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Fieldwork in the Sugar Beet Fields of Northern Colorado

Barbara Hawthorne

The employment of narrative in research is not a new methodology. In anthropology, personal narrative has been used as an important source of information for more than a century. What is new is the acceptance of narrative as a valid information source. In traditional anthropological and educational methodologies, data obtained through interviews was generally considered “massaged and manipulated” by the researcher (Yow 1994). Currently, in both anthropology and education, narratives have emerged as significant and powerful sources of information. According to Reissman (1993), researchers “do not have direct access to another’s experience. We deal with ambiguous representations of it – talk, text, interaction, and interpretation.” Narratives tell how a storyteller remembers, perceives, and interprets an event, thought, or feeling. In this way, narrative stories are an attempt to convey simply and seriously the most important experiences of an individual’s life (Lovov 1997). It is obvious that in using ethnography as an approach for obtaining data and an understanding of cultural meaning, the use of personal oral narratives is significant and authoritative. This paper includes short narrative stories about working in the sugar beet fields of northern Colorado and the potato fields of southeastern Nebraska between the1940s and the 1960s. The storytellers are four members of a second-generation immigrant family whose parents came to northern Colorado in search of better opportunities for their family. For them, field work was physically demanding; days were long and weeks even longer, with no days off from planting to harvest. Temperatures in the fields often soared past 100 degrees. Living conditions in the fields were despicable. Although work in the fields was so physically and emotionally demanding, remarkably, when each informant was asked what “sugar beet” and “field work” meant to them, answers were generally of a positive overtone. Marta explained, “Sugar beets is the meaning for my stomach. It’s like survival, like a ‘surviving kit.’ We depended on the sugar beets to survive.” To Marta and Abelardo, the sugar beet meant “survival,” but they also emphasized that work in the sugar beet fields provided a need for the family as well as the country. “It was useful and respectful work,” Maria explained. “I enjoyed migrant work because it taught me that life isn’t easy, you have to struggle, but it’s up to you.”

High Plains Applied Anthropologist No. 2, Vol. 24, Fall, 2004 pp 185 – 191

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