Neither Indiana Jones nor one likely to make it to your next soiree, anthropologist and University of New Mexico professor David E. Stuart offers a different dimension on the social scientist who studies culture in his latest book, The Guaymas Chronicles.
An enjoyable, educational and at times heart-rending read about Stuart's early days in Sonora, Mexico, in the late 1960s, The Guaymas Chronicles is a page-turner despite its academic heaviness and back-breaking weight at 394 pages. Stuart writes his memoir as "novelized" nonfiction and is willing--no matter what it costs in terms of his "social capital"--to share his poignant story of navigating a Mexican culture as a 25-year-old güero ("whitey").
At the time, Stuart wasn't an "on-the-clock" anthropologist, having returned to Mexico from Ecuador, where he was conducting his doctoral fieldwork on haciendas. Emotionally beaten up and physically recovering from a skirmish with a horse and a steep cliff, Stuart couldn't find comfort in the arms of his fiancée in Emplame, Mexico. A cabrón (cuckolded man) whose world was disintegrating, he moved to the port city of Guaymas, hoping to establish a taxi service, a business selling cigarettes or some other means of survival.
What he found instead was a vast, complicated network of social ties in which, despite his roots as a norteamericano, he was never alone. Rather than being pitied and pushed aside in the midst of his misfortunes, as would likely happen in the States, Stuart's downtrodden life "humanized me in local eyes." Thus, much of The Guaymas Chronicles documents Stuart's reciprocal relationships with other such "nobodies"--bartenders, taxistas, hotel owners, strip-club entrepreneurs, dancers, part-time prostitutes and orphaned street children--and the idea that people "do" for one another.
"One of the great revelations of my life," Stuart writes, "was that by stateside standards, these people had nothing. In the States, we would probably judge them to be 'nobodies.'... Guaymas was already beginning to teach me special respect for those who had mastered the ordinary."
With formal training in the ways of "culture brokering" and an obvious love of Mexican culture, the Mexican people and, most importantly, Mexican food, Stuart, too, would eventually master life in Guaymas and become respectfully known as El Güero--especially when, on the insistence of several Mexican friends who realized the need in Guaymas for blenders, tires, fans and other household items, he established a business buying such fayuca (contraband) in Arizona and bringing them across the border.
Accompanying him on such adventures was Stuart's unlikely but invaluable business partner: an 11-year-old street orphan named Lupita who, through her own urging, had become his mandadera (messenger). It is Stuart's paternal relationship with this courageous and intelligent yet uneducated and underprivileged girl that makes The Guaymas Chronicles memorable and, toward the end, a more personal and bittersweet story of love.
There is room enough in Stuart's memoir, however, to be an honest and savory multi-course meal of Mexican life, with its emphasis on "human connection" as well as sentimental proof that "epiphanies come at the strangest times and in the strangest places."
Though eventually returning to the States to complete his education, Stuart writes introspectively of his time in Guaymas: "The world I had been raised in seemed stranger--and colder--by the day. ... Negro, Jesse, Enrique, Mercedes, Max, Mateo, El Burro, Chang, Eva, Ana María and my very own mandadera made up the best, and least judgmental, family I'd ever had. As I stubbed out my cigarette, I felt fortune had finally smiled on me. I was at the right place at the right time."
In the end, The Guaymas Chronicles is a story of corazón.