By Barbara Rylko-Bauer
Member, SfAA Oral History Project
Michigan State University
Lucy M. Cohen has been involved with applied anthropology throughout her long and distinguished career, serving on numerous SfAA committees and as meeting program chair. For her leadership and service, she received the 2008 Sol Tax Distinguished Service Award. She has also been very active in the Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA), serving as secretary, then as president (1979-1980), and over the last decade as the SMA’s archivist.
Lucy Cohen was born in San José, Costa Rica and raised in a multicultural family context; i.e., her maternal grandfather emigrated from China to Eastern El Salvador, where her mother was born; her father was born in Arnhem, Holland and immigrated to the U.S. as a young man, but spent most of his working life in Central America. She received a Masters in social work (1958) and a PhD in anthropology (1966) from the Catholic University of America, where she has held an academic position since the 1970s and is recognized as an excellent and effective teacher.1 Her research, numerous publications, and community service reflect her commitment to applying anthropology and long-standing interests in ethnicity, resettlement, the immigrant experience, changing women’s roles, mental health, public policy, and the Latino community. She is a co-founder of the Spanish Catholic Center Walk-in Medical Clinic, located in the Latino community of Washington, D.C. Lucy Cohen’s publications include Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People without a History (1984) and Macau Cultural Dialogue: Towards a New Millenium (2004).
The interview was conducted by Barbara Rylko-Bauer on March 19,2009, at the historic La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Also present was Carole Hill. It was edited for accuracy and continuity by John van Willigen and Barbara Rylko-Bauer; material added later is presented in brackets. The following excerpts focus on Lucy Cohen’s development as an anthropologist, her roles within the SfAA and the SMA, and her work in public policy and community service.
RYLKO-BAUER: Lucy, I’d like to start with you telling us a bit about your academic career, how you got into applied anthropology, and maybe reflect on some of the highlights of your work and your career that you feel have had an impact on applied anthropology.
COHEN: Thanks so much Barbara, hello Carole. I am honored to be interviewed, so to go ahead. I discovered anthropology. Quite literally, I discovered it. At the college where I studied [Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles] there were no anthropology courses, but I was interested in how culture influences action. So, eventually I talked to some people about what to do about this, and the people that I first talked to were graduates of Cornell University, when Cornell had a sociology and anthropology program combined, [and this] influenced the things that I did. Cornell, as we know, had an interesting program and some interesting projects. And that’s kind of how I got inspired with the idea. But my interest was applied anthropology, helping to bring culture into programs of action, that’s how I saw it then.
RYLKO-BAUER: Who were some of the people that you talked with.
COHEN: Steve Boggs was a graduate of Cornell, [as was] the sociologist Leila Deasy. She was a student of Robin [M.] Williams, [Jr.]. I met some of the Vicos people later, but those two were critical because they were in Washington. So I went to talk to them and they guided me as to what one did. Steve Boggs, who then went to NIH and NIMH and handled the grant programs, suggested to me that I apply for one of the pre-docs when they had pre-doctoral programs. I did and I got the training [fellowship], so I was in and I started studying anthropology. That was my early beginning. But I want to say that my reason for studying was so that I would work and use this in action. It never was so that I would go to teach. An academic career had never crossed my mind. So my early notion of anthropology was just that. Now anthropology and health was not my thought, except that I also had some work experience, because I had an interest in mental health in psychiatric hospitals and related [topics]. So my path to medical anthropology came via research interest in mental health. And Leila Deasy, who had been the sociologist at NIMH when the first social scientists—anthropologists and sociologists were the first who pioneered [in those fields]. So I was influenced by that. I was going to go into some mental health career, so I did my training. Then another thing happened, I did my dissertation research work and so on in Colombia, my cross cultural [experience]. Those were my early beginnings.
HILL: When did you work. . .
COHEN: I had just finished my PhD and I was going to get a job. So I went to some people that I knew in the District of Columbia Health Department, and [the Chief of a Division, who knew my work, told me] “Well, there is a job, Chief of Program Evaluation in Area C Community Mental Health Center.” So, I applied and got it. That was my job, non-academic in the midst of, you know, mental health, grantsmanship and all kinds of things that go with program evaluation. That’s how I started working and it was very applied. [See also Cohen 2008, for her reflections on this work].
RYLKO-BAUER: Was that one of the early community [mental] health centers?
COHEN: That was one of them, because it was special legislation [from] President Kennedy for the District of Columbia, [it was] targeted that way. At the same time, however, I’d like to say that because the immigrant community was developing in Washington and especially Latinos, I started volunteering at the Spanish Catholic Center working with immigrants. I made some time to go there while I was working full time, I mean I arranged my time at the center. This plunged me into the community. I became very active in that particular role. That was kind of the early flow [of events], where you see [how] my applied interest [evolved]. Not too long after I got into that community work, I got involved into some policy issues that I think I’ll talk about a little bit later.
RYLKO-BAUER: Good. If I can ask you, Lucy, for how many years did you work as the, was it the chief . . .
COHEN: Chief of Program Evaluation. [For] about two years.
RYLKO-BAUER: And you got your PhD at Catholic University?
