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Abstract: The FBI and Oscar Lewis: Political Surveillance and the Dangers of the Culture of Poverty


David H. Price, St. Martin’s College

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, Illinois, November, 18 1999.


During a routine search of American anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ baggage at the United States / Mexico boarder crossing at Laredo, Texas on October 12, 1943, U.S. Government Boarder Agents found “subversive” Marxist literature and personal correspondence referring to Communist Party meetings in Lewis’ bags. Because the possession of these materials was believed to be a violation of the Hatch Act a detailed report of this incident was sent to FBI headquarters.  Over the next twenty seven years J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI monitored the activities of Oscar Lewis, secretly interviewing his professional colleagues, monitoring his participation in political rallies, tracking his movements within the US and abroad, at times monitoring his mail, analyzing his published work and spying on him as he conducted field research in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba.  This past year most of Lewis’ FBI file was released under the Freedom of Information Act.  This paper summarizes the information contained in Lewis’ FBI file paying special attention to the FBI’s obsessive interest in what they deemed to be Lewis’ deviant politics, and also examining the context in which a Senior Fellow of the American Anthropological Association was moved to correspond with J. Edgar Hoover identifying Lewis and a dozen other anthropologists as Communists.