A Warning from the Edge
Maria turned from the blackboard on which she had been writing, and faced her class. Standing behind her lectern, both arms rested comfortably as she looked at her students. The class was well attended, she thought, in light of the fact that it was the morning after Labor Day. Often times a holiday carried into the next day, either as a result of travel or from the effects of exuberant celebrating. The class was introduction to cultural anthropology, and it was her favorite course. It was the course that had hooked her on becoming an anthropologist, and she was always energized by the opportunity to expose others to the field she fell in love with.
Pointing to the blackboard, Maria queried her class.
“Does anyone have any questions about the concepts that I have listed here?” For a moment there was silence. It was only the second week of class and she knew that it usually took awhile for students to feel comfortable enough with her and the other students before asking questions.
“Come on,” she prodded. “Remember, the only stupid question is the one that never gets asked.”
From the back row, a petite, young girl with short, brunette hair, dressed in a smart looking black pantsuit, raised her hand.
“Yes,” Maria acknowledged. “Do you have a question?”
“Yeah,” the girl said. “I’m not clear on the difference between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.”
“That’s a good question,” Maria replied. “Actually they are closely related concepts, and they really form the foundation of anthropology.” Maria came from behind the lecturn and stood in front, leaning against the table on which it rested.
“Let’s start with ethnocentrism. It’s a big word, but don’t let it scare you; the concept is quite simple. It means that people believe that their culture is better than someone else’s. It’s really human nature. Most people to some extent think their way of doing things is the best. In and of itself this is probably not a bad thing; it can actually be the source of pride for a group of people to feel that way. However, in the extreme, it can cause problems. If this belief becomes part of a social policy or a law then it can be the source of discrimination, or worse.”
Maria paused. Another hand went up, this time from a blond-haired, young man from the front row, dressed in blue jeans, white tennis shoes and a gray sweatshirt.
“Can you give an example?” he asked.
“Sure,” Maria replied. “When the Spanish arrived in places like Mexico, Peru, and the American Southwest, they brought Catholicism with them, with the belief that this was the only true religion. Well, Los Indios, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Pueblo tribes, and many others already had established religions. But the Franciscans thought these religions were idolatry and sinful. They did not want the Indios to practice what they saw as inferior forms of worship. So the Spanish crushed their religions by outlawing their ceremonies, jailing and killing their priests, and attempting to baptize and convert the children. This was ethnocentrism transformed into policy. It was ideology working in the service of Spanish political and economic interests.”
Maria paused. A hand went up.
“Yes, Germaine,” Maria acknowledged. Germaine, an African American man in his mid-twenties, lowered his hand and shifted in his seat.
“So, if I get this right, what you are saying is that the missionaries were serving as business agents for the Spanish Empire?”
“Basically, that’s right, though it was probably more complicated than that. I mean, in the early 16th century the ecclesiastical authorities in Spain were arguing over whether the Indios were human or not. This was important in context because, if they were human, then they had souls and were worthy of saving. But to save them they believed they had to cleanse them of inferior ways.”
Maria paused and tugged at her right earlobe. Then she continued.
“Now cultural relativism is similar yet different. It means that cultural practices exist for a reason, and there is an internal logic to them. Therefore, you must try to see these practices in the context of a people’s culture rather than your own. You must suspend, as much as possible, your own cultural prejudices so you are viewing that culture with a clear eye. If you can’t be objective, then you cannot understand what is going on, and you are likely to misjudge or misread the behavior in question. What may seem peculiar to you might appear very normal to them. Thus, cultural values are relative to specific people at specific times.”
Another question came from the far left of the room.
“I understand that,” the student replied. “But, doesn’t that lead to moral relativism, where you don’t form value judgments about anything? That there is no right or wrong?”
“Exactly,” Maria countered, “but only if taken to an extreme. As an anthropologist I suspend judging the morality of a group’s behavior only so that I can think clearly and objectively. It is my job to describe that culture from their point of view, not mine. But, that doesn’t mean that I agree with that behavior or that I don’t think there is a better alternative. Does that help you?”
“Yeah, a little,” came the equivocal reply.
