...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Monday, July 11, 2005

Clifford Geertz never had it so good

Last semester for Qualitative Research Methods, an anthropology class, I wrote my ethnography about the uses of religious iconography (saint medallions and crosses) by Latin American young adults--what goes into the decision to wear a cross or a medal, what relationship does the wearer have to the object, stuff like that. After a few interviews, it evolved into an investigation into the relationship between functional and substantive uses of religious iconography. The young men (only one man) and women I interviewed wore crosses and medals for substantive reasons (they believed in the substance of the object, in other words in its authentic religious nature and value), and also for functional reasons (it performed a function in their lives, either as a reminder of family, heritage, mission, comfort, etc). The ethnography clocked in at just under twenty pages, the longest paper I've ever written; it's also notable for being one of the very few papers that I did not procrastinate in writing.

I was happy with how it turned out, and with the way the topic evolved as I researched and interviewed, but it wasn't really the paper I set out to write. My curiosity peaked by four or five years or working with the predominantly Catholic kids at the Migrant Summer School, I initially wanted to write about the significance of the Virgin Mary to migrant elementary schoolers. Unfortunately, when I presented that idea to my anthropology professor, she said that I would have to get parental consent forms signed before I could interview anybody under eighteen. Damn The Man!

Today, I realized again what an interesting ethnography that would have been. In my class, we're focusing on Important Latinos, working our way up through history from the Conquest to the Zapatistas. So far we've done La Malinche (I thought that was a strange choice since she's kind of reviled as a traitor to her people, but I guess she was important to the history of Mexico), Montezuma II, and Juan Diego. For those of you who aren't Catholic and never watched the classic Wishbone episode in which the story is reenacted with a Jack Russel Terrier in the lead role, Juan Diego was the sixteenth-century Aztec Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico and Emperess of the Americas, first appeared.

As soon as the kids saw "Juan Diego" written on the whiteboard at the beginning of class, Y, one of the girls, shot up her hand, all, "I know who he is!" The teacher asked her to not tell the other kids, so that it would be a surprise to them, but she was fit to burst so I asked her to quietly tell me what she knew about Juan Diego. Excitedly, she told me the story in great detail, showed me the medal of the Virgin that she wore on a chain around her neck, and told me another story about some Mexican shepherd kids who had had a vision of the Virgin.

It's not just her, either. The kids are basically all Catholic, as far as I know, and several of them wear crosses or, more commonly, medals of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I've seen at least one kid wearing a t-shirt with a big picture of the Virgin on the back, and one girl told me that she has a poster or a tapestry of some sort with the Virgin's image on it hanging above her bed. The class would be a goldmine for an ethnography. I completely understand the necessity of parental consent forms, and how unethical it is to interview children without their parents' permission, and I'm not going to do it. Besides, the ethnography I did write turned out well, was handed in about two months ago, and has been graded.

But man, it would have been interesting.