Notes from the field

(Published in the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction Newsletter 22(2), 2015)

“Oh, I see, so you want to be a partera (midwife)” is the typical response I hear after explaining the purpose of my visit; that I am doing dissertation research to document how midwives live and work. Although I try to explain my research goal in terms of “helping raise awareness on the difficulties parteras are facing,” I am always met with this same response “so you want to learn how to become a midwife?” And as I have gotten to met parteras and aspiring midwives, I must admit that there is not always a clear difference between what I do and how I act and what they do and how they act: asking questions about pregnancy care, sitting in on prenatal consults, taking notes on almost everything the partera says… There is a thin line between participant-observation and midwives’ apprenticeship model. And indeed, I have been learning a lot about how parteras work and live, but also a hell of a lot about plants given in pregnancy care and massage techniques.

Since October 2014, I have been in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, conducting dissertation fieldwork and volunteering for the Women and Midwives’ Section of the Organization of Indigenous Doctors of Chiapas (OMIECH). As a volunteer, my work consists mainly of two tasks: administrative tasks (aka looking for funding) and logistical support during events and workshops. Since 1985, OMIECH has been strengthening Mayan medical knowledge and organizing health workshops in indigenous Tseltal and Tsotsil communities of Chiapas. Even though I am in Chiapas, some of my notes echo those of Kara E. Miller (Fall 2014 Newsletter). Here too, the parteras – who are referred to as Traditional Birth Attendants in international documents – are frustrated with the lack of possibilities to transfer their skills to the next generation. This is why the Women and Midwives’ section organizes workshops focused on reproductive health, and care during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. These workshops are open to all members of the community where they take place, and aim to perpetuate botanical and medical knowledge by transmitting it to younger generations.

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Picture 1. Tsotsil partera during a community workshop. Photo by author.

The loss of knowledge is accelerated by various factors (young people’s migration, midwifery not an attractive profession economically), one of them being the medicalization of birth. The push to send women to birth in hospitals comes with a deligitimation of indigenous parteras’s knowledge as “not-modern”. Through conditional cash-transfer programs (documented by Vania Smith-Oka in the state of Veracruz), women are pushed to have their prenatal visits and give birth in hospitals. Parteras, on their end, have to attend trainings given by the Health Secretary. These trainings have emerged in the 1980s, and intensified in Chiapas under the pressure of reducing maternal mortality rate to comply with the Millennium Development Goal (Chiapas has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Mexico). Indigenous traditional midwives either have to follow the trainings or stop practicing. This can have dramatic consequences in places where they are often the only health care provider in their communities.

As I jot down notes during an interview or observation within these different settings, I feel a thrill of delight when their words echo one another. But then I realize this means that these state policies are really achieving great changes for parteras. And like Sisyphus, tirelessly, my colleagues at OMIECH reweave what is being unwoven: traditional medical knowledge, but also, and as important, pride in it and trust within the community.

While “in the field”, my notes are scribbly at times, crystal clear at others, but rarely absent. I try to type them regularly, as a good apprentice-anthropologist, but have stopped feeling guilty when I could not do so. It took me a few months to be able to “let go” and admit there will always be an event I will miss, a trip I cannot make… At my mid-point in the field (already), I have just started to take drawing classes, which helps me expand the range of my notes, when words fail to describe a hand gesture, or when I do not know the terminology for this exact point on the belly that needs to be massaged. These classes have made the familiar look different, and made me look at people in a new way, which in turns adds more depth to my notes.

Life in the field intertwines professional, political and personal spheres. The friendships I have built through this research promise to impact both my career and personal life. As we were searching for plants in the garden of the organization for an upcoming booklet publication, my colleague Micaela corrected me as I got the name of the plant wrong, once again. I could sens, for the first time, an impatient tone in her voice. I pause and I suddenly realized that although I am not studying to become a midwife, every one of the parteras I have met have been a teacher to me, training me a little bit, sharing their story, their tortilla and their endless knowledge. I am looking forward to learning a lot more in the next five months I will be spending with them and I hope my dissertation will bring them knowledge they can use in their struggle.

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