Not satisfied, Maria pressed further. “Let’s take an example from my own knowledge of the New Guinea tribes where I worked. The highland tribes were farmers. They made their living by growing sweet potatoes in a habitat that was free from disease, and free from extreme changes of the weather. They did what we call slash and burn agriculture, burning down the forests and planting family gardens. They also raised pigs. They had very dense populations, which contributed to conflict and warfare among the tribes. Every so often, the human and pig populations got to a point where they faced an increasing amount of social tension. Pigs from one family would get into the gardens of another. Or, since pigs ate the same food as the people did, as pigs grew they began to drain family food supplies. Occasionally, this tension resulted in open warfare between villages. A series of insults and escalations would culminate in raiding and counter-raiding, as people attempted to increase their food supply and maintain badly need alliances. In an attempt to balance food and resources, one village would launch an attack on a neighboring village, the result being a total rout. But before doing so, a village would invite allied groups to a feast where entire pig herds would be slaughtered to feed the guests. After this ritual, the allied groups would attack another tribe. The losers would flee their village and their lands. But the winners would not move in, they would let that land lie fallow and regenerate, maybe five or ten years. This cycle of warfare, of growing food surpluses and amassing large pig herds, then attacking and clearing out an opponent, led to an ecological balance of people, pigs and land. It was a system. But when Europeans like the Germans, the Dutch or the Australians conquered these tribes, they saw this warfare as savage and uncivilized and attempted to stop it. They took control of tribal lands and forced the tribes into a cash economy and a Western work schedule. This resulted in a collapse of the tribal structure, and contributed to an overuse of the land, making it less fertile. They did not understand the role of warfare in the tribal ecology.”
Maria paused and looked around the room. A young man in the third row raised his hand.
“So,” he said, “the newcomers, not being cultural relativists, did not understand the cultural context of the warfare…because in part they were ethnocentric?”
“Precisely,” Maria replied.
Another student, an older woman in the front row raised her hand.
“Yes,” Maria acknowledged.
“Yes,” the woman replied. “How does this carry over to your own culture? Do you refrain from making value judgments about what goes on? I mean, once you understand it, do you remain amoral about things like crime and violence?”
“That,” Maria said, “is the fine line an anthropologist walks. Should one get involved and press for social change? Or is it enough just to understand the behavior and leave it up to others to change it?”
“Sounds like a cop out,” someone chirped. She looked in the direction of the comment, an attractive but rather slovenly dressed man, about her own age, of medium height, and curly brown hair.
“More of a paradox.” Maria responded. “Knowledge should be used to benefit humankind, but you don’t know if it will. That knowledge, if it fell into the wrong hands, could be used against the very people you are trying to help.”
Maria looked at her watch. The time had flown by, and she was out of it.
“There are no easy answers here,” she closed. “Just think about what we have talked about here today. We will pick up the discussion next time. See you then.”
The students filed out as Maria turned to erase the blackboard. The chalk dust made her sneeze as she wiped the boards clean. She gathered up her notes and headed for her office. Just outside her office door was a plains clothes officer, who had been assigned to protect her. Just as she put her key in the door lock she could here the phone ring.
“Come on in,” she said to the officer. Quickly, she unlocked the door, went into her office and set her notes down on her desk. She turned on the fan that sat on her filing cabinet, and picked up the phone.
“Dr. Contreras,” she answered.
“Hi Maria, it’s Bill. ”
“Hi Bill,” Maria said with more than just a hint of pleasure. “What’s up?”
“Bad news. We just found another body.”
Maria fell to her chair, closed her eyes and shook her head. She heaveda long sigh.
“Tell me about it,” she said.
“Over at Oak Cliff Founder’s Park, off of Zang Avenue.
“That’s just down the street from where the first victim was found,” she interrupted.
“Right. Anyway, it was another man. He was found on a park bench, dead. Pretty much the same MO. He was tied to the bench with fishing line. A Hispanic male, about twenty-five years old. He was found with Bermuda grass stuffed in his mouth. Looks like the cause of death was glyphosate isoproplyamine. There was a pre-mortem wound on the left side of his head, caused by a hard blunt object, like a hammer or a pistol. Weird thing is, he was wearing a gorilla mask, and in his hands was a brochure from the Dallas Zoo. Just like the others though, he had dirt on the heels of his shoes, which means that he was dragged to the place and set there.”
