My real-life anthropology class in Mexico
By Molly Tamulevich
During my junior year of college, while I was studying anthropology, I had the opportunity to spend five months in Merida, Mexico. I was there to study Mayan culture, but when I saw my first street dog, I began to realize that outside of the classroom there were other stories going on that I should be paying attention to.
The University of Yucatan’s college for social sciences is a large, open air structure surrounded by scruffy desert at the edge of the city. One day, I found an injured puppy lying, whimpering, in the courtyard of the school, undoubtedly the offspring of the brown mutt who lurked skittishly near the bus stop. In a day that turned my life around, I walked miles with the tiny creature in my arms, hiding him in the shadows of my backpack on the bus.
I was staying with a host family in an upscale neighborhood in the suburbs: a married couple in their sixties, their 40-year-old daughter, two grandchildren and their little white dog, Guero, who was the darling of the family. When I showed up with the puppy, they looked horrified and wouldn’t let me in the house with the sick animal, telling me he was unsafe and dirty. I waited for an hour on the hot street corner for a friend of a friend to drive me to the emergency vet, the puppy howling desperately in my arms. He died on the table, seconds after a tourniquet was tied around his leg to help find his tiny veins.
As I walked home crying, dreading my host family’s scorn, I thought about how strange it was that Guero, a small, white pampered creature, was allowed full run of the house while this puppy and his kind were left to die alone.
Pedigree dogs, pedigree people
In the Yucatan, street dogs are known by their Mayan name, Malix Pek. Using Mayan words rather than Spanish generally signifies strong feelings. The word Malix is even used as a slur against Mayan people, implying that they literally have no pedigree, comparing their ancestry to that of stray dogs. I pondered my puppy and I pondered Guero, whose name means light skinned or blonde. I thought of the racial dynamics of the Yucatán.
I began to see how animals are a strong indicator of social trends. Just as I, a small white woman was ushered to the front of every line at clubs, so did a small white dog carry more social status than a large brown one. A dog, clearly, was not just a dog; it was an indicator of deeper attitudes toward ethnicity, class, gender and social position.
The bridal show
Soon after the incident with the puppy, I was invited to take part in a bridal show. This involved going to a salon, being dressed in a white gown and walking down a runway with a small gaggle of Mexican models. I am not a professional model and had as much flair on the runway as a terrified groundhog, but after the show I was taken aside and told that I was being paid significantly more than my Mexican counterparts. It all tied in with my host father’s blatant, casual racism (“All black people smell bad”) and the obsession with weight loss in women’s magazines … and the attitude to dogs.
If you were a woman, you were praised for being thin, pale and traditionally feminine. If you were low on the social ladder, you were most likely darker skinned, more robust and worked with your hands. If you were well-to-do, you owned a small, white dog; if you were not, you were Malix Pek, a dog without pedigree. There was a clear distinction between white and brown, both in humans and animals and it all troubled me. Showing social status by buying new clothes was one thing; showing status by purchasing a living being crossed a line for me.
Animals at the shelter
Toward the end of my visit, I became a volunteer at the only animal shelter in the Yucatan. It was run by a woman who was highly educated, motivated and caring, but she was still overwhelmed. Disease and pests were a constant problem and without funding and birth control sometimes meant holding a female dog out of reach of the males while another volunteer cleaned her isolation room.
I gave baths and administered medications, but my main job consisted of sitting with the dogs and removing ticks from them. They were all Malix, some of them slender like greyhounds, some of them fluffy. A few large purebreds padded along in the dirt enclosures, but for the most part, they were little works of art: merle and chocolate, pointed ears and long tails, wavy and short coats.
And then there was Domino.
Locked away in an isolated building, his neck bulging with muscle, dragging the chain that kept him from the other dogs, Domino was the first pit bull I ever met. He was huge and wild, and although he was kept isolated for fear he would attack another dog, he was a friendly individual. Domino was not Guero; he was not Malix, either. He commanded the attention of the men at the shelter unlike the other animals, casting a spell with his size and potential danger – a new type of status dog.
Animals as symbols
It was Domino who led me to realize just how important animal images are in society as a whole. Although I did not know his breed at the time, I knew by people’s reactions that he was more than a dog; he was a symbol of something more powerful.
When I returned home, I quickly found out that pit bulls carry the burden of being cultural metaphors. Because we associate them with poverty, violence and danger, the dogs themselves are marginalized and exploited. Animals are inevitably linked with cultural norms, but when our behavior toward an animal is based on how it will enhance our self-image, we do a disservice to everyone involved.
Dogs are not the only animals who are hurt when humans view them as symbols. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a sports team’s mascot can cause harm. For example, the Detroit Red Wings’ unofficial mascot, a purple octopus, is tied up with the tradition of tossing the bodies of actual octopi onto the hockey rink.
To paraphrase Henry Beston, we need a wiser way of looking at animals, one that does not bring them into the sphere of human prejudice, but that celebrates them as individuals, be they purebred, pit bull or malix.