Clarity on My Last Day of Fieldwork in Brazil

castaneda_brazilI originally came to Brazil and more specifically, Salvador, Bahia because I wanted to write about the conflict between FIFA and the displacement of a particular type of street vendor prominent in the region: Baianas de acarajé.  

I knew my research would have to change because the Baianas were allotted 6 spots within all of the FIFA games to sell the regions’ traditionally African-rooted food acarajé.  I knew I’d have to gather information and begin to head into a more specific direction with my thesis.

I started working with the Association for Baianas (ABAM) a lot—everyday during the week and then spending time with the street vendors themselves on the weekend.  Throughout my five weeks of fieldwork, I learned two main things.  (1.) I don’t have an “in” and “out” time. Unlike a historian, I can’t close the archives and decide to pick up where I left off tomorrow. I was doing a lot of ethnography, although I wasn’t exclusively an ethnographer.  Thus, I did have “time off.”  I can only imagine the intensity of a full-time ethnographic fieldwork project. As I worked more and more at the association, doing all sorts of tasks from answering the phone, writing official documents to the state, to sitting in on meetings with secretaries—I had to learn to be flexible and soak in the intensity. The association lacks funds, staff, structure, and so on; thus, although people agreed to be interviewed and help me with my research, they also expected me to help them and apply any skills that I had. For a while, I was confused about whether I was focusing too much on the association, focusing too much on its relationship to the state, and getting too close to the women in the organization.  What about the women who were not apart of the Association?  What about the evangelical Baianas? And the conflict between them?  What about working alongside a Baiana and learning to make acarajé step by step?  What about the World Cup?  Why weren’t they so eager to talk about the World Cup as I was eager to know about it?  Am I missing perspectives?  Should I distance myself from the association?  Are they expecting too much out of me?  

I talked to my advisor and to a few professors—and I was given some clarity.  Five weeks is an incredibly short amount of time to gather perspectives from every angle. In order for me to have something of substance, I must focus and narrow my thesis. And I was lucky enough to make real connections. I was living day in and day out what the association endures everyday to stay afloat. I was available for any spontaneous meetings or events ABAM or the President of the Association needed to go to. And i spent my weekends also getting to know these women on a more personal level.

Although I felt I was really gathering information of substance and that my thesis would reflect this—I still felt uneasy about not gathering as much information about the World cup as I had originally hoped.

Then on my last day, I was with Rita Santos, the President, and we were going to a very important meeting with the Secretary of Public Service and Security.  This government entity is responsible for all of the fiscalização; or removal/displacement of street vendors on public areas (whether plazas, streets, beaches) of the city.  Rita introduced me to the secretary as a grad student from NYU who has come to examine the relationship of ABAM with the state and city and closely analyze the way these entities treat a nationally recognized cultural and historical symbol of the Bahian people. This is exactly what I had been doing this whole time and this is exactly what was important to Rita and the other Baianas. The World cup was one obstacle and a great victory. But the daily interaction with the state and with the city council is much more real, crucial, significant, and holds much more of an impact.

On my last day in the field, I finally felt clarity. I finally felt that I was writing about something they wanted me to write about. So that’s the second thing I learned. I can come with an idea, but I can’t impose what I find important or interesting as something they may find important or interesting. A good researcher arrives with an open mind, definitely having done their research but able to be guided in a way to truly reflect what they think is a pressing thesis.

Posted by Vanessa Castaneda-MA Candidate at CLACS at NYUImage

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