Listen: Medical Anthropologist Mark Padilla Delivers Jerry Wood Memorial Lecture

The Jerry H. Wood lecture resumed at Swarthmore this semester as medical anthropologist Mark Padilla delivered a compelling talk on the complexities of migration, tourism, drugs, and AIDS in the Dominican Republic.

The lecture series was established in 1997 in honor of Professor of History Jerry H. Wood and was the first series at the College to honor an African American faculty member.

In addition to teaching, Wood served as associate provost from 1986-89 from and twice chaired the Black Studies program. A prolific scholar who was proficient in both Spanish and Portuguese, Wood’s scholarly work has been influential in colonial, Black, and Latin American studies.

In addition to his scholarly work, Wood was beloved by his students and his colleagues, according to Visiting Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Latin American & Latino Studies Program Milton Ricardo Antonio Machuca-Gálvez, who helped organize the event with assistance from the Intercultural Center, the Black Cultural Center, Dean's Office, the programs in Black Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies, and the History Department.

“Professor Wood made a tremendous difference in the lives of students and colleagues throughout his 27 years at Swarthmore,” he says.

At the lecture, Padilla, who is an associate professor at Florida International University, presented some of his findings after 20 years of research in the Dominican Republic, which attempts to understand the connection between migration, tourism, drug use, and HIV infection. 

Padilla explained that the Dominican Republic has the second-highest rates of HIV prevalence in the Caribbean, and the highest rates in the smaller group of men who have sex with men. 

In the Dominican Republic, sex work is highly concentrated in tourism areas. Padilla explains Caribbean “sexscapes” as due to a culture of escapism, or what he calls a “what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas” attitude. Sex, in conjunction with drug use, forms the “economy of pleasure” that is sold to tourists. As the tourism industry in the Dominican Republic grows, locals looking for work tend to migrate to areas high in tourism; the informal work they find, often selling sex and drugs, contributes to the syndemics of HIV infection and drug use.

Padilla described the case of “Fernando,” one of his subjects who embodies the connection between tourism, migration, drugs, and HIV. Fernando was arrested in New York for small drug sales and forcibly deported to the Dominican Republic in 1994. Since then, he has found work as a tour guide connecting tourists to sex and drugs, while he himself struggles to avoid relapsing into drug use.  

Padilla is currently working on the Syndemics Project, which began in 2013 and will conclude in 2018. The project focuses on syndemic theory, which states that epidemics occur in clusters in marginalized groups; these clusters are called syndemics, and they are driven by inequality. The Syndemics Project works to counter these linked epidemics by developing HIV and drug intervention that targets tourism zones, helping reinsert deportees into the formal economy, working with policy makers to improve drug prevention and treatment programs, and spreading information about the consequences of deportation.

Following the lecture, Padilla engaged students in a question and answer session. In the mind of Machuca-Gálvez, the lecture was a success and true to Wood's legacy.

“Not only is Professor Wood remembered as a mentor, educator, and advocate, he's remembered for his kindness, his sense of humor, and his imaginative storytelling."