An Ethnographic Coincidence

I took the first of what will likely be multiple trips to the area of the Texas-Mexico border known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley over the weekend.  The drive on Friday was long and I was tired, but the combination of research excitement and nineties dance music kept me going until I arrived in Brownsville.  I parked in the hotel lot, surprised initially by the luxury cars – Mercedes, BMWs, a Lexus – until I remember the employees from the nearby shale sites often trek to the cities for weekends.  There’s money to spare, even in one of the most disadvantaged regions of the country.

I walk into the hotel, but the man at the front desk did not notice me at first.  I stand there, in no particular hurry, and finally say hello.  “Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaims with a jump.  “I was caught up in my Kindle.”  I smile and say it’s no problem.  He begins the check-in process and I ask if he’s reading anything interesting. “My friend’s son just published a book,” he tells me, “and it’s incredible.  He has disabilities – severe ones – and he wrote a book all about his experiences.”  I’m staring at him, wondering how things like this always happen during fieldwork.  He continues talking.  “You should see the things this guy can do.  You’d never guess it.”  I nod, still reeling from the realization that this domestic fieldwork is every bit as ethnographic as anything I did in the various sites that required a passport.  “I played him in poker one time.  He had to play with his mouth – can’t use his hands much – but he beat me.  He beat us all.”  I picture a regular Wednesday night poker crew, all middle-aged men plus this young man, maybe in a wheelchair, somehow using his mouth to throw down cards.  “And the dedication section,” he lets out a low whistle, the kind I always wished I could muster.  “You’ve gotta see it.  He dedicated the book to his brother and sister.  They all live together now in Houston and they take care of him.  The book is for them.”

I ask for the author and title, and tell the man that it sounds like an incredible story.  He beams.  “I’ll tell my friend,” he responds.  “She’ll be so happy.”

Anthropology is a sneaky one.  Just when I begin to question the relevance of it all and to wonder if anyone out there even cares, something like this happens.  For all of the methodological ambiguity of ethnographic research, there’s no question that something new happens when you cultivate attention to the interactions, gestures, and dialogs of everyday life.  A specific attunement takes shape – it’s a quiet focus, an unspoken openness – and the world responds.


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