. They
were interested because of the background that I had and the research that I
M: So this was now an administrative/teaching position.
S: Well I was on the planning team, but I probably did more full-time teaching at
that point. I remember I taught a course when the college first opened. I
team-taught, but I was the primary coordinator. I taught a course on the
urban poor which I had designed. I walked in and there was a class of ninety-
eight, ninety of whom came out of the black ghetto in Newark. I walked in
there and they looked at me and said, she is going to teach us about poverty?
It was the height of black power. It was a real challenge.
M: [Laughter] On the first day, you said, okay, we will have to make some
S: It was difficult, but I managed, and I learned a great deal. I learned a great
deal from the experience. I was really committed to the mission. I actually
moved out of anthropology for a while. I had been hired by the dean, and
they brought this new chairperson to the anthropology department, Robin
Fox, who is a socio-biologist and who could not have been more ill-suited to
the mission of that college. He was very elitist and believed in socio-biology.
He said, nothing personal my dear, but we do a very different kind of
anthropology. I cannot recommend you for tenure. I was offered another
position in another college, York College, that started in Queens [New York].
[I declined since] I did not want to move my family again.
In the meantime, I had gotten to know the chair for [Urban] Planning [at
Rutgers]. So I accepted his invitation, moved over to Planning, and got my
tenure as full professor. I then moved back [in 1974] to the Department of
Anthropology as the chair. None of this was done by conscious strategy by
any means. At that point, when it came time to chose, it was a new type of
chair. The chair had to coordinate all the different departments [within
Anthropology]. By that time, they were all fighting with each other. It was to
my own and to the department's advantage that I was not part of any one
M: Let us talk a little bit more about your classroom time. You said you were
teaching classes on urban poor and poverty, and learning things from the
students. Were you in a political frame of mind to say, okay, I am proactive in
this class. The students are active and I am active.
S: Yes, but I also think I became very politicized by these feelings. I did become
politicized by these feeling plus the fact that we had an extraordinary faculty
there, not so much in anthropology, but in sociology, history, and many
M: Were you in any way confined by, first of all, how you should relate to your
students, and secondly, how you should relate to your Department of
Anthropology or History?
S: Because of my interests I always favored interdisciplinary approaches. Urban
Planning was not at all happy when I left. But I moved back because I
wanted the chance to train anthropology students in a different department. It
became a very different leadership.
M: That was interesting. Do you want to tell me a bit about people you have
trained and the type of work they are doing?
S: When I left Rutgers [in 1980] I was on twenty-six graduate committees. It was
unbelievable. In the six years I was there, I chaired ten dissertations. The
two that really stand out in my mind are [the one written by] Lynn Bolles, who
was an African American. She now teaches at the University of Maryland.
The other was by Patricia Fernandez Kelley, who was Mexican. Patricia is
now in the Sociology Department at Johns Hopkins [University, Baltimore,
Maryland]. I had a Puerto Rican student as well.
M: Were they also interested in issues of urban development or did they break
out into different fields?
S: No. They were interested particularly in urban development. I began to move
a little bit more away from just urbanization. I think the thread that carried
through the disciplines and that I was always interested in was the working
class. That was where the urban anthropology came in, as well as issues
arising out of inequality, race, and gender.
M: It was interesting that gender became a concern relatively late. Do you have
any idea why?
S: Certainly at Columbia it was never an issue. I can think back now about the
treatment that one suffered, but one never talked about that in class. It never
became an issue. But it was a budding issue in the program at Rutgers. It
was part of the combination at Rutgers. I then met June Nash, who
collaborated [with me] on several books [Sex and Class in Latin America
(1976); Women and Change in Latin America: New Directions in the Study of
Sex and Class (1986)]. I can still remember the day she called me and said,
will you help me organize a seminar in Latin America? We could not even call
it "feminist." It was then feminine issues and social sciences. That was in
1973 and 1974. I can remember people like Irving and Louis Horowitz, even
in the 1970s, who thought I was wrong to get into the women's issues so
strongly. Still people also said, you did such nice work in urban anthropology.
M: So you need to think about women now.
M: Did women slip ahead in the mid-1970s?
S: [The movement] had made a beginning; I was never so much active in the
community [so I do not know its impact] but within academia, [progress
occurred] in terms of [research and writing]. I remember one anecdote, sitting
there and struggling to develop the women's studies program at Rutgers. It
was funded with assistantships just as it was here. Kate Ellis, who later
became a well-known writer, had been discussing something with me. She
looked at me and said, I guess you can be a feminist and not wear blue jeans.
