Dancing With Death

Monica Dore, Staff Writer

Last Wednesday night,  SUNY Oneonta held a lecture, “Dancing With Death” featuring Dr. O. Hugo Benavides. Benavides is an associate professor of anthropology and a director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Fordham University, and the lecture was held in the Alden Room of Milne Library. He has written three books and numerous articles, and was kind enough to visit Oneonta as part of the Ralph Watkins Lecture Series.

Among other things, Benavides discussed mortality, happiness and the ideas of heroism in South American culture. The majority of the evening was spent discussing the life of Jose Maria Arguedas, a revolutionary writer from Peru.  Born in 1911 to a wealthy family with a European background, Arguedas was witness to racial prejudice and inequality. His family’s servants raised Arguedas until adolescence. From these servants he learned the native dialect and traditions of the Quechua people. When Arguedas was nearly a teenager, his father, who traveled for work and was absent for much of Arguedas’s childhood, told him to stop associating with the servants that raised him. After all, he “owned them.”  From that point on, he felt isolated from both worlds around him—the wealthy one his family belonged to and the indigenous one he was brought into by the servants. As he grew older, Arguedas found that the servants he had considered family could not even look him in the eye when he spoke. Race usually plays a large role in one’s identity, but for Arguedas, the race that he was born into had no appeal. Everywhere he went he was an outsider.

Benavides admittedly struggles with identity and a feeling of isolation. He was born in Ecuador, but grew up in New York City. Although the United States has made enormous strides in improving race relations, Benavides admits to feeling alienated within the country. He described being watched by security guards in department stores and cop cars slowing down while passing by. Benavides also said that on his research trips to Ecuador, he feels very distant from the people he meets.

Benavides feels we have a long way to go as a nation. He joked about the option of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, a suggestion that has been discussed for years. Benavides laughed at the idea, saying that, “we’re already here” and that the only wall we’ve truly built is in our minds. He added that the best road towards progress is to knock down these walls and try to understand the lives of those around us.

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