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Colección: La Educación
Número: (129-131) I,III
Año: 1998

An Ethnographic Epilogue

As it turned out, Xiomara taught me more than once the ethnographic lesson of avoiding the conceptual and representational temptation to sew up the seams of stories that continue to unravel after one has left the field. When I returned to Santa Lucia nearly three years after my initial stay, I found Xiomara’s life had taken yet another turn, a turn with an almost predictable unpredictability that is worth a brief telling.

Before I even arrived from Mérida to Santa Lucia, I had heard through friends that Xiomara had a little boy, José Luis. After giving birth in September of 1994, she had stayed home with her son for a year, helping her mother in the bodega. But the following year she enrolled in the technical program she had initially planned to follow, leaving little José Luis with his grandmother while she studied computación. When I went to visit the family in December of 1996, Xiomara was in the third and last year of her program, and José Luis was a timid two year old. Xiomara had reorganized her goals to include her son, but in a way that continued to take into account her mother’s needs. She told me then that she hoped to find a job in Santa Lucia that would pay enough to allow her mother to give up the bodega altogether. “That way she can stay at home and take care of her grandson, rather than work,” Xiomara explained, invoking the distinction commonly made among her peers and her elders, between unremunerated housework and paid labor outside the home.

But the apparently satisfying ending — or at least continuation — of Xiomara’s story, had consequences that proved less than ideal for her brother, Manuel; and it was now his story that took a turn off the predictable path he had very studiously paved for himself. Manuel was the second eldest sibling, and was immersed in writing his undergraduate thesis in Sociology at the time I was living in Santa Lucia. Manuel and I chatted frequently and easily, and I think he saw us as colleagues of a sort. On several occasions he told me about his career intentions, commenting that, while he would prefer to stay in Santa Lucia to help his mother, he realized that there were no job opportunities for him in his field. During the time I was there, he began exploring job possibilities in cities across the country. He seemed to have reconciled his conflicting career and familial desires by planning to find a lucrative position elsewhere, save money, and eventually move back to Santa Lucia and start his own business so that his mother could stop working at the bodega.

When I returned in 1996, Xiomara was in school, José Luis was at home with his grandmother, and Manuel was working in the bodega. He had finished his degree, but had abandoned — for the moment at least — all efforts to find work in his field.

Some may read Xiomara’s continuing story as reaffirming the determinative force of those socio-economic and biographical factors that had led me initially to assume she would move along the educational and career trajectory she had set out for herself years earlier. But I read Xiomara’s story as a vivid reminder of how thoroughly unpredictable is any life course.21 After all, Xiomara didn’t simply continue where she left off; she continued as an unmarried mother. Moreover, the twists and turns in her life course spilled out beyond the boundaries of her individuality, and just as her life began to appear “predictable” again, it had the effect of disrupting the previously predictable life of her brother Manuel, who found himself abandoning his career goals in order to tend to the bodega while Josefina took care of José Luis.

Xiomara’s continued story also serves as a reminder of the determinative force, not of such abstractions as gender or class, but of family in giving form, meaning and direction to young Santa Lucians’ lives. It also illustrates how, for Santa Lucian youth living in times of “crisis”, when the prosperity that breeds predictability floats like a moving target upon a distant horizon, at such times one’s story and one’s future — if I may paraphrase Bakhtin — are always half someone else’s.