“Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Back in September, I attended the Conflict Research Society annual conference in Brighton. CRS is one of my favorite conferences, and I have previously attended in Oxford and Birmingham. The Brighton conference was great, with the same warm and collaborative spirit as the previous meetings. But one awkward, and perhaps important, moment stays with me, and I think warrants reflection.

I shared my dissertation research as part of a panel on narrative and ideology. The room was full, and there were a lot of questions from the audience. One response took the form of a long series of barbed more-of-a-comment-than-a-question points, aimed at the discussant, another panelist, and me. Those comments culminated in a challenge directed to me: “Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Although this is the type of comment that most presenters dread, I was fortunate to have an easy answer. “Thank you for your feedback, I am in fact just back from my fourth trip and tenth month of research in Mexico. Apologies for not spelling that out. Now moving right along…”

That is the easy answer, and perhaps the best that can be done with a rather lengthy comment during a rather short panel. Behind the question, however, was an important point. The commenter may have missed the mark with their question, but their expectation that I wasn’t spending time in Mexico highlighted a problem with my presentation. I had gone too technical with my analysis. I had tables and counts, but I was not telling a story. I wasn’t animating the numbers by showing what they looked like on the ground. I had made my research look like something that could be done from a distance.

The comment also left me wondering just how often I should be in Mexico. Another answer to the question would be that I wasn’t in Mexico because I was in Brighton, presenting at a conference, hobnobbing with other scholars that for the most part conduct research in one place, and discuss that research in another.

In this sense, the question should be an uncomfortable challenge for our whole way of doing academic work. Why weren’t any of us in our respective field sites? Because regardless of how deeply we embed during our research, our work is more structured by academic conventions than by the people and places that we research. We write into academic genres, we present our work in standard formats, to rooms of similarly socialized and educated researchers.

There is another uncomfortable answer back there too. Why wasn’t I in Mexico? Because funding at my institution comes with a lot of strings attached. Even those of us with decent funding packages are obliged to be in New York every semester, to teach or assist or just to confirm that we are indeed working. I managed to wrangle a semester in Mexico, but doing so involved a long struggle against the overlapping bureaucracies of CUNY.

At conferences, we present our research as though everything is a matter of intention, of making the best choices for doing the best research. We don’t say very much about the way our research is structured and shaped by the limitations – bureaucratic, disciplinary, conventional – of academia itself. We might benefit from spending more time in the field, but we definitely need to present our work to the right people. We might engage fluently with the culture and customs of our field sites, but we absolutely need to be fluent in the bureaucracy of funding institutions. We make a successful career based more on what we do in academic spaces, than on what we do in research spaces.

Why aren’t you in Mexico? A harsh question for someone of higher status to toss at a panel of students, but a useful one to carry with me. I will spend more time in Mexico, but not as much time as I would like. Rather than worry about how much time I spend there, however, I should be focusing more on bringing Mexico back with me. On doing justice to the lives and stories that I encounter in my research. On finding ways to make the field (whatever that is) less subservient to the ivory tower.

Digging into the nota roja

When I am out and about during field research, I invariably have a roll of papers under my arm. If I don’t have a roll of papers, it is only because I’m en route to raid one of the local newsstands. The roll of papers is usually a mix of weekly or monthly political magazines, and daily newspapers and tabloids – the mags and the rags.

I started poring over the mags and the rags to get a feel for the media landscape and style of reporting in Mexico. Media archives were my main source, in putting together a database of narco-messages, so I wanted some context for the sources I was using. Over time, however, digging into the papers has become its own activity. In this I have been inspired by ethnographers like Lisa Wedeen, who talk about coming back from the field with boxes of material to continue picking through. I’ve never kept track of how much of this material I work through, but on this current trip, I am spending at least an hour a day in the mags and rags.

For this summer research trip, I arrived with a different priority for my print ethnography (or whatever we’re going to call it). On past trips, I dipped into the nota roja – the notorious tabloid papers that show graphic photos of crime scenes on their front covers. I quickly learned not to open these over lunch, and made a point of not picking up these rags more than once or twice each week. This time around, however, I decided I was missing something important by not digging deeper into the nota roja. So I have started picking up Extra, one of Cuernavaca’s local rags, every day (despite the protestations of the vendor at my local newsstand).

Why focus on these pages full of blood and violence (and football)? In previous interviews with journalists, I heard that Extra is less dependent on the government than most local papers. Extra has a huge circulation; it funds itself. A lot of the other papers depend on government funding through purchase of advertising space and similar, in order to stay in circulation. I already knew that the nota roja published material that other papers did not, but it was through the interviews that I realized Extra publishes material that others cannot, rather than just what they will not.

