De facto Religiosity, Transcending Borders, and Performing Diversity

by Robin Sacolick, UC Santa Cruz

They say it’s the journey, and to some extent, that is true of working on a dissertation. An academic department may or may not find a candidate’s topic interesting. However, when the candidate’s research involves interacting with people, other interested parties emerge. My work, which inquires into the Bay Area community who practice the traditional Mexican genre of music, song and dance called son jarocho, involves participation in performing, activism and group rituals. As I come to be personally involved, some of those subjected to my myopic researchers’ lens also come to be invested in the project. They care about accuracy in how they are portrayed, because they know the value of their activities. Other consumers of academic research may be found at conferences, of course, as well as within the more rare interdisciplinary studio, such as this one on Humanitarianism and Ethics. As an intercampus set of students and faculty representing multiple disciplines, our individual research topics vary greatly, at least on the surface. However, just a little deeper are shared concerns and common themes. The Studio has lent holographic dimension to my work by reflecting new facets of de facto religiosity, transcending borders, and performing diversity in son jarocho practice.

De Facto Religiosity. The genre comprises practices that involve regularly coming together (called convivencia in son jarocho parlance), group activities, humanitarian efforts, rituals called fandangos, and an ethic of respect for tradition. Yet they eschew dogmatism. Thus son jarocho praxis embodies a de facto religiosity without being religious. This becomes easier to recognize in light of the other Studio members’ projects. It is unexpectedly reflected in a colleague’s observance of victims of the Spanish Civil War who return over and again to witness exhumation of mass graves. Son jarocho participants’ humanitarian outreach efforts to support inner city neighborhood gardens, migrant workers, and children’s arts, reflect the community architectural projects studied by another Studio member. The immense cool projected by fandango dancers as they transcend suboptimal social conditions resembles some practices of gospel performers based in colonial resistance, studied by yet another member. Finally, a participating scholar’s study of the uptake of Tibetan Buddhist practices by groups of Native Americans reflects preservation of deep understandings of the order of things, as numerous son jarocho practitioners seek to do. Similarly, the two themes discussed below–transcendence of borders and performativity–evince aspects of de facto religiosity.

Transcending Borders. Son jarocho community practices have served to bridge borders within my ethnically and generationally mixed family, as well as between my family, larger Latin communities, and community artists of many ethnicities, generations, gender preferences, and national backgrounds. Other son jarocho practitioners speak of having had similar experiences. Border transcendence imbues the Studio format, which disregards the usual boundaries between disciplines–boundaries that may be construed, ultimately, to be artificial constructs in the way that Benedict Andersen explains national borders. Even more than the outside-the-box format, the actual content gleaned from other disciplines has enriched my musicological process. For example, it has been rewarding to work with a professor of Feminist Studies. The women of the son jarocho community generate a nexus of inquiry in my project, as they contribute much work, dedication and talent that help the community to cohere, even as they transcend historical borders separating gender roles. Related phenomena may be viewed in feminist terms, as well.

For instance, several issues surround a dynamic, within the community, of commoditization of son jarocho works by professional musicians, versus maintenance of ethical relations with the traditional practices. This might be interpreted epistemologically as capitalist-modernist versus traditionalist, or as worldly versus spiritual. A gendered analogy, though, reveals additional information. If making money as a musician is labeled as capitalist commodity fetishism, then it might be discarded (or embraced) according to the economic ideals of whoever considers the issue. However, by employing a gendered analogy, other possible interpretations emerge. If money-making with son jarocho is analogous to an individualistic, competitive ‘male’ muse (which women may equally ply) while non-profit participation in community fandangos, activism and humanitarian initiatives represent a nurturing, collective-good-driven ‘feminized’ impulse, then each exerts a significant role in both the community and the artistic expression. One might argue, of course, that the former muse is the feminized and the latter impulse the masculine, or bring in additional genders to deal with paradoxes; the point is that multiple gender approaches exist and coexist within broader society while economic systems are often sanctified or vilified as mutually exclusive and exclusively desirable. So by gendering contrasting muses in the son jarocho community, the benefits of each may be recognized.