RYLKO-BAUER: And, were there programs—I mean were there courses at that time, or any training in doing program evaluation?
RYLKO-BAUER: Or doing any kind of application?
COHEN: No. We did have applied anthropology, because Friedl [Gottfried] Lang was there and he was from Cornell. Then he left Catholic U. and went to Colorado. That was how the “link” with Cornell came in, because of Friedl, and because of Leila [Deasy]. So, I was very conscious of applied anthropology, and I said, “that’s what I want to do.” We were lucky [in] that I don’t think there were many programs around that were [offering] any course on applied anthropology. Now Friedl’s model of applied anthropology, of course, mirrored something of what Cornell was giving, and that model of applied anthropology wasn’t about going to cities to do things. You had to go to native Americans, or you were going to Peru, or so on, and doing things. But it wasn’t necessarily going to [work in] your backyard, so-to-speak.
RYLKO-BAUER: Mm-mm, right.
HILL: But did they call it ‘applied anthropology’?
COHEN: They did call it ‘applied anthropology.’ Now I have to say that was my training. At the same time that this was going on, I had an interest in what we call ethnohistory, so that early on, after my PhD—I do acknowledge that’s another interest that . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: Uh-huh, yes.
COHEN: . . . goes along with these things that I [was] doing. [It] may not sound very applied, but anyway, I want to talk a little bit about that.
COHEN: Okay. So that was the ethnohistory and . . . one of my first accomplishments in this interest was a little paper that was published in Ethnohistory.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well, it’s interesting, you know. I don’t think we often realize how many parallel threads there are in a person’s career, that actually kind of start around the same time, but they, they have different . . . you know, they evolve in different ways and at different rates. So I think that’s very interesting for you to have mentioned that right now. So you were working on evaluation.
COHEN: At Area C, when I was also doing volunteer work.
COHEN: And I was also doing [my] ethnohistorical [research].
COHEN: . . . stuff.
COHEN: Three very different goals.
COHEN: I have to tell you.
COHEN: But you managed to work with [all of] them and I’ve managed to continue to work in some way with these interests afterwards. Then somewhere along there, I got invited, when I was working at Area C. . .
RYLKO-BAUER: When you say Area C?
COHEN: At the mental health center.
RYLKO-BAUER: Mental health center, okay.
COHEN: Such an exciting name. It was Area A, Area B, Area C . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: Oh, I see, okay.
COHEN: . . . and Area D. These were the different geographic areas of the city.
COHEN: [When] I started in my PhD program, my first course was on [linguistics]. Because I knew I wasn’t going to be a linguist, so I went to the Summer Institute of Linguistics. I don’t know if you all have ever heard of it. SIL in Oklahoma.
RYLKO-BAUER: Un huh.
COHEN: Of course, SIL has its very special culture, so that was my first wonderful exercise in understanding the culture that’s not my own. I learned linguistics, but I also learned how to understand the SIL culture and that was the beginning of my anthropological career.
RYLKO-BAUER: So you went there for courses in linguistics, not for learning a particular language.
COHEN: No, that’s right. Because I said, I need to have. . . I knew that I wasn’t going to study the Indians of the Amazon, [for example]. That was not my goal. But I said, this will be useful. I’ve got to have archaeology and linguistics, I’m never going to be an archaeologist and I have no interest in linguistics, but it’s supposed to be part of your anthropological training.
RYLKO-BAUER: Right, the four field approach.
COHEN: That was what. . .
HILL: Yes, yeah.
COHEN: . . . these people [who advised me] had said.
COHEN: So I went to [study] linguistics, and then the summer after that, I think, I went to New Mexico to do archaeology and ethnology work with Florence Hawley Ellis, at San Juan Pueblo.
COHEN: And so, you know, that was my plunging in[to anthropology] and it was a wonderful experience for many reasons.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well it sounds to me also that that’s a wonderful way of [studying], you know, rather than sitting in a lecture hall [you’re] learning about linguistics
COHEN: Oh yeah, it was terrific.
RYLKO-BAUER: . . . or learning about archaeology
RYLKO-BAUER: on the ground.
COHEN: If you’d met Kenneth Pike who was the inspirer, and Sarah [C.] Gudschinsky. [They] were the great founding, well, [Pike] was not the founding father, but he was a great linguist.
COHEN: That in itself was an experience worth the while. So I, you know, was getting my training, and then what comes into this picture on applied anthropology, it begins with [my] field work in Colombia, and then . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: And why did you decide that?
COHEN: At Catholic U I met two persons from Colombia, who studied there [Maria Cristina Salazar, who was awarded a Ph.D. in Sociology, and Cecilia Angel Restrepo, who studied at the School of Social Service]. They invited me to go to Colombia for my Christmas holiday, so I saved my money and went and stayed longer than the Christmas holidays. And then when the time came of thinking about a dissertation I said, I’d like to do it in Colombia. [For] my NIH and NIMH grant I had my project that I wanted to do from a subject related to women. . . in the professions, not—it wasn’t going to be on the natives there, but on the most highly trained sample of the first generation of women in the liberal professions: physicians, dentists, lawyers, and so on and so forth. That was my dissertation. But equally important, that translated into my interest and love affair with Colombia.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well, you know, throughout your work you’ve been very interested in women’s roles. . .
