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Ethnographies of celebration

I choose not to write directly about my research in this space as it unfolds. Instead, here is a mini-ethnography of what happens in its margins.IMG_3154

In my 7 years of returning to Colombia, there always comes a point at which I arrive at the same realization: I have not packed nearly enough sequins.

This country demands sequins. They are sprinkled at baby showers (without any warnings about choking hazards because the United States, this is not), at a friend’s 10-year-anniversary-in-Colombia dinner, even at divorce parties. Colombians know how to honor an occasion, from love to loss, with an unstated but palpable awareness that most celebrations carry a tinge of both. As a fellow anthropologist remarked after the third glass of a wine on a Wednesday, this country inspires an “ethnography of rumba.”


I have learned not to bring up Gabriel García Márquez gratuitously in front of Colombians. The reference to him can invite an exasperated reaction of the type I give when someone asks me, with insufficient facetiousness, if modern Greeks believe in Zeus. While Gabo, coffee, and cocaine have left different markings on the legacy of this country, they are all part of  what Chimamanda Adichie would call its ‘single story‘. It is a story that Colombians know how to perform, indulge, or even forgive, but it misses the texture of their ordinary Tuesdays.

The stories at these besequined Tuesday night celebrations always bring my thoughts back to Gabo. There was the story of a family hiring the local paramilitary group to steal back their belongings from thieves. Or the one about the couple chasing each other around their apartment with knives after a domestic dispute on whether to have children. My instinctive reaction is horror. An “ufff!” effortlessly escapes. Colombians are attached to their auditory feelings: “Whooshhhh”, “ufffff”, “uyyyyyy.” Anthropological transcripts of a conversation are incomplete if unpunctuated by repeated consonants.

Horror, however, is not expected of you. You are expected to attempt to figure out who the couple was, or to say your neighbors, too, once tried to hire a different armed group when their cable was unjustly disconnected. Or, at a minimum, you are expected to appreciate the absurdity. There is a level of discretion to the way in which these Macondo-evoking tales are shared, and you replicate it when you retell them. You have made so many composite characters, anonymized so many infractions, switched defining characteristics for enough people that you no longer recall the original ones. The anthropologist in you knows you cannot anonymize a life story, be it about infidelity or violence. You know that every distortion, however deliberate and protective of an identity, is its own tiny violence.


I am standing outside with the smokers. I quit smoking 11 years too soon for this country (and not soon enough for me). The sidewalk smells of cigarettes and hairspray. The blowdryers of Bogotá start their day at 5 AM. On my first year in Colombia, I lived with a hairstylist and a photographer. When I motioned towards the door with my still damp hair piled on top of my head, they let out a synchronized shriek. “You cannot go interview ex-combatants like this!” In their assessment, demobilization required a bouncy curl.

I wonder what it would be like to enter these spaces in the body of my male colleagues. This is not a question born of lamentation. I have learned to enjoy these insights into expectations of femininity, and to approach the performances of femininity with curiosity.

I have also learned that the body is more accessible here, that an invisible bubble is not draped over it. I gesture emphatically like the Mediterranean public speaker I am, prompting a woman to look at my unvarnished nails and gently point out that “mira, it’s very cheap to get them done here.” I sit next to a couple in the airport waiting area and notice them playing a game un-euphemistically known as tetas, whereby you try to guess whether they– the butts, the noses, the boobs, you name it– are real or fake. I stand next to my friend at yet another weekend celebration of a life event, this time at a mountain lodge. We are both naked on a plastic tarp while two women are rubbing a sugary exfoliating liquid on our skin to “cleanse our energy.” I try to resist both the quotation marks and embarrassment.

The body here is on parade, accessible to vision and commentary, to the curling of a hair and to touch. These are all racialized and class-ed rituals, requiring a curiosity about who gets called princesa and su merced, about whose hair is getting curled and who does the curling. Violating expectations of racialized and classed femininity is met with raised eyebrows. Among the many ways in which the white, classist patriarchy preserves itself–the many ways in which we are complicit in it–is through raised eyebrows at the bus you the gringa want to take, the neighborhood in which you want to live, or the restaurant at which you want to eat.  You have more choice than almost anyone, but the expectations of a narrow, rigid, classed femininity dictate that you exercise choice only at its uppermost boundary.

Anthropologists love to talk about the “embodied researcher.” Paul Rabinow threw up all over the side of Moroccan roads and knew to pay anthropological attention, even to food poisoning. Timothy Pachirat has said that “in ethnography, you are the instrument of research.” Many of these conversations center on a contrast with social science approaches that embrace, even unwittingly, an illusion of objectivity: the thought that we can observe a world without being part of it. A key feminist and ethnographic tenet I have sought to live in my own work has been to ask what violence and injustice look like, feel like, taste like in the every day. I am less interested in theoretical patriarchy than in its embodied manifestation. I had underestimated the extent to which this would require having my cuticles pushed and my butt quietly assessed for realness.