Lutherie

Making ones own instrument is meditative. These Bay Area residents traveled to Veracruz to make theirs.

A related ethical problematic, which is acutely scrutinized within the discipline of cultural musicology, arises when considering the commoditization of son jarocho: cultural appropriation. This concept has been defined in different ways, but it is important to many. If compositions that are ancient, traditional, and public domain are performed for profit, are there certain people who have a greater right to do so? Are they the natives of the region that originally produced the works, or the most senior in a local scene? Are they the most accomplished musical technicians? Are they Latino? Are they male? There are potentially as many different perspectives on this as there are participants within the community. The bottom line is that at times, despite best intentions, border transcendence also amounts to transgression. The analogy to third wave feminist theory is easy to imagine.

Nevertheless, older-wave feminist themes apply as well. Focus on individual women as leaders and organizers in the son jarocho community is difficult to avoid, as their efforts are indeed critical, standing out because they transcend historical gender role boundaries. Even more difficult, however, is to tease out the motivations and history surrounding this shift; for these women continue to coexist–to convivir–and to learn profoundly from seminal community members who grew up when different notions of proper gender behaviors in traditional son inhered. My intervention proposes that the need for community within the prevailing political and social climate has catalyzed such participation, and, to some extent, a feminized muse; and that the analogy between the fandango tradition and de facto religiosity provides infrastructure for this muse.

Fandango

Fandango participants’ faces reflect meditative and euphoric states.

Performativity. A third theme in my work that has been exercised through participation in the Studio is son jarocho and fandango as performances of both diversity and life.

“Performing life” refers, in one way, to improvisational interchanges of lyrics and licks between artists in all kinds of performances. These interchanges mimic life processes. In the fandango, moreover, life is performed more directly, as genuine community issues emerge and resolve. For example, participants sometimes confront disillusionments when beautiful and transcendent experiences of community emerge from a background that is ultimately, inexorably, mundane and human. Egos may struggle with any variety of issues from inconvenient flirtations, to newcomers failing to conform to basic courtesies, to longtime participants going through life’s hurdles. The longer contour of fandango, as a regular ritual community practice of music and dance, provides a non-verbal forum to process such issues without direct manipulation of them. When one comes to see ones work through the eyes of others in an interdisciplinary studio environment, a similar kind of processing takes place.

“Performing diversity” signifies, among other things, the awareness among most son jarocho participants that the genre was created by the jarocho people of Veracruz, who were born of more than three constituent ethnicities (Mesoamerican, African and Spanish) hundreds of years ago. Consistent with the pan-ethnic diversity of the Bay, today’s participants comprise many ethnicities. Moreover, as noted above, practice of the genre today in the Bay Area involves a diversity of gender roles that, even thirty years ago, would have been unusual. For some, the community and its practices yield spaces in which issues surrounding complex identity definition may be, at least partially, resolved. Non-traditional or multi-ethnic families may find means of solidarity through involvement with son jarocho activities. More aspects of performing diversity include interplays of adherence to jarocho norms and flouting them; and of performing birth ethnicities and forming communitas with those of different origins. Identity formation and acceptance into the community unfolds through an informal sequence of learning the norms, practicing repertoire and sharing life experiences, much as takes place (at a vastly accelerated pace) in an interdisciplinary studio.

refugee

Impromptu fandango in San Francisco to support collecting clothing for child refugees.

These themes and others are expanded through ethnographic documentation of the community members’ experiences in my dissertation, which is nearing completion. With gratitude, I encourage others to find inter- and extra-disciplinary avenues such as the Studio through which to share their academic work. Genuine dimensions of perspective may accrue, while new sets of individuals receive the opportunity to benefit from specialized research they would not otherwise encounter.

