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Border LivesFronterizos, Transnational Migrants, and Commuters in Tijuana$

Sergio Chávez

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780199380572

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199380572.001.0001

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(p.177) Appendix Methodological Reflection

(p.177) Appendix Methodological Reflection

Border Lives

Sergio Chávez

Oxford University Press

FROM THE START of the research to its eventual publication, this study took almost a decade to complete. In this chapter, I outline the project’s evolution, the surprises I encountered in the field, and how these surprises helped me advance my research. I begin by talking about doing research in the context of a border city like Tijuana that has experienced rapid demographic change and economic development. Then, I discuss how I obtained participants using participant observation, key contacts, and snowball sampling to locate a diverse set of border residents. Finally, I talk about how I gathered, analyzed, and reanalyzed data in an iterative process. I write this methodological reflection to assist students of qualitative methods in developing their own research projects by explaining the lessons I learned through the challenges I faced in the field.1 In particular, I stress that qualitative work does not simply involve informal conversations in the field but rather is developed in an ongoing process that involves systematic sampling and data-collection procedures.

Finding Participants in the City

To date, most scholars who study migration in Mexico have focused on rural communities, where social relations and interactions take place in small, intimate settings where everyone knows one other and are bonded through marriage and/or economic cooperation.2 An advantage of conducting research in such a setting is that researchers come in contact with return migrants, would-be migrants, and nonmigrants on a regular basis by living with them and participating in their daily lives. This allows the researcher to become familiar with the research participants and for the participants to become familiar with the project. Moreover, in many of these communities, much of the male population may have previous international migration experience, making it relatively easy to locate participants.3 Developing contacts to study border commuters in Tijuana proved far more difficult because this particular population was such a small proportion of the city residents. In addition, in the bustling urban context, it was not only challenging to find border commuters but also to develop rapport, because I simply did not run into the same people (p.178) on a daily basis. Entering the field without any contacts, it was difficult to know where to begin. I clearly remember crossing the first day through the US-Mexico border turnstiles and feeling overwhelmed. I asked myself, “Where should I start? Who will I interview?”

To complete my research, I referred to the strategies used by other migration scholars who worked with hard-to-find unauthorized populations. To locate respondents, these scholars suggest establishing a rapport with key informants (e.g., teachers, members of nonprofit organizations and business owners) who can broker connections with the target population.4 They also advise conducting observations in key places where migrants congregate (e.g., restaurants, supermarkets, worksites, and sports venues).5 In this study, I sought the help of Aurelio, a business owner; Jorge, a physical-education teacher and well-known community member; and also participants at the port of entry, worksites, streets, and neighborhoods, which I discuss in further detail. I also followed the tried and true ethnographic recruitment method of snowball sampling to gain access to other participants.6 I used these techniques together in a focused effort to access a diverse sample of respondents with regard to age, marital status, and migration and labor histories.

To immerse myself in the field, I decided to conduct observations at the port of entry, which I saw as the key site where I would find border commuters. I hoped to generate notes about what it was like to cross on a regular basis and to develop contacts with border commuters. My goal was to approach them and ask for their phone number. I would then contact them at a later date to schedule an interview. However, this approach did not work well; I did not see the same people every day, and most people were in a hurry to get to their jobs in the morning or their homes in the afternoons. On top of that, I did not have the confidence to recruit participants, and people likely picked up on this and declined to be interviewed. Whenever I tried to recruit people at the port of entry, they kindly responded, “Yes, of course. The next time I see you here, we can talk and you can ask me questions.” Of course, I never saw them again, because thousands of people cross the border every day. On one occasion, I did manage to obtain the phone number of a commuter, but when I tried calling, the number did not exist. Thus, recruiting participants at the port of entry was not ideal because it was a setting where I was unable to develop trust or rapport with border crossers. I should not have been surprised; many commuters were likely using their BCCs to work in the United States and were fearful that by talking to me, they risked losing them.

Frustrated with my inability to recruit people at the port of entry, I decided to use the first few weeks of fieldwork to obtain detailed field notes on border life. This consisted of observing what it was like to take a taxi or bus to the port of entry; observing interactions between border crossers and immigration officials; and following workers as they boarded public transportation in the United States to their places of employment. This allowed me to understand what it was like to cross the border on a regular basis and to get a better sense of the people who crossed on a daily basis to work in San Diego. My field notes were filled with data on the physical and social environment of Tijuana, including what it was like to live in a neighborhood, people’s consumption patterns in Mexico and the United States, and interactions in public spaces such as parks, taxis, restaurants, and so on. The goal of my field notes was to capture in detail what it was like to live a border life. The process went something like this. When I crossed the port of entry, I made mental notes of what was happening and what was said (or if I could write without disrupting patterns of interaction I took “jottings” in a small notebook). I wrote down these mental notes or expanded on my jottings in a larger notebook as soon as I found the time, and at night I typed up my (p.179) field notes on my laptop computer.7 Sometimes, the process of writing field notes extended into most of the next day as I seldom felt that I had enough time to write down everything I saw and heard. Even though I did not conduct interviews during the first few weeks of my study, my detailed notes on border interactions and daily life in Tijuana helped provide context for the lives of those whom I have written about in this book. These observations ultimately also helped me develop contacts in this Mexican border city.

