Digging Into Things
As a child, Christopher Parisano thought of Willets Point, Queens – that warren of rutted streets packed with auto-repair and -salvage shops near where the Mets play ball – as the place where his father and grandfather worked magic on cars, back when cars were the center of a boy’s vision of industrial modernity.
However, he says, “when I grew large enough to peer inside a car’s engine compartment, my father sharply announced that I would find no future there, as he once did.”
And yet, in a roundabout way, he did find his way to the future there. As an undergraduate anthropology major, Parisano (Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, B.A. in political science and anthropology) returned to Willets Point to analyze how the influx of immigrants, the tenacity of the mechanics and the city’s desire to redevelop the ostensibly dilapidated area into the “economic engine” of Queens were transforming the borough.
His work won the 2008 Society for Urban, National, and Transnational Anthropology Student Paper Prize, but, more importantly, he says it sharpened his interest in “the production of urban space, property and memory.”
And that pointed him toward the proposal that won a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship – a close look at how marginalized city dwellers and the government are squaring off over archeological ruins in Lima, Peru. The three-year, $126,000 grant is the most prestigious award for graduate research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
A doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, Parisano is looking at the conflict over a plan to empty out and preserve Lima’s pre-Hispanic archeological sites as a tourist-oriented “heritage circuit.” These are ruined edifices, many built before they were incorporated into the Inca, and later Spanish empires. Over the past 30 years, people from Peru’s highland have migrated to the fringes of the city and constructed shantytowns where many ruins lie.
“The city’s newest residents occupy or build upon structures that are thousands of years old,” Parisano says. “They come up against a rigid definition of the sanctioned uses of archeological sites that is connected to a rigid definition of the nation-state.”
Parisano first went to rural Peru as an undergraduate in 2007, taking an anthropological field-methods course that stressed “participatory action research, a collaborative and pedagogically oriented method of social investigation.”
He arrived at another time of friction, when the central government sought to supplant traditional plant-based healers with modern medical and educational institutions.
After graduation, he returned to Lima, teaching English and learning what is now fluent Spanish. Peru’s Ministry of Culture then hired him as the first anthropologist in its Office of Civic Participation.
From 2009 to 2011, he spoke to groups about cultural heritage preservation, while designing creative writing workshops that encouraged young adults “to reflect upon their personal histories in relation to official narratives, which were formed around internal armed conflict, reconciliation and shared national heritage.”
And, in work that led to his current research, he prepared technical reports on national heritage sites, documenting the activities of groups living amid the ruins.
Parisano is particularly interested in what happens to waste material, for some heritage sites merge with landfills. Since many shantytowns lack sanitary services, contemporary garbage gets mixed with cultural artifacts. The other part of the story is how the bureaucracy deals with the issue.