There again my interests were always international. I was interested in
issues and actually did a comparative study of industrial women workers in
Brazil and the United States. That was one of the few field-works I did. That
and the Syracuse work [comprise] the field-work I have done in the United
States. [I worked with women and industries] in New Jersey. We were
basically looking at the effects of paid employment on status. [We had] a
collaborative research grant from the S.S.C.R. [Social Science Research
Council] It was through this work that I stumbled onto the whole question of
the international division of labor and export manufacturing. I suddenly began
realizing why women, fifty years and older, were in these factories. I began
research about run-away shops. One of my first articles was called
"Runaway Shops and Female Employment: The Search For Cheap Labor"
[Signs 7 (Winter 1981): 418-433]. In very many cases, I just stumbled on
some of these areas.
M: Would you say that now you can integrate what is going on in the
government and in the industry?
S: Right. It is really mostly industrial development, but also looking at the
parameters of the country's development rather than trying to insert gender
and the household, particularly within the macro prospects of development.
M: We are going to move on now to your coming to the University of Florida and
how you made that transition. Was it a search you applied for or did they
seek you out?
S: I had been to Gainesville before because I had been on the executive
committee of LASA, the Latin American Studies Association. A couple of
times they met here in Gainesville. I sort of liked it as a town. I did not want
to leave Rutgers while my husband was still at the UN. He was approaching
retirement. I heard about the position of the directorship [for the Center of
Latin American Studies] opening here. I was in effect invited to apply and did.
I came in 1980, the same year [my husband] retired. So that worked out.
M: Were your children already in college?
S: Actually the two older ones had already gone through college. My
youngest, my daughter Mitra who was born in Syracuse, was still a
junior in high school. We brought her here. They moved her up as a
senior. It was a bit difficult on her, I realize, because she was very
resistant, she really did not want to move.
M: Gainesville, Florida after New York? How can you do that?
S: We did not live in Manhattan. She said she realized in a way she was pulling
up roots one year early. In a sense, it was a good adaptation to college. She
was absolutely determined to go back to the northeast to go to college.
M: So when you accepted the directorship of the center, was that solely
administrative and no teaching?
S: It was primarily an administrative position, although they told me, you
teach as much as you want to. I actually taught quite a bit. I usually
taught at least one course each semester. I also wanted to keep my
links with anthropology so I needed to teach [at that end]. I still
continue that policy. I teach one semester in the Anthropology
[Department] and one semester in Latin American Studies.
M: When you came into the [Latin American] Center, what type of environment
did you find? What were your expectations and your responsibilities?
S: I knew I was expected to raise funds. I saw that. In accepting the position I
also said that I was coming with a mandate to develop the Caribbean
Program, which was a strength at the University, particularly at the library, for
many years. It had been somewhat marginalized. Previous directors had
interests in other areas.
M: Do you mean Dr. [Ivan] Schulman [director of the Center for Latin American
S: Yes, Ivan Schulman, but he had not held [the position] for very long. He was
also interested in the Caribbean, but he had not really attempted fund-raising
and things like that.
M: At that time, what types of emphasis did you have?
S: I came at the height of Mariel [The Mariel Boatlift in 1980 marks the escape
by thousands of Cubans, by boats and rafts, from the port of Mariel, Cuba to
Florida]. I remember friends telling me, there is no way you can ignore this
now. Even though we started the Caribbean Migration Program under
Ronald Reagan, it was primarily to bring in pre-doctoral students rather than
graduates doing research. One of the problems of being in Gainesville was
that you were not where the migrants were arriving. I have continued to be
interested in migration. I have published some materials on it, but I have not
done actual research. I have worked a lot with students doing research,
particularly students doing Hispanic or Latino migration.
M: Other than fund-raising, do you feel you shaped the Center in any particular
S: I think we did build up the Caribbean Program. That was one of the reasons
also that I decided to stay at the Center rather than move into Anthropology.
When I left [the Center], I knew that it was very hard to keep a program going
from within the department.
M: I am not sure I understand that.
S: The Center has affiliate members. I actually have my tenure in [the
Department of] Anthropology even though my line was assigned to the [Latin
American] Center. I felt that I could keep up the Caribbean Program better by
being in the Center rather than simply being an affiliate. I think that was true.
The Rockefeller Program we have was another important affiliate, though it
certainly goes beyond the Caribbean Program. Incidentally, I wrote the grant
for the Rockefeller Program. I had some assistance from Debbie Pacini,
David [P.] Geggus [associate professor of history], and others, but basically I
wrote the program.