 

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At the Crossroads of Love, Ritual, and Archaeology: The Exhumation of Mass Graves in Contemporary Spain

Rachel Carmen Ceasar
University of California, San Francisco

corporeality of the absent body.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and subsequent Francisco Franco dictatorship
(1939-1975), the institutions of Church and regime went hand and hand. For this reason,
most of my time in Spain was spent in graves, cemeteries, and churches: since the
Francoist regime had been legitimized by the Catholic Church (Beevor 2006; Casanova
2002), mass graves of the Francoist repression were often located in or around church
cemeteries. “Religion and the army,” explains Luisa, “were the two pillars of Francoism.”
That night, in her patio, Luisa tells me that her father is located in an unmarked
mass grave in the San Pedro cemetery. Now in her 70s, Luisa grew up knowing that her
father was killed “for his ideas,” as those having leftist leanings are politely referred to in
Spain. Luisa knew why, but she did not know how or where her father Martín was killed.
To exhume his remains would be testament to his death and evidence of the violence
committed against civilians like Martín during the Spanish Civil War.

Figure 1: Anita, another family member of the killed, visits the San Pedro exhumation (August 23, 2012, photo courtesy by Rui Gomes Coelho). 

Figure 1: Anita, another family member of the killed, visits the San Pedro exhumation (August 23, 2012, photo courtesy by Rui Gomes Coelho).

“If we ourselves don’t know where he is—there’s nothing to justify [his death], just bones. Just to think this…” She gasps and lets her voice drift into the muggy summer night. “It’s what we have,” Luisa says to me, referring to the possibility of exhuming her father’s bones. “For all that they excavate, I can’t say that this is mine.”

“The only thing we have that makes him distinct [from other bodies in the grave] is that in the pueblo, there were few people who wore boots. It’s what we have.” She shows me a photo of her father. “It’s the only one we have, and that’s because I stole it!”

Equipped with his photo and the memory of his boots, Luisa, like many daughters of the Civil War period, awaits the body of her father. “Yo tenía mucha falta de mi padre, I missed my dad a lot—I don’t know if that happens to all girls.” For many children born during the war, the single, spectral photo of their relative is a provisional placeholder for the body they cannot find and the person they now only knew (Crossland 2009).

The body, Luisa notes—it’s what we don’t have: we have the memory of boots but no feet, we have a photograph but no person. In the absence of the dead’s body, the living fear that the presence of violence can become absent, unhinged from the bones and persons it has affected.

Yet unlike the bodies of asylum-seekers in France whose word is authorized by medical expertise (Fassin with d’Halluin 2005), the exhumation of the lost in Spain is a collaborative process driven by local and descendant communities together with archaeologists and local historical memory associations.

In the case of Martín, Luisa devotes her evidence and truth into a body—a body that they may never find, and a corporeality that she must actively maintain into existence. In this manner, the corporeality of Martín’s absent body is paid homage by his family and community because to not do so would be to refute the killings and violence of the war.

“All this began because of a genealogical error, because I didn’t know how many brothers my grandfather had or what their names were,” explains Ana, Luisa’s daughter, of a common black hole in Spanish family timelines from either side of the war. “What we would like, I suppose as families of the disappeared, is to find his remains.”

Ana, like many Spaniards who grew up at the end of the dictatorship, uses the human rights term “desaparecido” or “disappeared” to refer to her grandfather and other victims killed by the Nationalist army during the Civil War and subsequent Francoist dictatorship (Ferrándiz 2010:163; Ferrándiz 2011). This much we knew: Martín was killed and left in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of San Pedro, an earth so cracked and dry that bones exhumed here pulverized at your touch.

Figure 2: The author exhumes inside an unmarked Civil War grave while a family behind her cleans off their tombstone in the nichos, or nests (September 2012, photo courtesy Xurxo Ayán Vila and guerraenlauniversidad.com).

