Si deseas enlazar un blog de espeleología o barranquismo, o bien enlazar la página web de un Club o Asociación, contacta con:

Interview with María Alejandra Pérez. Anthropological perspectives of Speleological practices in Latin America.

Interview with María Alejandra Pérez.

Anthropological perspectives of Speleological practices in Latin America: a conversation with Dr. María Alejandra Pérez 

Enlace versión al castellano: 



Cultural interpretation of speleological activity inhabits the investigation of Professor María Alejandra Pérez. Interested in the study of scientific practice, our explorations in the kart and all its related human practice out of the cave, makes her assert speleology as a discipline capable of an inclusive science. She is a full time Professor at the Geography Program in the Department of Geology and Geography of the University of West Virginia and proclaims to be a physical activity enthusiast. This Venezuelan cultural anthropologist crawls her way through the cave and maps herself around the salon to bring a critical view into the eyes of cavers.


Pérez in Guácharo Cave in eastern Venezuela. Photo by Alan Warild, 2008.


María Alejandra presents an ethnographic perspective to approach the subterranean world. Her cultural anthropological investigations have taken her back to native Venezuela and other Latin America countries probing our normal every day caving activities. Her shoulder to shoulder experience with cavers in the karst environment and derived scenarios, paves her academic extension to discuss notions of identity, friendship and physical space value.


In February 2020 she was awarded by the Sociedad Espeleológica Cubana for her contribution in the development of caving relations between cavers from the United States and Cuba in an effort funded by the National Science Foundation. Along with caver John Wilson, María Alejandra collaborates in the project called Caver Villages: Community, Sense of Place, and Conservation of the Underground. She is a member of the National Speleological Society where she has been sponsored in her investigations with the distinction of Fellow of the Society in 2019. As well, between 2013-20 she was a board member of the Cave Conservancy of the Virginians a nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation and education of the kart resources of Virginia and West Virginia.


Dr. María Alejandra Pérez visits Puerto Rico in 2019 to participate in the second speleological symposium of the Federación Espeleológica de Puerto Rico and to expand her caving horizons. During the Summer of 2020, Subterránea had the opportunity to talk with her about what we all love, caving!   


SUBTERRÁNEA: María tell us a bit about you and how you found out about caving?


María Alejandra Pérez: I was a little girl when I lived in Venezuela. My father was a caver in the Sociedad Venezolana de Espeleología (SVE) and was very involved in caving since being a youngster. My godfather was one of the founders of a caving group in Venezuela under the Speleological Section of the Venezuelan Natural Science Society and because of that he is my godfather, through Venezuelan speleology.


My dad used to go caving with the SVE group and came back to do cartography in the dinner table and sometimes I saw him work. The scent of his caving equipment, that divine mud and carbide aroma is something I relate with my childhood. And yes, dad took us to some caves around Caracas and those experiences were absolutely magical. But I never practiced speleology with my dad. I never understood what he was doing until much later.


Pérez as a child with a cousin and her mother in Alfredo Jahn Cave in the east of Caracas. Photo by Wilmer Pérez, circa 1980.


In 1991 my family emigrates to the USA and eventually many years later I started a PhD in Cultural Anthropology in the University of Michigan. Originally the project was going to be about the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union in Russian science. But in 2002 there was an expedition organized by the SVE to the northeastern region near Guácharo Cave, called Mata de Mango, a beautiful karst zone.   


My dad decided to participate in this expedition while living in the USA. My mom was going with him, but at the last minute she could not go and my dad asks me: do you want to come with me? And when my dad asks do you want to come with me, I always say yes! That was the first time I participated in a caving expedition and it changed my life. What are they doing! And how the put up the map, the interaction with the locals in the field and the rural communities. I mean, it all came to me and I knew this was what I was going to study.   


SUBTERRÁNEA: How can you explain to a caver what you do as a cultural anthropologist in Speleology?


María Alejandra Pérez: As human beings we are cultural beings. We do our life, we dream, we die within a cultural context. All activities occur culturally. All those activities have social elements that generate discourses and symbology that have meaning for us humans. That is part of all human activities and caving is part of that. My interest is to understand speleology from a cultural perspective. I try to understand the discourses and symbology that emanates from that practice to reach people motivations in doing what they do and how we do it.


An important element of the cultural perspective is to put attention to the material. Something very rich, just image caves! If there is a space that defines what humanity is, is the cavernous space. Part of what I do as an anthropologist is trying to understand speleological practice within an ample cultural and historic frame of the human relations with the cave space. Is interesting because when people talk about anthropology and caves they think about archeology. American anthropological tradition includes four disciplines and archeology and anthropology are two. Yes of course, archeology is interesting, but I see speleology more from a cultural anthropological perspective.


