CHAPS Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools header


"An Undergraduate Perspective on Coyotaje" Anthropology News journal article by Lupe Flores

Or How I Came to Document Border-Crossings at the South Texas-Mexico Border

Initiating a research project and conducting the fieldwork is exciting, but doing research is not easy, especially as an undergraduate student. I realized this while taking “Field Experience in the Borderlands,” a course where our field research was conducted in sites close to home: the South Texas-Mexico border. During the first weeks of class, my mentor, Margaret E Dorsey, bombarded us with ethnographic texts on border culture to develop project ideas in the various communities where my colleagues and I are from.  For my class project, I revisited written versions of Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) history (both national and local) and compared them to folk versions of that history, as told by certain descendants of multiethnic settler-ranchero families who arrived to my field site directly after The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. While conducting this research, I recognized the power of anthropology to provide the tools for understanding ethnic and class relations along the border. I also learned that my own personal experiences can enrich my research and inform my theoretical perspectives. As a result of this experience, I now plan on obtaining a PhD in anthropology.

As I researched certain ranchos, there was no doubt that cross-border movement existed in the past in LRGV history–albeit in different ways and for different (yet similar) reasons–thus, the ranchos where I have witnessed border-crossings in the contemporary period have been subjects of cross-border mobility for more than 150 years. For my dissertation, I plan on researching coyotaje in South Texas. Coyotaje is, in essence, part of everyday life in ranchos nestled between the Rio Grande and Military Highway. As a young boy, I witnessed border-crossers run to the ranch houses, the safe-but-policed haven that is the land of my antecessors. From 2008-12, I was fortunate enough to spontaneously converse with migrants on their journey across the Rio Grande back to their homes or new residence. No matter the season or time of day, these individuals relentlessly try reaching their destination. In the process, I might have provided them with food, water and some dry clothing. At earlier points in my life, I found myself wondering, “Why me? Why am I here?” I could get in trouble; never in my life did I choose this position (except only now as an anthropology scholar-in-training). But I sought to write, to understand as much as I can, about what was going on around me. I was confused, hurt in many ways as I realized that I come from a place of coyotes, of individuals who are negatively portrayed in the eyes of mainstream media and the law for what they do, for who they are. But don’t they help others? Haven’t I seen men aid in the re-unification of families, of friends? Does that not matter because their actions make them wanted by the state? Aren’t they, in many ways, its enemies?

That might be so through legal eyes. That’s why I’m interested in an alternative view of border-crossing phenomena, one offered by Nestor Rodriguez (1996. The Battle for the Border: Notes on Autonomous Migration, Transnational Communities, and the State. Social Justice 23[3]: 21-37.), and further developed by David Spener (2009) in his book Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border (Cornell University Press). People in the ranchos I come from play a significant role in the coyotaje I’ve encountered. And it is this intimate, hurtful yet insightful, proximity to the field that I refer to as intimately-positioned – a geographical, social, cultural and kin-based location from where to watch such phenomenon unfold. However, it is also a location informed by an academic culture, one of socio-cultural and political-economic inquiry.

Dorsey told us during our methods course that “the field” is anywhere outside the classroom. So I took that as the moment I leave the room and then drive down 10th Street or Stewart Road toward the ranchos: I want to observe, collect, and ponder every sight, every social act that I encounter.

My research on coyotaje, which I presented at the 2013 National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies-Tejas Foco Conference in Edinburg, is a sort of autoethnographic text (Pratt, Mary Louise. 1991. Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession, pp 33-40. New York: Modern Languages Association). My account is not exhaustive or representative of South Texas, but I believe that an intimately-positioned method employed by more students from the Mexico-United States border can achieve greater clarity on coyotaje, story by story. I am fortunate that my intellectual journey began as an undergraduate at a university by the border. But my resources are limited now, which is why getting accepted into a graduate program is a priority for me. I am ready to further hone my skills in order to eventually paint a nuanced picture of coyotaje, its liminal phases, experiences, and what the global community can learn from such an intimately-positioned location of doing research. I am ready to research and write from the vantage point of what Renato Rosaldo (1993: 7) terms a “positioned (and repositioned) subject” (Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press). And though future directions might entail refining and expanding methodologies of data collection, such positionality as initiation into the social field of border-crossing is invaluable to an emerging critical social science of coyotaje.

Lupe Flores is an undergraduate researcher at The University of Texas-Pan American. His interests lie under the larger rubrics of sociocultural anthropology, Latin American Studies, and Border Studies. You can contact him at

Alex Chavez (U Illinois at Chicago) and Santiago Ivan Guerra (Colorado College) are the contributing editors for ALLA’s column in AN.