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Graduate Student Highlight: NSF Fellowship Recipient pursues PhD at UTSA to preserve Amazonian culture

August 17, 2020
Graduate and Postdoctoral Success
Hugo Lucitante and Dr. Michael Cepek

Hugo Lucitante and Dr. Michael Cepek

Graduate Student Highlight: NSF Fellowship Recipient pursues PhD at UTSA to preserve Amazonian culture

Hugo Lucitante is a member of the indigenous Cofán people, a small Amazonian nation afflicted by colonization, deforestation, mining, and pollution from the oil industry. With the permission of his parents and tribe elders, 10-year-old Hugo pursued an education in the United States. This opportunity brought hope and hardships; learning a new language and assimilating to a foreign culture is never easy. Fortunately, with the support of friends and fellow scholars, Hugo was immersed in Cofán and North American Culture, reinforcing his goal of becoming an advocate for his people. While an undergraduate at Brown University, Hugo found a calling in anthropology, Indigenous issues, and environmental studies. Now, an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, he continues his research at UTSA as an Anthropology doctoral candidate. Hugo Lucitante would be the first Cofán individual with a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology and plans to bring environmental, political, and economic opportunities to Indigenous Amazonian peoples.

Hugo Lucitante’s Q&A Responses

What kind of research are you conducting and how will it make a positive impact on your community?

I will be conducting ethnographic research collaboratively with my home community of Zábalo and other Cofán communities. These are communities whose forests and health are heavily threatened by the outside pressures that favor capitalistic systems of development. My research will be impactful in that it will continue to validate community-based participatory practices. My project will provide jobs and learning opportunities, and produce Cofán knowledge according to Cofán people’s ethical principles. I hope to conduct research that will have practical use for our people and contribute to the field of anthropology.

What are your goals after the completion of your graduate studies?

My goals for after receiving my PhD in Anthropology are to continue my commitment to working with my community and to help ensure the security of our territories. I hope to establish a field school in our homeland where we, as Indigenous peoples and scholars, can come together with outside students and researchers to produce knowledge, programs, and create opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. It is important that we build new alliances and stand in solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters around the world. If possible, I would like the field school to be a long-term program that will support the Cofán political, environmental, and educational vision. Through my research, teaching, and writing, I also want to contribute an Indigenous perspective to the field of anthropology, which still lacks diversity. 

What is the most memorable thing you’ve learned during your studies at UTSA?

One of the most memorable things I’ve learned during my studies at UTSA is the diversity of my program and the Department of Anthropology. Although we are still getting to know each other, the students come from so many different backgrounds, and we’re all engaging [in] such a wide range of important research questions, even within our department’s overall focus on environmental anthropology.

Who are a few notable people who have helped you on your academic journey at UTSA?

My advisor, Dr. Michael Cepek, plays a significant role in my academic journey at UTSA. Not only is he my advisor, but he’s also my comba (ritual brother) who is heavily invested in the Cofán nation and my personal success. We’ve known each other for more than 15 years. As an expert on Cofán culture and the struggles our people face, I could not have asked for a better mentor. Additionally, there is a team of professors who have been a great help to me at UTSA. I have taken multiple courses with Drs. Jamon Halvaksz, Patrick Gallagher, and Laura Levi. They have all helped me to validate my views and perspectives.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in western education (specifically higher education)?

The academic jargon and concepts are always a challenge, and I often find them inaccessible. English is my third language, and it’s all an ongoing learning experience. It takes me extra time to grasp the main arguments of most academic articles.  

What is your advice to others who want to become advocates of their community?

There are multiple communities that have very different challenges, wants, and needs.  I think that my standing is unique because I am a member of the Cofán nation and my experiences of growing up in an Amazonian community are what drive me to take on a role that is focused on Indigenous perspectives for Indigenous rights.

Over the years of my college experience, I have been fortunate to meet many students who are closely working with their own communities and making a difference. This is not to say that one has to be a member of an Indigenous community in order to collaborate with it. However, in my experience, we as Cofán people have been able to overcome obstacles when we use our own perspective, but also bring together people with various backgrounds and skills. I would advise students to listen closely and take the lead of the people who live in the communities in which they decided to work. The first ethical principle of my anthropological training is to “do no harm,” but we need to move beyond that simple idea and move beyond the discipline’s colonial tendencies.

After your first year as a UTSA graduate student, what do you wish you had known before?

It has been an interesting year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have only been on campus for about a semester and a half, and I’m now completing the rest of my courses online. Nothing could have prepared me to balance my schoolwork and my parental duties to my daughter, Asha, but I’m working hard to adapt and balance. The fact that my wife, Sadie Lucitante, is also in the doctoral program is a huge help in this regard.

What is the one question I haven’t asked that you really want to talk about?

I would like talk about is the impact of COVID-19 on the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia. More specifically, what it is doing to the lowland region of Ecuadorian Amazonia. As the Indigenous people stay put to self-isolate in their communities to combat the virus, they are also dealing with intense outside pressures on their lands. Right after COVID-19 hit our country, a major oil spill occurred near my people’s homeland. More than ever, Indigenous communities need support in gaining access to social networks and basics supplies. Currently, I am a board member of two foundations: the Cofán Survival Fund and the Raiz Foundation. While the Cofán Survival Fund focuses its efforts on the Cofán people and works closely with the Cofán ethnic federation (NOAIKE), the Raiz Foundation supports the work of Indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations throughout Ecuador. Currently, the Raiz Foundation has focused its efforts on providing basic supplies and food kits throughout the coast to the Amazonia.

I am grateful to my family, friends, my community of Zábalo, and the Indigenous leaders and scholars who continue to advocate for us as Indigenous peoples, making a change in the world and making academic journeys such as mine possible.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit the Cofán Survival Fund ( http://www.cofan.org/support-the-cause) and The Raiz Foundation ( https://www.raiz-usa.org/stay-at-home/) online today to see how you can make a difference in these indigenous communities.