It felt like everyone I know was on their way to the Western Historical Association (WHA) in Newport Beach this year. After making sure some of my colleagues were confirmed on the program, I took a peak at its content. The program read like a “who’s who” of the most exciting junior and senior scholars in the field of borderlands history. I booked a room at the Marriot and made a beeline for SoCal. Before I continue, I should mention I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). Our Borderlands Ph.D. program made a big showing at the conference (someone made an off the cuff remark stating we were the new SMU), and I made every attempt to visit those panels. However, I did manage to check out a few panels not featuring UTEP students. Here is a brief analysis of my experience at the WHA Conference 2014.
Whizzing down highway 5 on Wednesday (I live in the Bay Area these days) and coming face to face with L.A. traffic, I knew I would not make it to see the first panel organized by the Coalition for Western Women’s History Roundtable entitled “Women Crossing Borders.” Luckily at the opening reception that evening, I bumped into one of the presenters on the panel John McKiernan-González. We spoke briefly about the panel and Precarious Prescriptions: Contested Histories of Health and Race in North America, a new book he edited with Laurie Green and Martin Summers. Other scholars in attendance that evening were Eric Meeks, Sam Truett, as well as incoming President of the WHA Elizabeth (Betsy) Jameson. Seeing so many borderlands historians in one place was not only exciting, but helped to set the tone for the rest of conference.
Thursday offered one of my favorite panels, organized by the co-chair of the Program Committee Ernesto Chávez, which my colleague and I dubbed the “Power Panel.” It featured Miroslava Chávez-Garcia, Natalia Molina, Catherine Ceniza Choy, Nayan Shah, Alexandra Minna Stern and Raúl Ramos as chair. As a young budding graduate student, working on a project about reproductive health and control on the U.S.-Mexico border, this was my dream panel. Teasing out the themes of the conference, “the West and the world,” as well as the subject of the panel, “Exclusion, Resistance, and Transformation in the West and the World” this roundtable conversation took us through the most recent projects of each scholar. However, the most illuminating aspect of their talk was their focus on motivation and inspiration. They all lauded the creative spirit as a driving force in their projects. Chávez-Garcia’s recent project on Latino/a immigrant youths in Europe, Natalia Molina’s rereading of birthright citizenship, Choy’s unraveling of international adoption after World War II, Shah’s analysis of inter-racial spiritual communities in the Pacific Northwest, and Stern’s exhaustive study of sterilizations in 1950s California, all sought to shift the optics of earlier questions in their work. They spoke to the personal nature of their current projects and their drive to understand the historical roots of their topics. As I listened intently to their conversation the phrase, “the personal is political” resounded gently in my ears.
My colleagues and I were enthralled by the early morning panel, but soon began to prepare for some evening festivities at the WHA Graduate Student Reception. Jennifer Macias was busy preparing the space as we began to stream in. Graduate students from all over were able to meet, talk about their projects, and collectively freak-out at the impending hiring season. “Are you applying at—Yes, I’ve already put my packet together for—Seriously? I hadn’t seen that one—My chair told me to apply to everything,” was the collection of comments that seemed to hum over the crowd. I shook hands, nodded attentively, and felt blessed that I still had at least another nine months before this was my main topic of conversation. While the job market is rough, conferences like the WHA open doors and allow junior scholars to showcase their topics and meet potential employers in a collegial environment. Thursday night I went to sleep early and prepared for Friday’s round of fascinating panels.
Friday was jammed packed full of captivating panels that all seemed to foreground borderlands history. First on the list was a graduate student panel titled, “Our Barrio is the Whole World: From Aztlán to the Beyond.” Marc Simon Rodriguez from Portland State University was chair and commentator. Dennis Aguirre, representing UTEP, outlined his chapter on the Gorras Negras in 1970s New Mexico. Aguirre analyzes the little known history of New Mexican Chicano/a activists and their transnational relationship with revolutionaries in Cuba. Brenda Medina-Hernandez, from University of California, Davis, discussed the participation of LGBTQ Chicano/as during the movement in 1970s Texas. She highlighted Chicana/lesbian activist Yolanda Chavez-Leyva’s oral history as a major source for understanding the gay and lesbian activists in the movement. The panelists proposed new avenues for thinking about Chicano/a histories and more importantly asked new questions and sought new sources to enhance our vision of the movement.
After this panel I scurried over to see the mid-morning session organized by the Committee on Race in the American West, titled “Under the Medical Gaze: Race, Bodies, and the Global Transfer of Knowledge. With Matthew Klingle, Bowdoin College, as chair, the panel was organized by Pablo Mitchell, Oberlin College; it also featured two graduate students, Natalie Lira, University of Michigan, and Heather Sinclair, UTEP. Focusing on the borderlands region as a space to understand the racialization of bodies through public health and medicine, the panelists discussed different veins of racialization projects in the twentieth century southwest. Mitchell focused on early twentieth century medical journals and the ways in which bodies were pathologized and racialized through the creation of medical knowledge. Lira and Sinclair presented different aspects of women’s reproductive health in the borderlands. Lira, Stern’s student at Michigan, connected forced sterilizations of mainly Latino/a youth to an intense racialization project in mid-century California. Sinclair drafted a paper on the complex transition from mostly Mexican-origin midwives on the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1940s and 1950s to a mainly white dominated profession in the 1970s and 1980s. This in turn created a model for white midwives to learn and teach their craft on the bodies of racialized women on the border. Thus, far the morning panels had been riveting. With only a few moments for lunch, I continued my trek to another borderlands panel.
Rounding out Friday’s focus on borderlands, I decided to attend the “Racial Boundaries and Cultural Borders: Gender, Nature, and Sin in the Greater North American West” panel which garnered a large and engaged crowd. Katherine Benton-Cohen graciously chaired and commented on the panel, while three graduate students, Carolina Monsivais, UTEP, Jennifer Macias, University of Utah, and Mary Mendoza, University of California, Davis, took center stage. While their projects were radically different, they nonetheless spoke to deep silences in borderlands history and the ways questions of race and ethnicity arise in little studied historical sites. Monsivais looked at late nineteenth and early twentieth century Baja California, focusing on the fascinating politics of Mexicanization before and after the Revolution. Macias outlined the history of Mexican-American women and Latinas in the post-World War II Rocky Mountain West region. Connecting environmental history with processes of racialization, Mendoza analyzed the human as well as ecological devastation in the erection of artificial boundaries along the U.S.-Mexico border in the twentieth century. While some in the audience demanded clarifications, overall this panel passionately entered new territory in the emerging historiography of the borderlands.
After an exhaustive day of panels, I ran into various presenters during cocktail hour and continued to ruminate about potential paths for ground-breaking borderlands work with many that evening. It was by far the most exciting time to talk with junior scholars like Celeste Menchaca (University of Southern California), Kris Klein-Hernandez (University of Michigan), Mary Mendoza (UC Davis), and Pam Krch (UTEP) as they mingled with senior scholars like Kevin Leonard, Virginia Scharff, Pablo Mitchell, and Ernesto Chávez. This was perhaps the most fruitful time when students were able to approach professors with ideas for future papers, panels, and conferences. It was in these intimate moments on the borders of the personal and professional where excitement about the potential for borderlands history opened new intellectual doors.
Over all the conference was well organized and its attention to borderlands history did not go unnoticed. The candid, thoughtful, and generous advice from senior scholars inspired this borderlands graduate student to forge ahead with her project. The conference helped many, including myself, to create new connections with a vibrant and rich emerging borderlands historiography that is bound to change the ways we engage with borderlands history in the future.