Turning Contacts into Further Contacts

With time, I expanded my observations beyond the port of entry to other key public spaces in Tijuana. On one occasion, I stopped at an ice cream shop that belonged to Aurelio Nava, who worked alongside his son Rubén. They were chatty business owners who could converse endlessly about any topic for hours. At the time, I did not have very many contacts in Tijuana, so I became a regular at their ice cream shop once I had finished collecting field notes at the end of the day. My developing relationship with Aurelio and Rubén wound up helping me in ways I did not anticipate. After getting to know me, Aurelio and Rubén invited me to family events and weekend outings. They also encouraged me to spend more time at their business, where I could observe regulars who came to chat and eat ice cream. The shop’s clientele included border commuters, migrants, deportees, and other fronterizos from all walks of life. Aurelio also introduced me to several friends who were ex-braceros and migrants. He encouraged me to talk to the former braceros who hung out there on a weekly basis, because he thought that they had played an integral part in the economies of the United States and Mexico. These former braceros became an invaluable connection, even though I did not originally conceive of them as being in my book. However, as I spoke with them, I came to realize that they had been agricultural commuters, and their stories helped shed light on how earlier cohorts of border residents navigated the border economy during the period of the Bracero Program (1942–64) and the open-border period (1965–85). Once he got to know me, Rubén also began to recommend contemporary border commuters to interview, such as his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. I interviewed both of them, but I wanted to avoid the problem of homophily—or the clustering of people who share similar experiences or attributes.8 As a result, rather than remain within the comforts of Rubén’s network, I sought out new “seeds” by reaching out to key informants and developing new contacts through my immersion in daily life in Tijuana.

To branch out beyond these initial seeds, I began to identify other commuters by turning to established connections that I had developed while living in a working-class neighborhood, and by meeting people at the port of entry and in public spaces. I then asked these contacts to refer me to additional border commuters they knew. Some scholars suggest that snowball sampling is biased because cases are not selected at random; however, I chose this method because I needed to develop trust with the community to get people to talk to me about sensitive issues like crossing the border without authorization. Mario Small argues that “[w]‌hat proponents of the random selection approach to small-n in-depth interviewing rarely mention is that many people who are cold-called will not agree to long, in-depth interviews on personal topics with a stranger.”9 Thus, for my study, I identified key informants who put me in contact with border commuters, who I then asked for further referrals of people to interview.

(p.180) I made a daily requirement to introduce myself to a few people each day to expand my network connections and to develop confidence in approaching people to interview. I also spent a considerable amount of time talking to people and explaining my project with the hope that doing so would help me to locate border commuters. People were generally very excited to learn that I was writing a book about Tijuana, and as soon as they got to know me, they began to introduce me to their friends and family members. I also met people through daily life in my neighborhood and through the daily activities I participated in. For example, in an effort to make friends, I began to ride with a group of mountain bikers who rode on the mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Playas de Tijuana. Through these excursions I met Jorge, the physical-education instructor, who became a close friend. When I needed to find border commuters, I turned to Jorge, who right away invited me to meet some of his neighborhood friends. He introduced me to Hugo, Cesar, Julio, Boris, Lemus, Lorenzo, and many other childhood friends, who were either current or previous border commuters and had begun to cross the border as commuters for the first time during the post-IRCA period (1987–93). He helped broker relationships with these men and also invited me to his neighborhood on a regular basis, where I was able to interview and observe commuters as they went about daily life. These border commuters provided me with rich interview and ethnographic data that I could not have obtained if I had recruited them as a stranger at the port of entry. I also met one of my key contacts, Ramón, through the woman who rented out a room to me, who was a relative of his. She helped me establish a relationship with him. As a result, Ramón introduced me to two of his friends and I ended up interviewing two of his sons as well. I branched out throughout Tijuana in hopes that I would identify border commuters from all over the city.

