Maybe I get it, maybe I don’t

The problem with doing any type of fieldwork is “getting it.” The idea of ethnography is to get inside the heads of one’s field consultants, to try to see the world as they see it and then communicate that to a broader (usually academic) audience.

My fieldwork here in San Miguel is unique in several instances. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when folklorists and anthropologists where heading out into the fields to do ethnographic work, they were more likely to live longer periods with their subject populations, although not necessarily alongside them, and those populations were more likely to be less complex societies. Small villages of less than 1000, but very often communities of 200-300. In those cases, ethnographers were able to know just about everyone in the community, perhaps interview them several times. In contrast, when I did my work in Textitlán, it was then a small town of 48,000, so I decided to settle into one neighborhood and do my work there. Still, there were 1400 houses in that colonia when I first started, about 6000-8000 people total. In that instance, I did a random sample survey for general questions of immigration, and oral histories with a “snowball” sample that followed social networks for more detailed and nuanced opinions.

As times have changed so has fieldwork. People move around a lot today, even in (or perhaps especially in) rural communities, and funding for year-long or longer fieldwork abroad is not as available as it once was. I’m also not a grad student any more, and I have teaching and administrative responsibilities at my university. So this study is not a conventional ethnography–yes, I’m living here as many expats do, but my experience is somewhat disjointed because I am here for short periods (more on that in a moment) and I am focusing on oral history as a primary source of data collection. This is a perfectly acceptable way to do this type of work, but it will, of course yield very different results. In some ways, I think this method will gather a much more diverse set of opinions and record different experiences. I am talking to people of all ages, income levels, sexual preferences, political persuasions. On the other hand, it may be possible that my interpretations, which will not be tempered by watching the same small group of people over a many year period, may be incorrect.

How to deal with this? As I wrote last year, sometimes during an oral history interview, you get encounter people who are completely nuts. Most of the time they’re harmless; most often they just waste your time. The decision on whether or not to include the ravings of an extremely angry or agitated person rests with the researcher. Typically, I listen to the stories people tell me. I ask around with others in the community to confirm what I’ve been told, and I look at available public records to confirm sequences and timing of particularly salient events that are live on (or sometimes take on a life of their own) in the oral tradition.

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with since I began this project was one common expat narrative which I have, for now, called the “narrative of the authentic self.” I blogged about this last week. I had a few emails and one insightful comment from Jennifer, but to be honest, none of what I received really explained what people here have been telling me. I agree with Jennifer, that moving from one place to another can be a way to “get one’s groove back,” but I have never really bought that reasoning. Sure, you get shaken up when you go to a new place, but I’ve moved quite a bit as an adult, and I’ve never found that to be the case. This was certainly not my experience living in Mexico–ever. If anything, I felt constricted by that traditional role of mujer decente (decent woman). I’ve always believed that the self is the self, no matter where it goes. Sure, and change of scenery can open you to new perspectives and regenerate you, but find your “real” self? I’m sorry, but that’s the girl sitting wearing my clothes and sitting in my chair.

Last weekend I had a three outstanding interviews. They are the types of interactions that help to answer questions, sometimes questions I did not even know I was asking. The first was about the nature of the authentic self. I interviewed a woman who, like many of the 50-ish women I’ve met here, felt that she was more free to be herself in San Miguel. She was very intelligent, extremely self-assured. In short, what I would refer to as a strong woman. “How can it be,” I asked her, “that a strong competent woman cannot be her true self in the U.S.?”

It was during that conversation that the woman I’ll refer to as “Clark” (because she prefers to be addressed by her surname) commented, “The way I explain it is when I’m in the U.S., I feel like my life is compressed.” As we continued to talk about this, I asked her, “would it be correct to say that in the U.S. we’ve created a world where we have thousands of choices, or at least we believe that we have thousands of choices, but we all somehow restrict ourselves to very narrow paths, so that we all end up on the same road, more or less, and we may not be very happy with our choices, but we’re afraid to make other choices?” Clark told me that was brilliantly stated, and yes, that was what she was referring to when she talked about compression.


I think, at last, that I’m beginning to see what people mean here when they talk about the authentic self. The self is still the self, but in the midst of expat culture, the “mainstream” road, or perhaps the treadmill, that so many U.S. residents are on, does not exist here. It cannot. The society is different, the choices are different, and that makes a new context for the self. My guess (and I may be horrendously wrong here) is that there is another path in place for the expats, but because it is different and non-“American” (U.S.) it feels more like freedom. It could take years before i figure that out–if I ever do.

I really love San Miguel. This is not my magical place (in the U.S. that would be a tie between my home state of West Virginia, particularly Morgan and Monongalia Counties, and the city of Philadelphia; in Mexico that will always be Textitlán). I do not think that I’m more authentic when I’m in either place, but I connect with my surroundings there in a way that I do not most everywhere else. San Miguel, however, is incredibly pleasant, and a wonderful place to work.

It is not an easy place to figure out, but that is why these projects take years.


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