Having a Hand in History:
Wilkes Honors College Professor Returns to Ecuador with Prestigious Grant
January 13th, 2014 (Jupiter, FL)—Like many university professors, Dr. Rachel Corr of Florida Atlantic University’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College is well accustomed to balancing her passion for teaching and her interest in research. As a premiere researcher in the anthropological study of Andean cultures, Dr. Corr has spent years fitting in short trips to her research site around her busy teaching schedule and working on her research when she is not immersed in the academic semester. But the 2014-2015 academic year promises to offer a change of pace. Last November Dr. Corr was informed that she had been selected to receive a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which will allow her to focus all of her efforts in the exploration of an exciting and uncharted area of study.
Dr. Corr has spent decades learning about the culture of the native Andean peoples living in the Salasaca region of highland Ecuador. A diverse region once under the control of the Incan Empire and which later became a territory of Spain, Salasaca is mired in a multifaceted cultural history, and the customs of its people contain traces of myriad ethnic traditions. Recently Dr. Corr’s research has focused on one town in this region, whose cultural history is particularly complex. The town of Pelileo, now best known for producing blue jeans, became a center for textile production during the Spanish occupation of the 17th century. The majority of the town’s constituents identify as mestizo, or of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage. A small group of indigenous Salasacans also call the town home, and these two groups remain, for the most part, separate. However, that wasn’t always the case.
“Pelileo once contained a lot of different ethnic groups; there were the Spanish, multiple indigenous groups, and African slaves who were brought in to work in the textile factories,” explains Dr. Corr. At one time, Pelileo’s cultural landscape was much more diverse than it is now. The textile manufacturing process brought these various groups together and in some ways forced the people of the town to choose their identities. Dr. Corr mentions the example of a workers’ rebellion that took place in the textile factory in 1767, in which the mestizo workers made the decision to side with the Spanish to smother the rebellion. Dr. Corr suspects that other events like this left a profound mark on the region’s cultural landscape, and she has made it her business to unearth the origins of Pelileo’s residents. Archives located in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, and in the regional capital may provide clues as to how the once diverse town came to be identified with only two distinct ethnic groups. Until now, Dr. Corr’s research on this topic has been put on the back burner while she focuses on teaching. “I’ve had to do my research piecemeal up to this point; in order to finish this I really need a period of time where I can just focus on that,” she explains. That need will soon be met with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. With this funding, Dr. Corr will have the chance to dedicate the next year to the exploration of these archives and will be able to study accounts of exactly what took place during the Spanish occupation of the highlands.
“I was surprised I got the grant,” says Dr. Corr happily. NEH grants are known for being highly competitive; less than ten percent of the proposed projects receive funding. “I had applied for summer funding from the NEH earlier and had not been approved, so I wasn’t expecting to receive funding for a year-long fellowship,” she explains. Nevertheless, after returning from the meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Dr. Corr opened her email to find a congratulatory letter informing her that her proposal had been approved. “I was so excited!” she exclaims. She immediately began making plans for her year-long sabbatical, during which she will spend several months in Ecuador conducting archival research before returning to the states to complete a book detailing her findings. “I’m planning to stay in Ecuador for two months, but if I find some really interesting material when I get there, I’ll change my ticket and stay longer,” says Dr. Corr. She looks forward to visiting her friends at the Salasacan research site where she has conducted field work for many years. “Whenever I talk to them they always want to know when I’m coming back, so it’s great to tell them that I’ll see them soon.”
While she is not entirely sure of what she will find in the Ecuadorian archives, she is confident that her work will make significant contributions to the study of Andean history. “Academia has for some time accepted the idea that history is important for understanding modern identities, but beyond that, I think it’s important to talk about the ways in which these different ethnic groups cooperated with one another,” Dr. Corr explains. “We often hear so much about the conflicts between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples, or the Spanish and the slaves; we rarely hear about how they cooperated with each other. But in my research I’ve already found several instances where groups helped each other, or worked together, and I think it’s important to talk about those.” Her research will also help banish the myth that indigenous peoples have preserved their culture by living in isolation since the time of the Spanish occupation. “This area went from being more diverse to less diverse, not the other way around,” says Dr. Corr. “There isn’t much written about the history of the indigenous people; what we have now is mostly speculation,” she explains. “That’s why I want to inform the people about their history a little more, and let them decide how it will effect who they are now.”
About Florida Atlantic University: Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of three signature themes – marine and coastal issues, biotechnology and contemporary societal challenges – which provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU’s existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit www.fau.edu