“Do you have a make on the victim?” she asked,
“Yeah,” Bill replied somberly. “ A guy by the name of Manuel Escobar. He apparently had gang ties to the Blancos.”
Maria put one hand to her mouth, and tears began to well up in her eyes.
“Oh no, oh no,” she muttered. “I know that guy! He was the guy I confronted at the Drive ’N Go last month when I was with Frankie. He was a Blanco. Oh Jesus, Bill, not him.”
“I’m sorry Maria, I’m so sorry,” Bill knew his reply was too little too late, and he ached that she was hurting.
“Did anybody see anything?” Maria struggled to regain her composure, though her whole body was trembling. Would it ever stop, she thought.
“A group of kids who had been out all night parking, they said they saw a Chevy van leaving the park about 7:00AM.” Bill’s voice, though seemingly miles away, seemed to give her strength in a way she could not explain. Maria straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath and rose from her desk. She turned to her bodyguard and asked him to get her a glass of water. Then she grabbed the receiver with both hands.
“It was him, wasn’t it?” she exclaimed.
“Looks that way.” After what seemed to be an interminable silence, he continued. “Are you okay?” he said. More silence on the other end.
“Oh Bill, I feel so bad for his wife and child. I was so afraid that something would happen to him, but not this—,” she stammered, now lost for words.
“Look Maria, do you want me to come over there?”
“No,” she replied, “I’ll be all right. I’ll call you if I need anything, okay?”
“Okay.” He seemed to know her need for space right now. “Call me if you need anything. Frankie is at the scene, I’ll call you when we know more.”
“Thanks, thanks,” came her reply. Maria set down the receiver and wheeled around and walked over to the window. She looked at the leaves on the elm trees outside her office being ruffled by the warm breeze. She thought of Angelina, Manuel’s wife.
She imagined how Angelina must have felt when the police told her about Manuel, and how she would say that Manuel was a good man, why would anyone want to hurt him? Maria closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Then, she looked at her computer. Quickly she sat down and logged on to her e-mail. She began scrolling her messages. Nothing! Only a few messages from students regarding class assignments. Her bodyguard returned with her water. Her mouth was dry, dry like it was coated with cotton. She took the glass and drank the entire contents. The water tasted good as it cooled and wet her dessicated mouth.
“I’m going to get some lunch,” he said. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m fine,” she replied mechanically. Food was the last thing on her mind.
It was silent now; the only thing she heard was the hum of the air conditioning.
Suddenly the phone rang, cutting the stillness the way an alarm clock cuts the morning.
Maria almost spilled her glass of water, but recovered to set it on her desk.
“Dr. Contreras,” she answered.
“Hey Miss Harvard Ph.D. It’s me, your local lawn man. Have you heard about my little gift?” The voice on the other end of the line was steady, and utterly cold.
“Who is this?” Maria answered.
“Which word didn’t you understand,” he replied caustically. “It’s the Lawn Man. I have been weeding my yard again. I have been tending my garden, hoeing my row. Pick your metaphor, brown girl.”
Maria tightened up her body as if someone was throwing softballs at her. She spun in her chair.
“What do you want!” she demanded.
“I want to tell you about loss. I want to tell you about tragedy. I want to tell you about how all the decent people who are suffering because of your kind.” Evans Brinkley’s voice was clear, stern, and accusatory.
“What do you mean?” she asked. Angry now, she shot back “What kind of bullshit is this?” The word slipped out, but she was not sorry. In a corner of her mind she knew Bill would have liked the delivery.
“I read your book Dr. Harvard! Did you know that? I bet you didn’t. It’s in the public library you know, in the G section. Actually the call number is G34.001. I read how you wrote about these gang bangers, making it sound like they had a legitimate life.”
“No! That’s not what I----.” She was cut off in mid-sentence by Evans’ tirade.
