Our Stories

Peter Wogan: Sharing the Magic

Associate Professor Peter Wogan once fled from an Ecuadorian woman who wanted money in return for removing his name from a deadly witch's book. But he didn't run to avoid death. He ran to save his friend's poncho before the woman's daughter stole it off the poor man's back.

On a much tamer assignment, Wogan spent hour upon hour sitting at a local Mexican video store. Watching. Interviewing. Taking notes.

Such is the glorious life of the anthropologist. As someone who studies culture for a living, Wogan's job begins with field observations -- whether in an exotic village in Ecuador or a quieter video store in Salem.

Wogan approaches his job with a sense of humor, something he tries to convey in his classes and in his writing -- like the story of his Ecuadorian friend's nearly pilfered poncho that opens the introduction of his book, "Magical Writing in Salasaca: Literacy and Power in Highland Ecuador." The incident wasn't funny at the time, but once Wogan and his friend escaped, they laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. "I see humor as connected to anthropology," Wogan says. "Humor should be connected to any intellectual activity. If we're examining ourselves, we should be able to make fun of ourselves as a way of introspection."

That sense of humor is just one characteristic that led Willamette students to vote Wogan Professor of the Year last spring. In an article about the award in The Collegian student newspaper, a student said Wogan "is one of the best teachers I've ever had." Another advised that "everyone should take a Wogan class."

Humbled by the award, Wogan sees his anthropology classes as a chance to show students that other cultures may not be as alien as they think. "There's a lot of stuff that happens around the world that is pretty shocking to people at first glance," he says. "It's fun to bring that all back and show students how it is similar or relevant to something in their own lives. That really blows them away."

So why is Wogan crossing witches in South America? It has to do with his longtime research interest in the use of magical writing by indigenous people in Ecuador's Andes Mountains. For about 10 years, he spent summers living with the Salasaca people and examining their belief that writing has a supernatural nature. That includes the belief that if your name is written in the local witch's book, you will die unless you do something about it (pay a fee, usually). Typically your name gets into the book after an enemy pays for the witch to kill you.

The ritual may sound crazy to outsiders, but Wogan observed that the book served as a form of law enforcement in an area so remote that police officers were not available. If someone steals or cheats on a spouse, for example, the book might be the only recourse for the victim. "We take people to court, but they use witchcraft instead," Wogan says.

The power of the written word to the Salasacas also helps them understand their relationship with the church and their government, Wogan says. When their government tells them they must get a birth certificate to "exist" or that they must register to pay their taxes, for example, they start to look at written archives as "the ultimate symbol of power," he says.

Wogan no longer travels to Ecuador, but he continues exploring his interest in Latin American cultures. He teaches a course on the subject and leads students in volunteer work at nearby Bush Elementary School, which has a large Latino population. To bring his research to the local level, Wogan decided to study Salem's Mexican-American population through their interest in film. "I'm really interested in movies, and I wanted to know what's going on with Mexican film," he says. "I think you can use movies as the window into the psyche."

He found a local video store owned by a Mexican-American family that rents out lesser-known Mexican films. These aren't films that anyone would see in American theaters; they don't even have English subtitles. "When you first see them, you might think 'What the heck is going on here?' There might be a long shot of a horse, just a horse. It's hard to get into it initially, but you have to get into the ethos that inspires it."

After spending so many hours hanging out at the shop, Wogan's research took an unexpected turn. He became extremely close to the owner who runs the store. "This guy is very funny. At the same time, he's very hard driving. He wants to make it big. So my work has kind of become this story of a small video store and the American dream. I'm still interested in the movies, but now I'm really interested in his story."

And now for the question on everyone's minds: How did Wogan's name get into that witch's book? Supposedly an angry ex-girlfriend was responsible. "I found that hard to believe, given that we'd broken up a long time ago and I couldn't see her flying all the way to Ecuador to put my name in the book," Wogan says. "But that's what they said, and it's a pretty common explanation in these cases. Anything about jealousy is usually a pretty safe bet."