Archives of Women of the Southwest DeGolyer Library

Isabel T. Kelly Ethnographic Archive, El Tajin Fieldwork

Isabel T. Kelly

Isabel Truesdell Kelly (1906-1983) was a social anthropologist and archaeologist who specialized in Mexican cultures. She developed a scholarly interest in anthropology while a student at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and conducted fieldwork in 1931-1934 with the Coast Miwok and the Southern Paiute people. Kelly was an indefatigable field worker. She went to Mexico in 1935 working in Culiacan and Sinaloa and returned to Mexico for archaeological studies in 1939. She became a Mexican resident in 1940, settling in Tepepan, outside Mexico City. Kelly taught and conducted research among the Totonac people at El Tajin in Veracruz. She also studied health care in Mexico, early fieldwork in the area of medical anthropology. The Isabel T. Kelly ethnographic archive, part of the Archives of the Women of the Southwest at the DeGolyer Library has been of interest to a variety of scholars. Stanford PhD student, Sam Holley-Kline spent the 2017 fall semester researching the archive and has written the following about his experience with the collection. Anne E. Peterson, Curator of Photographs, DeGolyer Library

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When anthropologist Isabel Kelly arrived to the rural Mexican community of El Tajín in 1947, she was one of the few who had a camera. El Tajín was a largely Totonac-speaking community of farmers, located about a kilometer from a famous archaeological site of the same name. Kelly’s 1947-1948 fieldwork in El Tajín yielded the 1952 monograph The Tajín Totonac but she was never able to follow up with a planned second volume. Her notes, photos, and drafts eventually made their way to the DeGolyer Library.

Like most every student of Totonac Mexico, I had read The Tajín Totonac in advance of my own fieldwork. The El Tajín that I came to know during field research between 2012 and 2017 was a large community of mostly Spanish-speaking wage laborers, site guards, and vendors. Older residents still remembered Kelly, though: the house she rented, where the kindergarten now is; the candy she would hand out to children; and her return visits in 1963-1964.

Thanks to funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, I had the opportunity to spend almost three months consulting Kelly’s materials. The extent of Kelly’s Tajín materials was stunning: thousands of typed 5”x8” field notes, a partial draft of the second volume, and hundreds of slides and negatives. Thanks to Curator of Photographs Anne Peterson and Norwick Center for Digital Solutions Assistant Director Cindy Boeke, I was able to access high-quality scans of these slides and negatives. In December 2017, I returned to Tajín to present some of these photos at two conferences in the archaeological site and the nearby city of Papantla.

El Tajin, ca. 1947

The public’s interest was immediate and striking. My previous public presentations in the area had met with polite interest, and audiences of maybe 20-30. This time, though, perhaps 50-60 people arrived; the auditorium in the archaeological site was standing room only. Each slide featuring one of Kelly’s photographs was met with whispers and hushed murmurs. In one case, a member of the audience recognized her late husband with his father, weaving palm stars. People quickly began asking me about the photos, proposing exhibits, displays, and books; the presentations were hopefully a step in this direction.

Using these photos with interlocutors from my fieldwork, however, proved as rewarding as it was productive. One young man recognized a photo from his great-grandparents’ wedding because Kelly had given the couple copies back in 1947. He’d never seen the slides, though, and was struck with the sharpness of their color. One of the last surviving children, aged 72, of Kelly’s key informant, Modesto González, saw a photo that she’d never seen: she and her father on her second birthday. “It’s like I was seeing him alive again,” she commented. For my own research, Kelly’s materials are invaluable. But, thanks to the efforts of the DeGolyer Library and the Norwick Center, they have the potential to reach a much wider audience – one for whom these photos are not just research material but family heirlooms.

By Sam Holley-Kline, Stanford University

Kelly loading car for fieldwork with Coast Miwok, ca. 1932