Over the decade she had studied Latino enclaves in the Southwest and the Northeast, cultural anthropologist Rachel Adler carefully observed the ethical dictates of her profession: Do no harm. For Adler, whose research often focused on communities of undocumented workers, this meant, above all, never putting her subjects’ tenure in the U.S. at risk.
But in 2004, when federal immigration agents conducted a series of raids that upended the lives of the newly arrived Guatemalans, Ecuadorians, and Costa Ricans participating in her life history project of Trenton’s Chambersburg neighborhood, it caused her to re-examine her role as an academic. Merely safeguarding privacy, she decided, was no longer sufficient.
Flash forward eight years, and Adler is now a registered nurse delivering care to Latinos in Trenton, even as she continues to study them in her role as an anthropologist. Following the Chambersburg raids, she served a stint as chairman of TCNJ’s sociology and anthropology department, and then took a yearlong sabbatical to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Drexel University.
“That episode pointed out for me how frustrating it is to do research, but not be able to give back. While my work is academic, I think it should have a positive effect on the people I study. But even as an advocate of immigrants’ rights, the problems are structurally fixed. You can’t resolve someone’s residency status unless the law changes,” she notes. “Health care, on the other hand, is tangible and immediate. If someone has unmanaged diabetes, I can help with that. As a nurse, I feel I’m able to play a role in social change.”
With characteristic multitasking fervor, Adler has embarked on a series of locally based research projects that explore different aspects of Latinos’ lives through the prism of health care. With the help of two Spanish speaking pre-med students, she will spend the next year tracking the mental health patients she tends as a nurse at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton to assess how they approach their illnesses, access services from the hospital, and follow up once they have received it.
“I want to see what the barriers are to medical care for this population and what resources are available to them. There’s an applied element to my scholarship here. I want to be able to make policy recommendations,” insists Adler, adding that her position at the hospital will also allow her to make cross-cultural comparisons of patients from different regions in Latin America.
“It will be interesting to see how treatment efficacy for mental illness is affected by social class, cultural background, and ethnicity, and how immigration histories impact illness and recovery for different groups.”
Adler has observed that undocumented immigrants sometimes delay seeking care because they cannot afford to take time from work or are afraid to give information about themselves. Latinos who suffer from illnesses such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse often go untreated, she adds, while language and cultural barriers can hamper treatment for those in the system.
In another student-assisted project that is almost completed, she is working with data from the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey to catalog health care traditions and folk remedies practiced by Latino women in areas such as pregnancy and childbirth. The goal is to produce a handbook for medical professionals that assists them in providing culturally competent care.
“I see myself as a broker between the health care system and the immigrant community; they so often talk past each other,” says Adler.
What drew her to TCNJ just over a decade ago, Adler recalls, were shared values: an emphasis on faculty-student collaborative research that supports social progress and close ties to the community.
“As cultural anthropologists, we interact in a very personal way with the people we study. It’s how we learn,” she says.
Early on in her graduate studies at Arizona State University, Adler moved to Douglas, AZ, on the U.S.–Mexico border to “get a sense of the border first-hand and a feel for its culture.” From her house just half a mile from the border, she watched people climb through large gaps in the fence and run across her front yard en route to a local supermarket, where waiting coyotes would ferry them to a safe house.
As she delved deeper into the life of the binational community living on both sides of the fence—and shuttling back and forth—the border took on a larger meaning.
“Boundaries add complexity to identity. In some settings, the immigrants I studied felt themselves to be very Mexican, in others, Mexican-American, and in still others, part of the border region itself, which is very different culturally and ethnically from southern Mexico. Identity is contextual, and people are strategic about it,” she says.
Several years later, she studied a group of 250 Mexicans from a town of 5,000 in northern Yucatan who lived for a time in a single apartment complex in Dallas. Having little work in their hometown, they had decided to migrate to the same place, living in a community that “functioned like a protective cocoon.”
“They did not follow the textbook assimilation model, but rather established transnational lifestyles and identities that were far more complicated than the way earlier scholars had conceptualized immigration to the U.S. These immigrants maintained strong ties to their home community in Mexico, and continued to participate politically, religiously, and socially in their hometown, despite the inconveniences of distance or political borders,” she notes.
“What I learned is that immigrant identities are complex, and the driving forces of immigration go well beyond economics. Kinship, religious, and political ties are important incentives for immigrants, as is a simple sense of adventure.”