In 2010–11, after starting my new job as an assistant professor, I no longer had the same time that I had as a graduate student. I hired two undergraduate students to help me conduct further in-depth interviews with the younger generation of border crossers. Because they lived in Tijuana, had extensive research experience, and knew many people in the city, they helped to locate younger border crossers whose crossing experiences largely took place in the period after Operation Gatekeeper (from 1994) and female border crossers. To ensure appropriate data collection, we practiced the interview guide together, I accompanied them to several interviews, and we regularly spoke by phone about the findings. As a researcher, I tried to plant numerous seeds throughout Tijuana in an effort to avoid interviewing respondents who were all integrated into a single tightly knit community.

Recording People and Analyzing Data

With a few exceptions, I recorded all of my interviews, in an effort to capture what people said in their own words. While recording interviews allowed me to capture the exact words of my respondents, there were drawbacks to using this technique. For example, Ramón, a central character in this book, did not feel comfortable sitting down to be interviewed, much less being recorded. He felt most comfortable with normal conversation. Although he was normally a chatty, enthusiastic person, he did not have much to say the one time I did manage to convince him to be recorded. I also found that what Ramón said did not always align with his everyday behaviors.10 For example, when I asked Ramón about his network connections during an interview, he mentioned having no friends or (p.181) family outside of his household.11 Yet by following him outside of his household, I found that Ramón had extensive networks; he had strong ties to friends, coworkers, and employers in Tijuana and in San Diego County that he drew on for support, and he helped them as well. However, in our interview he simply said that he considered himself a loner. By combining in-depth interviews and observations, I was able to compare what people said with what they did and to experience daily life in Tijuana by participating in activities such as crossing the border and shopping in both Mexico and the United States.

After interviews were conducted, I entered all of the basic demographic information into Excel, and then into a Microsoft Word document. Once basic information was entered, I took detailed field notes describing the person, the neighborhood they lived in, and things the respondent said after the recorder was turned off. I transcribed the majority of the first wave of interviews, but then hired Mexican undergraduate students to help with this time-consuming process. Once the interviews were transcribed, I reread each one numerous times until I became familiar with their contents. I also read and coded all of my field notes; these were coded by marking the margins of the text with key codes such as “crossing the border,” “inspections by Customs and Border Protection,” “social mobility discussion among braceros,” “friendship moments,” and so on. I analyzed the interview transcripts by creating several Microsoft Word documents organized according to theme, such as “crossing strategies,” and pasting chunks of quotations into codes under that theme, such as “circumventing inspection,” “drawing on social support,” “gaining confidence,” and “using local smugglers,” which helped to organize the presentation of findings. Over the years, I returned to these documents time and time again, modifying them as the book went through major revisions. Nonetheless, my organization and ongoing analysis of the data meant that I never had to rely on memory to make decisions in the process of writing and analysis.

Revisiting the Field

I returned to the field on several occasions. As new themes emerged from my field notes and from the transcripts, I returned to the field to collect data to support arguments for which I thought that I did not have enough evidence. In the epilogue to Street Corner Society, William Foote Whyte talks about the challenges scholars face as they first enter the field and then later attempt to find patterns in the data, only to realize that they need to review the field notes and perhaps return to the field to gather more notes to “determine whether the pattern adequately represents the life we are observing or is simply a product of our imagination.”12 My most difficult struggle was that I had a difficult time believing what I wrote and wanted to talk to more people to validate my findings.

I first reentered the field to discuss with former braceros the conclusions I was coming to about why one group decided to work in Mexico while the other became daily crossers. I then returned to the field again in an effort to secure more interviews with the younger cohort of border crossers. I realized that I had enough information about the bracero commuters and the commuters who obtained their Green Cards through IRCA, but less about the cohort of contemporary border commuters who use BCCs to work without authorization. I returned to Tijuana with the goal of gathering more in-depth information about the strategies people employed to obtain the information they needed to acquire BCCs and the strategies they employed when crossing the border. This decision emerged from a back-and-forth process of conducting fieldwork, transcribing, and analyzing. If my process had been more linear, it might (p.182) have been too late for me to return to the field to obtain further information by the time I realized that I needed to validate that the patterns I had observed were indeed a reflection of empirical reality. I also sought to add women’s perspectives on this trip because my initial contacts and networks were with men. I wanted to make sure that I interviewed women to get a better sense of the ways in which they navigated border life and crossed the border. Finally, I returned to the field for the last time in late 2013 in an effort to understand the temporal nature of people’s livelihood strategies along the US-Mexico border. As discussed in the epilogue, the revisits to respondents showed that livelihoods in the borderlands were difficult to maintain because they were economically vulnerable, in addition to their restrictive legal status.

How Many Interviews?

