The ethnography of older folks

One of the things I like best about doing ethnographic research is that it does not have to make people fit into specific research categories, you create the categories based on what you find in the field. The downside, of course, is that ethnographic research is not “generalizable” to a larger population as statistical research is. Nevertheless, you discover things about people and communities during the ethnographic process that just aren’t measurable in a statistical study.

Last week I mentioned that I interviewed a woman who is 100 years old. Although she has encouraged me to use her name (“I’m 100 and I have nothing to hide,” she remarked), I am going to employ the pseudonym Keziah when I write of her here. Keziah has lived in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) for 30 years with her partner of 40 years, a woman I will identify as Mary, who is now 80 years old. Keziah is a musician who taught herself how to play piano at the age of 12. She took her first student at the age of 15 and taught piano until she lost the use of her right arm three years ago. Here in SMA she taught thousands of Mexican children how to play, and her proudest accomplishment was to teach several deaf children to play well enough that they were able to perform in a concert here.

Keziah and Mary were well connected with the foundational expatriates of SMA, people like the late Sterling Dickinson (the first American to settle here). Keziah, like her peers, believes that the basis of the community here has been the ability of the American and other expatriate population to give back to SMA’s native community. In the process, expatriate retirees fashioned a type of utopian vision for SMA: a close-knit group of people who for any number of reasons, did not fit well into the fabric of post-WWII society who still had much to contribute. The foundational society of SMA (and by extension, Mexico) provided a framework to establish that utopian vision: a small face-t0-face community where personal relationships were more significant that economic gain.

Certainly, part of the reason why this type of community was able to develop was related to the types of people who decided to settle here: artists, musicians, journalists and other people who one could characterize as “above average” in terms of their talents and prior successes. They were also children of the depression, which each one has mentioned was a shaping influence of their lives.

In the evolving world that is SMA, there is a split between the first generation expatriates and the newer arrivals. I had a great discussion yesterday from a woman I’ll call Ester. She refused to tell me how old she is (not uncommon, but I admit, a little frustrating). From what she told me of her life, I’d guess she’s between 75 and 80 years old. She was a career girl in the early 1950s and visited Mexico as part of a Greyhound tour in 1952. A year later she moved here to study painting, a year after that she married a Mexican man and over the next 13 years had five children. Unlike many in her peer group, she speaks Spanish perfectly and has better insights into the Mexican community.

Ester also owns her own business, a posada (inn) that she has managed on her own since she and her first husband divorced. Ester said that, although she had Mexican friends via her children, she said that the Mexican community in SMA is somewhat closed and “they don’t necessarily want to be friends with all of these Americans.” Ester has worked full-time her entire time in SMA, and she admitted that this diminished her social life with both Americans and Mexicans. She also had a strong opinions about the more recent arrivals here. She said,

You know, when I got here in 1953, we only had electricity for 24 hour cycles (i.e., on 24 hours then off 24 hours). When I hear some of these Americans complaining about how hard it is to live here, I say, ‘you know you’re lucky, because there is a bus that leaves here every 30 minutes, you might want to get on the next one.’

More significantly, Ester was not pleased with the changes that many Americans are bringing to SMA, and remarked, “These Americans come here to get away from America, and what do they do? They try to bring in their own ideas and change things. They’re trying to re-create smallt own U.S.A. her in San Miguel.”

Although several of my informants have alluded to the “recreation of the U.S.” here in SMA, Ester was the first to voice is clearly. Today I spoke with a man who grew up in SMA and then returned to the U.S. for his working career, only to return after he retired in 1995. His opinions, seasoned by a very different set of experiences, will be noted tomorrow.

When we get back to the U.S., I plan to discuss how one takes ethnographic data and culls it for repeating patterns to get a feel for what is taking place in the community. Stay tuned.


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