COHEN: Yes I have.
RYLKO-BAUER: And the role that women played in the whole immigration experience.
RYLKO-BAUER: . . . the stresses, but also the way that they perhaps helped the rest of the community in the adjustments and so forth.
COHEN: It’s been two aspects, those who suffer, you know, down and out, plus the other kind. Like for my dissertation, I didn’t do the down and out women.
COHEN: I was very interested in the women who had the initiative of being the first professional lawyers and so on and so forth there. I was interested in the other, you know, what’s the interaction of culture and the persons when they do something new. Innovation theory was in vogue at that time, and I started with that, I left that soon afterwards . . .
COHEN: But it was that [question]. How is it that people do new things, that was kind of what inspired me to do my dissertation. And I’ve stayed with that interest and [in] some way or another in Colombia, some other aspects of it.
RYLKO-BAUER: You know, that question of how people do new things is actually kind of an endless and timeless question for anthropologists. So what happened next, after you got your PhD?
COHEN: Then one thing led to the other. The sociologist, Leila Deasy, the Cornell graduate you heard me talk about, from South Georgia. She got a grant at Catholic U, an NIH grant to do special training educating social workers in the School of Social Work, both African-American and whites in a special initiative program. They needed someone with a specialty in cultures in the social sciences. I had worked with her, so she asked me [to] come. So she said, why don’t you work it so that it’s a joint appointment. I knew nothing about joint appointments. So anyway, I worked in a joint appointment and eventually, when the grant ended, I got an invitation from the Anthropology Department to go teach there. Now I mention this, but I never would have thought of going in the academic situation would this not have happened. I mean I was invited to [work in] a special project and from this I came [in]to an Anthropology Department.
RYLKO-BAUER: That’s interesting, I do recall also that you had a masters in social work.
COHEN: Yes, that’s right. And that was how that worked.
RYLKO-BAUER: Yeah, yeah. How did you feel about teaching when you first started?
COHEN: Fine, I mean I had, you know, that was a new activity and I think I did all right.
RYLKO-BAUER: Who were your influences as you were getting your PhD and kept your interest?
COHEN: It continued to be Friedl [Lang] until then, and then Michael Kenny came in, who was my major professor. [He] was British, Oxford, [trained under] Evans-Pritchard. There was an interest in the Department because he had done his work in Spain. He was my major professor, and then Regina Flannery Herzfeld who was a contemporary of Margaret Mead. She had worked with Ruth Benedict down in the Southwest, the famous stories of Ruth Benedict. The one woman that was involved [in that fieldwork at Mescalero] with [Morris] Opler and those other “boys” was Regina. So she had very interesting experiences.
RYLKO-BAUER: Do you remember the first course that you taught at Catholic University?
COHEN: Well I taught one in that joint appointment. But the first one that I taught [in anthropology was] either something [on] Latin America, or an introductory cultural anthropology course. I can’t remember which one of the two.
RYLKO-BAUER: Yeah. Well, you have stayed with Catholic University . . .
COHEN: I stayed out there, except that I then got invited when Bela [C.] Maday was going to leave the grants program at NIMH. Bela asked me if I would be willing to go, and [apply to] take his place. I talked to Steve Boggs who had been in that position before and I thought about it a lot and talked with the Department of Anthropology. The Dean said, “all right, go, but I’m going to put you on leave for two years. If you change your mind, you come back, but the position will be here for two years.” So as a matter of fact I went, and I served the two years [1977-1978] and then I came back.
RYLKO-BAUER: And what was your position again at NIMH?
COHEN: It was running the grants programs of pre-docs and post docs. Anthropologists [and other social scientists were invited to apply].
COHEN: It was a very good experience.
HILL: There was quite a bit of money involved too.
COHEN: Oh, and that’s what I was going to say, that was a time when you really had the money for pre-docs. Now post-docs came up afterwards when the money started going away, after the Nixon years. A way of [saving] it was [to] then develop the post-docs. It was an innovative way of saying well, we need post-docs. I was there when it was the pre-docs.
RYLKO-BAUER: So these were the NIMH training programs?
COHEN: . . . the training programs.
RYLKO-BAUER: And I had one of those.
COHEN: Yes, yes, we all did, we all did [Laughter]. That’s right, I think that was a worthwhile program and the products, I mean [Chuckling] you know, it was a good federal investment.
HILL: It was.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well, that’s very interesting, you know, that was a very important role that you played. So then, you decided after two years that . . .
COHEN: Then I went to talk to the Dean again and I went back. I stayed in the Department ever since then. I’ve had other interruptions, but [continued to] stay here. Other things were happening also in my community activities and so on. So, the Washington community has also let me, I’ve had other opportunities to work in other places, very tempting ones.
COHEN: The real thing, honestly speaking, is that Washington to me is very interesting and so I’ve stayed with Catholic. This is very good because it’s in Washington itself, and it’s allowed me to look at certain other aspects of life in Washington that are very interesting. And then came the immigration issues . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: Well, and it sounds to me that, you know, looking at your work across time, in a way you’re an ethnographer of Washington, D. C., and the Washington, D. C. culture.
