Getting a sense of people’s lives

From the complexities of transnational Mexican citizenship to understanding Burning Man, Debbie Boehm helps define the world around us.

9/1/2011 - By: John Trent
Debbie Boehm Anthropology professor Debbie Boehm says that with each interaction she has with Burners, she is always impressed with the passion they have for the event.

It’s all about trust.

Whether it is on the dust-covered playa where more than 50,000 revelers swarm like brightly colored ants across the Black Rock Desert during the annual Burning Man counterculture festival each Labor Day weekend, or in a quiet, small agricultural community of no more than about 300 souls in Mexico, Debbie Boehm knows the success or failure of her work often boils down to a simple truth.

“As a cultural anthropologist, I’m interested in looking at people’s everyday lives … what they’re experiencing on a daily basis,” says Boehm, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in Anthropology and Women’s Studies/Gender, Race, and Identity. “Ethnographic work is based on strong relationships of trust with people.

“So much of my work is spending time with people, and creating the type of trust where they allow me to enter their everyday lives.”

The past few years have been an extremely productive and notable time for the Boehm. In 2009-2010, she was awarded a prestigious Fulbright fellowship. She used the opportunity to conduct research looking at the phenomenon of transnationalism and what it has meant to the people whose lives often straddle two countries and can become extremely complicated if their migration ends in deportation. Boehm observed individuals as well as families at field sites in the Mexican states of San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas, both of which have long histories of migration to and from the U.S.

Her research there has led to her co-editorship of a new book, Everyday Ruptures: Children, Youth, and Migration in Global Perspective (Vanderbilt University Press). Her chapter, “Here /Not Here: Contingent Citizenship and Transnational Mexican Children” delves into many of the findings she made during her time in Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi.

In addition, Boehm has a single-authored book that is forthcoming. In early 2012, Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans will be released by NYU Press.

“I’ve been really interested in this notion of return, and thinking of what it means to return,” Boehm says. “Mexican migration has been circular – people come and go, they leave and come back. So there has always been a lot of movement back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. But what does it mean when someone has been deported? What does it mean when they come back … what does it mean for a child or a family that has to leave the United States and come back to a small community in Mexico of which they’ve never really been a part?

“We don’t realize that deportation affects more people than the actual deportee. Families and children are affected. It can be heartbreaking. You have some U.S. citizen children and young people who have never been to Mexico, or maybe they were born in Mexico and then as toddlers moved to the U.S. They know of no other life than being in the U.S., and yet they have to ‘return’ to Mexico. For some of them, English is their first language rather than Spanish, and now they’re in this small, rural community after living in cities like Dallas or Albuquerque.”

The transition for the Mexican communities where the deportees return can be just as difficult, Boehm says.

“These folks (in the rural communities Boehm studied, also known as “ranchos”) are bean farmers, and it’s a very difficult livelihood … it’s what drives migration in the first place,” she says. “It’s dry-land farming, with no irrigation. It’s a very precarious economic situation. Even for those families that are getting money from family members who have migrated to the U.S., it’s still a very delicate situation.

“You can only imagine when someone is deported or can’t find a job and has to come back. It has an economic impact, and it also has social implications.”

As debate on immigration in the United States promises to take on an even more heated tone with the 2012 presidential election looming, Boehm says it is important to not let discussions of migration and immigration become polarized.

“I’ve had people I’ve talked to say, ‘I’m from both the United States and Mexico,’” she says. “And I’ve had people say, ‘I’m from neither here nor there.’ I’ve heard ‘both,’ ‘either/or’ and ‘neither/nor.’ We’re in a period now where the notion of ‘return’ has become shifting ground.

“This is what hopefully good anthropological work does; it problematizes the situation rather than presenting this pro/con, black/white dichotomy. It’s so much more complicated and blurry than that.”

Boehm’s interest in the issue of migration began when she was just out of college. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in English, she lived in Ecuador as part of World Teach, a humanitarian program that places recent college graduates in developing countries as teachers. She taught English, worked with local families, and honed her skills in Spanish. As Boehm earned her master’s degree in Latin American Studies and then her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico, she came to appreciate the broad palette of ideas such fields of study could spawn.

