A story pitch is a fragile thing, full of potential yet intangible, a fetus of ideas. In utero it develops with every preliminary reported fact and interview, growing characters and context. Eventually a story arc forms a backbone and a fully fleshed pitch is ready to be reported.
My partner Devi Lockwood and I had such a nascent pitch. We were curious about the region of Mexico we would be reporting on and started by reading and researching anything we could about the state of Chiapas and the city we would be stationed in, Tapachula.
In sorting through the mix of international articles, Youtube videos, and everything in between, we were dismayed that so many articles centered on immigration, especially from the U.S. perspective. You might even think there was nothing else to report from this region. A border town is defined by its border, after all.
But Devi and I found ourselves drawn to the more subtle subjects like culture and art. We followed our curiosity which led us to textiles and the rich cultural history of the indigenous people of Chiapas. We were also intrigued by the demographics of Tapachula, in that there was a significant Chinese-descendant population and a broader history of assimilation for migrants and indigenous peoples alike. We wondered ‘how does this all relate to itself?’
It was easy to research the topic of Mexican textiles, a enduring tradition deeply woven into the fabric of Mexican heritage. There were many scholarly articles to read, many human interest videos celebrating indigenous weavers. We poured over data on international trade and migration to the region especially relating to exports and imports. We gathered opinions and narratives related to our topic into a primordial soup of concepts: a dash of cultural appropriation, a few cups of tradition, extra scoops of beauty paired with a bitter taste of colonialism.
We were ready to report.
Arriving to Tapachula we were immediately confronted by the idea that this border town has nothing to offer our story. We walked away from a few planning meetings feeling as though we had to pivot completely and find a story centered around immigration and migrant caravans. In one interview with officials at the Port of Chiapas, we were told that we shouldn’t care so much about indigenous people. But instead of discouraging us, that comment was a sharp reminder of why we should continue.
Within the first 5 minutes of walking around el centro, we found a vendor selling a mix of handmade textiles and machine produced copies, possibly from China. A Tzotzil man, he had left his hometown of San Cristobal de las Casas to sell his family’s inventory in Tapachula. In a matter of days we spoke to indigenous artisans, historians, lawmakers, and vendors. This border town did have something to offer, you just had to ask for it.
However, our curiosity surrounding how Chinese migrants and descendants fit into this narrative fizzled out quickly. Though we were able to interview a Chinese community leader, it was clear the connection between these groups was not enough to justify an angle of our story. So we made the decision to focus primarily on indigenous textiles and the plagiarism of design and lack of recourse.
That pivot was the right one. When we focused entirely on indigenous artisans we were lucky to find Juana, an indigenous weaver selling her handmade products at the local fair. She was exactly the type of interview we sought: an indigenous woman who was selling her handmade, handwoven goods competing with vendors clearly selling mass produced copies.
This process validated my own confidence in my reporting and my instinct to follow the trail in spite of the obstacles. It is a delicate balancing act to know exactly when to follow a story through and when to pivot away. Many times you can follow a story as it morphs to the final form it was always meant to be. You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.