What is the ethnographic method, and why is it important to my research? Well, first, I can tell you in black-and-white terms: it is a process that allows the researcher to see questions or issues in their “lived context.” It is based on, usually, “participant observation,” or immersing oneself in interactions and observations so as to better understand and situate ideas and behavior in the bigger picture that makes up an individual’s life. But that sounds like something academic and far-away until I explain the “lived context” that I have been experiencing every Sunday for the past month and a half: the Spanish-language mass, or la misa hispana, at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish on New Park Ave. in the Parkville neighborhood of Hartford.
I first went inside Our Lady of Sorrows, a Catholic church, when a classmate and I were assigned to research religion in the lives of people in Parkville for the Hispanic Hartford course last semester. We found an open door, and eventually found a deacon, Deacon Valentin Perez, hanging out around the sacristy, and more than willing to speak with us. [Here is a link to my group's blog post from the course last year about this visit.] I remembered his warm welcome to return to Our Lady of Sorrows whenever we wanted to. So, at the start of this Fall, when I was mentally mapping out a faith-based site where I might test some of my hypotheses about the low-income Latino community in Hartford, I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, and decided to re-visit the church. I am very grateful that my re-connection occurred. Interacting with clergy, staff, parishioners, and other leaders within the church has been incredibly meaningful for my year-long thesis work in Human Rights Studies.
My research aside, attending Spanish mass is always a transformational experience for me. I always get the feeling, in an odd way, that I am studying abroad again for a few hours every Sunday. I did an exchange semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina in Fall 2011, and was lucky enough to return for a few weeks this past August with a research grant so that I could learn about liberation theology. I miss being surrounded by the Spanish language 24-7, I miss the vivacious and personable nature of my host mother, and I miss sitting in the large, cathedral-like, but warm, Catholic churches in our neighborhood. Our Lady of Sorrows feels much the same: every Mass I am made to feel welcome by kind, passionate men and women who greet me with a hug and kiss, and compliment my accented, now-deteriorating Spanish. I sit in the pew with Carmen, the elderly mother of Carmencita, a lector and intelligent, active church leader who has been my “in” for getting to know parishioners and the church community. Some very striking differences separate Spanish mass at Our Lady of Sorrows from the solemn, quiet mass at my church at home in suburban Massachusetts, also Catholic: here in Parkville, 300 parishioners attend each week, the music is uplifting—set to clapping, loud singing, and what sounds like Andean-inspired instruments and tunes—and the priests speak an animated, enthusiastic Spanish. The women always point out to me where in the missal or hymn sheet we are, helping me to re-learn once-familiar prayers in Spanish.
One week after Mass, a Peruvian ethnic-religious, co-ed fraternity called HESMIPERU, which meets at Our Lady of Sorrows, held a procession in honor of Our Lord of Miracles. I had been invited to attend this procession a few weeks before by one of my computer literacy students at Trinfo Café, the neighborhood technology center where I work, who is a member of HESMIPERU. I was excited by the coincidence of my students’ invitation and my thesis-related ethnography.
I was blown way: the area around Our Lady of Sorrows was so crowded, I had to park at Stop n Shop and walk down the street, passing sidewalks crowded with families selling Peruvian food under tents or out of vans. As I approached the church, I saw about 40 people dressed in deep purple cloaks, proudly displaying gold-trimmed badges with an image of Our Lord of Miracles—the same image, I realized, that another Peruvian Trinfo student had given to me as a gift last year. The crowed easily totaled hundreds of people, almost all Peruvian, and dressed in purple to honor the occasion. The HESMIPERU members held up a massive, framed image of Jesus, surrounded by flower arrangements and gold trim, in a formation that I can only compare to a float at a parade—except that comparison really cannot do it justice.
I observed the crowd for a while from up on the steps of the church, where other had gathered to get a good view and take photos, as I did. When the procession took off to march the streets of Hartford (for several hours, I was told)—followed by a group of drum- and brass-playing musicians—I returned to the Trinity campus, enthusiastic for the rest of the day about what I had experienced.
What does this all have to do with my thesis research? In short, I am studying how the faith-based setting can “fill the gaps” between the low-income Latino immigrant and state-provided services—that is, how a mainly-Latino church like Our Lady of Sorrows is a culturally-relevant space where individuals connect to information, referrals, and, sometimes, direct services, through parish staff and other parishioners. I have been conducting interviews and focus groups with parishioners and staff, along with ethnographic interactions like the one that I just described. I think that the most valuable academic work often unfolds when the student-researcher feels that their perceptions of and interactions with knowledge is changing. I certainly feel that way about my work at Our Lady of Sorrows. I honestly think that I could not access interviews and focus group opportunities, as well as personal connections that allow me to gain other forms of knowledge, without immersing myself in their community. Doing so allows me not only to situate their responses and behaviors in a broader picture, but also to ask meaningful questions that go way beyond what I knew from past experience before entering their faith community.