What Two Deaths Taught Me about Doing Fieldwork

On this day 16 years ago—November 7, 1996—I walked in to my office at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, to find out that my boss, Joaquin Tacsan, had boarded a flight from Port Harcourt to Lagos, Nigeria that had exploded in the air. No one had survived.

Joaquin’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. I had recently graduated from Yale and someone told to apply for an internship at the Arias Foundation. For some reason, Joaquin saw my resume and offered me a job there. In the first 12 months, Joaquin increased my responsibilities, sending me to do fieldwork in El Salvador and Nicaragua on the reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life, fieldwork that took me into numerous former zones of armed conflict and strongly shaped my later interest in earning a Ph.D. in sociology.

Just a couple of months before Joaquin’s death, I scared the daylights out of him by spending a weekend with a group of ex-Contras in Nicaragua. After a week-long peace-building seminar in Managua, Nicaragua, with both ex-combatants of both the Contras and the Sandinista, one of the ex-Contras invited me to go with him that weekend to visit a town in the north of Nicaragua where the contras had rebuilt a community after the war. They were holding a political rally for the presidential candidate, so they expected a big crowd.

Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980s Civil War

I knew this trip was somewhat risky, as that zone of Nicaragua was still no-man’s land at the time: efforts to demobilize after the civil war had partially failed and armed groups roamed around like vigilantes. Not even the UN or the Peace Corps would send people to this area of Nicaragua because it was so dangerous. That said, I had read that this town had made the best recovery in the entire north of Nicaragua, led by a family of ex-contras, the most famous being “The Jackal” who famously had kidnapped a government delegation in order to bargain for better community development programs. I didn’t want to meet the kidnappers; I wanted to see the outcome of this kidnapping—the town’s recovery. I hedged my bets I would be safe, as I was going to Contra land, and my escort was an ex-Contra.

When my escort came to pick me up the next day for our 2-day journey, he had an SUV and a few other ex-Contras with him. As soon as we pulled away from my hotel, the guy in the front seat used his pistol to pop open a beer bottle and I began to wonder whether I was really safe. Our car, in fact, was quite heavily armed with numerous pistols and machine guns. They informed me rather nonchalantly these arms were required in case we needed to defend ourselves in a skirmish. They didn’t seem overly worried about being attacked, however, because the 5 ex-Contras I was with also drank heavily during the whole trip—bottles and bottles of beer and rum were consumed and then thrown out the window on the side of the road.

Being surrounded by strongly armed ex-Contras drinking heavily, I tried to gently refuse the alcohol they offered me and keep all my wits about me. When they handed me a drink, I tried to pour it out while they weren’t looking, but then they just thought I had liked it and kept giving more, which I kept throwing out. Finally we stopped for the night and they got so drunk they stopped giving me alcohol, and I spent the night in a room with two other women of the house where we had stopped. We made it by daylight the next day to our destination without a shootout, despite the fact that we drove right past one very heavily armed pick-up truck with vigilantes.

The next day I was in the town plaza with thousands of people attending a political rally full of people who had given up their arms (more or less) to try to rule through democracy. I was quite eager to talk to the women around me in the plaza about their experiences during and after the war and I heard about the hard life in Contra camps and the better life now that peace and bits of development had come to their town.

At one point, a young woman approached me and asked if I would like to buy some fruit she had brought from her farm. We ended up being away from the plaza for about 10 minutes, which sent my ex-Contra escort into a panic. When I returned, he grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “You don’t know where you are. You have no idea how many people in this place have guns. I had 20 men looking for you. You cannot walk away from here!” Then they assigned me as an escort a young man who had left Nicaragua during the war and, to my delight, didn’t carry a gun and was quite sober. I continued happily doing interviews with the plaza with this sober and unarmed escort and learned quite a bit about the horrors of war and the bits of hope that people had for their future. I even wrote a piece about my experience for the Miami Herald.

When I told my boss at the Arias Foundation, Joaquin, I had spent the weekend with ex-Contras, he said, “If you asked my permission, I would never have given it to you.” “I know,” I replied, “which is why I didn’t call you first to ask your permission.” I thought Joaquin was just too cautious.

