As a biological anthropologist who studies violence, Ventura R. Pérez examines skeletal remains from victims of century-old massacres and recent drug crimes. But outside of the scientific results in the lab, he wants to understand the bigger picture—the societal forces—that can lead to such horrific acts.
And when he makes new discoveries or arrives at new insights, Pérez not only wants to share them with scholars, he also feels compelled to make the information freely available to the communities affected by the violence.
To provide access to his work and that of others in the field of violence, Pérez launched an online journal, Landscapes of Violence (LoV), this fall. It was a gutsy move and huge undertaking for a junior faculty member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. But Pérez wanted to provide a platform for various disciplines to discuss causes of violence and include voices of the human experience behind it.
“I couldn’t wait,” says Pérez, who turns 45 this month. “I felt I had a moral obligation.” Pérez believes victims who are the subject of academic research should have access to the findings so they can leverage the information to push for policy change and protect the heritage of their culture. The hope of the open-access journal is to reach a broader audience of academics, policymakers and the public.
For his tenacity in launching a true interdisciplinary journal and his commitment to engage the community in his research, Pérez is honored as the first SPARC Innovator of 2011.
“Perez’s work really drives home the deep need for access to scholarly articles by constituencies that are often overlooked—the communities impacted by research studies, and policy makers who depend on real-time, high-quality information to make informed decisions,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC. “His focus on making sure that the research process is deliberately inclusive through to the communication of final results is critical and admirable— especially for the kind of intensely interdisciplinary work that he carries out.”
The path to scholarship
Pérez grew up in Moline, Illinois, the oldest of two children. His father was a Mexican immigrant, his mother from Kansas. He was named after his grandfather who was brutally killed in a revenge murder in Mexico. When he was six years old, his father put him in a boxing ring. “These events were small pieces of who I am. We don’t study what we study by accident,” says Pérez. (Interestingly, his research has drawn him to the region in Mexico where his grandfather died.)
Pérez began his studies at a community college when he was 20 and later transferred to the University of Iowa. He took classes in the morning and worked from 3-11 p.m. at an aluminum plant in eastern Iowa, operating cranes, driving heavy equipment and flipping heavy pieces of aluminum. Pérez commuted 140 miles a day between campus and ALCOA for six years. On his quit slip, under “Reasons for Resignation” he wrote: In order to pursue a Ph.D. in biological archaeology. “I’ll never forget what my foreman said: ‘Nobody really cares why you’re quitting.’ And my response was ‘No, but I do,’” recalls Pérez.
He went on to UMass where he received both his master’s and doctorate in anthropology with distinction. In 2005, Pérez received the UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award while he was still a graduate student working toward his Ph.D. Since the department had such a commitment to service and outreach, he wanted to stay and was hired in 2006. “I defended my dissertation at 10 a.m. and started teaching at 12:20,” says Pérez.
“We don’t usually hire our own students, but the kind of work that Ventura does is very much in line with the department’s priority. He really embodies the work of an engaged scholar,” says Elizabeth Chilton, chair of the department of anthropology at UMass Amherst. Pérez doesn’t do the research and then think about the community as an add-on. Rather he is thinking about the community from the start of the project, says Chilton. “Ventura’s work takes it to another level,” she says.
Pérez is director of the Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology field school program at UMass. His current research includes drug-related violence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and he is the principal bioarchaeologist for the archaeological site el Teul in southern Zacatecas, Mexico.
A recent highlight of Pérez’s work was being part of a team that successfully completed the international repatriation between the American Museum of Natural History and the traditional Yaqui leadership in Sonora, Mexico, stemming from the 1902 Yaqui massacre in Sierra Mazatán. Artifacts and skeletal remains were transferred from the United States to the tribe in Mexico.
The reaction from the tribe was amazing, says Pérez. For the elders, it was particularly hard, but there was also pride in having the items returned. Younger children were in “awe” to see the bows and arrows and being able to touch something of their ancestors, says Pérez.
When the transfer was made to the Yaqui burial place in Sonora, Mexico, there was a massive 24-hour celebration with lots of dancing and ceremony, says Pérez. This marked the first negotiation between the U.S. and Mexico in which items were repatriated directly to the Yaqui in Mexico and Pérez says he is the only bioarchaeologist to have documented the trauma to the human skeletons from the massacre.
The hope is that by writing up the stories and sharing the video explaining the attempted genocide that the Yaqui people can move forward, says Pérez. With Open Access to the findings the tribe can use the information in their attempt before the United Nations to be recognized as a sovereign nation and maintain control of their valley and water rights.
Heidi Bauer-Clapp, a Ph.D. student at UMass Amherst, worked with Pérez on the Yaqui research. “With any project Ventura takes on, he puts his heart and soul into it and takes seriously his role; not just looking at how it can benefit the academic community, he looks for ways his work can have an impact beyond the university,” she says.
