Growing up in Austin, Texas, Diez y Seis — Mexican Independence Day — always seemed to hold an official, albeit minor, status in the state capitol. This was not a holiday that we observed in my family in any formal capacity. Much like Cinco de Mayo we might find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant that night just by happenstance. After all we ate Mexican all the time! As we waited for our enchiladas I would proclaim, “Today is Deiz y Seis,” as if realizing that the Longhorns were on TV. Unlike the Fourth of July, it never warranted parades of children on decorated bicycles and riding lawnmowers. More than likely it would be a human interest story at the end of the local nightly news.
While a student, and at the encouragement of my mother, I recruited my grandmother to help me collect ghost stories from her oldest sister, Julia, the most renowned storyteller and tamale maker in my family. In addition to learning a little bit about linguistics and a lot about transcribing interviews I also heard for the first time the tale of how her family came to Texas from Torreón, Coahuila. In honor of Diez y Seis and with all due respect to the still precarious status of immigrants and refugees in the United States I am retelling it to you today.
Special thanks are due to my mom Janis, Grandma Pauline, and Aunt Julia who guided me to that kitchen in south central Austin, January 1997, where I first heard this tale. I had to exercise a little poetic license to weave that conversation into a single narrative but its really Julia’s story. Believe me, when its family holding you to account you’re going to do your best to tell the tale right!
This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.
I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.
But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting. Continue reading →
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview Christian Zlolniski about his ongoing work in Baja California, Mexico. I contacted Zlolniski in hopes of getting some more insight about the farmworker strikes in the San Quintin Valley that began this past March. Zlolniski is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research focuses on economic globalization and immigrant labor, with regional emphasis in the US Southwest and Mexico. He is the author of the book Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley (UC Press, 2006) and co-author of De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintín (COLEF, Mexico 2014).
Ryan Anderson: When did you first start doing fieldwork in San Quintin? Why San Quintin?
Christian Zlolniski: I began doing fieldwork in 2005 with two professors at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef) in Tijuana, Mexico –Laura Velasco a sociologist, and Marie Laure Coubes a demographer. We wanted to study the settlement of thousands of indigenous farmworkers in the region who in the past were seasonal migratory workers. It was evident to us that San Quintin was changing fast and becoming a major agro-export enclave in Northern Mexico. It combined advanced agricultural production technologies with the massive employment of indigenous workers as a source of cheap and flexible labor. Except for a few pioneering studies, the academic literature on this region was rather thin and San Quintin was not in the radar screen of politicians, the media or scholars. We also felt that the academic literature on border studies in Mexico had an urban bias with special focus on the economic, demographic and cultural changes in large border cities (and studies on the maquila industry) while important transformations in rural society and economy, including the rapid growth of export agriculture, were largely ignored. Continue reading →
When you see piles of fresh fish in a market, do you ever ask yourself whether or not the listed price accurately reflects the actual value of those now-lifeless creatures? How much is one fish really worth? I never thought much about that question until I attended a community meeting in the coastal pueblo of La Ribera, Baja California Sur. Who knew it would be a lesson in value?
The meeting itself was hosted by a group of marine scientists and other scholars from the nearby university in La Paz. The goal of the meeting was to change some minds. You see, fishermen from La Ribera weren’t exactly elated about the nearby Marine Protected Area in Cabo Pulmo (aka the Cabo Pulmo National Park), despite its immense national and international support. Some surrounding communities were not completely sold on the idea of a no-take fishing zone. La Ribera was among them; many residents felt that Pulmo’s MPA only benefited the residents of Cabo Pulmo. A group of marine biologists, economists and other scholars from the nearby university in La Paz (UABCS) arranged a community meeting to try to convince residents of La Ribera otherwise. Continue reading →
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger John Hartigan]
I’m sitting in the auditorium of LANGEBIO, a national genomics biodiversity lab in Mexico. Perched towards the middle of a room that holds about 220 people, I’m listening to a day-long series of presentations by doctoral plant geneticists. The bare concrete walls bear streamers of sponsors, such as Illumina, Biosis, and Biosistemas Avanzados. Each speaker strides out onto an overly large stage that dwarfs them as much as the giant overhead screen, across which their presentations flash. The featured species are Zea mays and Arabidopsis thaliana (the first flowering plant to have its genome sequenced), along with varieties of yeast—all well-established model organisms upon and through which genetics steadily advances. Continue reading →