I once wrote a poem about a kitchen in Lima, Peru. I’m sure in actuality it was not as poetic as I’d hoped. I’m sure it did not live up to the nostalgic feelings I hoped it would convey.
That poem was about a moment that perhaps changed my life. I moment I have retold in countless stories. A moment I remember in both English and Spanish. A moment in which I took a “drastic and irrevocable turn.”
The introduction to my dissertation (at least in its current draft form) begins as such:
On a typically gray July day in Lima, Peru I sat in the kitchen of the family home where I was renting a room. Juana, the cook and housekeeper was boiling water in the corner, and Carmela the matriarch of the family was sifting through the Sunday newspaper, El Comercio. As she discarded sections, I picked them up, scanning through them, mostly looking at pictures. I was staying in Lima for a month to take Spanish lessons and volunteer at a local hospital, thinking I would soon apply to graduate school in medical anthropology. In the paper, I found a retrospective on Foucault in the lifestyle section, and saved it to practice translating. I folded the page and put it in my notebook, then grabbed up the sports section Carmela had tossed aside. This was sure to be more readily understandable and have more pictures.
As I flipped through it I noticed a picture of two women in polleras, traditional layered skirts worn by Andean women. They stood squared off in a wrestling ring, and I flipped the page back and forth a few times, trying to make sense of what I saw. I glanced through the short article, and learned that in La Paz, Bolivia, a new wrestling phenomenon was becoming popular—the "cholitas luchadoras." Having already snatched up the article on Foucault, I refolded the section and left in on the table, sure that Carmela's husband Fernando or their nephew Carlos would notice a page missing in the sports section—especially during the 2006 World Cup. But later that night I searched online for “cholitas luchadoras” from the family computer and began my fascination with the phenomenon.
Taussig, in his book, I Swear I Saw This—a treatise on drawings in fieldnotes—gives the necessary credence to chance encounters such as this. He outlines the factors of the famous incident when Laura Bohannan tells the Tiv people of Nigera the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, now famously recounted in her Shakespeare in the Bush. As Taussig writes, the unpredictable facts of the rainy season when people sit around and tell stories, that Bohannan had a copy of and had been reading Hamlet, and that the elders demanded she tell them a story were what led her to “stumble” onto “the most marvelous manner of illuminating one society in terms of another” (2011:59).
And I began thinking about my own string of unpredictable facts. A page later I was mentally catapulted back to that kitchen, sitting at the table with Carmela, and world cup scores blaring over the crackling radio.
In June 1966 a friend casually tossed the morning newspaper, La Republica, to Daniella Gandolfo in a café in Lima, Peru. She was in Lima, her hometown, as a graduate student in the anthropology program of Columbia University, New York, to carry out research on the history of the city of Lima. On the front page was a photograph of a middle-aged woman street cleaner who had taken off her blouse to reveal her breasts when confronting the police in a workers’ rights demonstration. The police backed off.
On seeing this photograph by chance, Daniella writes, “Then it was as if the entire course of Lima’s 460-year history had been abruptly arrested in the street sweeper’s image, turned inside out and eviscerated into a moment of the city’s prehistory…In retrospect the moment I laid eyes on the image of the street sweeper, the still forming idea I had for an ethnography of Lima took a drastic and irrevocable turn.”
Forty years later, in the same city I too looked at a newspaper and everything changed. I had been interested in physical pain (though acknowledging this is inseparable from emotional pain) and the ways it emerged as a site of gender instantiation. Medical anthropology then seemed like the obvious path. But as my interest in the cholitas luchadoras grew, an anthropology focused on representation and popular culture became more pertinent. And a year later as I sat in my apartment in Washington, DC staring at a blank grant proposal form, I took a deep breath and wrote “La Paz, Bolivia” instead of “Lima, Perú.”
But these are just two moments in a long string of events that led me here. I remember the moment I decided to declare anthropology as my major as an undergraduate. My good luck to be at the right university at the right time to be inspired by performance studies sage Dwight Conquergood, who shaped me in so many ways. The (now understandably) fortunate fact that after college I ended up in terrible administrative jobs that slowly ate away at my soul, thus allowing me to maintain my desire to enroll in graduate school. Before that I remember my high school friends beginning their own “underground” amateur exhibition wrestling league. And more recently I think of the chance encounters in La Paz. Asking “y que piensan los luchadores varones?” enough times one woman finally suggested I call her friend Edgar to ask him. And the (now understandably) fortunate day when I arrived to interview Edgar a third time without a list of questions and a recorder with dead batteries. That was the day we just talked for an hour and he insisted that when I return the next January I begin training with Super Catch.
“Such an intricate weave of events piled one on top of the other must be what we mean by ‘fate,’ yet fate seems far removed from the mechanical world of cause and effect for ‘fate’ implies mystery” (Taussig 2011:59).
And perhaps that’s what makes fieldwork the magical thing that it is. “The way [Taussig sees] it, a plan of research is little more than an excuse for the real thing to come along, I much the same way as the anthropologist Victor Turner described the value of writing down kinship diagrams as largely an excuse to stop falling asleep on the job and provide a situation in which the real stuff got a chance to emerge” (Taussig 2011:59). I just happened to meet the right people at the right time and they asked me to train with them, I always thought to myself or said to people, somehow feeling like a fraud. Because I didn’t ever use rigorous methods. Because I don’t dissect narratives with diacritics and rising intonations, or even with critical discourse analysis. Because I have no statistical tools in my bag. Because the arc of my interview questions doesn’t follow Bernard’s recommendations. Which is not to say these things are not worthwhile. But Taussig reassures me, for some people, these are just the excuses. Certainly for me, my interviews—no matter how haphazard—eventually allowed the “real stuff” to emerge.