“Don’t shit with me! You’re one of them. You’re protecting them, trying to get me. You don’t know anything! Well I know something Dr. Harvard. I know about the wilderness. I know how to keep it at bay, to keep it out. And you, you are of the wilderness, and you have to be weeded out! You know, natural selection, right, Doc? You know about that, right? You teach all that diversity shit and all that ratty-tat-tat! Well, it’s time for your own lesson. If it offend thee, pluck it out and plant thy good seed, Doc. You better keep your nose into the wind, because the Lawn Man is coming. Do you hear? The Lawn Man is coming!”
The click on the other end of the line was loud enough to cause Maria to jerk the phone away from her ear. She slammed the phone down and looked at it. Angry and scared, she got up from her chair and went to one of the bookshelves. Scanning, she pulled a copy of Gangbangers and Tribal Chiefs, held it in both hands for a moment, and then threw it against the office door. She brushed her hair back over her head, looked around her office, then out the window. Rubbing her hands over her face, she sat down and picked up the phone.
“Maloney,” the voice answered.
“Bill, it’s Maria. He just called me. He just called me Bill! He, he…” Maria’s panicky voiced trailed off into silence.
“I’m on my way. Sit tight. Where’s your security?” he queried.
“He stepped out for lunch. I told him it was okay. I had no idea…” her defensiveness was obvious.
“Ok. Hold still, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Bill slammed down the phone, grabbed his bottle of water, headed out the door of the Oak Cliff Substation, and drove to Central College in downtown Dallas. He was at Maria’s office in eleven minutes. He knocked gently on the door.
“Come in,” a soft reply came from behind the door.
Bill opened the door and saw Maria standing with her back turned, staring out the window.
“Hey Maria, you ok?” Bill asked as he walked to the edge of the desk that separated them. She did not turn around.
“Oh, I don’t know. One minute I think I am this strong woman who can stand up to anything, and the next my stomach is doing flip flops.”
“I know that feeling,” Bill said.
Maria turned and looked at him, rubbing both arms with her hands. “You do?”
“Yeah. I had it all the time I was in Afghanistan. There were times when I thought I was the strongest Marine out there. Then there were times when the fear was so penetrating I thought my insides would explode through my chest. That usually happened at night, when I was laying in my cot with nothing to do but think.”
“How did you overcome it?” she asked.
“I didn’t,” Bill said softly, almost a whisper. “ I just kept doing what I thought I had to do, until it was over.” Bill looked around her office, as if trying to locate the right words.
“Maria, what do you think you have to do?”
Maria turned away again to look out the window. “Well, I know I can’t help Manuel,” she said.
He could tell by her voice and her manner that she was wiping back tears.
She did not want him to see her cry. As she sniffed once, her hands went to her face as if she were wiping her eyes. Then she turned again to look at him.
“I can’t stop whatever the Blancos are going to do now. Manuel was my best contact. They won’t trust me now that he’s dead,” she said. “Maybe I can still help you find the Lawn Man. But I think I need to back up and gain some perspective, and I have to be free from his taunts and threats.”
“How?” Bill asked.
“Well, maybe we can get help from an unexpected source,” Maria replied. “I mean if there is anything between the parallels I drew between the fighting and feuding of the New Guinea tribes and urban gangs, maybe there is something else I can find out.”
“Like motive.” Maria put her hands on her desk. “I don’t know, it sounds crazy, but once I heard my adopted Dani father tell me why some of the old tribal feuds went on for so long. He said blood was their argument.
“What’s that mean?”
“Bill I know what I have to do.”
“What? As Bill looked deeply into her, he began to stretch his hands toward hers. He wanted desperately to hold them, to tell her through touch that everything would be alright. But there was too much holding him back. Quickly he disguised the move by picking up a book lying next to Maria’s hands.
“I have to go to New Guinea. I have to talk to the Dani.” She looked into his eyes, and saw something, something she had not seen for a long time. It was a kindness, a genuine affection that radiated toward her like a sunbeam. What was going on with her, she thought? She felt a little flushed as she rubbed her arms.
His voice cut through her enchanted moment.
“What can they tell you about a killer in Dallas, Texas?” he asked, returning her look.
She turned away to look out the window again. She watched a leaf being blown between several oak trees, and then saw it land gently on the ground, safe. After a few seconds, she turned around again and looked at Bill, who had not altered his gaze. She ran her fingers through her hair, took a drink of water, and replied, “They can tell me about vengeance.”