image title

ASU professor’s Mexico research garners local award for Latina/o achievement

March 11, 2019

Maria Cruz-Torres' look into the women behind Sinaloa's seafood industry garners new recognition in Arizona

An image of a dirt road and boxy houses hangs in Maria Cruz-Torres’ office at Arizona State University. She snapped the photo in a village in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa in 1990, not long after first arriving in the region.

For Cruz-Torres, an associate professorMaria Cruz-Torres is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. in the School of Transborder Studies in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it marked the beginning of a 20-year research project documenting a lesser-seen side of Sinaloa’s prized seafood industry — its female shrimp traders.

The project earned her the Victoria Foundation’s Eugene García Outstanding Latina/o Faculty Award last September. Launched in 1969, the Phoenix-based group was the first Latina/o community foundation in the United States and now hosts an award series honoring contributions in academia, civil service and the arts around Arizona.

“This award recognizes excellence in both research and teaching,” said Loui Olivas, a retired professor in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business and the organization’s current president. “Maria Cruz-Torres exemplifies it.”

It is not her first accolade. She was elected as a fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2017 and is the current president of the Association of Latina/Latino Anthropologists. But for Cruz-Torres, the Victoria Foundation award is important because of its relevance in Arizona.

“When I began, very little had been done to understand the female side of the shrimp trade,” she said. “It means so much for me to feel like my peers are seeing the value of the research I’ve done, especially on the local level.”

Known as the camaroneras, or shrimp ladies, today they appear in videos tossing fresh seafood in chili and lemon washes, or enveloping it in crispy taco shells at fish markets in Sinaloa’s tourist hotspot of Mazatlan. But behind that success is a grassroots battle for equality that began over 30 years ago, when female traders from rural villages like the one pictured in Cruz-Torres’ office had just formed the region’s first labor union.

Working with colleagues at the University of Sinaloa after arriving in 1989, Cruz-Torres spend the next two decades immersed in the budding labor fight. She visited sprawling fish markets and sat in on tense union meetings with industry and government representatives as the women faced down gender discrimination and bureaucratic hurdles to move forward with their work. Meanwhile, in the course of her research, violence stemming from Sinaloa’s growing drug trade claimed the lives of two traders she knew; their cases are still unsolved today.

Those are the stories documented in her first book, “Voices Throughout Time: Testimonies of Women Shrimp Traders in Sinaloa, Mexico.” The breadth of that research and her commitment to see it through is what caught the attention of the Victoria Foundation last fall, along with other awards before it.

But her focus shifted closer to home last summer, when she headed back to her native Puerto Rico for a study on how fisheries there are reacting to the fallout of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

With over $17,000 in funding from ASU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cruz-Torres worked with and trained student researchers at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico.

“Professor Cruz-Torres is doing important work that sheds light on how local communities are affected by resource management policies and environmental changes,” said The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Patrick Kenney, who financed some of the research last summer. “Her study adds value to the School of Transborder Studies, and also to the college as a whole.”

Working alongside two other female scientists completing degrees at the university, the first phase of her research focused on the immediate impact of the hurricane on the livelihoods of seafood professionals.

“We are finding that migration is a big issue,” she said. “People in the sector are having to change careers, because they lost everything.”

As a new generation of women enter social sciences like anthropology, Cruz-Torres wants to be a helping hand in guiding them. Working in Puerto Rico gave her the chance to put those goals into action.

“Historically, we don’t have a lot of women training other women in this field,” she said. “The research (in Puerto Rico) was a good opportunity to give back to my university.”

She is also in the final stages of a second book on women in the fishing sector, titled, "Until the Sun Today: Gender and Seafood Economies in Mexico,” and continues to organize methodology workshops and coordinate with research assistants at the University of Sinaloa. Following the completion of her book, she is eyeing further research into rural tourism and food security issues across Mexico.

The courses Cruz-Torres teaches at ASU delve into many of the same gender and labor issues she spent years documenting, a track she said the School of Transborder Studies has helped foster.

“The school has helped me cement my connection to Mexico, I think that’s an important thing we do here,” she said. “I’ve had students from Mexico come here to learn from me, and I think they feel like this is a space where they are valued.”

Top photo: Maria Cruz-Torres has spent over two decades following the lives of Sinaloa's female shrimp traders. That body of work and the history it unveils was recognized last year by the Phoenix-based Victoria Foundation.

Writer , The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


image title

ASU professor casts fear aside to tell the story of female shrimp traders in Sinaloa, Mexico

January 12, 2018

Anthropologist Maria Cruz Torres' work recently earned her a place in the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Twenty years, the threat of personal violence and two unexpected deaths have not quelled the fervor of Maria Cruz Torres to make visible the travails of the female shrimp traders whose literal blood, sweat and tears managed to carve a niche in a historically male-dominated industry, achieving economic independence and securing hope for future generations amidst the height of chaos related to the Sinaloa drug cartel.

For Arizona State University Associate Professor Cruz Torres’ fearless work as an anthropologist, illuminating the interrelations of gender, labor and resource management in aquaculture and its effects on the political ecology and economy of the U.S.-Mexico transborder region, she was recently elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“She has more guts and courage than any anthropologist I have ever known,” said Carlos Velez-Ibanez, ASU Regents’ Professor and founding director emeritus of the School of Transborder Studies, where Cruz Torres is a faculty member.