COHEN: The other part, of course, is that I was developing an interest in ethnohistory. And the Library of Congress—there [are] some depositories there, you know, it has such treasures, and it’s an inspiration.
COHEN: My only other interest that I want to [mention], that also led me to the academic scene, and became a major ethnohistoric work—maybe it’s not as relevant [to] what I’m talking about here—is [my] work in the U. S. South. I had my book that got published by L.S.U. [Louisiana State University Press] Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without a History.
COHEN: This is not Colombia, this is not D. C.. [But] even now, every month I get at least three inquiries of all kinds [from] people that have read that and asked me something. The African-American that wonders if she had descendants who are Chinese, or a Chinese from China who is working with Protestant records and the Chinese that may have come there, and maybe who came to the South. So they’re reading this, things that I might have never imagined, from the spin-off of this, and it’s still in print.
RYLKO-BAUER: That’s wonderful, that’s really wonderful.
HILL: And then you became interested in the Chinese in Costa Rica.
COHEN: Yes, well, actually, when I talked about my first publication in ethnohistory, that’s how it all started. I did this as my pasttime in Washington [Laughing]. I think I became interested in how the Chinese [in] Costa Rica had gotten there, but then again, it really was that I had to study the Chinese in Panama to learn about the Chinese in Costa Rica. So, I gave a paper at [an] ethnohistory [conference] on the first Chinese that went to Panama to build the railroad. [It] happened to [be] at Cornell where the meeting was, [or maybe] in Albany, New York. And then, the president of the Society said, you should publish it in Ethnohistory. And so they did [“The Chinese of the Panama Railroad: Preliminary Notes of the Migrants of 1854 Who Failed”]. But then I went on [to] the business of doing a major work on Chinese in the post-civil war South. However, I still had the Costa Rica piece that I had really started out with. So just [recently in 2008], there was in the [Costa Rican] social science journal, Revista de Ciencias Sociales, a little article where I did get back to that . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: Oh . . .
COHEN: Since then others have been working on [this topic] in Costa Rica, but the angle on this, which is my interest, is the connection [between Latin America and the sites of departure of Chinese in Macao and Hong Kong between] the 1840s and the 1870s. [These Chinese who were] brought to Latin American and the Caribbean had come through Macao and Hong Kong. So I got myself to Macao, to Hong Kong. And then I narrowed down this to the first group of Chinese that were brought to Costa Rica, directly from Macao, rather than to go somewhere else, like Panama. So I did a little article on the process of being recruited and what it was like, the administrative issues involved with the Portuguese and the Chinese, and the labor agents in Macao, [and these Chinese as emigrants]. It was a study of bureaucracy in the positive [sense], on how that moved in order to recruit these Chinese, and then it describes the coming, the stop in Hawaii, and then when they finally arrived in Puntarenas in Costa Rica. What happened to them has been described in literature, but not [what] the forces had been.
COHEN: So I finally did get to the Costa Rica case there.
RYLKO-BAUER: That’s wonderful. Well, you know, it . . .
COHEN: It’s a big fact.
RYLKO-BAUER: took a little time. [Laughter]. Before we shift to talking about your involvement with applied anthropology in a professional way in the Society, is there anything else that you want to add about, the work that you’ve done?
COHEN: No . . . I think I said what I wanted to say.
RYLKO-BAUER: Okay, okay.
COHEN: And so, we thought we might move to . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: To your involvement with the Society of Applied Anthropology.
COHEN: Okay. I have never thought of going to any Society other than applied anthropology when I first began, because that’s what I was interested in. I was interested in applied anthropology so I should go to hear these anthropologists. I remember one of these early meetings. Now there weren’t a lot of women anthropologists,
COHEN: . . . a few, Marion Pearsall comes into the picture, a little bit later . . .
COHEN: . . . about you know, sitting and visiting with these men talking about whatever they had done, wherever, in different parts of the world and so on. I decided this is what I want but maybe in a different context. I had different experiences and so on, so that’s why I went to the meetings of the Society, because I thought, this is where I learned from these people.
RYLKO-BAUER: Right. So, did you start going when you were still a student?
COHEN: Yes I did, oh yes, absolutely. I saved my money to go to the meetings. I got a hundred and sixty some dollars a month for my pre doc [Laughter]. That was some money and it paid for my tuition . . .
HILL: And you could live on it at the time.
COHEN: . . . and you could live. I lived in a room for which I paid forty-five dollars a month [Laughter].
RYLKO-BAUER: Yeah. Those were the days. So, there is this story that you were at one of the applied meetings and . . . Oscar Lewis approached you to ask if you could help translate because some of the presenters did not speak English and some of the members in the audience did not speak Spanish.
COHEN: Yes. I was a student still and . . . you know, the meeting was [in] Puerto Rico. And so they had invited Latin Americanist anthropologists in the proper spirit . . .
