Anthropologist Laura Cummings' work in U.S.-Mexico border studies has led her down many fascinating cultural paths, but one of her greatest academic accomplishments links directly back to the University of Arizona.
In the 1960s, Cummings volunteered at an orphanage in La Misión, Baja California. Then 17 years old, she became acquainted with the Diego family, headed by Zeferino Diego Ferreira. He was a community leader, a well-respected figure whose opinions carried weight in the local assembly and who – even into his 70s – personally chopped firewood to keep the orphanage warm.
But it was not until after Cummings had known him for several years that an offhand comment about a war wound led to him telling her that he had fought alongside Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.
Cummings, who had at that point just completed her bachelor's degree in anthropology, set out on the gargantuan task of compiling an oral history of a remarkable man whose life touched upon the most vital cornerstones, social and political, of modern Mexico. In 1999, the UA's Southwest Center published "Life Story of a Villista," composed of interviews with the aging Mexican revolutionary Don Zeferino, and the text has had a considerable and immediate impact on both academic and popular understanding of that chapter in our collective history.
Don Zeferino's hearing was at its ebb, and after Cummings found that he was intimidated by a tape recorder, she began sending him typed questions in advance and then transcribing their conversations from memory.
Cummings, who earned her doctorate degree from the UA in 1994, wrote on donated sheets of old ledger paper and used a cardboard box as a desk in the old, rotting vacation trailer she shared with another volunteer, a makeshift dwelling that Cummings describes as "funky."
Don Zeferino related to her his experiences of homelessness and loss at a young age, his time as an agricultural worker in the United States, his adventures in battle and his later years cultivating the land in La Misión. The vivid incidents Cummings recorded, from miners eating roasted skunk to cure rashes to the shrapnel-filled goat testicle grenades carried by female soldiers, are rare evidence of how the ravages of war were seen and felt by an officer who lived to see the progress fostered by the revolution.
At the time, Cummings knew very little research methodology, and documenting Don Zeferino's story became a learning experience that helped motivate her to pursue anthropology at the graduate level. Conditions were not ideal, and piecing together a narrative of his life was not always easy. But the project was rewarding.
"I was young," she notes. "I was stronger. I could put up with it. I can't anymore, but it was an adventure."
Don Zeferino died in 1973, but "Life Story of a Villista"and subsequent scholarship have immortalized him.
Publishers initially showed little interest in putting the research to press, in part because Cummings insisted it be made available in Spanish in order to serve the people of Baja California. Cummings showed the Southwest Center's Joe Wilder, who directs the center and whom she had known since her graduate days, a tiny booklet sold in Mexican supermarkets, which included a condensed version of Don Zeferino's story. Wilder believed it was important to tell the tale, and he decided to publish the complete oral history in both English and Spanish, pairing well with the UA center's mission of enriching academic dialogue on the history and culture of the border region.
"There's been so much important history and information having to do multiple disciplines that Joe has published," Cummings says. "That's just priceless, and you don't find it in other places. I think of the importance it has to a lot of the regional communities – these kinds of things being published is of great value to them. I know in La Misión, the people my age tell me that their kids, their grandkids, know about why they're there, how it is they all came to be there, from the book."
The bilingual edition of the Journal of the Southwest featuring Don Zeferino's story is indeed very well-known in the area. "Life Story of a Villista" is taught in history classes in Baja California and studied by regional historians, many of whom Cummings has taught alongside at the Autonomous University of Baja California's campuses in Tijuana and Enseñada.
Cummings says that it was "kind of wild" to see that a copy of the book had been "read to pieces" by patrons in the waiting area of a beauty salon owned by Don Zeferino's granddaughter – tangible proof that locals are in fact intrigued by an epoch that Don Zeferino insisted had been forgotten.
"Even when I asked him about it directly, he didn't want to talk about it," Cummings says. "He kept saying that people weren't interested in that anymore. I kept bugging him because I felt it was important. I knew it was history. He was an old man, and I didn’t know how much time he had left. I thought it was something to be done. I couldn't see that anyone else around there was going to do it, so I took it upon myself."
Now retired, Cummings served as partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau and is a former associate director of the UA women's studies program. She has done extensive work in HIV and drug and alcohol abuse prevention in the border region, and has served as a linguistic consultant on the Hopi Dictionary Project for the Hopi Tribe of Arizona.
In 2009, the UA Press published her book "Pachucas and Pachucos in Tucson: Situated Border Lives," a history of Mexican-American "zoot suit" culture in Southern Arizona, and only one of her many publications on border history.
"Laura Cummings is a world-class scholar, disarmingly modest as she always is," Wilder said. "She has the blessing, or curse, of working in the borders and interstices of culturally charged and sensitive areas – areas of hot ideology – of race, ethnicity, class and their various discourses. Laura handles this with sophistication and a real anthropological grounding in the human culture of her subject and place. It is this scrupulous, grounded scholarship that meshes so perfectly with how the Southwest Center has traditionally conceived itself and which is so important to an effective understanding of our contested region."
Baja California, where Cummings taught and lived for several years, still plays a major role in her life.
Don Zeferino's son recently supervised the building of Cummings' summer home in the area, and she visits frequently to see old friends.
She is also currently working on an art project involving photographs of city buses in Tijuana, taken in 1982 before a new fleet was purchased. The municipal buses of the era were decorated by their drivers with elaborate, meaningful illustrations and illuminated with colorful lights. For her, they represent an aspect of her time there.
The buses, like Don Zeferino’s life story, are part of a rich public history that the border region that is being preserved through the efforts of Cummings, Wilder and the Southwest Center.