A second reason arose while I was reading Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat argues against the idea that if we could only see violence or injustice, we would turn against and reject it. He sees a more complex tension; our disgust or outrage are only sustained by distance from an objectionable thing. With proximity and familiarity, we lose our ability to be shocked. In the case of his work on slaughterhouses, Pachirat doesn’t think a more open or transparent meat industry will lead to mass conversion to vegetarianism. Or even to much complaint with industrialized killing. This got me thinking; the nota roja brings exposure to violence to anyone passing by a newsstand. Have I underestimated the desensitizing, normalizing effect of rags like Extra?

Finally, not long before I returned to Mexico, the arresting image of Óscar and Valeria Martínez, drowned on the U.S.-Mexico border, was reproduced again and again across media outlets and feeds. Outraged commentary claimed that such an image would force action, that finally people would see the truth about U.S. migration policy. Other commentary noted the limits to the galvanizing force of such images, and that the circulation of the image could be more dehumanizing than compassion-provoking.

So this is one of my current research missions. Read the nota roja every damn day (but never over lunch). Don’t try to exclude it from my study of the media as something grotesque but unimportant. Don’t pretend to understand violence without looking carefully at one of the primary ways that violence is mediated and circulated here.

Uuuurgh.

Swimming in the ruins

On my last couple of trips to Mexico, one of my first orders of business has been to find a swimming pool. In New York I am spoiled by the availability of free outdoor pools during the summer, and almost free indoor pools for the rest of the year. In Mexico, the best I have been able to do (without presenting three original birth certificates and fifteen certificates of health) is joining a gym with a pool.

In Cuernavaca, I found a pool inside a gym inside a mall. In the early afternoon, with the lanes virtually to myself, I turned laps in the cloudy water, gasping for breath in the humid, high-altitude air. The empty pool was refreshing, but the mostly empty gym and mall felt a little off. I thought perhaps that they were newly constructed and opened, but one of the trainers told me that the gym had been open for about five years – and the mall for longer than that. It wasn’t that the mall felt new, then, but rather that it felt not-quite-finished. Most of the indoor shop fronts were unused. Most of the outdoor cafes had only one table of customers at a time.

When I got out of the pool and on with my research, I kept hearing about the devastation of public space in Cuernavaca. The historic city center is choking on traffic. The shady ravines that divide up the town are filling with garbage. Time and again, people traced this devastation back to the demolition of the Casino de la Selva.

The casino was built in the 30s, but for most of its history was a casino in name only. It is mentioned in the novel that first drew me to Cuernavaca. The locals that spoke of the site remembered it as a sprawling complex of hotel facilities, murals, gardens, and swimming pools. Locals could pay for access to many of the facilities, and the swimming pools and other parts of the complex were central gathering and socializing spots, a kind of public space on private ground.

The facilities began to fall into disrepair, as they changed hands and were eventually seized by the government. Then in 2001, the complex was sold to Costco and a local supermarket chain. Protests against the planned demolition of the site were aggressively put down, with some protestors sent to prison. The site was leveled, although some of the murals were removed and preserved.

It didn’t take much investigation for me to realize that I had been swimming in the ruins of the Casino de la Selva. The demolition of the complex provided enough space for an oversized Costco, and an oversized Mega supermarket, and a never-quite-finished mall. The demolition also deprived the city of a place rich in history and memory, replacing these with utterly generic, utterly anonymous consumer space. A few rusted relics of the casino stand behind a gate on the side of the highway that plows between the supermarkets and the mall.

I came to Cuernavaca to investigate the impact of crime and insecurity on public life, but the sense of loss of public life – not just of loss, but of the life of the city being sold off by the government – predates the surge in violence associated with organized crime in the city.

And in my swimming trips, I found myself in a place that was completely at odds with getting to know the city and its people. Where once families had mingled and splashed in outdoor pools, now solitary figures turned laps, one swimmer to a lane, in a cloudy indoor pool in a gym in a mall.

A month of farfetching

During the winter break, while New York was shivering through a polar vortex, I slipped away to the City of Eternal Spring for a month of research. With Cuernavaca as much as one hundred degrees (Fahrenheit, calm down) warmer than New York, it was a rather good choice.

I equipped myself with fiction and non-fiction for this trip to Mexico. On the way there I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and The Spectacular City by Daniel Goldstein. I read the former for pleasure, without marking up the pages, and yet within the novel I found (and hardly for the first time with Le Guin’s fiction) an unexpected resonance – both with Goldstein’s study, and my own attempts at field research.

My priority for Cuernavaca was to conduct interviews, building up a richer understanding of what happened in the city between 2009 and 2011. During that time a military operation killed the most powerful crime boss in the region, leading to a very public power struggle among formerly aligned criminal factions. At times public life in the city came to a complete standstill, but in response to this insecurity a social movement emerged, that eventually marched to the doors of the national palace in Mexico City.