COHEN: . . . and so there was this meeting, I can’t remember what the meeting was, at that session. And so, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, who was not as well known to American anthropologists then, gave a paper and he didn’t speak English. So, Oscar Lewis asked, can anybody translate, can you translate? And so I translated. I had him read it and then I translated it from the text. And so at the end, you know, I thought it was a very good paper, and so I said with my colloquial language, I said, this is a very meaty paper [Laughter]. I meant [that it had substance]. So up went the hand of a Puerto Rican guest who was not an anthropologist, but [who was] listening. So he got up and said, “yes, quite appropriate. And you know what color meat is?” at which point I almost fainted [Laughter] and Oscar Lewis came to the rescue, whatever it was he said. And that was my first [Laughing] entrée.
RYLKO-BAUER: That’s a great story. So how . . . how did you get more formally involved with the Society then?
COHEN: Well, getting to be on committees and things like that. And then you know, I go to every meeting. And so I volunteered to do this, or they’d ask me to do something else at the registration desk, when we didn’t have so many paid people. I mean . . .
COHEN: . . . the Society functioned on the volunteer work of the anthropologists, and so we would volunteer and that’s how I eventually got involved, and I’d usually give a paper of some kind or another. This is my main group to which I belonged. I joined others soon after afterward but this was different.
RYLKO-BAUER: Do you remember any particular memorable applied meetings that you attended or were involved in.
COHEN: They were all memorable in that way, but different issues, like . . . I wasn’t into this as a student, [but] the war in Southeast Asia, you know, all the kinds of things that happened, they also happened with the AAA.
COHEN: There was some repercussions of this and I started learning because one of our faculty members was a specialist in Thailand, Jay [Jasper C.] Ingersoll. So, I learned a little bit more of this whole area and the arena, so there were issues. Then there were issues going on in Latin America. So there were some hot discussions.
RYLKO-BAUER: So it wasn’t just at the AAA that you had a lot of debates and stuff . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: There were debates within the Society . . .
COHEN: Yes, but they were in a different [manner]. I think they were expected, because this was applied anthropology. I do think that they created, I can’t remember, and maybe they were dealt with in different ways, but they didn’t cause concern, there was more, you know, you knew each other, the Society was smaller.
COHEN: You knew each other, you knew everybody’s secrets, so you just went on doing the work you were doing.
RYLKO-BAUER: You became a founding member of the Society for Medical Anthropology.2 Would you like to talk just a little bit about that?
COHEN: That was probably because of the interest of two people, Dorothea Leighton and Marion Pearsall. Dorothea Leighton because I had read about their [with Alexander H. Leighton] work at Cornell, because of my work in Area C [community mental health center] where everything was so practical. [They offered a] very good conceptualization of all of this. So one day I decided to write to Dorothea who was at Chapel Hill. I said, “You know I am interested in medical anthropology because I was going to do some research in the [Latino community in Washington, D.C.].” So I got to use their framework, [found in the book, My Name is Legion]. So that’s how I got [to know] people who were then involved. Alec was also involved.
RYLKO-BAUER: This is Alexander Leighton.
COHEN: Yes, yes. And then Marion Pearsall at some point or another and I can’t remember exactly where, comes into the picture, because of my interest in applied anthropology in Kentucky. Then, while I was [working] at Area C, I went to the first meeting of the social science and medicine group in Aberdeen, Scotland.3 I just went, as a youngster. [There were] a lot of these names from Europe and the U. S. and so on. Leila Deasy was invited to go. When I was there, I met Virginia Olesen. I don’t know if you know her. She is a sociologist from UCSF. So Virginia Olesen in her way I think was influential in my thinking, you know, about [medical anthropology].
COHEN: But in terms of the organization, it was probably Dorothea, then Hazel Weidman comes in the picture, but I think the closer contact that I had was [with] Dorothea.
Hazel Weidman had been working with the psychiatrists, first in the south and then she move[d] to Miami with the project. But she was very interested in anthropology, and mental [health] and psychiatry. And so it’s these two movements that came together, from different perspectives, but they were able to pull it together. And Hazel becomes a major organizer of the record keeping and so on and so forth.
RYLKO-BAUER: Which is important when you . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: . . . beginning an organization. Well maybe seeing the importance of that perhaps had an influence on your value of records and having a historical memory for the discipline, because you’ve, I think in both societies, pushed to have archives, and have them complete and so forth.
COHEN: I think so, but I have to say that it is probably family oriented. My father was a specialist in Costa Rican stamps prior to 1900. There were [several] world specialists, [including] Franklin D. Roosevelt and my father.
RYLKO-BAUER: Really [Laughter]
COHEN: So, you know, you have to have a sense of history, if you’re a stamp collector of a real kind. You can take a stamp and look at it and say no this is a falsification, if you are in London and are talking to a dealer. So you have a sense of history.
RYLKO-BAUER: Mm-mm, and you were born in Costa Rica.
COHEN: I was born in Costa Rica.
COHEN: So, you know, I think this was nurtured and one of my minors in college was in history.
RYLKO-BAUER: Okay, yeah. Is there anything else that you want to say about your role or how about SfAA?
COHEN: About SfAA, well what I think was very nice to see that there is the [formal] SfAA [organization], you know, and the ([informal] where you could all sit in a room, sometimes smoky room. I think I became more interested also when [I started to] do applied anthropology at home . . .
