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Professor Diskin Dead at 62

Professor Martin Diskin, anthropologist, activist, and teacher, died August 3 at Mt. Auburn Hospital after a long battle with leukemia. He was 62 years old.

Diskin taught MIT's introductory anthropology class since its inception 25 years ago. The class is currently known as Introduction to Anthropology (21A100). He also taught several other anthropology classes over his 30-year MIT career.

As an anthropologist, Diskin did field work in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Colombia. Diskin "was a pioneer in what is now called the anthropology of human rights," said Professor of Anthropology Jean E. Jackson, who spoke at an August 24 memorial service held in the Wang Auditorium in the Tang Center.

"At a time when it wasn't really fashionable, Martin was using ethnography to reveal death squads, torture, injustice, broken promises concerning land reform - revealing the effects of U.S. foreign policy at a grass-roots level," Jackson said.

"He brought a clear sense of ethics and justice to his work and teaching,"Jackson said. "An important goal for Martin, especially in his teaching, was to connect what you're doing in your research to the real world, in his case, connecting it to human rights issues. He used anthropology as a tool for illuminating injustice."

Last year Diskin was the first recipient of the Martn-Bar Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights Award.

Diskin served as a consultant for several non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam America and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Curiosity sparked by immigrants

Diskin received his doctorate and undergraduate degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles and began teaching at MIT in 1965 as an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities. He became a full professor in 1982.

During his tenure at the Institute, Diskin was involved with a broad range of activities. He helped create the Latin American Studies Program, served on a committee on minority recruitment and hiring in the humanities department, and was instrumental in developing the anthropology/ archeology exchange program with Wellesley College.

Diskin was the first recipient of the MITJohn Navas Faculty Foreign Travel Fund teaching award in 1982.

In a 1992 Tech Talk interview, Diskin said that his curiosity about Caribbean cultures was sparked by a fascination with the Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York City in his youth. His curiosity 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,"Diskin said.

For his doctoral thesis, Diskin studied the peasant economy of Oaxaca, Mexico. He wrote a book on the subject, Markets in Oaxaca, with Scott Cook (University of Texas Press, 1976).

At the time of his death he was working on a book on agrarian reform in El Salvador. Diskin was editor of Trouble in Our Backyard: Central America and the United States in the 1980s (Pantheon Books, 1984) and editor and a contributor to El Salvador: Background to the Crisis (Central America Information Office, 1982).

Political activist, advocate

Diskin's anthropological studies often overlapped with his political beliefs. In 1983, he protested the shutdown of El Salvador's National University by the government.

In May, 1985, he was arrested along with several MIT professors and students while protesting the Reagan administration's Nicaraguan policy at the John F. Kennedy federal building in Boston. At the time, Diskin was a spokesman for a group of protesters.

Other activities included visiting political prisoners in Cuba in 1988 and joining a vigil in Lexington, MA for an American nun killed in Nicaragua in 1990.

Recently, Diskin supported the cause of former MIT student Lori Berenson, who was sentenced to life in prison in Peru by a secret military tribunal in early 1996 for alleged treason. In April, 1996 he organized a forum at MIT in support of Berenson, who had previously been a student of his.

Diskin also served as an official election observer in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

"Martin projected a quiet dignity and a reassuring calmness,"Jackson said. "His faith in the peace process and the people of El Salvador, his faith in the advisability of helping people come together and act collectively, his faith that people could determine what is really in their best interests, never faltered."

Raised in Brooklyn

A gardener and musician who also enjoyed playing Mexican folk guitar music, Diskin studied Yiddish in recent years. He was a member of the American Anthropological Society, the American Ethnological Society and the Latin American Studies Association.

Diskin was born August 22, 1934 in Manhattan and grew up in Brooklyn. He is survived by his wife, Vilunya (Firstenberg), a daughter, Leah, a son, Aaron, his mother, Rhoda, and two brothers, Saul and Philip.