Patricia Pessar, professor of American studies and anthropology and founder of the Ethnicity, Race and Migration program, died last month after a decade-long battle with cancer. She was 63.
A scholar of immigration and social movements in Latin America, Pessar helped forge the interdisciplinary study of issues related to global migration, ethnicity, nationality and race through her scholarship and teaching. In 1997-’98, she co-founded the ER&M major, for which she served as director of undergraduate studies until the end of the 2011-’12 academic year. Family, students and colleagues interviewed remembered her for her generosity and intellectual leadership.
“Patricia was involved with global immigration long before it became a high-profile political issue,” said Gilbert Joseph GRD ’78, Pessar’s husband and the Farnam Professor of History and International Studies at Yale. “She combined a strong advocacy for immigrant and refugee rights with a profound scholarly engagement.”
Pessar earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Barnard College in 1971 and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1976. At age 24, Pessar spent 15 months in the peasant community of Santa Brigida, located in a remote region of northeastern Brazil called “the End of the Earth” by natives. There, she studied a popular Millenarian movement begun in the 1930s and developed a friendship with the local saintly mystic Dona Dodo, who had previously prophesied that “a dark-haired woman, a messenger from God, would appear from across the sea to take stock of the community and report back to Him,” according to Linda Pessar Cowan, Pessar’s sister.
Before coming to Yale, Pessar worked as the director of the Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance at Georgetown University. Years of fieldwork in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America led to several books, including “When Borders Don’t Divide: Labor Migration and Refugee Movements in the Americas,” “A Visa For a Dream: Dominicans in New York,” and “From Fanatics to Folk: Brazilian Millenarianism and Popular Culture.”
At the time of her death, Pessar was working on a collection of essays on feminism in migration studies.
Pessar joined the Yale faculty in 1993, leaving a tenured position at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to accompany her husband to New Haven. Colleagues and students said Pessar brought an enthusiasm to campus that created the environment in which the ER&M program was born.
“She was the faculty member at Yale most responsible for the establishment of ER&M, and in her capacity as DUS in recent years she advised or co-advised most of the senior essays in that major, including many by Latino students or about topics of importance to Latino communities,” Stephen Pitti ’91, professor of history and American studies, said. “Patricia was a devoted teacher and mentor, a great scholar of Dominican migration and Brazilian popular religiosity and other subjects, and a major loss for the Yale community.”
For more than five years, Pessar pushed for the promotion of the major to stand-alone status, which was finally approved in February 2012. During that time, Pessar endeavored to strengthen and expand the program’s academic offerings by securing greater financial backing and new full-time faculty.
“[ER&M] and the general study of multiculturalism at Yale simply wouldn’t be what they are without her amazing contributions,” Ned Blackhawk, professor of history and American studies, said.
Pessar worked closely with both undergraduates and graduate students as a mentor and guide. Diana Enriquez ’13 said she met Pessar her freshman year, when Enriquez organized an event focusing on Mexico’s drug war. Pessar helped her find funds for a speaker to come to campus and present his research, she said.
“She was one of the professors on campus who I sought out as often as possible for guidance, because she was warm, welcoming and encouraging,” Enriquez said. “She pushed me, but also encouraged me to celebrate the work I had done along the way.”
Joseph also emphasized his wife’s “tremendous” devotion to the program and to establishing a connection with her students.
“She mentored her students with all of her strength,” Joseph said.
Cowan said Pessar was not only “a disciplined, rational thinker possessed of unusual courage and moral strength,” but also had “a brightness and an exuberant love of people.”
“I lay claim to knowing Patricia longer than anyone,” she said. “Observing her behind bars, I taught her to climb out of her crib, and she never in her life displayed the least inclination to climb back in.”
In addition to Joseph and Cowan, Pessar is survived by her son Matthew Pessar Joseph ’12.