Given his age, 75, you’d think anthropologist Robert Hinshaw would want to settle back with one of those Scandanavian vodkas he occasionally enjoys and retire to his Colorado mountain retreat. Instead, he wants to make a difference in this world, as “payback” for all he’s received.
He explains: “Gilbert White, the late geographer and a great mentor, laid this challenge on virtually everyone he knew, telling us academicians we didn’t pay for our education; we all had fellowships—paid with taxpayer money. He’d say, ‘You’re more productive at the end of your careers. What right do you have to step aside, with the world in its condition?’ We knew we just couldn’t say, ‘We’re retired. We’re not doing anything now.’”
And so, Robert has decided to spend considerably less time in the United States and to live out his retirement primarily on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, where he spent nearly half his academic career as an anthropologist. Recently he sold the family’s Rocky Mountain home, the place to which he retreated intermittently over the past 40 years.
He says he is “energized” by living in Tzununá, a village of approximately 3,000 Maya descendants who, “as recently as 15 years ago had no running water or electricity.” With no telephone lines, he and his neighbors use cell phones. No one he knows owns a computer or even a typewriter. Cable television is available but beyond the means of most families. There are no more than a half-dozen motor vehicles in the village. “We rely on public boats passing every half hour to get us to doctors, a pharmacy, the market and, in my case, internet access and a bank.”
It was in similar lake communities that Robert did most of his anthropological research and that inspired him two decades ago to begin a fiction writing project, resulting in his two novels: My Lake at the Center of the World (2007) and a sequel, The Rape of Hope (2008).
“The principal reason for undertaking the first,” he says, “was to make creative use of the oral histories of Mayas collected in the early 1940s by another mentor, Sol Tax, a University of Chicago anthropologist. To my knowledge, these stories represent the only extant record of Maya experience dating back to the government’s anti-vagrancy laws of the 1880s.”
Robert has been better known for his nonfiction writing as an academician. In 1975, his Panajachel: A Guatemalan Town in Thirty-Year Perspective was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. In 1979 he was editor of Currents In Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Sol Tax (Mouton Publishers). And in 2006 Johnson Books released Living with Nature’s Extremes: The Life of Gilbert Fowler White, a publication Robert calls “the highlight of my career.”
He returned to fiction writing after a seven-year hiatus, deciding then to make it a two-novel project by adding the oral Maya histories he had collected between the 1960s and 1980s.“I delayed publishing the first novel until the second was virtually ready for publication,” he says. He believes his attempt at fiction is unique among Guatemalan novels for his use of what he believes to be “the only recorded memories of Mayas experiencing the worst of the racist and exploitative legislation of the so-called ‘Liberal Era’ of Guatemalan politics.”
Robert Hinshaw was born in 1933 in Wichita, Kansas to parents of Quaker descents who migrated from England in the early 1700s to what now is Pennsylvania. “My father was a Quaker minister in the Midwest before becoming president of William Penn College in Iowa. Mother was a homemaker.” A step-grandmother, Ruth Smith, was a Quaker missionary in eastern Guatemala a century ago, this ancestry contributing in part to the plot of the sequel novel. A member of the Society of Friends himself, Robert’s high school and college education was all in Quaker institutions. He graduated from Haverford College in 1955, before entering graduate study in anthropology at the University of Chicago, where he worked under Tax and earned a Ph.D. in 1968. Tax introduced him to Guatemala. “We worked together in the lake region for 30 years until his death in the early 1990s.”
Early in his academic career, Robert taught at the University of Kansas and the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. He later served as president of Wilmington College in Ohio, chaired the Anthropology Department at Beloit College in Wisconsin, was academic dean at Bethel College in Kansas, taught at the University of Colorado in Denver and directed a six-college consortium in Kansas. He also was a Washington lobbyist under the auspices of the Quakers before returning to independent academic research and consulting in Guatemala.
His wife Linda is a Kansas City attorney. They met in 1990 as official U.S. observers of the Nicaraguan national election. The family consists of five adult children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“Linda and I are turning over some of our land to Amigos de Santa Cruz [a non-government organization] to provide a place for the women of Tzununá to have classes in nutrition, infant care, family planning, gender equality and empowerment and a more diversified income,” he says. Traditionally, “an entrenched conservatism” has impeded the town from taking advantage of social services available from within or outside Guatemala.
“They define their needs differently than do North Americans,” Robert says. “They subsist on food, clothing and lodging, almost all of which they grow, make or build. They are proud of their culture and aren’t easily convinced that they should be changing their lives in any significant way. After all, they have lived essentially this way for more than 1,000 years.”
The last thing Robert wants to do is to spoil that. “Linda and I are focusing on what we can gain from living with the Mayas. Any assistance we, as outsiders, can provide is not handouts, far less the building of schools and churches.” Too often, he laments, outsiders come in and decide what a community needs, then do it and leave consequences with which they don’t have to live. “An outsider’s role is to listen to peoples’ needs, show what options they have, step back and listen to what they decide then offer whatever possible assistance.
“I’m not down here to save the world,” Robert says. “I’ve just found a convenient rationale for arguing that this is the place to retire.”