COHEN: . . . where you could do something, and there were people of other cultures at home as well. That was the thing, you know, there weren’t only Native Americans. [There] were the issues of people at home, not only were they African-Americans and Native Americans, and [people like] me, the old immigrants, but then there were newcomers that were coming in. I think all of these things kind of contributed to the (unintelligible) and the Society was willing to expand, we have really expanded.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well I think the Society was probably a home for people who were starting to, you know, study their own culture, at a time when the larger discipline was not as accepting of that yet. I also did my masters thesis and my dissertation in the United States, and even at that point in time, and I did this in the late ‘70s and early 80s, you know, there were . . . you would get people questioning was this really anthropology. So you actually did some very early work of that sort.
HILL: And you supported students, to do these kinds of research.
RYLKO-BAUER: Thank you Carole. [Lucy], could you talk a little bit about that, because I think that’s very important too.
COHEN: Well, I learned, I think the business of two models, [working with] the individual student and groups of students.
RYLKO-BAUER: So it’s giving students on the ground training . . .
COHEN: On the ground training.
HILL: Yes. But, can I say one thing?
RYLKO-BAUER: Yes, please, Carole.
HILL: I gave my first paper at the Society for Applied Anthropology in Boston, Massachusetts, and Lucy was the chair of the session. And of course I was this scared little kid and she was so supportive, and complimented my work, and was very influential and being genuine.
RYLKO-BAUER: And that means a lot . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: . . . at that point .
HILL: Because I was making the transition from student, you know, professionally.
HILL: . . . this was very important and she’s done that for other young people.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well, you’ve been very, I think supporting of getting the Society to have roles for students. I don’t know if you were involved in some of the awards that they have for students now at the poster sessions, but I remember reading that you’ve been influential, because it’s so easy for students to be over looked in these large organizations and I think students find the SfAA meetings much more welcoming.
COHEN: Yeah, SfAA is definitely much more welcoming, it always has been.
RYLKO-BAUER: Yes. I think this might be a good time maybe to switch in[to] the third part of the interview. If you would be kind enough to talk a little bit about your work in public policy and also your involvement and your experiences in combining your anthropological work with public service and community service. And perhaps end with where you see applied anthropology, what direction should [we] be going in.
COHEN: Thank you. About public policy, as I mentioned early on, I went into anthropology with no interest whatsoever in the academic part of it, that is in teaching. I thought that I was going to do anthropology out in the world. However that was going to be translated, probably drawing on culture in some way as it impacted the lives of people in health situations or in communities, or with ethnic groups, something like that. Well, things changed around, and as I did the work that I’ve described already, there were things going on in Washington [to] which I was invited to participate. One thing that happened was that with the increased presence of immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants in my case, I began to do volunteer work, doing counseling, as I had said, at the Spanish Catholic Center, and I still do that. The same day that I started on Thursday afternoons, I’m still going on Thursday afternoons.
COHEN: Absolutely. That’s my non-moveable feast. I do that every Thursday afternoon and on weekends. I was doing that and then several things [concerning] policy happened. One was that the Latino community was becoming active in the political way, local politics in the city, and this was a time following the Black [movements of the 1960s and 1970s in Washington, D.C.]. And as they were becoming active, because they wanted to have more input into local policy in the city, I was watching and listening and I knew some of them in person. I still know them. So one day I got a call from somebody who said, “you’re going to be called to invite you to participate in a commission that the mayor has for Latinos.” I said, “Well, but I am not political,” and they said, “that’s exactly why we want you.” So, that’s how I got into the business of working at that time with the Mayor’s Commission on Latino Community Development, which was just that, meeting with the city officials on various matters related to the Latino community.
RYLKO-BAUER: What were the issues then?
COHEN: The issues were wanting to have a special department or to establish an advisory commission to the Mayor on Latino affairs. So we were able to get that. But then the greater thing was to have a position for a Director. These are small things, but not such small things in a bureaucracy. Then there were [other] issues focused on immigration and so on. At that time, schools had not been integrated for too long in Washington, and then the issue of children of Latino background coming into the schools, were you going to have bilingual [education], what do you do with children that don’t know much English, all of those run-of-the-mill questions which are now taken for granted. They weren’t so at that time. Washington, D. C. didn’t have much experience with it, and there weren’t that many Latinos in the suburbs then. So that took me kind of out on the street, so-to-speak. And it was a very valuable experience. It also gave me ideas about student training. So that was one dimension of [doing training] on the ground. Another one I [want] to mention was that, again I got called one day and I was appointed to be an Observer for the Vatican at the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission of Women. Now here is where my women’s interest came in, because I had done something on women, you know. But then this meant, as a representative and an observer in an international organization, it’s a very interesting situation [and the Commission of Women] was interesting at that time. You would go and visit them whenever they [dealt with] issues [that were] a concern.
RYLKO-BAUER: As an Observer did you have to travel?
COHEN: No . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: . . . because they met here in Washington?
