Challenges & Esri’s Field Maps in Rural Historical GIS

June 10, 2024
By: Fernando Amador
Map of Temacapulín, Jalisco

This work is funded in part by the IEHS Digital History Seed Grant.

My grandmother was born in the little town of Temacapulín, Jalisco, located in the Verde River Valley just two hours northeast of the state capital of Guadalajara. I routinely visited the town during my childhood and more so after it became my case study to explore the history of modern Mexican emigration. Each time I made my way into the valley—to my surprise—I saw new construction projects: houses, an entry archway, and water infrastructure like public faucets. This particularly caught my attention considering the town’s population has steadily declined for the last sixty years. In the 1950s, declining wages, landlessness, and population growth in the countryside resulted in a rural exodus to Mexican cities and the US. Yet, many emigrants remained connected to their hometown. In fact, they became instrumental in supporting, shaping, and expanding it.

I am currently working on a digital history project that shows the emigrant-hometown connection by mapping Temacapulín’s infrastructural growth while undergoing depopulation via emigration. After reaching its zenith of more than 800 residents in 1960, the town’s population decreased to 300 by 1990. At the same time, the townscape expanded thanks to returning migrants, remittances, and residential resourcefulness. Emigration did not threaten to turn Temacapulín into a ghost town—it endured and grew. With support from the EIHS, I was able to take steps towards completion of this project, in which I came across several challenges, specifically related to how to collect digital data in a remote, rural, migratory town.

The first challenge related to the town’s remote location. Emigrant funds had built a cellphone tower, but it emits a weak signal—strong enough to send Whatsapp messages but not much else. Thus, how to collect and store data became a great concern. Initially, I thought pen-and-paper was the only option until I came across Esri’s Field Maps application. Esri is the maker of ArcGIS, the most popular mapping software. Field Maps is their “all-in-one app that uses data-driven maps and mobile forms to help workers perform data capture and editing, find assets and information, and report their real-time locations.”[1] Although Esri software can be expensive, my institution provided me with Field Maps and ArcGIS.

The Field Maps application has two specific functions that made it ideal for my fieldwork. First, on a spreadsheet I drafted the survey of information I wanted to gather which included Date Built, Space, Name, Property type, Habitation Status, Remittance Type, and Emigrant Location(s). Through Field Maps, I transformed this spreadsheet into a digital survey form on the app. Thus, when I went around collecting data, I easily input the data on my phone without being connected.

Field Map’s offline feature also became quite useful in the remote valley. Field Maps allows users to prepare and download mobile map packages (MMPKs) to take with them during fieldwork in places without having to rely on WIFI or a signal. The MMPK package that I downloaded onto my phone included two components: a basemap and a layer. The basemap is “a map that is the basis of GIS visual and geographic context.”[2] I outlined the area under study (the town and its immediate surroundings) and downloaded the map to my phone to not require any signal. Then, I was able to connect the survey form I created to a layer. I inserted data on the form and entered it, then I chose the geographical location the newly input data related to on the pre-downloaded map, then completed the process which then added a point in the layer.  Thus, the layer derived from the form. Once I connected to WIFI, my data uploaded to my Esri account.

The most difficult challenge came from acquiring the actual data. Temacapulín’s year-round population hovers above 300. In the 1960s, the population was nearly 900. However, since then, residents turned to emigrants, and homes became either abandoned or seasonally occupied. For instance, Temacapulicienses in Monterrey opened up ice-cream shops. They close them during the winter season and return to the town. Others, specifically those in the US and undocumented, do not return regularly to their homeland. Thus, tracking them down became the biggest challenge.

The answer came in a three-part solution. First, I have started to reach out to Temacapulicienses through social media, WhatsApp, and more for virtual data collection. Second, I have conducted fieldwork during important events when emigrants return home. Temacapulicienses return to the Verde River Valley for three marked occasions: the Temacapulín’s yearly fiestas in the beginning of January; Holy Week in April; and the municipal summer fiestas in August. I managed to catch the end of the town’s fiestas when the sleepy town suddenly bustled with people, cars, music, and fireworks. I collected data specifically on the northern part of the town. Third, and least desired, I rely on second-hand accounts. Some spaces, specifically houses, rarely have inhabitants because their owners do not return. Thus, some of the elder residents in the town will provide crucial information on this account.

Although this is still a work-in-progress, the data (n=48) has shown a few insights. (1) The majority of families in the houses surveyed have emigrant relatives. This makes sense, given the lack of job opportunities in the region, which follows with the next insight: (2) Most went to cities, specifically Monterrey, Los Angeles, or Guadalajara. (3) Most families receive remittances, however, (4) not all that receive utilize the fund to build or renovate their house. It seems that they largely used it for personal and quotidian costs like groceries, new clothes, or a computer for school. (4) Public infrastructure was largely supported by remittances, not taxes nor funds acquired locally. For instance, the kiosk in the center of town was remodeled with Angeleno dollars. (5) About half of the houses surveyed at the time were either absent inhabitants or occupied by seasonal ones. Despite the fact that I traveled to Temacapulín during the town’s yearly fiestas, which brings emigrants back to their homeland, many homes remained empty, either abandoned or their occupants not returning for the festivities.

Thus, I plan to continue to collect data to find how the face of rural Mexico is changing.


[1] Kerri Rasmussen Dunn Chris, “ArcGIS Field Maps: Get Started with ArcGIS Arcade,” ArcGIS Blog (blog), accessed April 1, 2024, https://www.esri.com/arcgis-blog/products/field-maps/field-mobility/arcgis-field-maps-get-started-with-arcgis-arcade/.

[2] “Basemap Definition | GIS Dictionary,” accessed April 1, 2024, https://support.esri.com/en-us/gis-dictionary/basemap.

Fernando Amador

Fernando Amador II is a Mexican-American Ph.D. Candidate in History at Stony Brook University. His research explores the intersection of migration, culture, and the environment in Modern Mexico. His dissertation examines the history of rural Mexico and how emigrants, residents, and the country's elite shaped the rurality. He also has a professional interest in the digital humanities and is part of the digital history mapping project, "The Mexican Restaurants of New York City."
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