Three hours later, back at that same smokers’ huddle. I hesitate at the doorway about whether I am allowed to bring my glass of wine outside. My Colombian friend laughs out loud and considers it the ultimate marker of American-ness. It doesn’t matter that I am still an immigrant who cannot vote in a US election, or that in the moments in which my heart yearns for Europe, I ache for wine on sidewalks. The marker of nationality lies in that learned hesitation.

Wine makes language flow faster. I have done a significant piece of my work and research in Spanish for 7 years now. When I first began, I would formulate sentences with the goal of avoiding the subjunctive, leading to a Spanish entirely devoid of wishes or hope. I am now stepped in the Spanish language of atrocity.

The trouble with that is that in a bar, unsuspecting revelers do not take seamlessly to being asked whether their family members were disappeared. The Spanish of celebration was newer to me, as was the Spanish of hair salons, or even the Spanish of my own life story. I recall the difference in the use of the past tenses by how you would say how I old I was when my father died.

Responding to “how was your year?” requires a meditative consideration of every word. My Spanish away from research and the conflict demands honesty: I have not narrated these stories ten times already, almost from memory. Finding the words is an invitation to consider the truth of these narratives again, and how important their re-telling is to me. And letting some words go, leaving some subjunctives undeclined, is an exercise in both surrender and humility.

“Do you believe in love?” I am joined outside by a fellow non-smoker. To my left, a Colombian friend is reminding someone my name. He pronounces it the way it would be pronounced at home in Greece: Roxani, the name of my childhood. In Colombia, I am so often Rossan, an x replaced with a whispering s. When I wake up with extra whimsy, I introduce myself as “Roxanne, como la canción.” Inevitably, someone sings to me. When they wake up with whimsy, they rename my coffee cup to avoid the x’s and songs altogether.

“Do you believe in love?”

I am ambushed by the question. This is the third or fourth smoking break of the night. At every one of them, I consider whether I could slip out quietly, indulge my closet introversion and go to sleep. A friend on the other side of the world mocks the premise of extroverted introversion altogether: “Have you ever heard anyone in the so-called global South use the introvert-extrovert distinction?” I want to respond “But have you heard of Susan Cain? You really can be an introvert who tolerates extroversion in pockets!” I realize I do not have the words for this in Spanish, and forfeit the battle. I will be out for six more hours, not out of being dragged out or failing to leave, but out of a contagious commitment to celebration, and to finding the words.

It has always mattered to me to locate the words for love. The weight of words feels different in each language: I love you feels like a different commitment than σ’αγαπώ than the ordered scale ranging from te deseo to te amo. Over the years, I have found the words for grief and disappearance and patriarchy in many languages. Over the years, I seem to have lost the words for love. And yet, in this moment, I cannot find the words for unbelief.


3 AM on a Wednesday. “Sweet Child of Mine” is blasting around me and I am rehearsing the opening questions of the next morning’s research interview in my head. Every time a friend convinces me that we need to go to one more place for one more dance, I say “after we leave this one though, we need to get food.” It seems that every empanada at the street corner has meat in it. It will be a popcorn at 4 AM night, and I will feel 23 again.

There is a hint of emotional jet lag to these moments. The Greeks would call it desynchronosis, and it is only appropriate that the first bout of it for me this summer unfolded in Greece. It was my first time returning to my homeland with a self-identity defined  to be more than ‘immigrant’ or ‘grieving daughter’. The task was to co-manage a refugee research project on how refugees cross borders and what challenges they face along the way. On some days, that meant listening to interpreters’ love stories. On others, it meant celebrating the end of Ramadan under a bridge at the port. On almost every day, it meant wrapping my mind around the entrapment of refugees who are stuck under this bridge at the port as luxury cruise passengers disembark a few meters away from them.

And at night: Lebanese food on the terrace of a restaurant. Tsipouro. Stories exchanged with a kindred spirit in the next room, drowned by giggles and the whirr of a fan in the midst of a heat wave. An outdoor movie theater showing a French film. You will send everyone you know who visits Greece to an outdoor movie theater, so they too can feel the particular magic of Marion Cotillard on a screen, early summer breeze on a face, a hint of mosquito repellent in the air and all the saltiness of the sunflower seeds that get caught in between teeth and a retainer relic of teenage years.

And the next day: Marveling at being able to catch a glimpse of the Acropolis on the way to work. I grew up here. The shadow of the Acropolis should not surprise me. And yet, it still sparks awe. When the day ends, the rest of the research team, interpreters, and I type notes at a cafe with bright green chairs. The owners treat us to portokalopita, a citrusy sweet cake. “This is our solidarity with refugees,” one of them says, reminding you to not allow xenophobia to wipe away your ability to see kindness.

On your first weekend day off–first in a month–you start to drive down the Peloponnese. Your eyes fill with blue and green, and you wonder how you ever could have left this country and its seas. You haven’t forgotten why, but you wonder whether your eyes could remember how to be here again, whether they would ever acclimatize to this wonder. Whether they would ever find this ordinary. And you hope, for the sake of sight and miracles, that they wouldn’t.