Her most recent book, “Voices Throughout Time:Available only in Spanish, “Voces en el Tiempo: Testimonios de Vida de las Camaroneras del Sur de Sinaloa” was published in 2015 by the University of Sinaloa Press. It is part of a new series launched by the UAS Press focusing on anthropology in northwestern Mexico. Testimonies of Women Shrimp Traders in Sinaloa, Mexico,” features the personal stories of 52 women who made their living in the fisheries and trading outposts of Mazatlan, a resort town along the Pacific shoreline. Her upcoming book, “Until the Sun Today: Gender, and Seafood Economies in Mexico,” looks at the seafood industry in general, from the perspective of commodification with a feminist political ecology point of view.

But why study the seafood industry? And why do it in Sinaloa, when there are plenty of other, safer, places to conduct research?

It’s a question Cruz Torres says she’s had to answer many times over the years. And like most things in life, it happened by accident.

Discovering a career

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Cruz Torres attended the University of Puerto Rico where she received a bachelor’s degree in marine biology.

“It’s very interesting how sometimes a career actually chooses you,” she said. “I had no idea what anthropology was at the time. I was a marine biologist, and I thought that I wanted to continue in the sciences.”

But then came an opportunity she couldn’t have foreseen. An anthropology professor from Rutgers University was visiting Puerto Rico for research and invited Cruz Torres to work with her as a research assistant. She accepted, and ended up following the professor back to Rutgers, where she made the switch and pursued a master’s degree and then a doctorate in anthropology.

In 1989, while she was still a graduate student, Cruz Torres chose to do her dissertation on shrimp farming. She originally intended to conduct fieldwork in Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico coast. As it happened, the Mexican government at the time was promoting aquaculture as a rural development tool in Sinaloa, and strongly encouraged her to go there instead.

“At that time, you didn’t hear a lot about drug trafficking,” she said. “It was there, obviously, but it wasn’t something that you had to think about … It didn’t really affect my research. I could move freely from one place to another, it wasn’t a big issue.”

Cruz Torres completed her dissertation but found she was still drawn to the area, a region where still very few anthropologists work, making it ripe for study.

“The seafood industry is one of the most important industries in this region, in the Pacific Coast of Mexico,” Cruz Torres said. “Many families were able to build wealth through the seafood industry ... but it’s been a struggle. And this is one of the few case studies that I have seen in Mexico, and specifically on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, where you have a social movement led only by women.”

Maria Cruz Torres

Maria Cruz Torres in her office at ASU's School of Transborder Studies. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

More than just research

In a place severely lacking in economic opportunities, where many resorted to illegal means to get by, the women Cruz Torres met and came to know over a period of twenty years endured persecution, harassment, robberies and threats for the chance to pursue a better life — and not all of them survived.

“Voices Throughout Time” is dedicated to two women killed as a result of drug cartel violence. Their murders are still unsolved, a fact that haunts Cruz Torres to this day.

“I went to their houses, I shared part of my life with them, they shared part of their lives with me,” she said. “Then they were just gone.”

Their households, which had relied upon the women as the breadwinners, suffered.

There were other victims. Daughters who never came home, boyfriends who resisted the influence of the cartel and paid for it with their lives. Victims of senseless violence that Cruz Torres describes as descending on the region like a wave. As the cartel’s power grew in the early 2000s, more and more were left in its wake.

Because seafood is a highly valued commodity in the region, anyone associated with the industry became a target of crime. Robberies and extortion were common. Missing persons flyers plastered the walls in local establishments and reports of brutal killings dominated the news. At some point, Cruz Torres said, it all became too much for her.

In 2011, she fled the region but remained in close communication with colleagues at the University of Sinaloa, without whom, she said, her work there would not have been possible. She now serves as an academic advisor to the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Social Services in the development of their field methodology.

“Anthropology is not just going there and doing the research and just taking the work and coming back,” Cruz Torres said. “For me, it’s also about being engaged, being embedded within the community, and giving back something to the people who really helped me during the research process.”

Linking human stories to sustainability

Conditions there have since improved, and Cruz Torres has been back to teach workshops to both students and professors at the university. She still visits the marketplace in Mazatlan and has reconnected with many of the female shrimp traders there whose stories she shared in her book.

Some of them have retired, their children having taken over the family trade or, in some cases, having gone on to become doctors and lawyers, thanks to the financial backing their mothers were able to provide for them to receive higher education.

Cruz Torres hopes her research will get people thinking about the humans behind the commodities we often take for granted.

“The kind of work these women do is informal. They don’t have any social protection, for example. They don’t have job security,” she said. “A lot of the seafood that is produced in Mexico is exported to places like the U.S., and we consume that but we don’t know the labor and everything that it takes to produce. We don’t know the situation of the people and the difficulties they face to be able to provide us with these commodities.

“We talk a lot about sustainability, and look at it from the point of view of the resource, only. I think we have to look at it from the perspective of the people [providing it] as well. Labor should be linked to how we define sustainability.”

At ASU, Cruz Torres teaches courses on political ecology and ethnology of the border; Latin American and Caribbean culture; and gender, culture and development. Recently, she helped organize the conference “De Tripas Corazones: Puerto Rico's Resilience, Creativity and Solidarity After Hurricane Maria,” which took place on ASU’s Tempe campus to foster engagement with the current humanitarian crisis there.

She is currently working on a new research project focusing on food sovereignty on her home island. Just a few years ago, roughly 85 percent of the food consumed in Puerto Rico was imported, mostly from the U.S. But lately, there has been a growing movement of people getting more involved in agriculture.

“That’s really something I’ve always wanted to do because it’s linked to issues of race and gender and class,” Cruz Torres said. “I want to have that intersectionality looking at food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. And it’s becoming more crucial now than ever before.”

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now