Lois Ann Lorentzen’s research and activist work has taken her to Mexico and El Salvador. During our conversation, we discussed how her experience as an activist and wilderness guide contributes to her work as an academic.

Lois Ann Lorentzen. Photo by Shawn Calhoun

How did you first get interested in research?

While studying for master’s degree in California, I was homesick for Minnesota. My master’s had been in Philosophy and Theology, which was very abstract, very intellectual. I loved it, but I really wanted to do something that was more activist and hands on. I saw a Time magazine, and the cover was a boat of refugees in the sea by Vietnam. I found out that Minnesota was a huge destination for migrants and refugees because we have really good social services. In Minnesota, I worked in refugee resettlement with Vietnamese refugees who were coming to the U.S. and with Cambodians who had survived the genocide. It was hands on work—getting people jobs and places to live. Later I realized I could study and research things that I was passionate about, and the last ten years of my career have focused on migration and refugee issues. I feel fortunate to have life passions and research and teaching all fit together.

How did that experience translate into your research?

I became involved in activism against the war in El Salvador. I got to know Salvadorans and activists, and some of the Salvadorans I met said, “You should just go to El Salvador.” I went to El Salvador and realized that this could be my research as well as where I work. For years, I went back and forth. I was studying Salvadoran migration to the U.S. because a fifth of the country left, but I also looked at environmental damage caused by the war. I had been a wilderness guide before my earlier degree, so I had been involved in environmentalism. I had two research focuses—one on the environment and another on immigration. They both came out of life experience.

Do you feel like the role of an activist and the role as an academic are separate roles or interrelated roles? What are those intersections?

They’re separate for me in terms of time. When I’m teaching, when I’m doing research, I don’t have much time to be engaged in communities. When I was working with refugees, it was so intense. There was no time to think, which is why I wanted to do research and become an academic. I thought a lot of the problems I was seeing was because people hadn’t been thoughtful and hadn’t done research to develop policy. In that sense, they’re separate because we’re limited in time and energy.

They’re interrelated in that I think good research can help us understand social problems, and the more you understand root causes, the better you can develop policy and interventions to help address them. They come together in teaching because students aren’t necessarily going to leave college and become a graduate student, but if my teaching is based on very solid research, when they go out and do whatever they’re going to do, hopefully they can do it more thoughtfully.

What are you focusing on in your research?

I have two main projects—one that has been ongoing and one that is relatively new. I’m part of a research network of Jesuit universities on migration, and I have a project with researchers from Guatemala, Mexico, and Chicago. We’ve been doing research on the Arizona-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona looking at human rights abuses and people who are trying to cross, who’ve been deported, who have been in detention centers. We’ve been looking at different agencies, many faith-based or religious, that are trying to meet some of these needs. If it weren’t for religious groups, there would be not many services for migrants.

In Mexico, there are shelters along a route where migrants from Central America cross Mexico on top of a train and it’s super dangerous.  Almost all of the shelters are run by religious groups—mainly Catholics in Mexico. I hadn’t thought about that going into this research. I was researching immigration and then it became obvious that religion was really important in the lives of many migrants. If you don’t have documents in the U.S., you might be afraid to go to a government service, but you wouldn’t be afraid to go to a Spanish-speaking Catholic church with undocumented migrants in the parish

Another research project is less mainstream. Ten years ago in San Francisco, our research team met a group of transgender sex workers from Mexico who would move back and forth between Guadalajara and San Francisco. They’d come here to make money to either get operations or to go back to Guadalajara. In their rooms—they all lived in the hotels in the Tenderloin—they would have altars with a statue of  Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico; usually a statue of St. Jude, who is for lost causes; and then this other figure of Santa Muerte, who’s also known as Holy Death. I never heard of her, so for ten years, I’ve been sort of obsessed with finding out about her.

When I went to Mexico, I tried to learn more about her. This was quite a while ago and no one wanted to talk about her. Since then, she’s become enormously popular. There are millions and millions of followers now throughout Mexico. They have masses to her, and she’s popular with migrants. Since she is seen as death, she’s popular with people with precarious lives because she represents that liminality of understanding death and understanding how dangerous their lives are.

I’m researching why governments are afraid of her. In 2009, the Mexican government ordered their military to bulldoze all the shrines to her along the U.S.-Mexico border. The first article written in English about her was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense because she was also associated with narco traffickers, but that’s sensationalized. Yes, you can find her there, but you can also find her in migrants’ homes. Most recently, I found FBI training manuals where they have workshops because supposedly agents freak out when they go to a crime scene and they see Santa Muerte. I’ve just started thinking about it. Why does a government get involved with a kind of alternative saint? Why does the Mexican government or the FBI care about her?

What are the intersections that you see between your projects?

Some of the people who cross wear Santa Muerte necklaces or charms or they’ll carry little statues of her. Some of the people on the border might be worshippers, so I might talk to them as well. Surprisingly, some of the police in Mexico who might harass migrants are also worshippers because they’re in a risky job as well. They’re separate projects, but at times they’ll intersect.

What are you hoping to contribute to the conversation?

Most people don’t want to migrate, but they’re forced. So what are the best ways to address that at the root level? Why are people leaving? What are the root causes? What are structural issues to look at? What are the violations? When I teach, I don’t necessarily tell students what I think policy should be, but no matter what policy you have, human rights violations should not happen.

How do you bring research into the classroom at the University of San Francisco?

I’m fortunate at USF because I’ve been able to teach what I want, and it’s valued here. I’ve taught classes on environmental ethics, on religion and the environment. I know the good scholars, I know the best things for students to read. Because of my research in San Francisco, I might take students on field trips or to different communities. I think if you’re engaged in your research then you know the questions to ask, you know what should be taught, you know who they should be reading.

How do you work with students to help them develop their own research skills?

Next fall, USF is starting a masters program in Migration Studies. I’ll be teaching research seminars, and students will be doing original research. Students spend the first semester here, the second semester in Mexico, and the summer in between in internships or fieldwork. We can place students all over the world in migration areas to do research because of the Jesuit network. Then they spend the last year back here. Obviously migration is a huge issue now, so our main goal is to train professionals to be able to better the lives of migrants by being grounded in good research and good knowledge. At USF, we have a lot of depth of experience in migration.

How did you end up at USF?

At the Jesuit University in San Salvador, six Jesuits were assassinated by the military as well as their housekeeper and their daughter during the war. I used to spend a lot of time at that university and think, “What is this like for students to know that their faculty were just murdered for speaking the truth?” The Jesuits made this big impact on me. When I was looking for jobs, there was this job at this Jesuit university in Philadelphia. I thought, “Jesuits, they’re cool,” so I took that job. I liked it. I was there for 3 years, but I was really, really homesick for the West because there’s wilderness and I had been a wilderness guide. I saw the job at a Jesuit university in San Francisco. It was like a dream come true. A lot of the Salvadoran activists I knew and friends from my mountain climbing days lived in San Francisco. I just packed everything in my little red pickup and drove across the country and I’ve been here for 24 years.

Do you have a favorite wilderness spot that you like to go to?

My old wilderness guide friends, several of us have this one spot in the Sierra Nevada that’s very remote. It’s like our dream spot in the world. It’s on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. You go out of Bridgeport, you go hike the mountains, you go off the trail, and that’s all I’ll tell you.