Disorientation springs from how these worlds fit next to each other: 3 AM salsa steps, followed by popcorn on the couch, with your boots splayed beside you. You are a world away from Greek summer, courtesy of Bogotá and its July boots, congruent only here, nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. 3 hours later: questions about violence, with you quietly rooting for having to use a complicated conditional or subjunctive tense form because that would mean you had a reason to express hope. Krista Tippett writes in her book Becoming Wise (emphasis mine):

I define hope as distinct from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholeheartedly with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it.

The world of the outdoor movie theater and its light of life, the world of the bridge under the port. The Colombia that is home to my favorite almond croissants in the world, the Colombia of bouncy curls and sequins and a Márquez-esque story about a married couple and some stranger asking you if you believe in love. Next to the Colombia of the disappeared human rights activists.

Privilege is the name of the mobility: the ability to traverse worlds, to have spaces be accessible, and to leave them by choice. The disorientation does not stem from a twisted survivor’s guilt. I do not wish I did not see beauty, or that I did not learn the words for love to accompany the built-in lexicon for violence. I take in the blueness of the Greek sea that seems unchanging in the face of all the other losses. I try to contemplate what this sea means to the people who entrust us with their stories. I have always felt grief to be connected, like a secret language that its natives speak. This is not to suggest that all griefs are the same — just that they know each other when they meet. The Aegean that heals me is the same one that marked the end of lives. The Colombia at which I counted my first salsa steps is the site of someone else’s sorrow. The only cure for the vertigo of these co-existences is to know that your little elf of grief comes with you through salsa and Peloponnese blues, that it knows how to see the little elves of others, that the green sea floor does not wipe out their pain, and the pain does not wipe out the greenness of the floor.

There aren’t very many prescriptions on how to reconcile this layering of lives. Cynthia Enloe would say to beware the passive voice: “nobody is marginalized by the ether.” The sea did not take lives. They were not lost passively. Judith Butler would want us to keep asking the feminist question: when is life grievable? The Colombians I know would want me to not only notice the celebration, but also partake in it — a participant observation of rumba, if an anthropologist ever saw one. The 3 AM salsa steps, followed by popcorn, and the 7 AM conversations on violence and victimhood are clear snapshots, if incomplete, if their own variant of ‘single stories.’ The challenge is to walk myself from one to the other, to write and live the narrative that enables these stories to clash and co-exist and intersect.

It would be easier, if lazier, to say that they unfold in different Colombias. Except it is the same world that holds the beauty and sorrow, the rumba and the injustice. Or, in the wise words of Krista Tippett again (with the emphasis mine, again):

“Grief and gladness, sickness and health, are not separate passages. They’re entwined and grow from and through each other, planting us, if we’ll let them, more profoundly in our bodies in all their flaws and their grace.”

Perhaps, then, what ethnography can teach the embodied researcher is permission: how to embrace that “if we’ll let them” clause, that space of nuance and messiness and abundance and complexity. How to let the flaws and grace exist in the same body, the grief and gladness in the same world. And how to not let our vision for one outshine our ability to see, live- indeed, embody-the other.


  1. Its my first time to visit your blog and read your article.. it was great and i agree with what you hv written there.. thank u for sharing

  2. Marta says

    Querida Roxanne (until I read this post, I always pronounced your name in my head as I would read it in Spanish, Ro-xa-ne, rolling the “r”… never thought of course it is pronounced very different in English! Como en la canción 🙂 ),
    I discovered your blog three years ago, when I had just moved to Berlin after university, leaving Spain with complex feelings: feeling privileged because I could leave in search for better opportunities, and experiencing a strange combination of guilt and jealousy for those who stayed, guilt because I was leaving them in their struggle to get out of the crisis, jealous because I feel new and refreshing things are happening that have come out of this collective resistance/struggle after the crisis. And then, there I was, in a new country where I could barely speak the language, and had to adapt to the “cotidianeidad” of life. And in the middle of those strange, complex feelings, I found your blog, and I remember reading your posts as if they were a novel, going from post to post as if they would be chapters, following your life stories and your reflections… and feeling less lonely. And that was invaluable to me at that time. It also took me to beautiful experiences. I learned through your blog about FSI – and then applied and attended. For all of this, for keeping me company with your writing all these years of also being an immigrant myself, I wanted to thank you :).
    Muchos besos,

    • Dear Marta — this is the kindest message I have received in a long time. Thank you for sharing your story with me, for rolling the r’s, and for articulating what is so challenging (and beautiful) about learning to adapt to the ‘cotidianeidad’ of life. You have truly made my day, and I look forward to staying in touch. Until then, thank you for the lovely words! Abrazos, R.

  3. Magdalena says

    I always enjoy your writing! You always make me think, question, reflect. Your writing and imagery are so beautiful, though at times due to heartbreaking matters. xx

    • Roxanne says

      Thank you, Magdalena! That layering of beauty and heartache is, I think, what I keep learning in this line of work (and in my own life too). I highly recommend Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise” (her new book) if you are interested in this topic. xx

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