Ethnographic Methods in Labor and Legality Research Paper

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Labor and Legality is an ethnography by Ruth Gomberg-Munoz in which the lives of undocumented Mexican workers who work as busboys in the Chicago area are portrayed. Ruth Gomberg-Munoz is a socio-cultural anthropologist which research interest focuses on political economy, migration race, class and urban ethnography.

Her interest in Mexican workers grew by waiting tables and bartending at a Chicago restaurant, building friendships and close relationships with the Mexican workers in the kitchen. This Ethnography of undocumented workers in Chicago, started in 2003 until the winter of 2008/2009. During this time, Gomberg-Munoz conducted several interviews, participant observations, readings of people’s cultural productions, surveys of where people live and mapping of where they are and what they do. This essay will show how the ethnographer used and developed the different ethnographical methods to give an account of the lives of undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago.

During Labor and Legality, Ruth focuses on who she calls the Lions, consisting on ten undocumented men from Leon, Mexico. During this ethnography, she attempts to develop a holistic understanding of the “illegal immigrants” undocumented life. To start, Ruth introduces the Lions and to Il Vino, the restaurant when most of these men work. After, she gives historical and political background of Mexican migration such as the Bracero Program introduced in 1942 in which Mexican labor was legally welcomed to the United States. Gomberg-Munoz, describes the lives of these undocumented Mexican workers by sharing stories about the Lions leaving their families, crossing the border and their negotiation of their new lives in Chicago with the restrictions of not having “papers”.

Gomberg-Munoz provides an insight to the many American stereotypes that these men face. For example, the idea that Mexican people are hard workers. Although the hard-working stereotype might seem harmless, it often leads employers to take advantage of undocumented workers. In addition, these men face racial job discrimination that is seen when white members of the busboy team get promoted with less years of experience. Although the Lions face many hardships when moving to the United States, it seems that the support from each other and their work relationships has given them a social identity and created a safe environment that helps them promote job security and financial stability.

To begin her ethnography, Gomberg-Munoz incorporated herself in the social circle of undocumented Mexican workers working as busboys mainly in the restaurant Il Vino. She began working in the restaurant as a waitress and frequented the restaurant giving her the ability to be incorporated in the Lions work environment without interfering with any social interactions. By doing so, she practiced participant observation. Observing the Lion’s everyday activities while collecting information, Gomberg-Munoz was able to tap into the rich, complex and diverse experiences of this group of undocumented Mexican workers and the meanings of their existence in the United States. Gomberg-Munoz gained entrance and established rapport with her participants by a long history of interactions that started long before her work with the Lions at Il Vino.

After studying Spanish, Mexican history, and her past relationships with Mexican workers while in college, she was able to learn the language, social rules and making herself known to the community, hence, building trust relationships. By conducting her research as an observer participant, she was capable to conduct better observations, therefore, generating a more complete understanding of the Lion’s activities. Gomberg-Munoz mentioned attending summer barbecues, birthday parties, soccer games, first working at and then frequenting their place of work, and even traveling to their home town in Mexico to visit their wives and families. Despite being emerged in the Lions daily lives and activities, there were some limitations in Gomberg-Munoz’s ethnography. A significant restraint is the researcher’s gender. Gender limits what the researcher can observe and participate in.

For example, Gomberg-Munoz was not able to work as a busboy at Il vino because this was a position that consisted mainly of Mexican men and being a woman “drew a lot of attention”. One important aspect to consider, is the role of machismo in the Mexican culture in which males are “constantly preoccupied with the image he is conveying, constantly concerned to create the impression of masculinity and courage, invulnerability and indifference to the attack of others.” (Stevens, E.P 1965). Gomberg-Munoz’s interactions with the Lions could be limited by this hyper masculinity and situations of vulnerability, fear or weakness will not be portrayed accurately and, if so, they could be downplayed.

In addition to using participant observation to conduct the Ethnography “Labor and Legality”, Gomberg-Munoz used interviews to learn about the lives of undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago. Her interviews included background questions about growing up, going to school and family. Following by immigration and legal status questions which also included asking about experiences of discrimination while in the United States. Next, they were asked about work, work relationships, types of work and coworkers. Questions about household organization, resources, identity and community solidarity were also asked.

Gomberg-Munoz conducted several interviews with undocumented Mexican workers in different restaurants in the Chicago area, restaurant managers, nonimmigrant co-workers, the Lions themselves and some of their families in the United States and in Leon, Mexico. Gomberg-Munoz did a great job by including members of several aspects of the Lion’s lives. In which in turn, benefits the understanding of the Lions in a comprehensive way. In addition, the interviews gave a structure and frameworks for her research. Although she conducted a greatly inclusive interview technique, the language difference could be seen as a limitation to her ethnography. Despite the fact that Gomberg-Munoz’s majored in Spanish and she was fluent in the language, there are several concepts and words that could only be understood by several years of immersing oneself into the culture and language being studied.

Lastly, in an attempt to achieve a holistic approach, Gomberg-Munoz used mapping as a method to understand the Lions within their social, spatial and cultural contexts. Mapping is a useful tool to make social interactions and spatial practices visual and tangible. To begin, she created a chart in which the reader can compare and contrast the ten Lions and get familiarized with their name, age, work situation, family status and household arrangements.

In addition, Gomberg-Munoz included Ill Vino’s floor plan in which the upscale Italian restaurant could be visualized. She mentions how staff in the restaurant is strictly segregated; The front of the house staff including managers and bartenders are white and back of the house staff which includes busboys and dishwashers are Mexican immigrants. Moreover, this map makes the invisible, visible. The reader can reflect or enhance awareness on the power relations of the restaurant.

In addition, Gomberg-Munoz uses photos to create visual tools that one might not be able to capture by writing field notes. For example, she included pictures of Leon, Mexico. With these images, one could reflect on the Lion’s social class or cultural rituals. She describes Leon as a large industrial city with “brightly painted houses and rutted dirt roads give that give it a distinctly Mexican appearance.” Mapping, then, helps us find the blind spots and culturally meaningful spaces in the Lion’s lives.


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Ethnographic Methods in Labor and Legality Research Paper. (2020, Sep 10). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/ethnographic-methods-in-labor-and-legality/

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