What I learned in Mexico

Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship winner reports

By Bridget Ryder

One of the most interesting aspects of journalism is that for all your planning, for everything you think a story is, you never really know what is going to happen, especially when you take your small-town newspaper job to a foreign country.

I had an idea—go to Mexico and see what life was like for seasonal workers and others with connections to Teton Valley. I wrote the brainstorm into a pitch for the $500 at stake in the Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship. In April, I got the letter letting me know I was the lucky winner. Then the planning started.

As I talked about the idea with people in the local Hispanic community, I could feel their excitement to have their story told. The contacts also increased. Everyone had someone they wanted me to visit.

The idea was to put in print the unseen half of the lives of a significant part of Teton Valley’s community, giving readers new insight.

I also did a lot of interviews even before I left for Mexico to get deeper inside the Hispanic community. The more people I talked to, the more interesting stories I found until I had a project that could have taken me from almost one end of Mexico to the other. Of course, I also had to discuss the stories and my travel plans with my editor and publisher. Planning the trip was a combination of figuring out what stories I was going to tell, how much time my bosses would give me and how it would work out logistically on the ground.

Planning the trip felt nebulous, not to mention intimidating. I wasn’t going on vacation. I had a purpose to accomplish in a foreign country I had never before visited, and I was going alone relying largely on the help of strangers. Two thoughts continually went through my mind: It’s all there and I just have to grasp it, and I have no idea what I’m doing. But isn’t journalism about plunging into the unknown?

Practically speaking, most everything worked out very well, even fortuitously. I wanted to tell the story of the family of a seasonal worker who has spent half of his life coming to Teton Valley. The day after I booked my plane ticket, I found out his brother was returning to Mexico a few weeks early and we were on the same flight. Everything from riding to the airport with him to being there when he greeted his pregnant wife at home added to the story.

However, when I arrived in Mexico I was without personal transportation in a very rural area. I was also both guest and journalist to this family who had welcomed me and was willing to tell me their story. While still being a good guest, I had to ask for help, especially getting rides to visit the people I needed to see. At the same time, I encountered an entire world of interesting things and had to consider what would be helpful to my story. Plus, I had to leave time to write; the plan was to send a few stories to my editor while traveling.

Working abroad without an office, away from the action or an editor at her desk to bounce ideas off of, required relying more on my internal sense of what I needed to do (and reminding myself what day of the week it was). I felt uncertain writing articles even as I was still bombarded with the Mexican experience, but I had to trust myself.

The second half of my trip took me to a town where I spent over a week. There I had a longer list of people to connect with. The story also became as much about a place as the people in it. The challenge here was tightening the story and continually connecting it back to Idaho to keep it very relevant for the reader in Teton Valley.

Looking back, I can see that I gathered more material than I could use. However, even if a lot of the information in my notes didn’t make it onto the page, by spending so much time with my subjects, I could feel confident I had the story right. Also, the time and energy that goes into traveling alone should not be underestimated.

The project was more than good practice in planning and journalistic judgment. It impressed upon me the notion that the stories of individual experience and how lives are lived are as important to a community as the latest hard news.