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An image of a dirt road and boxy houses hangs in Maria Cruz-Torres’ office at Arizona State University. She snapped the photo in a village in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa in 1990, not long after first arriving in the region.
For Cruz-Torres, an associate professor in the School of Transborder Studies in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it marked the beginning of a 20-year research project documenting a lesser-seen side of Sinaloa’s prized seafood industry — its female shrimp traders.
The project earned her the Victoria Foundation’s Eugene García Outstanding Latina/o Faculty Award last September. Launched in 1969, the Phoenix-based group was the first Latina/o community foundation in the United States and now hosts an award series honoring contributions in academia, civil service and the arts around Arizona.
“This award recognizes excellence in both research and teaching,” said Loui Olivas, a retired professor in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business and the organization’s current president. “Maria Cruz-Torres exemplifies it.”
It is not her first accolade. She was elected as a fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2017 and is the current president of the Association of Latina/Latino Anthropologists. But for Cruz-Torres, the Victoria Foundation award is important because of its relevance in Arizona.
“When I began, very little had been done to understand the female side of the shrimp trade,” she said. “It means so much for me to feel like my peers are seeing the value of the research I’ve done, especially on the local level.”
Known as the camaroneras, or shrimp ladies, today they appear in videos tossing fresh seafood in chili and lemon washes, or enveloping it in crispy taco shells at fish markets in Sinaloa’s tourist hotspot of Mazatlan. But behind that success is a grassroots battle for equality that began over 30 years ago, when female traders from rural villages like the one pictured in Cruz-Torres’ office had just formed the region’s first labor union.
Working with colleagues at the University of Sinaloa after arriving in 1989, Cruz-Torres spend the next two decades immersed in the budding labor fight. She visited sprawling fish markets and sat in on tense union meetings with industry and government representatives as the women faced down gender discrimination and bureaucratic hurdles to move forward with their work. Meanwhile, in the course of her research, violence stemming from Sinaloa’s growing drug trade claimed the lives of two traders she knew; their cases are still unsolved today.
Those are the stories documented in her first book, “Voices Throughout Time: Testimonies of Women Shrimp Traders in Sinaloa, Mexico.” The breadth of that research and her commitment to see it through is what caught the attention of the Victoria Foundation last fall, along with other awards before it.
But her focus shifted closer to home last summer, when she headed back to her native Puerto Rico for a study on how fisheries there are reacting to the fallout of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
With over $17,000 in funding from ASU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cruz-Torres worked with and trained student researchers at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico.
“Professor Cruz-Torres is doing important work that sheds light on how local communities are affected by resource management policies and environmental changes,” said The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Patrick Kenney, who financed some of the research last summer. “Her study adds value to the School of Transborder Studies, and also to the college as a whole.”
Working alongside two other female scientists completing degrees at the university, the first phase of her research focused on the immediate impact of the hurricane on the livelihoods of seafood professionals.
“We are finding that migration is a big issue,” she said. “People in the sector are having to change careers, because they lost everything.”
As a new generation of women enter social sciences like anthropology, Cruz-Torres wants to be a helping hand in guiding them. Working in Puerto Rico gave her the chance to put those goals into action.
“Historically, we don’t have a lot of women training other women in this field,” she said. “The research (in Puerto Rico) was a good opportunity to give back to my university.”
She is also in the final stages of a second book on women in the fishing sector, titled, "Until the Sun Today: Gender and Seafood Economies in Mexico,” and continues to organize methodology workshops and coordinate with research assistants at the University of Sinaloa. Following the completion of her book, she is eyeing further research into rural tourism and food security issues across Mexico.
The courses Cruz-Torres teaches at ASU delve into many of the same gender and labor issues she spent years documenting, a track she said the School of Transborder Studies has helped foster.
“The school has helped me cement my connection to Mexico, I think that’s an important thing we do here,” she said. “I’ve had students from Mexico come here to learn from me, and I think they feel like this is a space where they are valued.”
Top photo: Maria Cruz-Torres has spent over two decades following the lives of Sinaloa's female shrimp traders. That body of work and the history it unveils was recognized last year by the Phoenix-based Victoria Foundation.