October 6, 2009

A No-Show Can Be a Learning Experience

This morning, I set out to conduct an interview with a deportee who works in a Call Center here in Guatemala City. I suspected he might not show up, as he did not answer my calls this morning. Sure enough, he never came to the interview.

We were supposed to meet at 9:30 am near where he works, as he had to be at work at 11:00am. When it became clear that he was not going to show up, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was near a Call Center – a prime place of employment for deportees.

Call Centers (called by the English name here as well!) are places where U.S. customers call the 1-800 or 1-888 numbers on the back of their credit cards or on their service requests. Instead of having people in New York or Atlanta answer the phone, many of these operations have been outsourced – transferred overseas. Deportees who have lived several years in the US are ideal employees for Call Centers in Guatemala. They speak English and are familiar with the “American” way of doing things.

The irony of all of this fascinates me. Guatemalans are deported from the United States back to their country of origin. One of the strategies used to deport people is to raid places of employment, and one of the rallying cries for increasing deportations is that “They take our Jobs!” However, deportees in Guatemala often find work at US-based companies (CitiBank, Sears) answering phone calls from US customers. Of course, they are paid a fraction of what they would be paid to do the same work in the US.

Beyond the irony, knowing that many deportees work at Call Centers, I decided I would try and see if I could secure a different interviewee, as my scheduled interviewee hadn’t shown up. I knew this could be a bit complicated. It is not appropriate to approach people and ask them if they have been deported. Instead, I decided to tell people that I am doing a quick survey of people who have lived in the US, and then try to determine, in a discreet fashion, if they have been deported.

I pulled out my clipboard, and, as soon as I spotted a person with the Call Center uniform on, I asked him if he would be willing to answer a few questions.

“I am doing a quick survey of people who have lived in the US. Have you ever lived in the United States?”


“For how long?

“Six years”

“When did you come back to Guatemala?”

“In 1995”

“And, why did you come back?”

“My whole family came back, and I came back with them.”

“Okay, Thanks!”

I believed the first guy. He had come back in 1995, when deportations of long-term residents were fairly uncommon. So, I figured I still had a chance with other employees of the Call Center.

I saw a group of people entering the Call Center, and asked them if any had lived in the US. One guy said he had, and began to speak to me in English. He had lived there for twelve years, and had recently come back. He also told me he came back with his family. I thought he might not be being completely honest, but thanked him for his time.

I decided to give it one last shot. An older man was walking alone towards the Call Center. As he was alone, I thought he might be more likely to admit it if he had been deported. He told me he had lived in the US for twelve years, and had come back in 2005. But, when I asked him if he didn’t mind telling me why he had come back, he told me he’d rather not say. For me, this meant he must have been deported. So, I asked him if I could contact him at a later day for a longer interview. He declined.

Turns out I didn’t get any interviews or interviewees out of my trip across town. However, I think I learned a few important things. First of all, it will be very difficult to find deportees without a direct contact with someone they know and trust. Secondly, although my interviewees often insist there is no stigma attached to being a deportee, these discussions shows this is not exactly the case. The stigma is not as strong as in Jamaica, where deportees cannot find work. However, being deported is clearly not something to be proud of, and some people are not willing to admit that they have been deported.

Despite my relative lack of success this morning, I am going to give this strategy one last try. There is another Call Center fairly close to my daughter’s day care. The workers come out between five and six pm and some of them go to a café across the street. At least, this is what I suspect based on walking by there twice around that time and hearing people speak English. So, I am going to go to that café this afternoon and see if I can’t engage any potential interviewees in conversation.

Finding deportees in Guatemala is not easy. But, it is not impossible either. So far, I have completed 12 of the 30 interviews I need to complete. It is time to implement new strategies to ensure that I find the 30 that I need.


  1. Great post! I think you are absolutely right, interviewees must have a trust relationship with you. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, Randal! I am going to keep working my networks, then, as that seems to be the best strategy!

  3. Best of luck with your interviews. What an important story to tell & yet a lot of work to gain the trust to have interview material to be able to tell that story.

  4. Thanks, Myrna and (HI!)

    I had better luck today; my interviewee showed up. But, you are right, it takes a lot of trust and, for many it is a very hard story to tell.

  5. Hi Tanya,

    Best of luck with your interview work. Yes, the trails, joys, contradictions, pains, & tribulations embedded in the story. In my work, I was struck by one of my interviewees who was super excited about sharing her migration story to the US in the 1970s. She was super sweet when she greeted and once we got started. I began - like I always did - by asking why she came .. and then all of a sudden she started crying. After this, she shared that she has not reflected on how her life changed once she migrated al norte and has remained here since.

    On that note, I am sending you good vibes as you do your work. Mil gracias for sharing your work/your journey with us.