Figure 2: The author exhumes inside an unmarked Civil War grave while a family behind her cleans off their tombstone in the nichos, or nests (September 2012, photo courtesy Xurxo Ayán Vila and guerraenlauniversidad.com).

My exchanges with Luisa and Ana inside and outside the grave reveal feelings and interests that may seem irrational to the pursuits of exhuming in Spain. Yet if we are to approach the exhumations in San Pedro as a ritual process reflective of such interests, then what Luisa, Ana, and other descendants of the dead contribute to this process plays an important role in how exhumation is performed.

The context of when a grave is opened is contingent on the political climate surrounding the exhumations, as well as the sentiments circulating in Luisa’s home. Following the end of the war and dictatorship, Martin’s exhumation had not been possible because of the national and familial silence of his existence. The desire to produce knowledge and a body of Martín’s existence points to the varied practical and symbolic interests involved in exhuming today, over 70 years after the war. These everyday actions, enacted in the spirit of Ana’s genealogical work and Luisa’s photos, also form part of exhumation ethos.

“There were two classes of citizens: those that had won the war, and those who had lost. It was like in India—do you know of the caste system? It was the same here,” Ana tells me.

“Because of your religion!” emphasizes Luisa, recalling the memory of her family being forced to go to church as was expected in those days in San Pedro and throughout Spain during the dictatorship.

“The losers were segregated [from the war victors]—they didn’t even go to the same dances together,” adds Ana.

“It was a Nationalist-Catholic regime this Catholicism, so everyone went to mass.” Catholicism in Spain, explain the women, was not just a religion or regime, but part of everyday life. During the war, this habitual part of Spanish society determined who was killed and who wasn’t.

Figure 3: Examples of Nationalist tombstones in the Castuera cemetery. (August 2012, photo by author).

Figure 3: Examples of Nationalist tombstones in the Castuera cemetery. (August 2012, photo by author).

Pic 4

In the case of Martín, his brothers Juan and Jose, and their father Francisco, they were killed not at battle as soldiers, but at home as civilians. They were killed because they were Republican partisans and politicians and did not support Franco’s regime: Martín was killed at the end of the Civil War in 1939, Juan and Jose in a “convent-prison” in 1942, and their father, Francisco, in 1941.

The desire to know Martín by obtaining his body is also reflective of a Catholic sensibility. Luisa and Ana’s desire for his physical remains takes on a kind of sacramental symbolism, or what Basque anthropologist Joseba Zulaika describes as a “concern with certain limiting concepts having to do with life as a whole, the notion of death included” (2000[1988]: xxv).

In Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament, Zulaika examines sacramental symbolism as an analytic to understand the subjective expression of Basque political violence and terrorism in his hometown of Itziar. Apart from religion, he observes the everyday tension between metaphor and sacrament in Basque metaphors and myths as constituted in nationalist violence and narrated in cultural, psychological expressions of that ritual violence.

In the same manner, Luisa and Ana’s desire for the body of Martín is reflective of their desire to take back his body from a regime and religious ideology that contributed to his death. To do so, Luisa and Ana “resacramentalize” (2000[1988]:48) that same body and person according their own values and practices: the exhumation.

In August 2012, together with a local historical memory association, an archaeological team, and other families of the killed, we would spend one month searching for Martín and the other 200 persons killed in the San Pedro cemetery. Could one of these bodies be Martín?

Figure 4: Ana takes a photo of six exhumed bodies, tied together at the wrists with electric wire, in the Castuera cemetery (September 1, 2012, photo by author). 

Figure 4: Ana takes a photo of six exhumed bodies, tied together at the wrists with electric wire, in the Castuera cemetery (September 1, 2012, photo by author).

Ana visits the exhumation site where we are working in a section of the cemetery that, during the war, was considered separate from the sacred Catholic grounds; it was here that Republicans were killed and left in mass graves.

