Notes from the Field: On Watching and Waiting – Kathryn Diserens

July 10, 2017

Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, Mexico

May 29, 2017


If I were to characterize my field season up until this point in two words, they would be watching and waiting.  Now in my fourth year researching, working, and living in Tihosuco, located in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, I am finally beginning to understand and appreciate the rhythms of the town, and realize that my work will get done even if I am not ‘working’ at every moment. As a native New Yorker, I often miss the frenzied pace of the city, but in fact this slow progress can offer some wonderful space for reflection and thinking.

Today, to the untrained eye, one could say that my fieldwork consisted of sitting and watching.  I had no scheduled meetings or interviews, no houses to measure and document, and nothing on the agenda beyond meeting with my field partner to think about the weeks ahead.

Socorro and I sitting and waiting outside the mayor’s office in Tihosuco. Photo: Aldo Anzures Tapia.


However, funny things happen when you have nothing planned.  As I sat in front of the alcaldía (mayor’s office), for a few hours, people came by, sat on the benches with me, and chatted.  I saw people I had not yet seen this year and those that I had seen but not spoken with at great length.  I waved at people as they biked by, and saw the buses of people who work in the Cancun tourist zone return home for the night.  I simply let myself be one piece of the fabric of the town, and let go of my official anthropologist’s hat and my desire to ask questions and interview and just sat back and existed.

This is the kind of thing that they do not teach you in school. A graduate program in anthropology is fast paced: more reading and writing than you can ever get done, teaching, meetings, and more meetings. You are always busy, and if not, you feel like you should be!  While the field season is always busy too, it allows for these spaces, these moments where your ‘work’ can in fact be sitting, watching, and waiting.

Sitting and watching in Tihosuco turns out to be surprisingly productive. It is a great way to observe the comings and goings in town, as the benches where I sit are located right off the central park in the town. It is a hub of activity, bordered by two schools, the iconic church, the mayor’s office, and the casa ejidal (the offices for the local land commune).  My presence in town is often greeted with confused looks or stares by those who do not yet know me, but in these moments of waiting on the benches, I can see people I know, set up meetings for later in the day or the days ahead, and catch up on the gossip in town. I also create a presence for myself, so that I become something more familiar, and when I come to interview new community members, they remember having seen me before. Conversations started here can continue in other venues or can lead to interviews and invitations.

Meeting at the museum. Photo: Richard Leventhal.


As I am proposing an archaeological and ethnographic hybrid model for my dissertation, I alternate between documenting the physical condition of the houses and talking to people about them. The entirety of the Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Development Project run by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center is a new type of anthropological project, where we depend on strong ties with the community to structure and guide our work.  Because of that, we have a lot of meetings with members of the community.  These are integral to the project and our purpose here. We discuss movement on the various projects, new directions in which to move, and new ideas for projects or parts of projects. These meetings come with a special type of waiting.  We almost never start on time, and we often chat for at least half an hour before getting to the point of why we had the meeting in the first place.  Yet, these interactions provide us with new directions, new ideas, and new ways to integrate our project into the community. Through conversations that were not official meetings, we have added at least three or four new sub-projects to our list!

Presenting to the community at the museum. Photo: Tiffany Cain.


Waiting is what happens in Tihosuco. This is not a new experience for me, but my views on it have changed.  Finally, after almost four years, I have adapted to the town rhythms and movements, I know when to be out and about to see people, and when to stay home and get drawing or field notes done.  I know that if I go to the park at 7 or 8 pm, I am bound to see people and start a conversation. I have learned a great deal of patience, and I have found that watching and waiting can be surprisingly enjoyable. I can be reflective and reflexive.  I am both adapting to the pace of the town and yet at the same time still painfully aware of it.

In the continuation of our work this year and beyond, we are also waiting…. waiting to see what happens.  Our project is trying to create a sustainable tourism and heritage preservation program in the town. Resources for these ideas will hopefully come from the government.  This year we are waiting to see if resources will arrive, if tourists will continue to visit, and what the benefits will be for those in town working on this project. Stay tuned!