Time Management in Oaxaca: An Academic Lucha Libre

Working in Mexico, while at times frustrating, carried with it a sense of fulfillment that I don’t believe I could have obtained working at a similar position within the states.  Relating to both language and culture, I was confronted everyday with issues that I had never encountered before.  Throughout the entire course of my stay, there was the constant joke that there was American time, and then there was Mexican time.  The former was prompt, efficient, and carried with it a sense of responsibility.  The latter however, was rather flexible, unreliable, and generally more of an obscure concept that had no strict rules.   For months, I found Mexican time to be frustrating.  It wasn’t until I slowed down, adapted, and began to roll with the punches that I began to find Mexican time to be fascinating.

Perhaps what illustrates this best is the process I went through in developing my thesis topic.  Like many people, I began with an idea that was: a) too broad according to my professors, b) “interesting” according to INSO’s director, and c) perfectly reasonable in my own mind.  However, after working hard for a few weeks, I had narrowed the idea down to something viewed as more reasonable by all the parties previously mentioned.  During these first few weeks of research, I was functioning mostly as an individual unit, conducting research on my own and developing survey materials to use later on.  These were simple times of pleasantly productive work, but all simple times must come to an end.  My surveys required me to gain permission from the community leaders of those locations where I wanted to work.  Although this sounds simple, it entailed scheduling trips up to the communities, meetings with the leaders, and of course the signing of IRB consent forms.  Then, repeat these steps with each individual household in question.  I was no longer functioning on my own schedule, my own “American” time regiment if you will.  It was at this point in time that the fate of my success lay partially in the hands of a man named Francisco, an INSO employee who is on a first name basis with every community official, villager, and burro in the Central Valleys region of Oaxaca.

Plans were made with Francisco, simple plans to be taken to these communities in order to be formally introduced to community leaders and to dive into my research at full speed.  However, a chuck of autonomy over my work had been taken away.  I was no longer working on my own schedule.  I was in Mexico, and working an Oaxacan who functioned on Mexican time.  Our first plans fell through, due to some important business that arose on Francisco’s part.  Unfortunately for me this meant an unproductive day of sitting around, waiting for the INSO truck to show up (which it never did).  Plans two went similarly, as did rounds three, four, and five. However, with each progressive failure, I was slightly more prepared.  Rather than sit and wait for Francisco, I would sit and work, deep in my research.

The down side of all this was that Francisco and I never made it out to the communities, which subsequently put a damper on my thesis idea.  The upside is that I eventually learned to work effectively within the system that I was functioning.  By the time failure number five had arrived, I had done enough research to write an entirely new literature review, had three or four back-up ideas, and also about half the data I needed to follow through with any one of them.  To put it simply, I had regained the sense of self-efficacy over my work that I had lost when incorporating outside parties into my research.

Work is not inherently more inefficient in Mexico; it simply requires you to think on your feet a little bit more.  Rather than scheduling a day rigidly, you must account for various gaps and random snippets of free time. Accordingly, you must schedule your work to be flexible, you must always have something you may pick up for twenty minutes, and must always be ready to drop what you have in order to grasp an opportunity that has finally arrived, and may not arrive again for quite some time.  Although this may seem to be a rather simple skill, I would argue that it is an infinitely important one.  At its root, it revolves around time management, but being in Mexico forces you to practice time management in an environment where time is, as I said, a rather obscure concept.

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