M: And did you also continue your administrative work?
S: Right. When I stepped down [as director of the Latin American Center], and
when you combine that with the years of administrative work at Rutgers, I had
spent well over ten years in full-time administrative positions. So in a sense,
it was good for me to step down and come back into my own research. It was
very difficult to research, write, and be an administrator. It was hard enough
to write a book if you were a full-time faculty member in an administrative
position. But when you were on a twelve-month [year-round administrative]
appointment, it was impossible.
M: You just have your summers off to both write and research.
M: You still had some opportunities to keep your research interests alive? You
were aware of changes in the areas of your interests but you were not able
to do your own research?
S: That was right. When I came here in 1980, 1 had already been awarded an N.
I. M. H. grant to do the work in Puerto Rico. I did that with a Puerto Rican
student I had at Rutgers. It was fortunate that it was Puerto Rico because at
that point I knew Puerto Rico well enough that I could do it all, despite the
appointment as a new director, in a new place. All of those issues, I think,
somehow balanced. In addition, we were able to do some work in the
Dominican Republic, using survey data that had been gathered by colleagues
of mine at a research institute.
I was doing some comparative work on that, when in 1986 the opportunity
presented itself to do the work in Cuba. That was also one of the reasons it
has taken so long. I actually started the data collection in 1980, but the book
is just coming out now. I was doing data collection from 1980 to 1988, but not
by any means on a full-time basis. I was doing all kinds of other things.
M: Your new book contains material on women in Cuba?
S: No, all three countries. The book is a comparison of women industrial
workers of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I actually went
back and did in-depth interviews in each one of these.
M: When do we expect the book to be available?
S: It should be out this April [1995; its title is The Myth of the Male Breadwinner:
Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean].
M: I knew you had sent off the manuscript, but I did not know how long it would
be at the publishers.
S: I just read the index to it. It is going to be published by Westview Press.
M: So now you stepped down from your directorship [of the Center for Latin
American Studies]; was it because you were assigned a five-year [position]?
S: It was a five-year appointment, yes. I agreed to take it on for that length of
M: You had no desire to stay on?
S: To be truthful, it was a combination of circumstances, I was really exhausted.
I had agreed when I came that I would do it for five years [1980-1985], and
then I would have a year off. That was the way I had always survived at
Rutgers. Rutgers had a good system in that you could apply for research
leave every three years. You would get a semester off, with full pay, every
three years. This time I agreed to work five years, then I would have a full
year off. So I did have a year off. The only question was whether I would
return or not. I was a bit ambivalent, but there were also some political
difficulties at that point. I had brought Cubans here to the University of
Florida, and people in the legislature were not very happy about that.
M: You mean Cubans as opposed to Cuban Exiles?
S: Yes. Cubans from Cuba. And I think in other ways I had rubbed some
people the wrong way. But the basic conflict was the issue of Cubans. Yes.
I always thought my main job was fund-raising, so I did very little to cultivate
people in Tallahassee or the local power structure.
M: The ever-present power structure?
S: I think it existed even here, locally, and I think there was a gender blind. I do
not think that we understand power structures as well as we should.
M: Did you feel you had run up into a wall in terms of administrative support?
S: No, no wall. The provost, [Robert A.] Bryan, was extremely supportive and
very happy with what I was doing. There were other people in different parts
of the University who did not like it, and who also resented the fact that I was
putting so much emphasis on the Caribbean. You cannot please everybody.
M: So then you stepped down from the directorship, had the year off, and came
back to teach in Anthropology and Latin American studies?
S: I had the year off. It took me three years to recover; working for a five-year
[stretch] was really exhausting. I was not only directing the Center, but I also
became president of LASA, the Latin American Student Association; I was
chair of the Fulbright Advisory Committee for senior scholars. I think we had
250 applications for that. I was just absolutely exhausted. I know now, every
time I would think about going back to administration, I shudder. I had
thoughts in the middle of the night. I was always waking up and making little
notes to myself.
M: You survived, and you went on. Now you say your line goes from the Center,
which you are associated and affiliated with, to Anthropology.
S: My tenure is still within Anthropology. I actually vote. I do not know if it is
different from Marianne Schmink's case whose tenure is at the Center. She is
an affiliate of anthropology. I actually have voting rights.
M: Do you feel yourself an active member of the anthropology department?
