Faculty Spotlight: Maria L Cruz-Torres


Dr. Cruz-Torres is a Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, a faculty member in the School of Sustainability, and an associate professor in the School of Transborder Studies. Before coming to Arizona State University, Dr. Cruz-Torres was a consultant for a National Science Foundation Bio-complexity Project focusing on the links between human and biophysical processes in coastal marine ecosystems in Baja California, Mexico. She was also a Visiting Scholar in the Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Artic and Subarctic (MESAS), an INGERT-NSF funded program within the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska- Fairbanks. She has researched the social and environmental dimensions of fisheries and aquaculture development in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Florida. In addition to her professorship at the School of Sustainability, she is a former President of the Political Ecology Society.

1. Can you describe the first time when you became interested in sustainability?

As a child growing up in coastal Puerto Rico, I became aware at a very young age about the importance of protecting our forests, rivers, and marine ecosystems. Living in a tropical island has many challenges: it rains almost every day; plants grow quickly; there is lots of sunlight; and the ocean gives us islanders a strong sense of identity. Both of my grandfathers were farmers who relied on the land to make a living and to support their families. They instilled in me an appreciation for the natural environment, and I spent most of my childhood listening to their stories about storms and hurricanes and how these impacted their crops.
Later on in college, I chose to major in marine biology and that’s when everything I learned as child made lots of sense. I took courses on coastal resources management and marine policy that opened up my eyes a to the enormous impact we have on the environment, and how we need to protect our natural resources in light of all the economic development taking place on the island.

2. What made you want to become a professor?

My teachers were always my greatest inspiration. In particular, my college and graduate advisers made the biggest impression on me. They are both very accomplished scholars in their fields—one a marine botanist, the other a human ecologist. Both are engaging, encouraging, caring, and have long, exciting, and fruitful academic careers. They are also very bright and very strong women who faced many obstacles in life but who have also accomplished a lot. I still keep in touch with them.

3. Can you describe your teaching style?

I like for my students to be active learners; to come to class with questions, ideas, participate in class discussion, and to challenge me and themselves.

4. What do you hope your students will learn in your classes?

I teach a variety of classes, but I would like for my students to learn about the common challenges that we face as humans and how we deal, respond, or adapt to these.

5. How can your research interests like gender and transborder studies achieve a more sustainable future?

I have broad research interests, but my focus is the study of the political ecology in fisheries-dependent communities. Small-scale fisheries in particular contribute to food security, but few studies have addressed the role of women and gender in shaping access to fishing resources in Latin America or the Caribbean.

From my long-term research in Northwestern Mexico, I learned that once fishing resources are depleted, households struggle to find other viable livelihoods. Women share a large part of the responsibility for sustaining their households and when they cannot continue to secure sustainable livelihoods within their communities, they often consider migration as the last recourse.

In some of the coastal communities I studied in Sinaloa, Mexico, entire families are now migrating to the US-Mexican border region searching for work in the maquiladoras (assembly plants). Others rely on the remittances sent back home from family members living in the U.S. Thus, the transnational ties between Mexican people on both sides of the border become more important as their relationships spread and expand.

Dr. Cruz-Torres (left) researches local marketing and consumption of shrimp in Mazatlan City, Mexico.

6. In what ways does your current research as a professor contribute to the field of sustainability?

My current research focuses on fisheries and their contribution to food security in rural and urban settings. I hope it can contribute to a better understanding of the complex relationship between coupled human and natural systems, and how this is mediated by power relations and local and global environmental changes.

7. What is the global sustainability challenge that concerns you the most and why?

Food security. Food production needs to adopt better management practices, particularly in regard to water quality, land changes and tenure, and the protection of marine and coastal ecosystems. Local ecological knowledge is key in the development of a more integrated and egalitarian natural resource management model, especially in the southern countries. Food distribution also needs to be more equitable on both hemispheres.

8. Finally, what does the word “sustainability” mean to you?

Sustainability is a both a challenge and a goal that could have the potential to lead to a better quality of life for all humans, our physical environment, and the overall planet.

Dr. Cruz-Torres conducting field work in Isla de Cedros in Baja California, Mexico.