Speleology has a lot to contribute to the analysis of anthropology that focuses in living cultures. To me, I say the cave is not only geology. Speleology is more. Is biospeleology, archeology, folklore, sport, flora, is everything! For me it has a nice echo, how anthropology has the capacity to value speleology in all of its shades.


I don’t want to be too romantic here. A speleological standpoint also excludes as it also occurs in anthropology. They both come from a Western perspective of understanding the world.


Venezuelan cavers inside of Roraima Sur Cave System studying the map prepared by the Venezuelan Speleological Society. Photo by M. Pérez 2012.


SUBTERRÁNEA: What do you refer to when you say they both come from a Western perspective of the world?



María Alejandra Pérez: For example, caving cartography. Mapping has its own language and is Eurocentric. It has some good points and bad points. It can be done in a good or a bad way, but it is a particular language. When a person goes to a cave in Puerto Rico and has a connection with their ancestral pre-Hispanic heritage, the voice and the ontology of an indigenous is not reflected in the map, in the topography of the caver.


There are limits to the comprehending capacity of Speleology. Speleology has the capability to be more open, more creative to affirm its capacity to a more just and inclusive politics. How do we make a map that reflects not only a Western ontology or epistemology, but that it reflects other perspectives and visions of the subterranean world.


SUBTERRÁNEA: You talk about the possibility of Speleology being more open and that caves are not only about geology when it comes to approaching them. How do you grow on that when you focus your work in Speleology? Could you talk about geographies of speleology?


María Alejandra Pérez: The concept of geographies of speleology belongs to the English human geographer Sarah Cant. She published an article in 2006 elaborating the subject of space and place. In geography and anthropology there is a distinction between the Cartesian space that can be situated within certain coordinates in a place or space. She develops that concept to talk about the different places that are part of the caving world. And if there is a human practice where the topic of space and place are of enormous importance is speleological practice.


A beautiful thing about her, and that I follow in my work, is that is not only the cave. Obviously, the cave is the center, but there are many social activities that come, that starts in the cave and it extends and includes other spaces.


Pérez inside Santa Catalina Cave in Matanzas, Cuba. Photo by Jim Patera, 2014. 


We all know those places. The dining table where my father used to do the maps is part of the geographies of speleology. Where the cavers store their equipment in their houses, places of meeting, climbing gyms, campsites outside caves and many more places. Those spaces are many and sometimes the experience we have with them are subjective between person to person.


SUBTERRÁNEA: You talk about how you get out of the cave and focus yourself in other caving practices in new places. What do you refer to when you say that Speleology is a practice?


María Alejandra Pérez: There is a strong criticism to the conceptualization of culture as a matter of caps lock. Culture is people doing things. Is just to be more focus in the day by day of common people. There is no need to be a grand maestro to represent culture. You, me, Oscar, we all participate in cultural activities all the time, every day. Because it is everyday life, does not mean that is not important. That really centers my attention to speleological practice. What do cavers do?        


Day to day examples of speleological practices are buying the food for the exploration, who will bring the vertical equipment, what are the means for transportation, or will we be granted access to enter the cave today? But speleological practice is also drinking a beer, viewing the photos, publishing the data and much more. That is why we have to do ethnography. The ethnographic perspective is getting along with cavers and learning it from them. What are they doing to try to understand what they do, from my personal perspective.


In my first article I went to the cave and learned how to make the map, not that well, but I learned how to. Then I glimpsed dimensions of, for example how the map is a living document. A beautiful quote from a Venezuelan caver is that the map is a meeting point. I lived that. I have learned it from speleologists in the cave, in the campsite, and walking, and exploring the karst.


That is what I am trying to do with my work. Highlight a dimension that is not accessible if you don’t have the ethnographic sensibility towards the practice that goes along in the field and beyond the field.


On the road to the karst region of Guaniguanico in eastern Cuba with NSS partners, West Virginia University students and caving grotto Grupo Origen y Caverna of the Cuban Speleological Society. Photo by Ryan Maurer, 2018. 


SUBTERRÁNEA: Based on your experiences in caves and all those places that are part of speleology, how do you see the relation between speleology as a science and the sportier approach of the speleological practice.


María Alejandra Pérez: For me is sad when I see so much emphasis in the scientific part and the sport element decreases. If it is done within some kind of conservational mind, I think the sport element is of great enjoyment and could help dazzle other dimensions of speleology that might have not been present before.


