One of the fieldwork issues that is rarely discussed in graduate school is the personal danger a fieldworker might engage in the process of completing her work. When ethnographers take to the field, it is generally in a spirit of openness and trust. I spent 3 months going door-to-door in Mexico during my first field visit, and for the most part I felt completely safe. Only once did I have a creepy encounter, but looking back it was also pretty funny. I was interviewing an older woman about her family’s immigration experiences when one of her adult sons returned home completely inebriated. He was fine at first, but then sat next to me on the sofa. Then he started to move closer, and closer, asking slurred questions like, “Perhaps the señorita would like a soda? or to stay for comida?” Finally, two of his brothers and his mother pulled him away from me apologizing profusely as I slipped out the door. Luckily I had finished most of the interview before he got home, so I didn’t have to go back to the house later.
Every town is different, and while most of the places in Mexico I’ve visited and worked are much safer than the average American community (Mexico City being the exception), I still take precautions when I’m in the field. When my husband can’t be in Mexico with me, which is often, I generally hire a Mexican assistant to accompany me during my work. This is particularly helpful in the winter months; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to work after dark.
Earlier this year I learned that there was a serial rapist in San Miguel, and that he targeted American women. I first heard the story on NPR. It was not comforting to know a serial rapist might be out there while I was walking around town looking for people to talk to (all of whom would be strangers). It was good news for me, and the people of San Miguel, that this man is now apparently off the streets. The report in El Universal.com.mx states that a suspect was apprehended, he confessed, and his DNA matches that of his victims.
Of course, given the size of San Miguel, the chances are good that there are other dangerous people around. To avoid potential problems, I follow the same common sense approach to working in communities in the U.S. For instance, I never do first interviews in the homes of my informants unless I am certain we won’t be alone. I usually find a good coffee shop or quiet restaurant and set up shop in a quiet corner.