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Historiann (Text in Blue): A few months ago, GayProf published a thought-provoking post on the exclusion of "the nation’s largest minority" from graduate education in his department, and the implications this has for the teaching of history into the near future. Because I thought that post raised some important questions about history curricula and how our imagination of the past shapes our present politics, GayProf and I thought we'd continue the conversation and invite the rest of you to join in!
Back in December, GayProf wrote:
"Latino/as’ long presence in this nation means they should appear in both halves of the traditional U.S. history survey. For most U.S. historians, though, Latinos (much less Latinas) remain an “and also” topic rather than being construed as fundamental to the history of the nation. If they make it onto a syllabus at all, Latinos are most likely to be found in the “Suggested Reading” section rather than in the “required” list.
"Part of this is a problem much larger than academia. For the past 160 years, the United States has been in collective denial about Latino populations north of Mexico. The mass media periodically expresses “shock (SHOCK!)” that Latino/as account for a large slice of the nation every twenty years or so. Even in those moments, you can depend on the fact that Latino/as will be figured as “foreign” or “recent arrivals” rather than as communities with a century-and-a-half of history that informs their experiences in this nation.
"But where would the media learn such things? Given my recent conversations with grad students, it turns out that even the best history departments can't be relied upon to teach that history."
GayProf, your point about the erasure of Latino/as from American history and the political implications of portraying Latino/a people always as "recent arrivals" to the U.S. really struck me, both as an early Americanist and as a transplant to Colorado, where the Latino/a population has grown dramatically in the past few decades (along with the population of white immigrants from California and Texas).
GayProf (GP): I think that the entire country just doesn’t want to acknowledge how much the nation’s demographics have changed. Latino/as are the nation’s largest minority and the fastest growing population. Those changes are harder to ignore in a place like Colorado. Still, politicians and the media are pretending that they can simply wish away Latinos.
From my perspective the demographic changes should be prompting everybody to ask questions about the historic role of Latino/as in the U.S. That doesn’t seem to be happening, though.
The other evening I was at a dinner party with non-academics. One of the guests asked what type of history that I teach. When I told hir, “Latinos in the U.S.,” Ze responded, “Oh, I thought that you were a history professor. Didn’t Latinos arrive, like, just a few days ago?”
That isn’t just the case with the general public, either. I have been in several meetings where colleagues have bemoaned that the department doesn’t have enough people in nineteenth-century U.S. history. Somehow my work, despite being dead center in the nineteenth century, only registers as “modern U.S.”
Historiann: Wow. As if Latino/a = post-1945, or post-1980!
GP: Or post 2000! Shouldn’t I really just be a sociologist? But maybe my wardrobe is too good for sociology. . .
Historiann: In 2004, our former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar's campaign capitalized on his identity as a Latino, but also couched it carefully by repeatedly claiming that "his family has lived on land it has farmed for nearly 400 years," so as to reassure the white majority that "he's not from a family of illegals! He's a native Coloradoan with deep roots!"
GP: I was sad to learn that there has been a significant amount of conflict between “recent” Mexican migrants and established Latino communities in my home state of Paradise Island. Or, er, I mean New Mexico. Salazar’s campaign wasn’t just strategic; it is also part of a larger (and often unexplored) disavowal that many Mexican Americans make of more recent Mexican migrants.
Historiann: It seems like my field could very easily incorporate Latino/a history in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries because the important issues and topics are the same: Conquistadors, La Malinche, The Virgin of Guadalupe, and The Pueblo Revolt are just other ways of talking about power, slavery, religious syncretism, and Native resistance. And yet it seems like my field is the most resistant to said incorporation because (perhaps) of the reluctance you noted in recognizing that Latino/a history is one of the longue durée.
GP: I don’t know if Colonial/Early U.S.(CEUS) is more resistant than the other fields. Recently I attended two public talks at Big Midwestern University that focused on race in “modern” U.S. history. In both cases, it was clear that the speaker had never once thought that Latino/as might be important to hir research on race. Quite shockingly, most scholars still can’t wrap their mind around a vision of history that is not the white/black binary.
It does seem (from the outside), though, that CEUS has gone through a period of retrenchment. When I was in graduate school (which wasn’t even that long ago (GayProf is so very, very young, after all)), the colonial historians often talked about the importance of knowing the overlapping histories of contact (France, England, Netherlands, Spain, plus the multiple indigenous groups). They even seemed to take it is a point of pride that CEUS required a more “global” approach than slouchy, lazy modern U.S. scholars. This isn’t to say that they all actually did that, but there was at least talk of it as an ideal.
Today, though, CEUS has really fallen back to its old bad habits. If it didn’t involve people with buckles on their hats, they aren’t interested.
Historiann: This may have to do with the digitization of some published primary and archival sources (for example, Early American Imprints, otherwise known as the Evans Series), and the lack of availability of travel funds and other support for graduate students and junior scholars. (I have spoken and written about this before—at the OAH and the Omohundro Institute conferences in 2009, for example.) When people rely on published sources for their research, they’re relying for the most part on the thoughts and opinions of a tiny slice of elite, Euro-American men. The really interesting sources about and by the majority of colonial Americans are in the archives.
GP: Right – It is a self-fulfilling archive. The archives that are digitized and/or printed are the ones that are imagined to be “most important,” which, of course, people assume are the ones written by Euro American men.
Grad students use of this material is probably also tied to the rush to finish their degrees. Not only don’t they have funding to travel, but they don’t have the time if they are supposed to be out the door in five years.