This book is based upon 158 interviews with border residents who came of age during different immigration and economic eras. For a qualitative study, I had a large sample. I interviewed this large number of respondents because as I conducted more interviews, new categories of crossers emerged, and I wanted to interview a number of people from each category to obtain a comprehensive view of border commuters from the post-bracero period to the present. Annette Lareau states that conducting thirty to forty interviews spread out over one or two settings can be enough to provide theoretically rich data about daily life that can help advance social theory.13 However, border life was simply too diverse to restrict my sample to such a small size. That being said, I somewhat agree with Lareau that it is important to limit one’s study to a more manageable sample and follow them over the course of the research, because the time and energy I dedicated to finding new respondents, setting up interviews, transcribing, and analyzing the interviews was taxing both physically and emotionally. However, each researcher needs to carefully consider their goals and the data needed to answer their research question. In my case, the more time I spent in the field, the more themes emerged that required further interviews to fully explore. I also needed to revisit respondents on numerous occasions to understand the changing situation in their border lives.

Study Recommendations

My time spent in the field in Tijuana provided many glimpses into interesting empirical realities in this border city. While I maintained my focus on my own research questions throughout the project, I kept these glimpses in mind as the seeds of future research projects that may be undertaken by scholars interested in doing ethnography in Tijuana or in another border community. First, women have different experiences than men of relocating to the border, attempting to find their niches in the Mexican side of the economy, obtaining border crossings cards, and developing social networks to cross. It would be exciting to read a study that delves into their experiences and studies how the practice of border crossing is gendered. Second, though my study examines the process of obtaining a BCC from the perspective of applicants, ethnographic research is needed to better understand how the legal ability to cross the border is constructed through interactions, by following respondents as they prepare their applications and undergo interviews and by conducting research with the US government officials who disburse these documents. Third, this study largely focused on the experiences of those who were able to turn the border into an advantage by working (p.183) in the United States or Mexico. However, in recent years, the Obama administration has deported many unauthorized Mexicans to Mexican border cities, where they are cut off from their families in the United States. How these deportees find their niche in the Mexican economy and how the Mexican state facilitates or complicates their reentry are important empirical questions that remain to be answered. Fourth, scholars need to continue to study cohorts of border commuters in Tijuana. New developments since my research are likely to alter the experiences of border crossers now and into the future. The IRCA recipients are now slowly retiring from the labor force just as the US government has instituted new surveillance technologies to track individuals as they move back and forth across the port of entry. Potential new immigration-reform laws or shifts in US politics may lead to new regulations and policies that influence border crossing. These changes and their effects should be studied by new generations of border researchers.

Finally, the border is a fascinating location to study topics of interest to sociologists, such as labor markets, border and boundaries, and social networks. Yet the border is also a place of intense inequality, uneven urbanization, and gendered violence. Institutional support for border studies is needed to foster partnerships among Mexican and American scholars, not only to produce important sociological research, but also to address the social problems that are produced by and that manifest on both sides of the border. (p.184)


(1.) See William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943); Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999); Matthew Desmond, On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), as great key texts that exemplify what Annette Lareau terms the, “story behind the story.”

(3.) For an overview of the high rates of migration to the United States, see William Kandel and Douglas Massey, “The Culture of Mexican Migration: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis,” Social Forces 80 (2002): 981–1004.

(4.) Wayne A. Cornelius, “Interviewing Undocumented Immigrants: Methodological Reflections Based on Fieldwork in Mexico and the U.S.” International Migration Review 16 (Summer 1982): 378–411; Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies; Chavez, Shadowed Lives.

(6.) See Cornelius, “Interviewing Undocumented Immigrants.” Chavez, Shadowed Lives. Historically, snowball sampling has been used to investigate the structure of (p.200) networks and to study hard-to-find populations (such as drug users) for which there is no “sampling frame”; see Patrick Biernacki and Dan Waldorf, “Snowball Sampling: Problems and Techniques of Chain Referral Sampling,” Sociological Methods and Research 10 (1981): 141–63.

(7.) See Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

(8.) For an overview of the problem of homophily, see Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook, “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 415–44. For an innovative approach to sampling hard-to-find populations, see Ted Mouw, Sergio Chávez, Heather Edelblute, and Ashton Verdery, “Binational Social Networks and Assimilation: A Test of the Important of Transnationalism,” Social Problems 61 (2014): 329–59.

(9.) Mario Luis Small, “ ‘How Many Cases Do I Need?’ On Science and Logic of Case Selection in Field-Based Research,” Ethnography 10 (2009): 14.

(10.) For a discussion of the limitation of interview data, see Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan, “Talk is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy,” Sociological Methods and Research 43 (2014): 178–209.

(11.) In “Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor,” 1303, Matthew Desmond writes that by studying eviction through ethnography rather than relying solely on interview data he was “able to compare what people said about the support they received from friends and family with support they actually received during that difficult hour.”

(13.) Annette Lareau, “Using the Terms Hypothesis and Variable for Qualitative Work: A Critical Reflection,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 (2012): 671–77.