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.

Light reading turned heavy

I brought one book with me, on my semester of research in Mexico City. This was an act of severe self-discipline, and resulted in me leaving a couple of half-read volumes on my shelf in Brooklyn. The book that made the cut was Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle. Goldman splits his time between New York and Mexico City (let me tell you, it’s a fine way to live); I figured that his book would still count as context for my research, but would also be an escape from the heavier topics of my dissertation.

The first chapters of the book were exactly this, and guided my wanderings through the city. My route to a local yoga studio had me tracing Goldman’s path through the opening pages of The Interior Circuit. As I wandered further afield I started seeking out locations that he describes, such as the bodgy David replica in Plaza Rio de Janeiro. Goldman’s fascination with the city is infectious, and his eye for detail brings a lot of curious corners of the place into sharper focus.

Goldman cut his teeth as a correspondent during the civil war in El Salvador, and it doesn’t take too long for his journalistic instincts to rise to the surface of what starts out as a charming memoir. He begins following the students protests, known as Yo Soy 132, in response to future president Peña Nieto’s proud defense of his actions as governor of Mexico State, when he deployed lethal police force against peaceful protestors. Later, Goldman becomes fascinated by a case in which a dozen young people were kidnapped from a local nightclub. This latter case occupies almost the entire second half of the book.

The Heavens nightclub case could almost be a standalone investigative work, except that there is no real resolution at the end of Goldman’s account. This is a curious feature of Interior Circuit; the author keeps digging into these cases of violence and corruption, but after a bout of investigation, moves on to another case. Towards the end of the book, Goldman shifts his attention to other instances of violence, such as the notorious disappearance of 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

This makes much of the book feel restless. Cases of violence cycle through the narrative, without ever being resolved. Eventually, there is just nothing new left to say. This is, however, no defect of Goldman’s writing. Rather, it demonstrates in action the approach of both president Peña Nieto, and the former mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera, to any press reports that might tarnish their images. Both figures focus on denial and obfuscation. Both leave writers and investigators like Goldman to work with scraps of information and hunches. Both prevent any kind of denouement, any ending or closure.

What does that leave? Goldman alerts his reader to important cases, and recurring themes. He can’t do all that much with them, but he won’t let them rest. He pushes back against government efforts to silence and suppress. And that makes room for those of us that come along later to continue the work, prying and probing, recording and remembering.

Narco-messages in Mexico City

About two weeks before I moved to Mexico City to start my field research, a narco-message appeared over a major street in the city. This was a big deal; while thousands of these messages have appeared in cities and towns throughout the country, Mexico City is one of those places in which messages are regarded as a rarity. For me it was intriguing; I was moving to Mexico to study narco-messages, but I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the actual messages. I wanted to be in the city to be closer to academics and journalists. I have no interest in chasing down narco-messages, but I do want to speak to the people that do.

As I progress with my research, however, it becomes obvious that narco-messages in the capital aren’t so unusual. Indeed, the more remarkable point might be how short our memories are, when it comes to these messages. In the article linked above, Proceso – one of the more reliable reporters of messages – mentions only one prior case. So far, in the years between 2006 and 2013, I have found about 35 cases of messages left in the city – more than that, if you factor in that sometimes clusters of messages are displayed at the same time. Some of these messages should be difficult to forget.

In 2007, a narco-message and an unexploded grenade were left in the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo metro station, between the hip neighbourhoods of Coyoacán and San Ángel (the area around the station is a gold mine for book stores). Narco-messages were still a relatively uncommon occurrence in 2007, but already it was clear that few parts of the capital would be off-limits to such threats.

In 2011, and as part of larger campaign across the metropolitan area, a group known as the Hand with Eyes left five messages within the city proper. The group became something of a fascination in the media, owing to its mysterious, cult-like branding, and its distinctive pattern of decapitating victims, and then leaving a message in which the headless victim was named.

In 2013, a suitcase containing the corpse of a woman and a narco-message was found in the San Antonio metro station. This station is close to the centre of the city, and surveillance cameras revealed that the man carrying the suitcase had boarded a train in the outskirts of the city, carrying it all the way the centre, before leaving it to be found.

Given such cases, why do I and many others still act as if narco-messages within the city are somehow exceptional?

I suspect a part of this might be highly effective discourse promoted by Miguel Ángel Mancera, who was the mayor of Mexico City from 2012 until recently. Mancera took an aggressive stance of denial regarding crime in the capital. Not that there wasn’t any, but that it was among street gangs and petty delinquents. It was the “narco” part of narco-messages that Mancera denied, with the logic that there were no narcos in the city, so how could there be narco-messages, or narco-violence, or narco-anything. A discourse of exceptionalism:  the narcos might be elsewhere, but they aren’t here.

Francisco Goldman traces out an example of Mancera’s strategy, and this exceptional discourse, in his book The Interior Circuit. As Goldman points out, this strategy shares a lot with that of president Peña Nieto (also 2012-2018), even though president and mayor come from rival parties.

I assumed that basing myself in Mexico City would mean studying narco-messages at some distance, and while I am in no hurry to go looking for any message here, even this idea of distance plays into the discourse of the exceptional capital. This city is less removed from the rest of the country than we might want to believe.

You have to be there

I am in Mexico City for the summer, doing some preliminary field work. Although I have visited the city a number of times, the last of these visits was some six years ago. So, along with attending a conference, meeting with various scholars down here, and actually getting on with some research, I was very excited to explore the city again – sufficiently so that a good part of my preliminary preliminary field research was spent dawdling among travel sites and blogs.

One location that stuck out, during these preliminary preliminary investigations, was Biblioteca Vasconcelos. I had never heard of this place, back when I first lived in Mexico – I didn’t move in quite such nerdy circles than – and so was determined to pay it a visit soon after my return. The Atlas Obscura write-up of the site, in particular, made it sound like some sort of surreal, Borgesian fantasy world, in which libraries existed within libraries, and in which musty old tomes could occupy the futuristic space shelves of tomorrow.

Wondering the cavernous hall of the Biblioteca, I waited and waited for space to collapse in upon itself, parallel universes of books coexisting in the same impossible singularity. Pillars of books did hang high over my head, the patterned skeleton of a whale suspended among the tomes. But it was all, in fact, rather consistent and uniform (even if the whale was a weird touch).

The reason that the Biblioteca of the write-up seemed to contain so many more multitudes was that the author had accidentally conflated two sites, describing them as if they were one.

A few metro stops away from the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is the Biblioteca de Mexico “José Vasconcelos.” The two share the name of one of the principal intellectuals of post-revolution Mexico, but in most respects they are very different. Biblioteca Vasconcelos is massive and open, full of layers of stark metal shelving. Biblioteca de Mexico, by contrast, occupies a colonial building, with a scattering of courtyards giving on to small libraries, laced with narrow staircases and passages between shelves stuffed with worn books. Rather than a jumble of impossibilities, each library has a distinctive and cohesive style.

A reminder, then, at the outset of this early stage of field work: you have to be there, in the field, getting a sense of how things really work and fit together. Don’t be like the travel writer that didn’t actually travel. Don’t try to be an expert from a distance. There is no substitute for seeing a place for yourself, for poking about, for wandering the streets, for getting a little lost and stumbling upon the unexpected.