S: Yes. I have actually become a little more active in the last couple of years to
M: In anthropology, [Marvin] Harris, who was an old colleague, is there, and
[Russell] Bernard is there. To tell you the truth, I do not know much about
anthropology. I do not know about your colleagues, who you were working
with, and so on.
S: I think one of the most fortunate things was that I came into an anthropology
department which was probably much more compatible to my interests than
any place I could find. Many of them have moved very heavily into post-
modern, which I am not [a part of]. I am probably more to the left, more
Marxist than most people in the department. I think they are fairly accepting
of my views.
M: Your political beliefs inserted themselves into the academic arena in very
S: Well, I think my research interests [are] probably colored by my political
beliefs, and [influenced by] my interests in social justice, equality, and so on.
I think my approach to anthropology is basically a kind of a political approach.
I was not taught that in graduate school. I really learned that through my
M: Your writing, what little I have read, does not seem overtly Marxist.
S: I do not use the jargon. I know I do not talk a lot about relations, production,
and things like that.
M: You can read it in a Marxist way, but you can also chose not to. You do not
think that has affected anything?
S: I think in some universities I would be considered too far to the left. I think
probably in some departments outside Anthropology they would think I was
much too far to the left.
M: Do you think that situation happened when you were in college?
S: The radicalizing experience?
M: I feel I have left out so many questions about important parts of your life.
S: My life, yes. I am approaching retirement. My husband died two months ago.
I have to see, but I am not ready to retire just yet.
M: When I look at your research and your writing, I think, "I cannot believe she
has done all of this." I went to the library and was astounded at the variety
and quantity of your work. I had no idea you were approaching retirement
age. You are coming out with a new book, and you are still active at the
Center and in the Rockefeller Program. Are those types of things you would
like to continue in the foreseeable future?
S: The Rockefeller Program has at least another year to go. Then I have a
sabbatical coming up. Then we will see. It [will] depend on my personal
situation. My husband being gone is a big factor. In a sense, yes, [leaving
the Rockefeller Program] could free me up to do other things. I also want to
spend more time with my family.
I have five grandchildren. They include [children of] both of my stepchildren.
I like living in Florida too. I love the climate. It is about as close to living in
the Caribbean as you can be without actually being there.
M: You have research facilities.
S: Right. I would never want to teach at the University of Puerto Rico. I have
seen too many expatriates of that kind. I do not want to be in that position. I
think I would be very well accepted there, but part of it also is that I have not
taken the position away from any Puerto Rican faculty. I am very conscious
M: That kind of brings us back full circle to the beginning of your career, when
that was not a part of your consciousness.
S: Yes. That was a different era. Then they really needed someone. That was
a different era, and a junior position.
M: Would you consider working there periodically?
S: No. I might at some time go as a visiting professor, but not as a full-time
M: What would you say about the teaching, the administrative, and the fund-
raising [parts of your jobs]? What was the most significant to you?
S: I have always liked administrative work because I like building programs, and
establishing networks. I think that the research, in the long run, probably has
the longest payoff. I am always amazed when I go to meetings and people
say I have read something [you wrote]. That is where you become known,
and that is what lasts. That is going to be here ten years [from now]. I am not
sure whether being director of the Center will be a major force twenty years
M: You were the ground-breaker in urban anthropology.
S: Yes and then I combined that with gender. I think I am certainly known in
Latin American circles as being one of the ground-breakers in the whole area
of women and development in Latin America. I think that has been absolutely
fundamental. I have become known for that, both because of the
conferences [I organized] and also because of the research and writing I have
done. Even though all of my research has been in the Caribbean, I am well
known [throughout the Americas]. For example, I am going off to a
conference in Buenos Aires [Argentina]. Also today, I just got a fax from
Santiago [Chile]. Now, people looked at this area before. I still know a
number of people who work in the area of women's development in Africa and
M: You are going to the Women's Conference in Beijing [China]?
S: I am hoping to. I still do not have the funding; funds are short. I have been
asked to attend as an expert. I am with one of the NGOs [non-government
organizations] and I am a member of another NGO. I hope to get at least
some part of the funding. I would like to [attend]. I did not go to the first
meeting in Mexico City, but I have always wanted to go. I know very little
M: Can I get you to say and spell your husband's name?
S: My husband actually had a hyphenated last name. I only use half of it. His
full surname was Safa-lsfahani, which meant that his family came from
Isfahan [central Iran, about 200 miles south of Teheran]. His first name was
Manouchehr, but we called him Mano.
M: Thank you very much for this informative interview.