As in Tucson, fall and winter come late in Almeria and don’t last long. The main difference is the humidity—lots and lots of it, hanging in heavy mist over the mountains on the north side of town but hardly ever turning into actual rain. I’m far enough away from the coast here that I can’t see the water. Instead, I see a sea of plastic when I look out my fourth-floor window. I borrow that metaphor from so many news reports because it’s appropriate. As far as you can see from this town, stretching this way and that, are squares and squares of plastic covering the greenhouses that are the bread and butter of the area. It’s very sci fi.

I’m happy with the contacts I’ve made so far and with the preliminary interviews I’ve done with students. I go to the school every day, and I sit in on Citizenship and Ethics classes, help with English conversation practice in some English classes, and do interviews with students during their homeroom hours. The students recognize me now, and when I see them on my way to and from the gym or the grocery store, they say hello.

- The memory and fear of inter-ethnic violence is among the most consistently mentioned issues in interviews with Spanish youth and adults, and they cite Moroccans as the source of delinquency and possible aggression; they complain that they don’t want to adapt to life here. Some are afraid that, with unemployment high (~25% in Almeria) and the economic crisis in full swing, the situation is ripe for more racial riots. I’m reading scholarly accounts of the 2000 riots between Spaniards and Moroccans that attribute the violence to a deep-rooted lack of education (formal and informal), the extremely fast economic growth of the area, and to systemic exploitation of immigrant labor. The riots themselves started in the town where I am now, set off after three killings of Spaniards by Moroccans within the space of a couple of weeks.

- I have yet to hear any Moroccan youth mention the violence that occurred here in 2000 as a source of painful memories or fear. All youth talk about physical violence as a common occurrence on and off campus. Picking fights or being picked on is not necessarily caused by inter-ethnic animosity, but social lines are pretty sharply drawn around here, so it seems the fights I’ve heard about have been between Roma and Moroccan kids, or Latin American and Romanian kids, or Spanish and Moroccan kids. Both boys and girls fight. Most of the kids say that this year there’ve been fewer fights than before, but the year’s just begun, and I saw one of the first-years come to school in the second week with a puffy, purple eye.

-The town itself offers very little for young people. Kids whose families can afford it send them to extra-curricular activities in the next town over—tennis, dance, music. Kids whose families can’t afford it wander around town, chatting with friends, sometimes riding their bikes back and forth along the main boulevard (you can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes!), hanging out outside cyber cafes, playing soccer at the elementary school, or (for the Moroccan girls, especially) simply staying home to look after siblings, do homework, and watch tv.

-The high school is consistently described as a “prison” by students of all backgrounds. They point to the bars on the windows as proof. When I ask them how they’d like for the school to be different, their suggestions include taking the bars down, opening the soccer field, and making the front patio more slightly (it’s all rocks and sand).

-The Moroccan kids I’ve talked to so far express a firm and defensive attachment to Islam. Several girls have lamented that they have to wear the hijab, can’t leave their houses, have to do what their older brothers say, and deal with gossip about them that gets back to their parents. One girl told me this past Friday, “I’d give anything to be a boy!” They have also expressed resignation and/or acceptance. The boys, on the other hand—and I’ve interviewed fewer of them—have expressed more extreme views on religion. I’m not sure whether “extreme” is the right word here, but they seem more attached to dogma of the sort you (rather, I) get tired of hearing after having talked to people about these things for a while. The litany of defenses and judgments is predictable: Islam is the very best religion, and all others are false; the girls who wear hijab are not really pious, because they should cover everything, head-to-toe; Islam requires praying five times a day, giving alms, believing in God and Muhammad as his prophet, doing Haj, and fasting during Ramadan. These items are rattled off as though saying them aloud confers some privilege or protection upon the person doing so. I admit, I rankle at these lock-step ideas, and so I test the students’ from time to time, because I wonder where these messages are coming from, how much personal knowledge of the Qur’an they have, and whether any critical analysis and reflection comes into the mix. I mentioned “zakat” (alms) during one interview and got a quizzical look. I asked one boy, who was particularly determined to argue that Islam was the best and that his uncle taught him to study from the time he was little, to recite a sura from the Qur’an. He obliged with the opening sura, and recited it quite beautifully. My methods are imperfect—perhaps they use a word other than “zakat” in Morocco; perhaps everyone has memorized the opening sura by the time they’re 15—but these are moments I want to dig into, because there is so much going on there. There is a defense of identity, and there is also defensiveness and even hurt and anger; there is a sense of alienation from the surrounding society; there is a sense of victimization and martyrdom. When I ask these students whether their religion helps guide them, comfort them, or do the right thing in life, their responses tend to be ambivalent, along the lines of, “It’s what there is. It’s truth, and therefore, it’s what we do.” There may be all sorts of problems with me asking that question, too, but for kids who are in delicate social and economic situations, it seems that a deep faith would provide a source of strength that they might hold dear. I’m still thinking all of this through, naturally.

-On the other hand, the Spanish students I’ve interviewed say they could take or leave first communion, mass, and the Catholic Church in general.

-When I have pressed interviewees to try to come up with ideas for how to make the school or the community more amenable, they have thrown up their hands and said they believe that the best thing for the moment is for everyone to keep to themselves, because there’s no changing the cultural/racial politics.

My main concerns right now have to do with identifying and tracing those elusive “emerging themes” I was sure would jump out of my notes. There’s a problem with my notes: the things I choose to concentrate on are determined by my own biases, ability to accurately follow conversations, etc. They are partial accounts of the reality around me.

I keep moving back and forth between feeling like I should do a classic inductive anthropological study, of the kind that have worked well for me in the past, and feeling I need to return to the deductive framework I tried to define in my grant applications, so as to reign in the ambiguity circling around “What Is Important” in this context.

I’m not sure what I can write or say that will make things better for the students here. However, I’m including some participatory elements in my methods that I hope will give them a chance to express themselves authentically and also provide the basis for follow-up interviews. The first method involves a structured email exchange with a class of Spanish students in Ukiah, California, in which students on both sides are asked to write their penpals and talk about their cultural backgrounds, their towns, and their neighborhoods, and ask questions about each other’s cultural practices. The exchange is set to continue throughout the year and provide a basis for in-class discussions as well as my own interviews. I’ve set this up with one Citizenship class, and I’m looking for more U.S. partners.

The second method involves loaning my digital camera to pairs of students whom I’ve already done a first interview with and asking them to take pictures of things that are meaningful to them, during the space of one week. At the end of a week, we meet and view the pictures and they tell me why they took them and what they mean—what stories they tell. (Before they begin, I show them a sample of photos I’ve taken in the past that were meaningful to me, and I tell them the stories associated with them. I use the phrase “A picture is worth 1,0000 words” as a starting point.) Once the week and the follow-up interview is done, I ask them to select another pair of students to pass the camera to, and the process starts over again. I’m currently trying to track down another second-hand digital camera, too, so that I can have more than two students working on this at once.

Since my role at the school is loosely but unmistakably that of “maestra,” I’m finding that the most productive and natural way to get involved with students’ lives—so that they get to know me, and vice versa—is to pursue methods that have a pedagogical slant and, in the case of the email exchange, can be incorporated into class curriculum. (The Citizenship teacher is great, and hers are ideal classes to work with to learn how youth narrate cultural differences and ethical positions.)