Creating the map is a fundamental part of the capacity to make cave science. If you don’t know the dimensions and how is the relation within the karst environment, one cannot make science. Many people have commented that, the tension between science and sport in speleology.


Speleology has to be understood as the marriage of the sport element with science and the humanistic element too. I cannot talk about a caving system of a karst without the explorer working in a team. A good map only results if there are people that go into the cave and explore it until the end or the farthest they can reach. The sport element is critical to the exploration perspective like French caver Claude Chabert and American caver Richard Watson exposed, among many others.


For example, my dad belonged to the sport profile. He loved the sport part, but he also did maps. For him, the sport element has a scientific objective. Under that perspective, sport has a scientific end.


Yes, there are tensions. There are people that enjoy going to a cave because they like SRTs or exploration without the scientific objective. They are not surveying, because the map is already done. That causes tension because for some people you are going to a cave and there are folks who do not have the time for that. That is a situation the Venezuelan cavers lived. The time and resources to survey a cave are assigned to explore the cave and there is no time to make sport or have enjoyment. Is a wide and complex topic.                                


Visiting the karst region of Guaniguanico in eastern Cuba with NSS partners, West Virginia University students and caving grotto Grupo Origen y Caverna of the Cuban Speleological Society. Photo by Ryan Maurer, 2018.


SUBTERRÁNEA: Is there any space in caving grottos for more common points between the scientific profile and the sport caver.


María Alejandra Pérez: I wished caving groups were not so firm. I think speleology loses with a stiffness that does not embraces the multidimensionality of itself. Let’s be sincere, even for the scientists, there is not a better thing than to be all muddy! I mean, we enjoy the physical part of it. There is a great joy in the collective aspect of it.


In an interview in Cuba a speleologist told me: “María, do you know what we have lost getting into science and developing all our scientific texts? We have lost the capacity to transmit the emotive and adventurous part of speleology and by doing that we lose the capacity to motivate a new generation of youngsters to love and protect the caves like we have loved and cared for them”. I know adventure is a complicated topic. Is a gender, political and colonial subject, but again all cannot be lost. We cannot deny the enjoyment of going to a cave, of exploring with your partners.


The grottos that achieve including all those dimensions are richer because they offer a tribute to what it is the multidimensionality of the karst and the multidimensionality of the human experience in Planet Earth. The human experience in life also includes adventure, it includes science and knowledge. And from there we have a better possibility to generate a conservational and valorization attitude toward those cavernous spaces and even diverse perspectives.


But keep visiting and enjoying caves. They are fun, challenging and we have to respect them as a space shared with other humans and their ecology. We also enjoy that movement aspect. Let’s do it as a collective, lets encounter the risks collectively and not lose that.


Practice in the Sagua bridge in eastern Cuba. Photo by Ryan Maurer, 2018.


SUBTERRÁNEA: How do you see the renewal of grottos and that other human perspectives interact with the cave space.


María Alejandra Pérez: I will start by the obvious and then I’ll complicate it.


Suddenly you go to school and every student has their attention in something different from the cave. For some are the bats and for others is the rock art. Others enjoy dead people stories or the folkloric aspect of caves and others just enjoy the sweating because they love sports. When speleology is presented in all of its dimensions, the possibilities of capturing the interest of more people increases. But I understand there is a great challenge because the cave space is delicate and we have to protect it.


With the challenge of the International Year of Caves and Karst in 2021we want to promote caves and the karst. But what we do not want is people not educated about that space getting into caves, destroying speleothems, writing walls or worst ending dead.


I think there is a big challenge in speleology that has contributed to an inward looking of what speleological practice is because those are spaces we have to protect. How do you solve the tension? At the same time we have to protect the karst. People do not know the importance that a cave has for a community because of the water. How do you protect it? There is no answer. Tensions that caving groups live within their context.


Lecture in the Steven J. Green School of Public and International Affairs of the Florida International University in February 2020.


SUBTERRÁNEA: You assert an inclusive capacity of speleology and that there is opportunity for science, sport, and many more aspects of this practice. How is it possible to attend that amplitude in speleology? Any experience to share on that idea?


María Alejandra Pérez: A beautiful thing about speleology is that includes an interdisciplinary vision that has been lost in the academy. Generally, in the academic world there are more specialized visions. In speleology science is developed beyond those academic visions that are more firm on terms of who access them. Speleology is relatively more accessible because you do not need a PhD to enter a cave. But probably, you will need a PhD to enter a nuclear laboratory. What is important about speleology is that it takes place in the field and requires group work.


