Fieldwork Comes to an End

Hello anthropologists,

I know it has been a while since my last post, and there is more to catch up on than I could ever cover. But I can say that I have officially finished my fieldwork in Guatemala now. It was nothing like I expected it to be, so many things went wrong I don’t know where to begin. But some things went right, thankfully enough things that I can move forward with my thesis. In the end, had everything gone the way it was supposed to I wouldn’t have discovered the stories I did–stories that are arguably more urgent than the stories I sought in the beginning. And I suppose that’s how most fieldwork happens, you don’t really know what questions to ask until you’re in the thick of it.

I went to Guatemala originally with the intention of studying the effectiveness of the reconciliation process after their civil war. After coming up against more roadblocks than I could imagine, it became clear that there is something deeply wrong with the forensic anthropological efforts happening in Guatemala, especially in how these efforts are influencing contemporary impunity for those who commit gang related violence. None of this is cheerful stuff, but it’s necessary if anthropologists are to understand the influences on and the consequences of their involvement.

It all comes back around to theory, how do we acknowledge and account for our bias when doing anthropology? How do we ensure the best outcome for the greatest number of people, without losing sight of the bigger picture?

I paid a visit to the paupers’ cemetery in Guatemala City to find information on a contact’s missing father. It was stifling hot and a fine, red dust settled on our trainers as we walked down the sandy loam pathways. We were given hurried directions by a vendor set up along the side of the road, hawking blank tombstones for the recently bereaved. He pointed and said we needed to walk down to the very end if we wanted to see the XXX cemetery. This is the resting place of the unidentified in Guatemala City, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I thought that the XXX cemetery was named so because the graves were marked with ‘XXX’ since the identities were unknown, I also thought that it would be a cemetery. But as I soon came to realise, the XXX referred to the three crosses that stood sentry at its mouth. All of the graves–save a special few–were unmarked, abandoned, and accumulating garbage. This was not a cemetery either, this was a boneyard. Human remains were emerging from that sandy loam of the pathway. I stood over a human talus (ankle), and began to brush the excess dirt away before I remembered myself. I had no legal or ethical right to move or even touch this bone, whatever obligation I felt toward the remains had to be abandoned for my own safety. I stood and as I walked away I began to weep, for that talus emerging from the ground belonged to a person whose family searched for them, it belonged to someone who died alone and nameless. That talus could have even belonged to my contact’s father–she had her back to me now as she looked over the rows of fresh graves. When she turned I saw that she was weeping too.

 

What did she or I gain from this visit? Certainly not answers, rather more questions and mounting frustration at the ineptitude and cruelty of her situation.

I didn’t conduct nearly as much work in Guatemala as I had wanted to, but now my work must turn to the institutions that enable the ongoing violence and impunity. And not just in Guatemala, but in all the countries scrambling through the reconciliation process.

I will be presenting on my experiences in Guatemala at the SARG seminar on May 22nd at Durham University.

As always, send me any questions through the contact page

Fieldwork Entry 1: Antigua and Semana Santa

As some of you undoubtedly know, I’m now in the beautiful Guatemala for the first leg of my research–and honestly, the words to properly describe this place escape me. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in my short life, but Guatemala is hands down the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The seismic activity of the area has carved out a landscape of enormous volcanoes, jutting ridges, black sand beaches that sparkle gold, and vast lakes that shift from grey to bright green with the changing light. I have yet to see a monkey, but everything in its time I suppose.

Without realising, I booked my flights for the beginning of something called Semana Santa, the celebratory week before Easter Sunday. This meant that when I arrived in Antigua, the locals were preparing for a week of religious processions that would shut down the city, and for the overwhelming influx of people from the surrounding areas.

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Locals and visitors alike composed carpets of flowers and coloured sawdust along the cobble streets. These lined the path of the processors who hold aloft enormous wooden floats with statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, transforming the Central American city into the Via Dolorosa. There was something haunting about how these floats swayed in time with the slow march of their bearers, and even a staunch agnostic like me couldn’t help but feel catharsis as these believers carried their god upon their shoulders, with a full orchestra following behind. To add to this impressive spectacle, men in full purple or black robes walk ahead of the floats and filled the air with thick incense.
Semana Santa also presented some problems as a newly arrived anthropologist, it was nearly impossible to be seen as anything but a gullible tourist. To be fair, this was the peak of the tourist season, but attitudes towards my presence seem to have softened now that Semana Santa is over. And maybe I come across as less of a tourist now that I know how to hail a chicken bus–the flamboyantly painted American style school busses that act as the cheapest form of public transport–from the side of the highway and not get ripped off by the driver. Or maybe because I’m slowly becoming able to communicate with those who speak no English at all.
After a bit of tourism, I’m now set up in an apartment just outside of Antigua with a local I befriended, and can make my own tortillas and pepián, a local dish resembling mole. On my first day in Antigua, I made the interesting decision to try and navigate the enormous open air market by myself without any Spanish and no Google Translate. After getting ripped off fantastically for some onions, I came across the only English speaker in the entire place, who directed me to a stall that sold lemongrass. And in a wonderfully serendipitous moment, this gentleman ran the cooking class I turned up to later in the evening!
In fact, most of this trip can be described as serendipitous. On my second day, when I took my camera out for the first time, a pigeon pooed on me–a clear sign of good luck back in Brooklyn. In my short time here I’ve met some really amazing people, and one who even contributed significantly to my research already. So here’s hoping that luck holds.

Keep your eyes out for my next post on Lake Atitlan and the first stages of my research with the FAFG!