In Memoriam: Patricia Pessar

Patricia R. Pessar, an internationally renowned scholar of Latin American immigration issues and refugee and social movements who helped launch a formal program at Yale for the study of ethnicity and migration, died in New Haven on May 10 after a long battle with cancer. She was 63.

Pessar was adjunct professor of anthropology, American studies, and African American studies. Her teaching and research interests included transnationalism and globalization, gender and ethnic studies, migration in the Americas, and social and religious movements. She was considered an expert on the history and ethnography of the Dominican Republic and forms of popular religious expression in Brazil and Latin America.

“Her fieldwork took her to communities profoundly afflicted by civil war and displacement, but she always came away transformed by the creativity and imaginative power of her informants,” says Alicia Schmidt Camacho, professor of American studies and ethnicity, race and migration. “I remember well her field research at the Mexico-Guatamalan border with members of Mamá Maquín, an advocacy organization devoted to the concerns of repatriated Mayan women. Her analysis of the precarious status of these women in the post-conflict period yielded prescient insights about how gender operated in these women’s lives. Patricia matched her scholarly investment in gendered analysis with a generous investment in feminist practice, characterized by dialog and collaborative inquiry. I have benefited so much from her example and from being the recipient of this generosity.”

A member of the Yale faculty since 1993, Pessar is the author, co-author, or editor of “When Borders Don’t Divide: Labor Migration and Refugee Movements in the Americas” (1988), “Between Two Islands: Dominican International Migration” (1991), “A Visa for a Dream: Dominicans in New York” (1995), “Caribbean Circuits: New Directions in the Study of Caribbean Migration” (1997), and “From Fanatics to Folk: Brazilian Millenarianism and Popular Culture” (2005). She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1976, and taught at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Georgetown University, Duke University, and Florida International University before joining the Yale faculty.

Stephen Pitti, professor of history and American studies and director of the Program in Ethnicity, Race & Migration (ER&M) says, “Patricia made a name for herself at Yale as a devoted teacher and mentor, an energetic and original scholar, a great colleague, and a gifted administrator. She was deeply involved in many different academic units — including American studies, anthropology, African American studies, Latin American studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies — where she worked closely with both undergraduates and graduate students. In the midst of writing her books and articles, and supervising senior essays and graduate projects, Patricia in 1998 co-founded ER&M, an undergraduate major that has encouraged the interdisciplinary study of global migration and refugee movements, and of diverse communities within the United States and elsewhere shaped by migration and cross-border movements.

“Her work in ethnicity, race and migration studies animated a generation of students over the last 15 years and helped to define a program of central importance to Yale College,” he continues. “As director of undergraduate studies for ER&M, and as the official or unofficial adviser to dozens of majors, Patricia shaped the experiences of many undergraduates; she set them on paths towards public service careers, or towards law or graduate schools, and her kindness and intellectual leadership left an indelible impression on everyone she encountered.”

Schmidt Camacho recalls her colleague’s influence on her own career.

“During my first year at Yale, Patricia invited me to participate in a conference that she convened on gender and migration, which brought together her many colleagues in the fields of anthropology and sociology, as well as her former students. I had not yet completed my dissertation, but Patricia assured me that I should share a draft chapter. When I arrived, I told her I needed a place to gather my notes, and she took me into her office. At her desk were colorful mementos of her travels, photographs of her son Matthew and husband Gil, and Matthew’s artwork. It was a wonderful room, which has lingered in my memory as an example of how seamlessly Patricia wove together the many facets of her life as a scholar and parent and social being. In the company of her books and artwork, I gathered my courage and entered the conference room, where I found Patricia had seated me next to the women whose work had most influenced my own. The gift was silently delivered but the message was clear. She had given me a place from which to enter the conversation as a peer. In the years that followed, I saw Patricia bestow that gift again and again, and take sincere pleasure and delight in the results. We are all so much the better for having worked and studied with her.”

Pessar is survived by her husband, Gilbert M. Joseph Ph.D. ’78, the Farnam Professor of History and International Studies at Yale, with whom she regularly taught a graduate seminar on Latin American social movements that combined approaches from both anthropology and history; their son, Matthew, who is about to graduate from Yale College; and her sister, Linda Pessar Cowan, who is a psychiatrist in Buffalo, New York. Memorial contributions can be sent to the New Haven-León Sister City Project, 608 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT 06511.