Latina/o Ethnography and the Anthropological Toolkit

Having experienced my first AAA annual meeting held at my ethnographic site of Chicago, I emerged with these questions: what obligations do we as anthropologists have towards the Latina/o population? Why does the ethnography of Latinas/os matter today and what does it look like? Given the estimate that the Hispanic population in the United States will more than double from 53.3 million in 2012 to 128.8 million in 2060 according to the 2012 US census, how should we conceptualize our field as a site that both stimulates and participates in the social justice agendas of Latina/o communities across the US as this segment of the population increasingly changes the makeup of America? With these questions in mind, it is clear that without engaging with and learning from the Latina/o experience, our capacity to make grounded claims about the society we live in will be hindered.

Typical yardero worksite. Chicago, Illinois.
Typical “yardero” worksite. Chicago, IL.Photo courtesy Sergio Lemus

More than two decades ago, Renato Rosaldo (1989) stated in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Beacon Press) that “anthropology invites us to expand our sense of human possibilities through the study of other forms of life” and that, “not unlike learning another language, such inquiries requires time and patience. There are no shortcuts” (25). Similarly, the study of Latinas/os requires a particular ethnographic work ethic, which Rosaldo gestures towards above and which I have attempted to carry out in my research on working class lives in a community tied to my own personal history.

One of the largest Mexican communities in the United States is located in the neighborhood of South Chicago, whose history dates back to the late 19th century. Writing about the same space, but from the history of the present, my ethnography documents the lives of a new Mexican working class population in the city of Chicago. My participants call themselves yarderos (yard-workers), a culturally specific term that references both the space of the city and its ecology, economically specific to the structure of the Chicago’s economy, and the political life of the city. Specifically, I performed participant-observation in Chicago from July 2012 through November 2013. The methodology consisted of interviewing Mexicans that worked as yarderos, participating in their actual work, and experiencing aspects of their everyday lives. I worked 40 hours per week mowing lawns, trimming evergreens, and performing other landscape activities during the fieldwork period—close to one thousand hours of labor. Additionally, I attended festive events such as baptisms, first communions, birthday parties, and reunions during holidays like the Fourth of July, Dia de Las Madres (Mother’s Day), and Father’s Day.

Choosing to work alongside my informants was not necessarily an easy methodological decision, and I encountered several challenges. For example, the landscaping season typically lasts from the middle of March to the end of November, and yarderos work a ten-hour work schedule. At first, I felt that working would hinder my ability to do all the ethnographic tasks I wanted to accomplish, but I always found ways to record handwritten or voice notes and write journal entries at the end of each hard days’ work. Soon, I came to realize that working alongside them was the most viable means to see their full perspective and understand who they are as workers.

My methodological decision proved helpful in directing me to my theoretical preoccupations and to examine life as a Mexican, working class subject in this time and place. Through the performance of actual work, I documented the cultural production and reproduction that emerges from it. I also took note of how yarderos and their bodies are disciplined and tamed not only by those that own the means of production but by workers themselves. I learned that while a job usually stands for “freedom” and “opportunity,” in fact, I perceived that “unfreedom” and cultural “constraints” are more accurate markers of this economic activity. Finally, by focusing on lived experiences of workers and on my own experience, I theorized the centrality of color hierarchies in the lives of Mexican workers. There, out in the sun mowing grass, I learned that the problem of color is more than “white,” “black,” or “brown,” it is about finding a way to trace the scars and color transformations being dragged like shackles in the lives of Mexicans in northern US cities and see how it acquired layers of meaning as migrants interact with one another and form communities while seeking economic improvement for their lives.

By not taking ethnographic shortcuts, I learned how gender, race, color and class inequalities are actively reproduced at the embodied level of daily life, often times without intention. My hope is that Latino/s scholars continue to find ways of engaging in demanding ethnographic immersion, even if that means relinquishing our methodological freedoms to provide much needed grounded descriptions. Ethnography is crucial in the anthropology of Latina/o lives Latina/o and it remains necessary in the ever-growing anthropological toolkit.

Sergio Lemus is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has conducted ethnographic research among Mexican lawn care service workers in the City of Chicago. Lemus uses border theory to explore how color hierarchies, borders, capitalism, and the body produce and reproduce a Mexican culture in the United States. 

Alex E Chavez (U Illinois at Chicago) and Santiago Guerra (Colorado C) are contributing editors of ALLA’s column in AN.

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