I’m home in Austin now. My 2019 fieldwork is complete.
Fieldwork is complicated for me, as I imagine it is for many researchers. It is simultaneously the best part of my job and the most stressful. Research in the field is hard, and by the end I’m mentally exhausted. Traveling is hard for me, and usually after a month I’m emotionally exhausted. But overall, spending time in Oaxaca is one of the greatest blessings of my life (I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make me happy). This post is a collection of things I love about Oaxaca, drafted slowly over the past five weeks.
I love saying buenos días and buenas tardes to people in the street, even if I still feel a bit awkward and half the time I get the time of day wrong. I love also how eventually I start becoming more attuned to the patterns of the church bells, so that I can tell when it’s past noon (and therefore buenas tardes is the appropriate greeting). With each trip to Oaxaca, I start feeling a little more comfortable, a little more at home. Learning the patterns of the town is a big part of this.
After like a week I realized that the Tlacochahuaya church plays Ave Maria at noon, so that's how people know at 12:02 that you're supposed to say buenas tardes— May Helena Plumb (@mayhplumb) June 17, 2019
I've slowly become more accustomed to hearing the various bells that signal different things in town [2/3]
I love studying Zapotec. While I’m in Oaxaca, I get to spend all my hours thinking about language. There’s nothing else I’m supposed to be doing — not classwork or grading or renewing my drivers’ license, just delving into whatever aspect of Zapotec grammar excites me most. Not that it’s always easy. Some days I wrestle with the language. But other days I dance with it. Exploring the maze of language (and meeting people along the way) is constant source of joy.
I love being close to nature. Most houses in Tlacochahuaya are organized as individual rooms that open onto a courtyard. It reminds me of my childhood, when I spent far more time outside and far less time in climate-controlled rooms. In Oaxaca, I get hear the rain, the wind, the thunder. I get to smell the dirt. I get to feel the chilled breeze of a coming storm. I sit in my bedroom doorway and watch the birds and the lizards. (I also scratch mosquito bites, which is significantly less pleasant.)
On the other hand, when I'm safely inside my room and the rain starts to pour, it is virtually impossible for me to work because I'm so distracted— May Helena Plumb (@mayhplumb) June 4, 2019
I just wanna watch the storm! https://t.co/jyHP1JzRAJ
I love the noise. Well, sometimes. If you ask me about it when I’m tired, when the roosters and the fireworks and the car alarms and the donkeys and the loudspeaker announcements all chime in together, with someone’s radio playing pop music a few doors down and the neighborhood dogs shouting their warnings to each other in the street… well, I might not have a very rosy attitude about the noise. But at the same time, I love it. Because noise is part of Oaxaca, and I love Oaxaca.
And at its core, that’s just how fieldwork is. It’s intense — sensorially, emotionally, academically. There is so much to take in, so much to do, so many new things vying for your attention in every moment. Fieldwork is overwhelming, in every way, and that can be painful. But when I’m squashed into a collective taxi with six people and a turkey and a love song on the radio, and I’m watching the sun illuminate the distant mountains, I am mainly overwhelmed with happiness.
To close, let me offer some thanks. I am grateful to Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, who introduced me to Oaxaca and to Zapotec. I am grateful to other mentors who have supported my research over the years, including George Aaron Broadwell and Anthony C. Woodbury. I thank the Tlacochahuaya 2016-2019 town council for their support of my project. And of course, my deepest gratitude goes to my Zapotec teachers, in particular Moisés García Guzmán, who housed me, fed me, and so graciously shared his language with me.
My research in Tlacochahuaya has been funded by the Carlota Smith Fellowship (UT Austin; 2019), the Donald D. Harrington Graduate Fellowship (UT Austin; 2018, 2019), the Sherzer Research Fund (UT Austin; 2018), NSF REU Site Grant #1461056 (2015, 2016), the Louis Greene Fund (Haverford College; 2017), and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (Haverford College, 2014).