Speaking from inside the grave with a cigarette cast to her side, Ana glances down at six exhumed bodies tied together at the wrists with electric cable. “For me, this is the homage,” she says without looking up, referring to the ritual devotion of the exhumation process itself, and not necessarily the identification of individual bones to body. I follow Ana’s gaze at the exposed bones before me and cannot begin to understand what bones and the exhumation process must mean to her and her family.

Luisa and Ana knew that they might never be able to locate Martín’s bones. At most, they could only hope that the exhumation process itself—and not the actual exhumation of his individual bones but of someone’s bones—might purge Martín from his current place of violent death and obscurity.

By virtue of the exhumation process that begins with their desire to know who he is and have his remains, Luisa and Ana hope to recover some aspect of Martín, for, as Luisa explains, “Creo que todavia no me ha salido del cuerpo, I believe it still has not left my body.”

The desire to know and feel within her own body as to who her father is via the exhumation is a sentiment embodied by Luisa that in turn animates the exhumation process. The ethos motivating Spanish practices and rituals embodies what it means to be Spanish—and to have lost family during the war and dictatorship.

Although the war and dictatorship were over and the Catholic Church no longer possessed the political power it had before, Luisa was doubtful of any formal form of reconciliation to take place in Spain in the near future. “No se cae ni la puerta de la iglesia, not even the door of the church falls,” she advises me, meaning that the institution of the church does not fall so quickly, the vestiges of its foundation lingering in the Spanish present.

With her words in mind, the larger goal of my research has been to understand how such everyday personal and social interests, particularly those relating to a Spanish Catholic ethos, actively animate the exhumation process.

Interdependence as a Lifeway: Decolonization and Resistance in Transnational Native American and Tibetan Communities

Natalie Avalos (UC Santa Barbara)

Struggles for decolonization are increasingly global and transnational. Colonization fosters massive diaspora migrations, either forced or out of necessity. These peoples, although residing outside of their home nations, continue to fight for the liberation of their peoples. While decolonization projects are diverse, they generally call for both the undoing of colonization as a structure and the removal of colonization’s effects. A core focus of many decolonization movements is resisting culture erasure through religious revitalization—the logic being religion constitutes the core values and traditions of a given community. When cultural identity is strengthened these communities are better able to resist colonial advances as well as practices of extermination. My research explores how the religious worldviews of transnational Native Americans and Tibetan communities living in the U.S. inform their respective movements for decolonization and resistance. Both of their religious traditions, though distinct, recognize a world in which all phenomena are interrelated. I ask, how does interdependence as a ‘lived’ tradition inform decolonization? In addition, what do Tibetan Buddhism and Native American religious traditions have to offer global movements for decolonization?

Native American religious traditions are rooted in a sacred relationship to the land, one’s community and the spirit world. The spirit world consists of the dynamic ‘life force’ immanent in all natural phenomena. Native American peoples cite an interdependent relationship to all natural phenomena as the fundamental logic driving the protection of sacred sites, sustainable ways of living and nationhood. Tibetan Buddhism combines land-based conceptualizations of interdependence to Buddhist philosophical concepts of ‘dependent origination’ –meaning that all phenomena are inextricably ‘dependent’ on one another—to theorize a unique form of interdependence. Buddhist ethics rooted in interdependence encourage empathy and compassion for all others, since they are ultimately an extension of one’s self. Living in diaspora contributes to myriad losses. However, ethnographic research among transnational Tibetan and Native American communities living in Santa Fe and Albuquerque illustrates that their religious traditions remain. The distance of diaspora has not tempered the desire to work for the betterment and liberation of their respective peoples—if anything it’s bolstered it. Due to a shared logic of ‘interdependence,’ working for the benefit of others is not framed as special or extraordinary but instead as a rational response to connectedness.

