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Merging Narrative Journalism and Ethnographic Research

By Lenin Martell

In 2013, Thorne Anderson and I embarked on a new adventure. Our passion for teaching and traveling took us to Tenancingo, a southern village in the State of Mexico two hours drive from Mexico City. We took a group of UAEM and UNT students to teach narrative journalism for a month. Tom Huang, Sunday & Enterprise Editor for the Dallas Morning News joined us as a narrative writing instructor. We didn’t know if we were going to succeed at it, but we had two clear things in mind: One, we wanted to found a field-school on narrative journalism. We believed – and still do – that a good journalism education should bring the classroom into the reality instead of bringing the reality into the class. Two, we both share the idea that Mexicans and Americans are not merely neighbors; we belong to the same family.

Since his days as a college student in the 1980s, Thorne had traveled intensively in Mexico and I had spent many years studying in the US. He loves the Mexican charm and I have always admired the progressive cultural sectors in the American society. We thought that our program could contribute to breaking stereotypes and encourage social and political understanding between the two countries. We even thought that we could probably change young minds through this Heart of Mexico journalism program.

The following year, 2014, we took the project to another town in the State of Mexico, Valle de Bravo. We were fortunate enough to lure the collaboration of two great Dallas Morning News mentors, David Tarrant and Alfredo Corchado. Some students from the 2013 program even came back to participate in new roles. In Valle de Bravo we amplified the role of social science research by bringing active researchers directly into our intensive training classroom for direct presentations of their research findings on significant issues for our coverage area. All our students agreed that Heart of Mexico had been one of the most rewarding experiences in their entire academic lives.

This, our third year, we focused our project on exploring one social phenomenon in depth: the psychological and emotional effects of immigration on the indigenous Mayan population of the Yucatan peninsula. Both journalists and academics have mostly studied this theme in the center and northern part of Mexico, and some southern cities such as Puebla and Oaxaca. But they have spent less time farther south in the country.

Our behind-the-scenes goal was to take social science research from the periphery of our process and build it into the foundation of our conceptual framework and field work training. We needed to find a social science collaborator who was willing, not only to share his topical expertise, but was also willing to engage in our experimental process.

We certainly had much to gain from this collaboration, but it was our hope that our work could help to introduce our collaborator’s work to a broad general audience.

With these thoughts in mind, Thorne and I flew down south to Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan. We met with the migration experts Dr. Pedro Lewin Fischer and Estela Guzmán. Together they have been conducting ethnographic research and working with migrants in the Yucatan for almost 15 years.

We visited several small Mayan villages before we settled on Tunkas as our target for Heart of Mexico 2015. We immediately realized there was a special charm in this town. With little effort we encountered perfect Mexican-American English accents among women clad in tight jeans and busy Texas-style clothes, and men in baggy shorts and baseball caps. As practiced observers of Mexican and American cultures, we knew this was the right place to conduct our project.

Two moths later, we were back in the heart of Mexico; we were back in Tunkas.

In this edition, our narrative journalism is heavily informed by the research experiences of Dr. Lewin Fischer and Ms. Guzmán. In a crash course, Dr. Lewin Fischer presented the findings of his research to our journalism students, and through charts, numbers, and the occasional excerpt from an informant interview our team came to appreciate the far reaching psycho-social impact of migration on the Tunkaseńos among whom they would soon be immersed.

Ethnography has a long history in the discipline of Cultural Anthropology, and many of the field methods are reminiscent of our immersive process for narrative journalism. Both disciplines work with social groups and share research techniques. In fact, they stem from a common ground. At the beginning of the 20th century, the University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park studied how individuals and subcultural groups created meaning from their everyday life experiences. He observed how their own perceptions of the world could solve problems like social injustice. Park’s research techniques were not so different from those utilized by journalists. He explained how cultural narratives are related to the person or social group who produces them within a particular context.

This argument has been essential to us because migration – as a social phenomenon – is woven with individual narratives, which produce different meanings according to the people who experience them. Telling narrative tales of Tunkaseños helps us contribute to the body of knowledge of contemporary Mexican internal migration as well as Mexican emigration to the U.S. Narrative journalism not only has the ability to communicate facts, but also has the potential to provide deep explanations of social issues. Our storytelling –aesthetic narratives – are broadly appealing and facilitate education about migration to a potentially much larger popular audience than the ethnographies that inspired us as journalists.

Translating the issues of migration into narratives demands studying them with multidisciplinary empirical methodologies which stem from various Social Sciences – especially anthropology. This led us to face a new problem: how to build a cross-disciplinary curriculum through which we would be able to intricately explore narrative journalism, migration, and ethnography at the same time. We could only succeed by joining the efforts of academia, the media industry, and the expertise and good will of highly-regarded professionals. Our seven story packages reflect what we have been able to achieve in just one month.

It is fair to say that both academic and NGO reports have mostly failed at making their findings more attractive to larger audiences beyond their specialized readers. Heart of Mexico: Migrant Dreams is an attempt to break with this long inertia. In the 21st century, this is one of the challenges for higher education. It seems that storytelling has found one solution, and the Heart of Mexico project is committed to it.

We’re not resting on our laurels. Look for Heart of Mexico, 2016, to experiment even further at re-drawing or blurring the boundaries between the practice and products of narrative journalism and the social sciences.

We are enormously grateful to the people of Tunkas for sharing their community, their traditions, and their personal stories with us.

We were fortunate to conduct our project during their annual horse fair and rodeo.

We leave you with this video tribute to that rich and raucous event produced by Drew Gaines, our journalist-in-residence.