This summer my family and I will embark on a month-long stay in San Miguel de Allende. I’m a professor of folklore, I study international migration, and this will be the initial fieldwork project for my second book. This visit will be the first of many field visits to San Miguel and perhaps a few other sites in Mexico. My primary interest in retirement migration, and my research will focus on the many American, Canadian, and European retirees who have settled permanently in San Miguel and the cultural, economic and social influence they have in the community.
This is the second long-term ethnographic project that I’ve undertaken. The first was in a small village in western Mexico that sends a substantial percentage of its population to the U.S. My book, Beyond the Borderlands (University of California Press, forthcoming) is the product of that study. During my first field visit to the town I have given the pseudonym Texitlán, I brought my children (who were then three year-old twins) to live with me while my husband Ken, who accompanied us for a few weeks to help set up, returned to the U.S. to work.
At the time, I did not think of this as an unusual arrangement. I knew being in the field would be difficult, and I wanted to have my children with me, particularly if my husband could not stay with me in Mexico during the field study. It was only after I submitted my book manuscript for review that I realized how unusual my fieldwork experience had been. One reviewer in particular peppered his/her responses to the manuscript with a number of questions about being a mother and an ethnographer: “How did becoming a mother effect your research?”; “What was your daily life in the field like with your children?” and “How did people in Textitlán respond to you as a working mother?” The questions were important, but at the same time, I didn’t feel than many of the reviewer’s questions were essential to the larger book project, so to a large degree, these questions are left unanswered in my manuscript.
My husband and I decided many years ago that my research, doing fieldwork in Mexico, was something that we would do as a family. Being in the field is stressful, and having the support of my family lessens this. As I started the preparation for my trip in April, I decided it might be time to talk more broadly about my experiences in the field. In the past I have received weekly e-mail missives from several of my colleagues who were doing fieldwork before or after I had done mine. I enjoyed reading those posts and knowing what my colleagues were doing in the field. It was comforting to know that many of the things I had experienced, like extreme loneliness or the occasional cultural blunders, were common to most ethnographers’ experiences.
At the same time, the mass-email format was stilted. I never felt like I could speak back to them. The ethnographers seemed so busy and stressed, I didn’t want to add to the list of one more thing they felt obligated to do (i.e., responding to my e-mails), and I didn’t want to ask questions that might inadvertently ruffle feathers.
Those were the pre-blog days, of course. Today this format seems especially well suited for the type of dialogue that I longed for back then. It also provides an opportunity to engage the people I might encounter in the field in a non-research setting. What do people in San Miguel think about my project and my observations? My fieldwork ethos has always dictated a radical openness with anyone who agrees to be part of my project. I talk extensively with my informants about my impressions, and I share drafts of my work with them because I see ethnography as a collaborative process. Unlike my past fieldwork projects, however, in San Miguel I expect that many if not most of the expatriates who live there will access to the internet and the ability to add to or respond to the impressions that I post here.
I also see this blog as an opportunity to highlight the kinds of work that folklorists do. I’ve been teaching at a research university for five years now, and I am constantly surprised at the misconceptions that people have about the field of folklore: what we study, the types of research that we do, and the very meaning of the word.
So it was not without some hesitation that I have decided to start this blog. I know that this is a public forum, and there are inherent risks putting one’s work in progress out there. At the same time, I want to emphasize that this is not a place where I will be highlighting information about the people I interview, which I will keep private and confidential. Instead, the site will serve as a place to discuss the process and problematics of ethnographic research in Mexico, the adjustments that I and my family will have to make in the field, as well as thoughtful discussion about ethnography as a research method.
Earlier this year I received two research grants to fund the San Miguel Project, one from my university, The George Mason Summer Research Fund, and the other from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I will use these funds for two research trips (this summer and the following summer). I want to take this opportunity to thank the NEH and George Mason University for making this project possible.