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Notre Dame professor presents fourth annual Hesburgh lecture

Dr. Karen Richman, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, spoke on “Immigrants, Social Investments and Social Capital: A Mexican Immigrant Case Study” October 3 as part of the Hesburgh Lecture Series. The lecture explored the social values of Mexicans and the impact those values have on their understanding of money.

The lecture was the fourth annual Hesburgh lecture at Saint Vincent. The series, named after late Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, is a nationwide series jointly coordinated between the University of Notre Dame and local Notre Dame clubs--associations of friends, students and university alumni. Those clubs partner with a local organizations, often colleges or universities, to obtain venues to host the lectures.

In this case, the Notre Dame Club of Greensburg/Uniontown partnered with the Saint Vincent Honors program, explained Michael Brooker, president of the club. The honors program chooses a speaker from a list provided annually by Notre Dame, he said.

“When the list comes out annually, we share that list with the honors program and they make the decision as to the professors,” Brooker said. “We will submit the top three to Notre Dame. If you give them [Notre Dame] more flexibility as to timing, you might have a better chance of getting your first choice.”

For that reason, speaker requests are made quite early-- in February or March of the previous academic year. In this case, Richman was the Honors Program’s first choice.

However, both Brooker and honors program director Fr. Brian Boosel, O.S.B., thought student turnout for the lecture was worse than in previous years since the lecture was scheduled the same week as most midterm exams.

“While the dinner was full, it would have been better attended if the lecture had been scheduled later in the fall. However, that is not something that SVC had any control over,” Boosel said.

In addition to providing a venue, in this case, the Fred Rogers Center, the honors program provided meals and accommodations, including a catered dinner for honors students and members of the Notre Dame club. Dr. Richman was very happy about the interested welcome she received.

“I had some probing conversations with my hosts, and I spent most of my day in that dining room [Metten room]. The first two hours, then I left for an hour and a half, then I went back and I was there for another two hours. Just in conversation with professors and students and Notre Dame alums,” she said.

Richman’s talk was based on a study she co-authored called “Confianza, Savings, and Retirement: A Study of Mexican Immigrants.” As she explained in her lecture, the research was inspired by findings that Mexican immigrants tend to have much lower retirement savings than other ethnic groups. The study was unique because it was conducted through collaboration between anthropologists and economists, meaning that it relied on not only in-person interviews and case studies but also large-scale data.

“There really hadn’t been any collaborations between economists, who are quantitative scholars, and anthropologists, who are qualitative scholars, up to this point,” Richman said. “Economists tend to be wary of the kind of qualitative work that anthropologists do. They think it’s a bunch of anecdotes, not systematic. And anthropologists look at large surveys and they say, ‘You already know the answer, you’re just counting beans,’ ” Richman said in her lecture.

Richman and her colleagues concluded that Mexicans have a particular cultural attitude toward money that leads them to be less willing to stockpile retirement savings. Mexicans have a collectivist attitude toward money, viewing it as an asset to be used for community health rather than personal gain, she suggested.

This attitude is based on what she called “confianza,” a measure of social capital. A person who is willing to help others builds up “confianza” and can expect to receive the same kind of help when he himself is in need. A person’s reputation is based, in part, on his “confianza.” Thus, she suggested, Mexicans tend to instinctively regard large-scale saving as selfish and individualistic and expect to receive help in their old age, just as they would help others. This may lead to shortfalls once they reach retirement age in a decidedly different American culture and economy.

Freshman Politics major Katilin Repp attended the Honors Program Dinner and lecture. She was particularly interested in the talk, she said, because she participated in a service trip to Mexico while in high school. Richman’s description of collectivism matched her own experience, she recalled.

“While I was in Mexico I encountered Dr. Richman’s idea of ‘confianza’ firsthand. Local men and women from the community came together to work side by side with us. . . . The last night we were together in the village a local woman who had worked with us told our group through a translator that ‘I may not be able to speak with you right now, but one day I will meet you in a better place where we will all be one family.’ [. . .] This woman knew us for a week, yet she had accepted us into her family,” Repp said.

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