Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation

By Lynne Hume; Jane Mulcock | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Awkward Intimacies:
Prostitution, Politics, and Fieldwork in Urban Mexico*

Patty Kelly

In the early spring of 1999 the people of the ejido1 Francisco I. Madero were seeking to reclaim their land—four hectares located at the end of a lonely dirt road, eight kilometers east of the bustling city center of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, Mexico. Since 1991, however, the once communally held agricultural lands had been occupied by nearly one hundred and fifty female prostitutes selling their services from within eighteen módulos, or barracks-style buildings, to men of the laboring classes. The land, now called the Zona Galáctica (Galactic Zone), is a "tolerance zone," a legal brothel zone administered by Tuxtla's municipal government. The ejidatarios (communal landholders) warned that if the city did not return their lands by April 2, they would "arrive well armed" and evict the inhabitants of the Zone, shedding blood if necessary. The Zona Galáctica was my fieldsite.

In this essay, I examine the trials of undertaking research in the Galactic Zone and explore the ways in which the personal and political challenges unique to this fieldsite enhanced my understanding of my informants and myself, ultimately providing me with new insights into anthropological theory and ethnographic practice. I suggest here that the process of fieldwork is as important as the final written product and that the "trials" of field research are as important as the "successes" (and sometimes even constitute the successes). In the struggle to write a cohesive and coherent account of field research, the moments of illumination that emerge from the challenges and awkward moments in the field can easily, but should not, be lost.

The Galactic Zone's awkwardness had many dimensions: it was a brothel—a highly sexualized environment occupied by a population labeled deviant and dangerous by hegemonic norms and cultural moral codes. It was also a highly conflictual environment with extreme faction-

-3-

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