PhD Life: Fieldwork in Mexico 2013

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Editors note: This is an archived blog post from 20/10/2013.

Fieldwork in Mexico 2013 – 

three lessons I learnt which have little or nothing to do with my research

by Rosy Rickett, 3rd year PhD student

I was in Mexico City (“De EFeh”) from March-June 2013 looking at materials related to the roughly 30,000 Spanish refugees who traveled to Mexico in the years following the Spanish civil war. I also interviewed 12 people, who were either part of the first generation who came or their children, or grandchildren – this was the best bit.

But that’s not why we’re here. Because everything in the internet now has to be written in the form of a list, I want this post to be a list of tips for those students thinking of doing research abroad.

  1. Accommodation

It is hard to find short term accommodation anywhere, let alone places where you are unfamiliar with how everything works. I used a website for researchers and ended up staying with an unhinged woman who grudgingly rented out two of her rooms because she needed the money. One day there was an earthquake (I know!) and the residents of the apartment building grouped outside because the alarm had gone off. My non-unhinged flat mate and I got to talking with another girl who lived in the building. Her response when she heard where we lived – ‘ah you live with that crazy lady- no one ever stays there for more than a month’. The moral of this story is that I stayed with her for three months and I survived.

However, you shouldn’t be afraid to move – if you are being driven mad, then it’s worth spending a few days and some money trying to find somewhere else to stay. Don’t worry too much about the time you could have spent researching, you’ll probably do better work when not worrying about your bedroom.

After one particularly grueling argument about whether I could use cotton sheets (seriously) I managed to go away for the weekend – this is a short term solution which is also recommended.

Another possibility and probably the most sensible thing to do – if you’ve got the time and money, give yourself an extra week at the beginning of your stay to get a feel for the place, look at rooms and get somewhere that’s right for you.

  1. The archivist

The archivist can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. Friends working in other parts of the world have had difficulty accessing documents because the archive was part of a larger system of corruption and censorship. I would like to stress that Mexico has some of the best, least-corrupt and most well catalogued archives I’ve ever worked in; they are also housed in the most wonderful buildings (e.g. one of my archives was upstairs at the Museum of Anthropology, possibly the best museum in the world, seriously). If you’ve ever been to the British Library’s newspaper archives, you’ll know that that is something to celebrate.

It is important to be polite and friendly to the archivists who are working hard to help you. Bring gifts, recommendation letters from your supervisors with fancy stamps from the University on them and make conversation. Do this from the moment you first email the archive, and every day that you spend working there. This is about not being a stupid arrogant historian but it is also for practical reasons – treat people well and they will provide you with more help, and chat, than they would have otherwise, they will become your willing ally in the search for useful documents. This may open up all sorts of opportunities that you might not have otherwise known about.

With large state-run archives you aren’t necessarily going to see the same archivist every time – and you will rarely get much response from emails but courtesy is still important. It’s always good to relentlessly telephone any kind of archive before turning up because otherwise you may end up getting there after an hour on a metro/metro bus/bus/miniature van before being told they closed early or it’s a national holiday or it’s the patron saint of the archive’s holiday…websites often aren’t updated very much so may not include this kind of detail.

On a very basic note: make a table with the details of all the archives you want to go to. Include the address, phone number, contact names, opening times, policy on photocopying and directions. This piece of paper will be a great friend to you.  Buy a good map which is both compact and detailed, or download one on to your phone, if that’s how you role.

  1. Networking

UK Universities should and could strengthen their links with foreign Universities. Anyone going abroad for research will have a better and more productive time if they are able to go as a visiting student, if at all possible or relevant. Nevertheless, you don’t need an institutional framework to meet other students and academics and I found the lack of structure helped me to become more self-reliant (although I am writing this partly because I didn’t meet as many people as I probably should have).

If possible, before you leave the UK make a list of all the academics you would like to talk to with their email address and phone number, and where they work (maybe make another master document). It’s sometimes worth creating your own google/physical map with all the archives on it and you can add academics, Universities, libraries, museums, places of interest. Contact a few people a week or so before you get there and as soon as you get there start making appointments and stick to them. The earlier the better because these people will sometimes be able to give you more detailed advice about what stuff is where and who to talk to. Always go to this kind of meeting with a number of specific questions and a good idea of what the person has written and what their angle on your research will be – don’t be surprised if a political scientist is confused by your obsession with rag rugs, and don’t be put off if an oral historian can’t understand your desire to delve into car production statistics – they will probably still have good advice. Don’t assume they’ll have read the email you sent with a description of your thesis in it, just repeat it in conversation and stand up for what you think is interesting.

  1. Friends

You may well be going to live somewhere where you know absolutely no-one. I was lucky and got on well with my flat-mate. Maybe give the website ‘couch surfing’ a go, it has groups in different cities and you can go to events to meet people or send messages to individuals (people sometimes use it to pick people up though, so bear that in mind) Join any online groups of scholars and harass your existing friends and family for anyone that they might know, you’d be surprised by how many people know someone who might know someone.

Give yourself the opportunity to meet people and make some friends. It can feel like you need to work 24 hours a day to make sure you get everything you need to get done, done. But let’s face it, you’re never going to get everything done so you might as well go to a dance class, film night, fiesta or walk in the jungle/desert/mountain range.

And lastly, enjoy yourself dammit! You’ll often be visiting an archive because you are writing about that country, this is a rare chance for you to drink the local drink, eat the food, talk to people, listen to new sounds and experience life in a brilliant place where the tacos are cheesy and the booze is hallucinogenic.

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