For Tibetans in Santa Fe, religious practice has taken on a new political dimension. Religion has historically played an integral role in Tibetan governance, what Tibetans referred to as chos srid gnyis ldan or “religion and politics combined.” The Dalai Lama served as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans, overseeing their spiritual and material welfare. Tibet never existed as a united polity as we understand nation-states today. The unifying thread among regional and sectarian differences was Buddhism. To be Tibetan was to be Buddhist. It was only after the Chinese invasion that a new ‘national’ in-group identity emerged, one united by Dharma but also in defense of the land against the ‘invading other.’ In exile, Tibetans make strategic use of this new pan-Tibetan identity, rallying non-Tibetans to join their cause. Thus, religious practice in diaspora has become infused with politics. Consultants state that they must preserve Tibetan culture for those in Tibet who are experiencing cultural genocide. One man says, “I feel even stronger, that I am Tibetan when I know that my countrymen are suffering.” They regularly gather at one another’s homes to pray and make offerings on behalf of those suffering in Tibet. Religious practice helps them assuage the pain and frustration they feel over Tibetan oppression. It is also intended to create merit. In essence, practice creates positive karma that will procure the causes and conditions for Tibet’s liberation. Because all phenomena are related, one’s words thoughts and actions are thought to have material and immaterial effects. Thus, prayers, the recitation of mantras and other Buddhist practices are done with the express intent to change the social conditions of Tibetan peoples. Even the activism on behalf of Tibet’s liberation, such as marches, rallies and petitions, are often pursued with the intention to help others, transforming these mundane events into ‘Dharmic activity.’

Native American peoples living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe live out a diverse set of religious practices. Like Tibetans, Native peoples were not a united polity before colonization. They are distinct tribes, with distinct languages and separate nation-to-nation treaties with the settler state. However, tools of assimilation, like the boarding school system that began in the late 19th century, and a federal relocation program in the middle 20th century, which transferred large numbers of Native peoples from reservations to urban centers for ‘employment opportunities,’ contributed to a pan-Indian identity that thrives today. The exchange of religion, belief and practice characterizes this pan-Indian identity. Historically, these exchanges have informed movements of resistance. For instance, religious revitalization catalyzed the Red Power Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. While most Native American religious traditions had to go ‘underground’ during the initial decades after the reservation system began in the latter 19th century, due to federal bans on ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, many survived into the present. Some of most basic features of Native American religious traditions do not require elaborate ceremonies, but only prayer and contemplation. Many of my consultants emphasized that they could maintain a relationship to the spirit world, wherever they were, even if they were far away from their home tribes or had been living in diaspora for generations. I was told by one consultant, “the land is all around you. If you have water, earth, air and fire, you can pray. You can connect with Spirit.” For many, this religious practice was not only a testament to survival but also an active tool of resistance. Due to the interrelatedness of all phenomena, several of my consultants explained that prayer, ceremony and even speaking kind words ripple out into incalculable results—“like a pebble in a stream” one consultant said. Another consultant explained that the prayers of elders in the nearby pueblos shaped everything that happened in Albuquerque and even New Mexico, meaning these prayers had the power to contribute to structural and social change. Decolonization was described as maintaining healthy relationships to the spirit world, the land and one’s relations. An Apache man in his 60’s said “I don’t need a federal recognition card or to live on a reservation. This whole area is where Apaches lived. It’s my home. It’ll always be a part of me.” In this way, he recognizes these places as ‘Native land.’ He and the land are sovereign.