COHEN: In Washington. Then I’d do a report. In reports I put everything diplomatic[ally], you don’t talk about it [Chuckles]. I mean, you talk about it to the right person. I happen to have been in a very interesting period. [The Papal envoy, Cardinal] Pio Laghi, was a wonderful, absolutely wonderful man, top diplomat [among world-class] diplomats. He was [highly] respected in the Washington diplomatic scene and I was very, very lucky to have worked with him. I could sit with him and [talk] about women’s issues, whatever I wanted to say that I thought was appropriate. I [told him], “I’m very honored to accept this nomination from the Vatican, however I need you to know about how I look at some of the issues on women . . .”
COHEN: That [was interesting. I was involved in this during the 1980s and 1990s].
COHEN: Yes, so those two [examples] are the kind of things that you never plan for. That’s what I wanted to say. You may want to say, oh, policy is very important. But, you know, what kind of policy? You may be appointed to a policy in a bureaucracy. But these kind of things where you are out in the community, loose, or in a city, or this one, which is diplomatic and you’re an Observer. That’s volunteered, there is no reward . . . material rewards, so-to-speak. Maybe you get rewards in heaven, but [Chuckling] heaven is not here yet, so [Laughter].
HILL: You know, because you lived in Washington, that gave you a unique opportunity to remain active in international policies.
COHEN: That was a very interesting observation. . .
COHEN: Absolutely, you’re right.
RYLKO-BAUER: So, you’re exposed to all kinds of international issues, because this is the place where policy is made, and different policies intersect.
COHEN: I’m still interested in women, I mean,
COHEN: . . . because my area was to, you know, never mind who’s shooting who somewhere [in] the big wars or little skirmishes, or the religious this-that-and-the-other. My focus was on looking at what’s going on with women. And the Inter-American Commission of Women was supposed to be dealing with the issues of women in Latin America.
COHEN: Now that complemented my dissertation interests.
COHEN: And so that was a very, very interesting experience because, I don’t know that many anthropologists, even now, who think of these kinds of issues. And of course, you don’t necessarily. When a president looks [toward] the civil[ian] area [and] invites so-and-so to go deal with issues in Ireland, or to go to this place on another, they’re usually not the people that are out there in the bureaucracy. They’re people [chosen] because [others] think that they have some competence there, and the material rewards that they get for it may be limited. They may [even put] their job to the side because they don’t want conflict of interest and so on. But you do your thing and [then] you go back again [to what you did before], you know. It’s not eternal, it’s not a position that’s paid. What I want to say is that, it’s what you’ve done that then qualifies you, because people are looking around, they’ll say, who’s there and that’s [who] they’ll [choose].
RYLKO-BAUER: Well do you think that there are ways to make yourself accessible? Because you become involved and people hear of you, right? And so how . . .
COHEN: Well, for example, I mean in the various practical ways at the university where I am, you have a major School of Religious Studies. [I was] invited to serve on a faculty committee to study a case, representing the faculty. I was a member [with six others, including] the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, so, you know, you get invited [to do other things] by these people because [I believe they appreciate your interest and your diplomatic skills] in these kinds of situations and that you diplomatically know how to handle the [topics and maintain confidentiality].
HILL: Did some of these openings happen because of your involvement with the Catholic Church?
COHEN: You never know. For example, the priest that was the director of the Spanish Catholic Center, when I first began there. He was a street priest, wonderful with immigrants you know, he was so good, that now he is a Cardinal in Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley. And he was taken [from] Washington [and he helped to resolve] problems in Boston. I saw him, he was a wonderful problem solver on the ground. Of course when he went to Boston, I said he is the right person. [He is now assigned to a position in the Vatican.]
RYLKO-BAUER: So if you were to give some recommendations to young anthropologists—because we’re still talking about policy, you know, we still are searching ways to make anthropology more engaged. What would your advice be to young anthropologists?
COHEN: It is a very good question. I think number one [is] that you have to know what your interests are. You don’t start creating interests because you’re going to go into policy, and now all of the sudden you discover that you’re interested with immigrants or health, or with something because you think that’s going to be a good policy. That’s, that’s not the right way to do it. You have to work at areas that interest you, become hopefully somewhat competent and then that will open the doors to other issues. People now [are] interested in peace issues in times [with] all these wars. If you start early looking at what some of the models are and so on, and have experience looking at that and work at it, and you don’t do it for your own glory—to tell you the truth, it’s tough work. I think that then it has a way of working back, if you stay with it.
RYLKO-BAUER: One final thing that I would like to ask about is how you became involved in founding a walk-in medical center with the Spanish Catholic Center? Could you just tell us a little bit about that?
COHEN: Well, a physician, who was [employed by] Group Health, had been to Mexico [and she loved the people]. And so she walked by the Center and came in and asked do they need a physician to volunteer. And so Father [Sean O’Malley] said yes and then he told me about it. So I said to him, “do you want some help?” And we got it organized as a health center.
RYLKO-BAUER: What is it?
COHEN: It’s now a building. The Spanish Catholic Center, and one floor is the health center and the other is the dental center and clinic and so on. But there were a lot of stepping stones involved.
RYLKO-BAUER: Now, with all this kind of work, do people identify you as an anthropologist when you’re doing this, or just as a citizen?