“There are insights we can gain starting from the ground up,” she said. “When you approach an issue or topic that way, you begin to understand it in a much more nuanced way. I really enjoy doing the kind of qualitative research that I do. For example, I study gender and you have to spend time with people to see how they interact. And I work with undocumented migrants—folks who are not as likely to be included in large-scale, quantitative studies.

“An ethnographic approach is the way to reach the topics I study. The people I’ve spent time with over the years have been extremely welcoming.”

It’s not uncommon for her subjects to come to such a clear understanding of Boehm’s work that they go above and beyond the norm to help. She has visited the same small communities in San Luis Potosi for more than a decade. During her Fulbright, she went back to these ranchos and lived with families there, even bringing her then six-year-old daughter and her husband, who’s also an anthropologist.

“You observe, and you’re also part of the activities,” she says. “You spend time with people at a meal, or while they’re doing laundry. The trust is built over years. I have a lot of people now who say, ‘I have something for you to include in your research.’

“I do consider the folks I work with to be collaborators.”

While the history of the agricultural communities of San Luis Potosi dates back hundreds of years, Burning Man has provided Boehm and fellow University faculty member Carolyn White an entirely different research environment.

The two University researchers – White is an anthropology professor with an archeology emphasis – are in their fourth year of a project delving into the sense of place that Burning Man has come to represent.

Burning Man, in its 25th year of existence, turns the Black Rock Desert and what becomes known as “Black Rock City” into the seventh-largest town in Nevada as more than 50,000 “Burners” descend on the playa for a week. This year’s Burning Man Festival, which is sold out, begins on Aug. 25 and runs through Sept. 5.

“With the Burning Man project, we’re interested in finding out more about notions of place, how the participants think of place, how they use space and how they use the built environment they live in,” Boehm says. “It’s an interesting field site for a study like this, because the city is constructed and de-constructed every year in a very short period of time.

“Burners have such a strong connection to Black Rock City, and yet the community they create transcends the place. Even if they’re back at their job as a software engineer or whatever else they might be doing for the rest of the year, they keep thinking about Burning Man and they keep connecting to it in different ways.”

Like the migrant families of Mexico, Boehm finds her interactions with “Burners” to be fascinating.

“There are a lot of intellectuals at Burning Man,” Boehm says. “So there are already a lot of people who are thinking about, wondering about, analyzing, coming at it from a critical perspective. People at Burning Man are usually very eager to talk to you. It’s a nice research environment. The people there are very interested in participating.”

The work of Boehm and White has led to several presentations and papers, and is outlined on her faculty website.

“We thought it seemed like a natural fit to have an ongoing project here at the University with the Burning Man community,” Boehm says. “That was a primary factor … it was something in our neighborhood. It’s also something of importance to folks in northern Nevada. It’s an international event, and it’s also a regional event. There’s nothing else like it. The project has developed to be a very rich setting to study these topics that are at the intersection of archeology and cultural anthropology.”

Boehm says that with each interaction she has with Burners, she is always impressed with the passion they have for the event. The ghostly white dust of the Black Rock, the artistic installations of light and form, the passionate people and their colorful costumes, the small “communities” that form within Black Rock City, all linger in the participants’ imaginations once the event has ended.

“It’s a community that builds throughout the year,” Boehm says. “There is a very vibrant virtual community through Burning Man, and all kinds of groups stay in touch throughout the year. And at the same time, the event, the place, is at the core of everything. That’s the contradiction to Burning Man: how people think about place, why and how place is important to them, in what ways the event is rooted in place, and, how it transcends place or a particular geographic space.”

For an ethnographer who cares deeply about the places she studies and the people who play such a key role in the understanding of these places, it always comes back to listening … and trust.

“Trying to get a sense of people’s lives by spending time with them,” she says, “is one of the really rewarding parts of what I do.”


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