Undergraduate Research: Taylor Spicer and Ilha de Maré

Taylor Spicer, an honors anthropology major from Tennessee, used her Honors College undergraduate research grant to travel to Brazil and learn more about the country’s people. 

I utilized the research grant to continue my anthropological field research on an island called Ilha de Maré, the Island of the Tide, off the coast of the city of Salvador in Brazil.  I spent the summer living with a family on the island to learn their daily ways of life, the problems that they encounter with the government and the petro-chemical companies that lie on both sides of the island, and how they attempt to address these problems by mobilizing.  I explored how the islanders defend two specific identities to claim human and legal rights, in order to sustain and improve their traditional ways of life in the face of pollution, capitalistic developments, and political and economic exclusion.

In my three months on Ilha de Maré, I learned mainly through participant observation.  I collected, shelled, and helped sell shellfish throughout the week as do most women and girls of the island.  I attended weekly and monthly meetings with the politically involved islanders to understand their motivations and cultural politics, the unique cultural meanings enacted by the group in their everyday lives and through mobilizing. Through informal and some formal talks with others participating in these activities, I began to understand the type of cultural politics enacted by the group.  Conducting conversations in Portuguese was difficult, but the daily need to communicate made conversation come with ease by the end of my three months in Brazil.

From the people of Ilha de Maré, I learned much about the desires, motivations, and unique strategies for mobilization that everyday citizens may utilize to demand their legally guaranteed rights, in an attempt to defend the place in which they live, the traditional ways of life they wish to maintain, and the future hopes they envision for communities.  Capitalism and globalization may superficially appear to be domineering and destructive forces when they encounter unique local cultures, but this group on Ilha de Maré offers an alternative idea of modernity.  The people use their distinctive culture and identity to empower themselves individually and communally, in an attempt to politically, economically, and socially exhibit their importance to their government, to the mega-companies that surround the island, and to the wider Brazilian society.

This amazing experience has spurred on my conviction to obtain my master’s degree in development studies with a focus on sustainability.  Hopefully, I will, also, be able to return to Brazil to further this research in the future, to see and to celebrate the continued progress which the people will have made.

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