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Professor Diskin of anthropology is dead at 62

Martin Diskin of Lexington, an MIT anthropology professor who was an expert on the agrarian economies of Latin America and an advocate for social reform in the region, died August 3 at Mt. Auburn Hospital after a long bout with leukemia. He was 62.

Professor Diskin was the first recipient of the Mart������������������n-Bar������������������ Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights Award last year. He did anthropological field work in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Colombia and was a consultant for Oxfam Amer-ica, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, the Inter-American Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Professor Diskin's curiosity about Caribbean cultures was sparked by a fascination with the Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York City in his youth, and bloomed a few years later when he worked as a seaman on a Norwegian ship.

"When I discovered in college that I could have a career and make a living studying culture as a systematic phenomenon, traveling, observing human variety and writing about it, it was a revelation," Professor Diskin told an interviewer in 1992.

He joined the MIT faculty in 1967 as an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities after receiving his PhD in anthropology from the University of California in Los Angeles, where he also earned the BA (1960) and MA (1963).

At MIT, he helped create the Latin American Studies Program and served on the committee on minority recruitment and hiring in the humanities. He also was instrumental in the anthropology/archeology exchange program with Wellesley College. He was the first recipient of the MIT John Navas Faculty Foreign Travel Fund teaching award in 1982 and was promoted to full professor in 1985.

Professor Diskin studied the peasant economy of Oaxaca, Mexico, for his doctoral thesis. He later wrote Markets in Oaxaca with Scott Cook (University of Texas Press, 1976). He was profoundly affected by the inequities that existed in its "perfect market," where supply and demand regulated prices.

"Living intimately with rural peasant Indians, I saw how anthropology systematically ignores their desperate poverty and the absence of benefits their state could provide," he said. "Mexico, with a large, wealthy economy, offered many social benefits, but they were not extended to people who live in villages. The experience convinced me that the phenomenon of poverty is as appropriate for anthropologists to study as, for example, certain esoteric questions of kinship or governments in acephalous societies where there are no supreme rulers." He discussed his work in a Q&A interview in MIT Tech Talk (October 28, 1992).


Professor Diskin's actions were often an expression of his social conscience. He protested the shutdown of El Salvador's National University by the government in 1983, was arrested along with 16 MIT colleagues and students while protesting the Reagan administration's Nicaraguan policy in 1985, visited political prisoners in Cuba in 1988 and joined a vigil in Lexington for an American nun killed in Nicaragua in 1990. He also supported the cause of former MIT student Lori Berenson, sentenced to life in prison in Peru in early 1996 for alleged treason after a secret military trial.

Professor Diskin testified before several congressional committees on agrarian reform in El Salvador and served as an official election observer in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was working on a book on agrarian reform in El Salvador when he died. He was the editor of Trouble in Our Backyard: Central America and the United States in the 1980s (Pantheon Books, 1984). He was also the editor and a contributor to El Salvador: Background to the Crisis, published in 1982 by the Central America Information Office (CAMINO).

Born in New York City on August 22, 1934, Professor Diskin grew up in Brooklyn. He was a gardener and a musician who also enjoyed playing Mexican folk music on the guitar. He studied Yiddish in recent years. He was a member of the American Anthropological Society, the American Ethnological Society and the Latin American Studies Association.

Professor Diskin is survived by his wife, Vilunya (Firstenberg), of Lexington; a daughter, Leah Judith of Cambridge; a son, Aaron Mendel of Brooklyn; his mother, Rhoda of Los Angeles; and two brothers, Saul, a twin, of Phoenix, and Philip of Los Angeles.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, August 24 from noon-3pm in the Tang Center (Building E51). The family requests that memorial donations be made to the Human Rights Document Exchange, PO Box 2327, Austin, TX 78768.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.

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