Having descendents ask questions about skeletal remains of their relatives was an incredible experience that changed her perspective, says Bauer-Clapp. “I also hope to do something in academia that transcends university boundaries,” she says.
Pérez tells his students the least interesting aspect of the work is the analysis of the trauma. “What I’m really interested in is what are the mechanisms that allow for individuals to consider of the spectrum of responses possible, a violent response,” says Pérez. “The real challenge for me is how to talk about this violence without normalizing it.” Pérez wants to understand the specific historical and cultural frameworks at the time these acts occurred.
Ramping up from the conference to the journal
In 2008, Pérez hosted a conference at UMass on violence that drew 300 people to hear research presented from 19 different academic departments and programs representing four colleges. Researchers from sociology, political science and anthropology and other fields presented papers. Pérez says that although their vocabulary and view of violence may differ, the participants had much to learn from each other. The success of that gathering prompted Pérez to think about developing a journal.
“It’s just a natural extension of the research I’m doing,” says Pérez. “In my mind, it’s another tool of scholarly engagement and a part of our mission as a land grant university.”
Pérez heard some buzz on campus about Open Access and partnered with the library for help in launching an online journal. Working with people who may not have access to his work otherwise was troublesome to Pérez and he was looking for ways to bridge that gap.
But going online with a journal was new territory. “My only concern was how to convince the rest of my colleagues and the public of the quality of the scholarship in the journal,” says Pérez. “They sometimes feel that Open Access is just throwing up a Web site and blogging. That was a hurdle to get people to understand that is not what this is about,” he says.
Pérez’s mentor, Debra Martin, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, says the Open Access concept was a difficult sell at first. “We thought: ‘Yeah, yeah, online. Too bad it’s not going to be a real journal,” says Martin. But she and other colleagues supported Pérez in his efforts. Soon she changed her mind. “Once he laid it all out for us this light bulb went off… I thought journals are really limited. Now in the most remote part of the world, people will see Ventura’s journal.”
A critical part of building the journal’s stature was to draft a good editorial board. Pérez sought out high-profile, busy professionals who were engaged in their communities and were willing to influence their peers to support the journal. In particular, Pérez wanted senior faculty with experience and interest in advancing the journal. He was able to secure some top names in the field, and the project began to gel.
To get submissions, he sold the concept to junior faculty members that an online journal was a faster pathway to getting published and to graduate students as a way to become more marketable.
The first issue published in October has been well received by the scholarly and tribal communities. It will come out approximately four times a year.
Pérez feels he has an ethical obligation to talk with tribal elders in the descent population before he starts his research to make sure they are comfortable about the work he is doing. With the online journal, he can now tell them they can have free and Open Access to the results.
Down the road
With the first issue of the journal online, Pérez is looking forward. “It’s exciting to think about all the possibilities. We aren’t hindered by the length of the publication. We can have streaming audio and video,” he says. “Couple that with a double-blind peer review and there are amazing opportunities.”
Pérez anticipates the number of articles per issue will increase and new features will be developed. For instance, he wants to add a feature tentatively titled “Conversations on Violence” that will be audio or video recorded conversations on the topic of violence between scholars from different fields, or between scholars and various stakeholders. “I’m excited at the idea that the journal will literally be giving a voice to people about this important subject because of both its flexibility and open-access format,” says Pérez.
He remains committed to making the publication free with no barriers. Suggestions of a business model that charges more for some premium content, such as video or audio, would cut out the very people he is trying to serve, says Pérez. For example, if there was audio or video content from a community member posted who cannot afford to pay for it, they would be denied access to their own contribution and be unable to share it with others in their community. “That’s not fair and it is certainly not very open,” says Pérez.
In November at the SPARC digital repositories conference in Baltimore, Pérez spoke on a panel about the tremendous time commitment involved in launching the journal, especially risky for a faculty member facing tenure review. (He rarely takes a day off and usually puts in 8-12 hour days.) His advice: Be prepared to demonstrate the need for the project, how it raises the exposure of the university and encourage collaboration with other academics.
Establishing LoV is another example of Pérez not doing the easy thing, but rather working on the cutting edge, says Chilton. “I think because it’s peer-reviewed, it will have the same level of status as print,” she says. “He’s opened our eyes by putting this journal online.” Many faculty members were unaware of the resources available on campus to support this kind of journal, she says.
As a result of Pérez’ influence, Martin also says she is thinking about Open Access more favorably and has inquired about starting an online journal as well. “Ventura has really brought a lot of us along,” says Martin. “The mission was that this would be something not just for the scholars, but for the people we are studying. He’s been such a good ambassador for that. It’s been transformative. He’s presented a roadmap for us to follow.
“The charming thing about Ventura is that he has no idea how good he is, what a trailblazer he’s been,” says Martin.