At about the same time that Joaquin chided me for taking such a big risk, he worried excessively about his upcoming peace-building trip to Africa. When he found out that after arriving in Nigeria he had to take an internal flight on a Nigerian airline, he turned pale and said, “I’m just worried what would happen to my wife and kids if something happened to me.” He even talked about taking out extra life insurance before going to Africa, but did not. I didn’t take Joaquin’s concerns seriously—but a couple of weeks later he was gone forever in that tragic plane crash.

I grieved Joaquin’s death deeply. He had given me my first real chance. He believed in me; he thought I was intelligent and gave me a lot of opportunities at the Arias Foundation. He was a devoted husband and father. I grieved that I had gone against his will in spending a weekend with a band of ex-contras in no-man’s land. I had laughed at Joaquin’s his fear of flying inside of Nigeria and I was so wrong.

When I enrolled in graduate school, I still wanted to do fieldwork in Latin America, but I had learned a few important lessons:

Fieldwork Lesson #1: If you need an escort to do fieldwork, try to be sure he is sober, he doesn’t think guns are good beer bottle openers, and he doesn’t think a shootout might be exciting.

Fieldwork Lesson #2: If people who are responsible for you or care about you think you are doing something unsafe, take them seriously.

With these lessons in mind, I picked the least developed country in all of Latin America to do my fieldwork for my Ph.D.—Haiti. Just days before I was set to leave for my first trip to Haiti in 2001, I got an emergency call that my father had been taken to the hospital for a stroke. He was expected to recover, and my family encouraged me to go on my trip to Haiti and then come see my father when I returned. Reluctant and worried, I went to Haiti, largely because the trip had been so carefully planned, even for my safety.

For the first half of my trip in Haiti, I heard nothing from home and assumed all was fine. I traveled to four cities in Haiti, with a safe escort and a group of six people, and I filled notebook after notebook with great fieldnotes from conversations, visits to churches, visits to tourist areas, the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince and to a Vodou ceremony in Soutenance. My trip was suddenly interrupted when I got a phone call in Haiti saying my father’s situation had worsened gravely. He was undergoing serious surgery that moment and might not survive through the night. After two days of my family trying to reach me, my aunt Ely finally got through to me and said, “You had better come home right now.”

With my father as a baby

The next 24 hours of travel from Haiti to near Washington, DC, to see my father were excruciatingly difficult—I wanted so badly to reach him before he died. Not saying goodbye to Joaquin had left deep wounds—I had to reach my father before his death. My father held on for three more weeks, and then died of massive strokes at age 57. Grieving heavily, we buried my father on September 10, 2001.

The day after my father’s funeral, after I dropped off my brother at Reagan National Airport at 8 am, the US suffered the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was now triply grieving—grieving for my father, grieving for all the 9/11 victims, and grieving for what I feared would be the US going to war in the Middle East because of 9/11. I had seen the destruction of the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and I didn’t want to see any more war. I was so triply traumatized that I had short-term memory loss and quite literally could not recall an instant of the more than two weeks I had been in Haiti, nor could I speak a single word of the Haitian Creole I had been studying for months before that.

My post-fieldwork triple trauma taught me the following:

Fieldwork Lesson #3: Take really good fieldnotes. In the best case, you will never remember everything like you lived it in the moment. In the worst case, you will undergo multiple emotional traumas and have short-term memory loss. Fortunately, I healed from my traumas and used my careful field notes to jog my memory until everything came back. I returned to Haiti in 2002 with a safe, sober, guitar-toting escort. I did more fieldwork and took great field notes.

Monument Honoring Joaquin Tacsan in Costa Rica’s Central Park

Although I have shared these fieldwork tips with graduate students of my own, I have never explained the real-world circumstances in which I learned them. When I talk to graduate students who are eager to go to reputedly dangerous places to do fieldwork among the ordinary people who must live in difficult circumstances, I can’t help but encourage them to go. So I offer these tips because I want to encourage people to do fieldwork in risky places, but Joaquin’s words of caution still ring in my ears—don’t do fieldwork in places wise people won’t go; do pick your escorts carefully; and do take great field notes because your memory isn’t what you think it is, even under the best of circumstances.

My article in the Miami Herald about that trip to ex-Contra land was my first successful attempt to write about my fieldwork for a broad audience. To my father and to Joaquin, who was like another father figure, I thank you for teaching me to be a strong and wise woman. I thank you for encouraging me to be bold but cautious, and for telling me I’m smart and should write for a broad public.  I miss you both very much.

 


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