Beyond semi-structured interviews, however, I wanted to get a better sense of the city. Cuernavaca doesn’t get much attention in studies of insecurity in Mexico – these tend to go for the superlative cases, the “murder capitals” – and I wanted to better understand how a less remarkable city could produce the country’s biggest social mobilization against such insecurity.

Le Guin’s novel provided a rather nice encapsulation of this rather vague research agenda.

What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor.

Goldstein’s ethnographic study of a town in Bolivia is an excellent example of farfetching research. The study centers on two events: a religious procession, and an attempted lynching. Goldstein posits a connection between these seemingly very different events, through the idea of the spectacle. Residents of the community, which is often rendered invisible to state recognition and support, use spectacles to make themselves visible and to demand recognition from the state.

I kept the idea of farfetching before me in Cuernavaca, as an example of open, exploratory, and intuitive research. I pursued interviews, but tried not to presume to know what I needed to take from those interviews. I read through piles of local newspapers, and kept daily field notes. I refused no invitation, and thus ended up in a first aid course for local journalists, sponsored by the Red Cross. I became a dummy for demonstrating the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Through this approach, I did indeed meet and interview a number of journalists. I learned new things and rethought aspects of my project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the connections between the media and narco-messages came to feel more and more important. The most immediate yield of all the farfetching, however, does not tie directly into my dissertation at all. Throughout the month, the constant focus in newspapers and online was on oil theft, and recently-inaugurated President López Obrador’s aggressive stance against such theft. The discourse around oil theft was so rich and interesting that I ended up pitching and writing a short piece about it for NACLA.

Not directly related, but not completely unrelated either. This is Le Guin’s “moral entirety,” as I understand it: that my research is only as important or interesting as the bigger picture, of which the project is a tiny part. The ultimate idea is not to perfectly encapsulate a topic, reducing it to “rational symbols,” but rather to speak to something so big and so compelling that it cannot be neatly encapsulated. Work that resonates, but doesn’t reduce.

Wrapping up field work (for now)

The months of field work passed in a flash, and before I knew it I was back in the immigration line at JFK, crumpled documents in hand. After half a year in the endless spring of Mexico City, arriving back in New York during the swampiest month of the year was something of a shock. And of course, I felt that I was really just getting started in Mexico.

Perhaps I was just getting started, but I did return with a full database. Maybe even a complete one (how do you know when a database is complete enough?). Whether or not the base grows further, it swelled out to 6,180 messages over the course of my field work. Those many messages came from one national newspaper and nine regional ones, along with data from a leaked government dataset. There are a lot of holes in the data – I would like to track down more complete message transcriptions – but even as things are, I have plenty to analyse. The database is bigger, and was easier to assemble, than I had expected. I gave it three hours a day, every day while I was in Mexico.

Those three hours per day were an effective routine for building a database, but they do raise the question of what else I was doing with my time in Mexico. I certainly wasn’t conducting many interviews, although not for lack of wanting to. I arrived in Mexico City expecting at any moment an email stating that I had IRB approval to conduct interviews. While I waited, I got on with building the database. Six weeks later, and in response to a very belated and very timid email on my part, I learned that my IRB application had been lost in the bureaucratic interstices of my university the whole time. No on had read it. No one even knew that it had been submitted (or rather, the one person that knew left their job and didn’t pass the work on to anyone else). It took a further six weeks to finally get that long overdue approval email. Three months in the field had already passed.

This left me scrambling to recruit interviewees as Mexico was building up to a general election. Most of the journalists that I reached out to were busy, and none of the state officials were in the mood to talk. The activists I reached out to were, by contrast, ever ready for a chat. Still, most of my interviews were crammed into the weeks after the election and before my departure (Mexico’s elimination from the World Cup might have helped too).

That still leaves unanswered the question of what else I was doing, with all those hours not spent interviewing or databasing. I read a lot of newspapers – although I quickly learned not to read the nota roja over lunch – but these didn’t occupy that much of my time.

I did visit Mercado Medellín almost every day, buying up plants for my dinky patio and pots for my dinky kitchen. I hovered around the quesadilla stand on the corner outside the market, working my way through the entire unprinted menu. I sat in cafes without a Macbook in sight, sipping steaming glasses of cafe con leche, or tiny cappuccinos (at least compared to their voluminous cousins in the U.S.). I met old friends and made news ones over bulky caguamas of beer and clinking glasses of mescal. I lost all those hours in the ephemera, the daily life that doesn’t appear in research write-ups. The little gestures and routines that come to define a place, and through which you stop merely observing, and start living and loving.