Safe haven

Displaced from his homeland as a child, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, AB’51, has spent his career fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples.

By William Harms
Photography by Getty Images

As UN special rapporteur, in 2007 Stavenhagen spoke out against racism in Bolivia.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen's family was among many Jewish refugees who settled in Mexico City at the beginning of World War II. "My father was a jeweler in Germany, and we went first to Holland and then got the last boat out in 1940 as the Germans invaded that country," he says. Then eight years old, Stavenhagen, AB'51, remembers seeing bombs fall as their ship departed for England, crossing the Atlantic to New York with a military escort. That childhood journey set Stavenhagen on a path to become a sociologist and an international human-rights advocate, working with organizations including the Mexican government and the United Nations.

As a boy, his family couldn't get a visa to live in the United States but secured residency in Mexico. Stavenhagen's nomadic early life instilled a commitment to serve people who were displaced or otherwise threatened in their homelands.

“My interest in human rights comes from my experiences growing up in Mexico," says Stavenhagen, now a professor emeritus in sociology at El Colegio de México, who returned to Chicago for the spring quarter as the Richard & Ann Pozen visiting professor in human rights. "The country gave my family a place to live when we were refugees, and I have been grateful ever since."

When it came time to go to college, Stavenhagen's father urged him to study in the United States. He chose the University of Chicago, based on printed material he had received.

"When I was ready to leave, I found a car with Illinois license plates in Mexico City and offered to help the owner drive back to Chicago," Stavenhagen says. The owner turned out to be an outright racist, who made disparaging remarks about blacks along the way. Stavenhagen was offended by the conversation.

As a result of that experience, when Stavenhagen arrived on campus, he visited student-activity tables set up on the main quadrangle and joined the NAACP. Belonging to the local chapter, he met civil-rights leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ralph Bunche.

At Chicago Stavenhagen studied with anthropologist and Latin American cultural expert Robert Redfield, AB'20, JD'21, PhD'28, then returned to Mexico to continue his education and pursue careers in academia and advocacy. In addition to his tenure at El Colegio de México, where his work has focused on the rights of indigenous peoples, in 1984 Stavenhagen became the founding president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization, and he also served on the country's Human Rights Commission.

From 2001 to 2009 he served as the first United Nations special rapporteur on the rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. He traveled the world, visiting indigenous communities and making recommendations for their well-being to the UN.

This spring he taught a five-week class at Chicago, Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples in the New Millennium, and also gave three public lectures. "Despite international legal support, the rights of indigenous peoples the world over are still being violated on a daily basis," he said, "and things are not getting better."

He did find some reason for hope and satisfaction in his years as a special rapporteur. "One of my more satisfying experiences was being named an honorary elder of the Ogiek tribe in the Mau Forest of Kenya," he said. "And one of the more humbling incidents, finding at the top of a dangerous mountain trail, after many hours of travel in the sierra of northern Luzon, a banner stretched across the road with the inscription: Welcome Human Rights!"

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