Bethany Reynolds '13 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Studies at North Carolina State University's Ethnographic Field School in Guatemala.
Let's take a walk up my mountain.
Exiting the lancha onto the floating dock, we are bombarded with the persistent shouts from teenage boys--Juan, Jonny and Alberto--offering tuk-tuk rides up to the village. Seeing as you are accompanying me, clearly we plan on enjoying the trek. You are very welcome. Passing by the modest one-floor lakeside resorts offering cabins or rooms on our right and our left as well as the only tourist shop on our side of the mountain, we walk ahead up the wide stone road. Almost immediately on our left is a set of broken rock and mortar stairs, then a creative series of tree roots that conveniently provide just enough footing to hoist ourselves up, more stairs, a short dirt path, stairs, and a path quite overgrown with weeds and plants. After about five minutes, we come to the clearing and find ourselves back at the wide road. Turning around, the lake scintillates with the reflected rays of the sun, the green mountainsides and sheer cliffs decorate several of the volcanoes surrounding the lake, and dark blue silhouettes set those that are further off into the backdrop.
After several deep breaths, we continue up the road. The houses on the outskirts of the village can be seen off to our right, made of cement, painted bright colors, topped with corrugated tin roofs, only separated by a valley of various flourishing trees . . . coffee, avocado, banana. Rounding the corner, we cross a little bridge and pass the metallurgy shop with one of the village's three cars parked outside, a pick-up. Oh, and you need to watch where you step. The village is overrun with wild dogs and strays, which kindly leave their little brown gifts all along the streets and alleyways. Aren't you glad you didn't wear your favorite pair of shoes? A few houses begin to appear as the road steepens, the alleyway to my casa is on our left, but we continue up to the cancha, the center of town. The primary kids are out of school, playing fútbol with one of their bright, plastic balls bought at the corner shop for 50¢, using the old basketball net poles as goals. The 2-story Municipality Building is on our left and several girls stand along the open stairwell eating their chocolate-covered bananas. The school is behind us, painted a bright blue with its name in black block letters on the second story. And the small Ministry of Health building with the free-clinic, established by an American doctor several years ago, is easily distinguished as one of the most well kept buildings in the town.
The cancha is vibrant and dynamic this afternoon, as the children laugh and shout in Kaqchikel, several of the community members smile or stop to say hello to me in Spanish, they have gotten used to my gringo-presence, and seem to respect me more now that I have begun to wear their indigenous skirt. Far off, up the road, we can hear marimba, drums, and keyboard, the music infused with Latin rhythm, a band playing for worship in the Assembly of God church. We smell the constant burning of firewood, for the task of tortilla-making never ends for the sisters and mothers here. Suddenly we sense the coming afternoon rains.
The breeze begins and the first drops wet our arms. Mamá beckons us inside to my home, and begins to boil water for tea. Full of warmth, we sit by the hearth as we enjoy the tinkering sound of pelting rains upon the tin roof above.
Welcome to Santa Cruz La Laguna.
This isolated village--in all of its humility and poverty--is located in one of the most beautiful regions I have ever beheld: Lake Atitlán. As a participant of the North Carolina State University Ethnographic Field School in Guatemala, I took two 3-credit courses: History, Culture, and Politics of Contemporary Guatemala; and Ethnographic Field Methods. The second course was basically a practicum of how to conduct independent research as a budding sociocultural anthropologist. It was here in my village that I conducted my project, "Examining Factors of High and Low Academic Performance," with a dynamic, diverse and delightful, though sometimes devious, group of junior high school students. During the first period of the eight-week program, I was primarily occupied with readings on anthropology research and contemporary Guatemala. I also used this time to establish rapport in my community, find informants for future interviews and make contact with the local middle school. Once I finalized my research design and plan, my real work began.
Over the course of four weeks, I learned how to be what sociocultural anthropologists call a "participant observer," sitting in the school classrooms and objectively observing as much as possible, jotting down copious notes: description of the room, background noises, physical appearance of students, their location relative to one another, individual demeanor, social dynamics and interactions, the teacher's presence in the room, series of their activities, and any verbal communication that seemed unique, telling, or relevant. Each day I moved from class to class, covering a variety of subjects, evenly distributing my time among the three grade levels. As my project idea evolved, I adjusted my focus during observation and determined which students would be ideal candidates for interviews. When they had free time, I invited students to come join me in some activities to elicit data that I could analyze for my research. Some of these activities included coloring pictures of their "dream life," listing the most pressing problems in their community, filling out questionnaires and sorting flashcards of their classmates into piles. My interviews and daily interactions were conducted completely in Spanish, as they cannot speak my native English, and as I cannot speak their native language, Kaqchikel. Nearing the end of my trip, I began to review and analyze my notes, draw connections, and write my paper. It was at this point that I realized my research was not finished, but had only just begun. I yearned for the opportunity to delve deeper into the lives of the kids, talk to their parents, more clearly uncover and articulate the obstacles that hinder high academic achievement, for this issue was far more complex than I initially presumed. Yet, I did not have the time.
This summer taught me several things. One lesson is that research is never "done." I could live in Santa Cruz focusing on the most specific facet of my project and after a whole year, still have pressing questions. Secondly, research is not always as it seems. As Professor Rebecca Harris from the Politics department told me the other day, if the issue is more complicated than you originally thought, and you found different things than what you sought out to uncover, "that is the story!"
Most importantly, this Ethnographic Field School gave me the practical skills necessary to conduct my own anthropology research, not just in Guatemala, but in any region of the world, even the far East. In fact, I am applying for a Research Fulbright to China for next year, and will focus on educational opportunities for migrant workers' children, Chinese children who have migrated with their parents from the poor countryside to larger, coastal cities with greater economic opportunity. Without the Johnson Opportunity Grant, I would not have been able to participate in this summer program, which has served as the perfect preparation for the next step in my academic career.