Although these communities are unrelated, they contend with parallel struggles for decolonization. They both hold provocative religious conceptualizations of interdependence that transform their religious practice into resistance and liberation. These religious traditions provide a new perspective on humanitarianism—one that differs from the liberal discourse from which it is currently situated. One need not be a ‘rational’ agent in the world in order to be worthy of humane treatment. These religious logics illustrate that the just and humane treatment of others is necessitated in world in with other’s are an extension of one’s self. The transnational spaces where these religious logics are actualized provide a unique platform for their proliferation. In fact, consultants in both the Tibetan and Native communities explained that these practices are sometimes for oneself, often for their own people but many times intended to end the suffering or oppression of all peoples. As one consultant says, “when you are oppressed, we are all oppressed.” In this way, we can understand the respective expressions of interdependence as a lifeway to translate to a form of anti-oppression politics facilitated through the spirit world. They also de-center materialist interpretations of social justice and resistance by positioning religious practice as an efficacious tool of resistance. In these transnational communities religious continuity is framed as a means of resistance that not only humanizes and empowers but is also contributes to global projects of decolonization by seeking the cessation of suffering and the continued vitality of all peoples.

Citizen Architects: Ethics, Education and the Construction of a Profession, 1933-2013

Anna G. Goodman (UC Berkeley)

My research considers the idea of the citizen architect as an evolving concept in the twentieth-century United States. Specifically, it traces how a form of hands-on and outreach education called “community design-build” shapes architects’ ethical and political identities. Community design-build is an umbrella term for programs in which architectural educators lead students into disadvantaged areas to physically construct designs for community use. American architectural educators argue that in this “win-win” scenario, students master building techniques while aiding a neglected population. The pairing of physical labor and social values, in a profession not known for either, defies standard accounts of the nature of architects’ ethical commitments. Most writing on community design-build focuses on either the benefit of programs for student learning or the positive impacts of projects on the lives of individuals and communities. I instead ask what motivates architects to pursue this mode of practice at specific historical and geographic moments, and what types of politics are practiced as design students encounter poor others. Drawing from social histories of welfare in the United States and feminist readings of political economy, the project considers three significant cases of design-build education from the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. In so doing, it demonstrates that architects’ humanitarian commitments arise in cycles as responses to shifts in national attitudes towards race, inequality and work. Architects’ reflexive response to what they perceive as periodic crises of nation and profession consists of a celebration of the physical labor of construction and an emphasis on communal spaces and experiences. Professionals and educators understand the practice of “building together” as an alternative to and critique of both capitalist development and state-sponsors social welfare programs. Yet, their alternative practices often reproduce normative dynamics. They elevate architects’ voices over those for whom they build, support a narrow range of acceptable critical positions and, ultimately, obscure the structural conditions that produce the crises into which they intervene. In short, the “can-do” attitude that empowers students and volunteers diverts attention from the efforts of marginalized groups whose individual and collective contributions to alternative political visions are left unacknowledged in the citizen architect narrative.

Architects’ ethical commitments, and specifically community design-build, connect to a larger landscape of humanitarian engagements and religious affinities through their performative nature. Rather than working from ideological standpoints, design-build programs allow architects to practice ethics by placing their bodies in foreign territories and then performing “service” in these spaces. This type of humanitarian engagement is familiar from Christian missionaries, early twentieth-century work camps in the United State and Europe, Peace Corps volunteers beginning in the 1960s and the ubiquitous service learning trips that shape the identities of today’s youth. Structural critiques focused on traditional notions of political economy or those that diametrically oppose top-down and grassroots practices cannot sufficiently explain this persistent decentralized humanitarianism. Critiques of these types of practices often center on the problem of “parachuting” into unfamiliar and inappropriate contexts and volunteers’ failure to deliver on promised material or social gains for locals. These can be powerful correctives to the egoism of “do-gooders,” but they often miss the larger stories of the pushes and pulls that drive middle-class individuals to enact their social consciences in this manner. More productive insights come by way of analyses focused on the practice of the self, the production of identity and the everyday politics that take place between specific groups and individuals. These types of analyses, of which I consider my own, demonstrate surprising affinities between the religious and secular, across race and class and among individuals with seemingly opposite worldviews. As a starting point for re-imagining the role of the volunteer, the beneficiary and the scholar herself, a focus on humanitarian ethics reframes all three as participants in a performance across difference. The acknowledgement of this performance is the first step in understanding the meaning of oppositional and collaborative politics in practice.