In Memoriam: May N. Diaz

May Diaz in her office at UC Santa Cruz
May Diaz in her former office at UC Santa Cruz, circa 1978. Photo: UCSC Special Collections & Archives

Anthropologist May N. Diaz, the second Provost of Kresge College, died at the age of 102. In her long career, she was a mentor to many graduate students and junior faculty and an acclaimed scholar, who shaped the fields of peasant anthropology and women’s studies. She came to the campus as a full professor, after founding and directing the UC Berkeley Center for Continuing Education of Women, one of the first women’s studies outreach programs in the country. As Kresge College provost, she was one of the first women administrators on our campus. 

May authored Tonalá: Conservatism, Responsibility, and Authority in a Mexican Town, a study of peasant life in Mexico that showed small-scale rural communities’ integration in wider economic and political systems, and she was co-editor of the classic work on peasants, Peasant Society with George Foster and Jack Potter. 

Noted for her dedication to openness and honesty in her ethnographic research, May carried that same ethic into her work on the campus. Her graduate students, who include Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Ben Orlove, Setha Low, Mario Davilla, and Mischa Adams, appreciated her “deep commitment to scholarship, thought, and action,” called her a “fierce, frank, funny, feminist,” and always found comfort and support in her office. May was more than a role-model to young women on the faculty. She actively engaged their ideas, listened to their problems, and helped them set boundaries that would balance their academic and family commitments. 

May began her graduate studies as a wife, married to Bill Diaz, an outspoken advocate of workers’ rights, and as a mother of two young sons. Those family connections, her deep-seated communitarian values, and her dedication to understanding how individuals, as well as societies, are shaped by their political economies made May Diaz an outstanding anthropologist and a beloved friend, mentor, and colleague.