What I try to do with one of the perspectives of speleology in Cuba is broaden what we understand as science and the spaces where it takes place. There is a whole area in Cuban science that goes beyond formal academic spaces and for example, cavers are there. I think maybe they are among the ones that better know the Cuban territory than any other person. And they know it in its archeology, folklore, geology, biospeleology, in everything. They do not have a PhD, they do not teach at the University of La Habana, but they go to the field and they study the field. One of the most spectacular biologists that I know is a youngster that has not even finished his Biology degree, but he goes to the field and studies the biology in the caves.


Just recently in the 80th Anniversary of the Sociedad Espeleológica Cubana, there was a young man that made a presentation about archeological material associated with Afrocubans in the Guantánamo area. A caver! That young man has a compromise to know his country in all of its dimensions. He and his mates see it as totally normal to include in a speleological narrative the history of Cuban slavery. You will not see that in a Biochemistry congress. Speleologists have a great aperture. That young man does not have a doctoral degree, but has curiosity. The institutional space of Cuban speleology, gives them the aperture to explore these dimensions and present them in a congress. They also receive criticism, but that is good and they learn from that.


That motivates me a lot and inspires me. I wish more speleologists had that sensibility, that openness to understand the world and our relation with it through this way.


SUBTERRÁNEA: Because of your active participation in the field and out of caves to understand cavers practices, you could develop friendships and at the same time you can become an object of study.


II Speleological symposium of Fepur celebrated in Puerto Rico in August 2019. 


María Alejandra Pérez: Regarding Venezuela, is very complicated because I have family ties and friendships. That has created a compromise and a great complication in my work, because at some point I also criticize speleology. Yes, because of my work I do establish relations with people because I interview them, I listen to them and value their stories. But I also give it an interpretative perspective.


Yes, I create friendships. My closest friends, among the people that I love the most in the world are people related to speleology, like my godfather and dad. Cavers are the people that reminds me the love and pleasure of going to the field to enter a cave. They have taught me so much! I also generate criticism and is not always welcomed. I have the challenge to improve my work.


SUBTERRÁNEA: Are there any reactions to your investigations?


María Alejandra Pérez: There are elements that I criticize in my work. I criticize the Eurocentric discourse. I criticize the gender aspect that is also excluding. There was a time when the SVE did not allow women. There are a number of situations that I exposed that might be seen as criticism.


I have learned through my work and have committed errors. I represent people in my labor. Representing another person in a publish work is an enormous responsibility.


What I try to do is provide an amplitude to a variety of perspectives and experiences that go beyond the more important people or well-known cavers. It also captures my attention, for example, the work of the person who no one knows. The person who organizes the equipment, who drives the truck or who is the librarian. I want to know those stories because my training comes from appreciating the practice of everyone in speleology. Not only of the one that shines the most, or the ones that rappel the most or the ones who explore the longest. And not even mention the mothers that stay with the kids while the dads explore. All of that is also part of speleology.


SUBTERRÁNEA: You received a distinctive mention during the last Congress of the Sociedad Espeleológica Cubana celebrated in February 2020.


Recipient of the Cuban Speleological Society 50th Anniversary Medalion in its Golden class for her investigations, support and collaboration to the development of speleology and karstology of Cuba. Photo courtesy of Divaldo Gutiérrez Calvache President of the Cuban Speleological Society. .






María Alejandra Pérez: They did a beautiful recognition in the 80th Anniversary of the Sociedad Espeleológica Cubana. They gave me a medal and they have not told me anything. I did not know and I got very emotional. Honestly, I think there are tens of people that deserved it more than me. My work is too young, I am still beginning. Even though I have ten years working on this, for me that is too little. They recognized that through my investigations I am standing out the speleological work, not only from Cuba, but Latin America and that is meaningful for me. Something important is that in Cuba I still have so much to understand. I say it humbly regarding the Cuban context and any other country.


SUBTERRANEA: María we thank you for including us in your agenda. We have learned other dimensions of what speleology comprehends based on anthropological culture. Anything else you want to comment?


María Alejandra Pérez: For me speleology is not a perfect practice, but is the closest to a plentiful and intimate understanding of what is living in Planet Earth and I say it with all my heart. I try to keep going forward just like cave mapping. Sometimes maps are published knowing they are not finished. We leave incognita everywhere and sometimes they are corrected. Ten years later comes another group with other technics and finds another level. They check the published map and decide to correct it, just like academic work. That is part of the dynamics of publication. I hope in the future you and my friends, just say, this MAP was so pelada! You quote me and then correct me, but you quote me. ¡Me encanta hacer esto en español!         



An interview by Tamara González Durán international correspondent of Subterránea, in collaboration with Subterránea España editorial staff.

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario