Saturday, August 05, 2006

Ethnographic commitments

Below is a photograph of the jardín in Textitlán, Guanajuato.

When you begin an ethnographic project, you go in with the understanding that you're asking people, usually complete strangers, to allow you to observe and document their lives. If you're suceessfull, you will eventually become part of their lives. When your project spans a decade, as my first book project did, you cannot simply "end" the relationships you have relied upon during the project. The relationships will change, but walking away is simply not an option. So it is with my informants in the town I've identified as Textitlán, Guanajuato, a small textile producing community some 2 hours southeast of San Miguel de Allende (SMA). When I come to Mexico, I have to visit Textitlán.

When I first arrived here in SMA, I have to admit, I was still in love with Textitlán. Although Textitlán is not a lovely place, it is a real Mexican town where people have migrated to the U.S. and then returned to invest their capital in the local garment industry. People who live here (and do not migrate) are not wealthy, but they are able to make a life on their own terms. Textitlán in itself is a hard place to love, but the people are amazing. This is a real Mexican town with all of the difficulties and joys that one might find anywhere in Mexico, except a tourist destination. The tourism industry is particularly skilled at producing images of places that often have little resemblence to everyday life of those places. These images meet the expectations and needs of the (typically American) tourists, but these image are rarely problematized by lifes inconvenient realities, like poverty and inequality. Textitlán has no venear to obscure day-to-day life of average Mexican men and women. I feel privileged to have been part of the life of Textitlán's community, even as an ethnographic observer.

Carniceros. One of the aspects of Textitlán that I love to watch is day-to-day life.
This photo was taken on August 3 as we walked through the pueblo's market.
The men bring the meat from the local slaughterhouse in trucks. They wear the
towels on their shoulders as the carry the meat directly into the market.

Starting a new ethnographic project so soon after the first is probably not the best idea. It takes time to decompress as a big project comes to an end, and taking a year or more off between projects is not uncommon. To be honest, in an ideal world I probably would not have started my project in SMA so soon after the first, but the grants came this year, so I pushed forward.

So it was not surprise that when I arrived in SMA, I wasn't "in love" with this project. I started meeting some very kind, generous expatriates, but I also met more than few who were borish and quite proud of the fact that they could live quite well as a retired person in Mexico. I wondered if I would ever be able to invest myself in this place, and the people. Then this week, after my mother and sister arrived, I took them around SMA as I did my work. The core group of informants, a really great group of friendly, welcoming people, were extremely kind to them (as they had been with me, Ken and the kids). It was during the last Gringo Happy Hour that I started to feel connected here.

Then we decided to take a few days off and visit Textitlán. Obviously, we could have done this any time since I came to Mexico, but I thought it would be a good experience to take my mom and sister along with us. For many years my informants had asked about my parents and extended family. They prayed for my father when he suddenly fell seriously ill when I was doing fieldwork in January, 2003; they wept with me when he died later that year, and they always asked how my mother was adjusting after he passed away.

So on Thurday morning we took off for Textitlán by way of Celaya. The road south is in pretty good shape and we started off making good time. When we reached Celaya we found that the city was completely torn up for major road construction. The normal route through the city is complicated because it takes you through neigbhorhoods and side roads. Now the route is nearly impossible because of detours. This is typically not such a big deal, but in Celaya there were only 2 detour signs: one that said that the detour started and then another that said the detour had ended. The expectation here is that one would be familiar with the multiple turns and roads one must take as s/he weaves their way through the city. We tried to follow traffic, but we found that about half of the people in front of us took turns in one direction or another. We also found that because the right or left turn only signs only appeared at the point where one has to turn, we were unable to change lanes to make proper turns when they were finally marked.

We were lost in Celaya for a long, long time.

When we finally got out of the city, we drove southward toward the village of Salvatierra. It's a tiny place, but there is always a rather large artisan market along the road and a fairly large crowd coming and going. Just as we were arriving in Salvatierra, there was a huge cloud burst and it rained in torrents. When we reached artisan market, the streets of Salvatierra were under water (about 18 inches deep) and for the first time we were happy that the car rental agency had forced an SUV upon us earlier in the week; all of the drivers in smaller cars were in water up to the doors and several had stalled out.

Slowly made our way through the pueblo, and then on to Textitlán. The only other obstacle was another detour. The road workers south of Salvatierra were repairing a bridge over what is typically a dry stream (now a small river). They had carved an earthen bridge to the right of the main road which dipped perilously close to the water. It was a mud path that we crossed very slowly, trying to navigate between the edge of the road and the double semi truck passing on the left.

When we finally arrived at our destination, we were exhausted and relieved. We did have a lovely quick visit in Textitlán, and did manage to meet with all of my major informants in a 36 hour period. Below are a few photos of our get-together:

My daughter with our friends' children. Can you tell which one is mine?

Out to dinner at Acuarioburger, the best burger place in North America (we fed 14 people on 300 pesos, about $28USD)

Teresa with her niece

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