Monday, July 14, 2008

on being a faux historian

i'm an anthropologist by training. one of the things that i love about anthropology is its methodology--participant observation, interviews, writing and coding field notes. ever since i was an undergraduate, doing mini-ethnographies, i have immensely enjoyed my time "in the field."

unfortunately (?), my topic of interest pulls me away from my training. for the past several years, i've been looking at mexican segregation, which has necessitated more historical research than anything else. i have only the vaguest sense that i am doing things "right," but i think that the story is important, so i'm pushing forward.

these past couple of weeks i've found myself muddling through property records--some digitized, others on pages that seem like they will crumble in your hands. i'm looking at old maps--platt maps, townsite maps--trying to create a picture of what a racially segregated community (with some exceptions) looked like. i'm recording the names of people who, according to the rules of segregation--should not have lived on a particular side of the tracks (but they did!).

i wonder who these mexican people were. were they old land grant families? were they wealthy? racially white? and what was life like for them on the south side of the tracks? did they speak spanish at home and english with their neighbors? how did they relate to the mexicans on the other side of the tracks? what about culture?

it's an incredible challenge to piece together an historical portrait of a community, especially when you feel like you don't have all the pieces! some of them come from property records. i had a breakthrough the other day with an affidavit. when the city planner explained blocks and lots on the map, i could interpret the records better and even imagine who might have been neighbors.

i'm scheduling oral history interviews this week with the hope that they will help me to tell the story. in the meantime, i'll be looking at court cases and city commission meeting minutes to try to find more pieces to the puzzle.

wish me luck!


Thursday, July 03, 2008


south texas is mostly as i remember.

this summer the skies are grey and the air thick with humidity. the palm trees bend with the wind, their fronds like sea anemones. i wonder when it will rain. i'm waiting for a good texas rain, with thunder and lightning and sheets of water that pour like buckets.

i remember the language. brown teenagers speaking english, older mexicanos speaking spanish. those in between, speaking both. "oh jennifer, i wish you could meet him. lo quiero mucho."

there are more amenities than when i left five years ago. i used to have to drive half an hour to mcallen to find starbucks coffee. now, there are a few around harlingen (though not all of them have wi-fi!) there is more shopping now, more restaurants.

still, in la feria last night, i joined some people for drinks at the american legion hall. apparently, the bar/restaurant developers haven't spread into the small towns quite yet. but it was a nice time, reconnecting with my old friends in a smoke-filled hall. it was the bartender's birthday last night, and she had cooked a feast for the patrons--barbecued pork and chicken, mexican rice, potato salad, and birthday cake. the bar sang happy birthday to her.

i confess that it feels a little bit sad to be a visitor in a place where i used to live, especially considering that i really loved my life here.

but i've lived in three cities since then, one that i enjoyed, another that i loved, and one that i'm still adjusting to. and i guess that is the path that i chose as an academic. it feels like a nomadic path. maybe even migrant. and so i store up memories of the places that i've lived, feeling the fullness of my heart when i let myself remember.