COHEN: . . . the people that you serve, I mean, if you’re working with immigrants that can speak Spanish, you can be helpful in whatever needs to be helped, the rest comes later. Now you may have some educated persons [at] this [clinic], it isn’t only for those people less educated. You have all kinds of immigrants who come, immigrants who were highly trained and now they move here and [are struggling to] figure out. But you don’t come forth and say “I’m so-and-so, such-and-such discipline or whatever,” you don’t. But the experiences give you a lot of thinking on how to solve problems which may look like a health problem, but which other times are kinship issues. I mean, kinship 101 and 102 is there, what happens when you have changing kinship issues because kinship was worked up one way and now another or when you have separation of kin members who were . . . [there are] cultural and mental health [aspects] of all kinds [in the] symptoms that people have, and they’ve gone to physicians who give them all kinds of medication and then the medication aren’t working, for God sake. So what’s going on culturally, what’s going [on with] their changing values that they are having problems with, and so on and so forth. So that’s very helpful, that’s how to me [this] is applied anthropology.
COHEN: You know, you’re drawing on your knowledge in order to understand the circumstances of the people. Now the only other thing that I want to say is that there comes a time when you can say, is there something that you can generalize from here. So some of the papers that I’ve written have been inspired by [these] experiences, [and] from [such] experience [you] try to generalize and maybe it can become a research project on some issue so that it’s not [top down] like a research problem, [but] it’s related to the [an] issue from the bottom up.
RYLKO-BAUER: Yes, and I think that’s a wonderful example, how applied work then can inform theory, you know . . .
RYLKO-BAUER: And vice-versa. Maybe we can conclude with . . . I understand that you’re doing a session tomorrow at the applied meetings and that the paper that you’re presenting actually relates to your work with public policy. Do you want to just say a few words about that?
COHEN: Essentially I’ve gotten several people that have been working on issues with Latinas and on the value of Latina-built communities [session title was: “Latina Immigrants Build Communities”]. This is through the expansion of the presence of Latina immigrants in the U. S. In our region it’s no longer [just] in Washington, it’s the suburbs [which] have more Latinas than in Washington D. C. [itself]. The suburbs have expanded exponentially. My paper [“Latina Immigrants Engage in Local Politics”] is simply on the issue of how Latinas [were] in the past and some of the ways they are mobilizing themselves. [My special] interest, but I don’t develop it [here], are Latina women who stay behind, but whose children are here.
COHEN: What impact does this have on the Latino middle aged women. Not the young ones who are about the business of the children, but the ones that stay behind with [their] adult children up here. What impact is this having on the ones that stay behind? [Although] I’m not sure that I am going to call it “staying behind.” That’s a great interest [of mine]. So that’s how we generates ideas.
RYLKO-BAUER: Yes, yes. Well . . . anything you want to add?
COHEN: No. I want to thank you and Carole for being patient.
RYLKO-BAUER: Well, and thank you very much. It’s been very, very interesting, and I really appreciate both of you and the comments that you made Carole, and the fascinating information that you, [Lucy], shared with us today, so thank you.
1. See “My Favorite Teacher,” special issue of the CUA Magazine, Spring 2005, at http://publicaffairs.cua.edu/cuamag/spr05/features/favorite.htm.
2. The Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA) has held biannual joint meetings with the SfAA for a number of years, and membership in both Societies overlaps considerably.
3. This was the First International Conference on Social Science and Medicine, held on September 4-6, 1968. It included a working session concerned with the development and organization of medical anthropology as a field, attended by Donald Kennedy, Marion Pearsall, Hazel Weidman, with guests Lucy Cohen and Margaret Read. These were some of the early efforts that eventually led to the establishment of the SMA (Hazel Wiedman. 1986. On the Origins of the SMA. Medical Anthropology Quarterly [Old] 17(5):115-124).
Cohen, Lucy M. 1971. The Chinese of the Panama Railroad: Preliminary Notes of the Migrants of 1854 Who Failed. Ethnohistory 18(4):309-320.
Cohen, Lucy M. 1973. Gifts to Strangers: Public Policy and the Delivery of Health Services to Illegal Aliens.” Anthropological Quarterly [Special issue on Medical Anthropology: Consensus and Conflict in Health Care Policy, edited by Lucy M. Cohen] 46(3):183-195.
Cohen, Lucy M. 1976. Conflict and Planned Change in the Development of Community Health Services. In Do Applied Anthropologists Apply Anthropology? Edited by Michael Angrosino. Southern Anthropological Society Proceedings, No. 10. Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. 23-33.
Cohen, Lucy M. 1979. Culture, Disease, and Stress among Latino Immigrants. Washington, D.C.: Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies, Smithsonian Institution.
Cohen, Lucy M. 1984. Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People without a History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Wiarda, Iêda Siqueira and Lucy M. Cohen, eds. 2004. Macau Cultural Dialogue: Towards a New Millenium. XLibris.
Cohen, Lucy M. 2008. Applied Anthropology Past and Present—Reflections. SfAA Newsletter, February issue, pp. 11-13.
Cohen, Lucy M. 2008. Emigración de chinos de Macao a Costa Rica 1872-1873. Revista de Ciencias Sociales Nr. 119: 39-53.