Conference Notes: Western History Association 2015

Photo by Ernesto Chávez

Photo by Ernesto Chávez

The Western History Association 2015 conference in Portland, Oregon was so fun and I was so busy, I barely had the opportunity to take any pictures! The 55th annual meeting was jam-packed with topics that ranged from scholars discussing twenty years of “Queering the West” to questions about the significance of the State and Transnationalism while engaging the histories of immigration, sex work, and health in the West and the Borderlands. I knew it would be a good conference when I first saw the program and was conflicted about which panels to attend. The Program Committee co-chairs, José Alamillo (California State University, Channel Islands), Lori Ann Lahlum (Minnesota State University, Mankato), and Karen Leong (Arizona State University) did an extraordinary job of organizing panels and having some of the top historians in the field as part of the conference. With that I said, I want to tell you about just a hand full of panels that I was able to attend and discuss some of the most important things I learned during my brief trip to Portland.

This year, I arrived early enough to attend all of the panels scheduled on the first day and was excited that both the “Coalition for Western Women’s History Roundtable: New Directions: Women, Gender, and the Making of Borders” and the “Presidential Plenary Session: Transnational Wests” focused on issues of gender, sexuality, race and the Borderlands. Off the bat, the discussion in the roundtable panel was vibrant, especially as they began to discuss the inroads women’s history has made into Borderlands history. Recalling Gloria Anzaldúa’s seminal work Borderlands/La Frontera: La Nueva Mestiza, scholars on the panel suggested “traditional” Borderlands history has yet to truly engage her ideas about violence, race, sexuality, and gender in the history of the region. The conversation on the panel proposed that there was a divergence between what we would think of as “traditional” Borderlands historiography and the different fields that have made interventions into it, such as Chicano/a and Latino/a studies, studies on sexuality and race, as well as women’s history. Some suggested that perhaps these rigid ways of understanding the historiography of Borderlands history is self-inflicted and must be undone by those of us who consider ourselves Borderlands historians, but use different methodologies and theories to understand the significance of the region in relation to and beyond the nation-state.

I moved quickly from the first panel to the “Presidential Plenary Session” that brought various topics and theories about transnationalism and its overall use to historians of the West and Borderlands to the fore. The panel was peopled by some of the most outstanding scholars, Sterling Evans (University of Oklahoma), Ana Elizabeth Rosas (University of California, Irvine), David G. Gutiérrez (University of California-San Diego), Adele Perry (University of Manitoba), and Henry Yu (University of British Columbia). Each scholar discussed transnationalism in different ways showing the pitfalls and benefits of this particular theoretical lens. Sterling Evans used his case study of abacá fiber from the Philippines to examine the usefulness of a transnational optic and a greater understanding of the study of commodities in history. Evans examines the ways in which abacá, a fiber used in hundreds of different products, from ship sails, to clothing, to twine along the Great Plains in the United States, connected economies and cultures throughout the Pacific World and across the Americas.

From left to right: Ana Elizabeth Rosas, David Gutiérrez, Betsy Jameson, Sterling Evans, Adele Perry, and Henry Yu

From left to right: Ana Elizabeth Rosas, David Gutiérrez, Betsy Jameson, Sterling Evans, Adele Perry, and Henry Yu.

David Gutiérrez changed the direction of the discussion on transnationalism seeking to understand what he called a “transition” in the deployment of this theory and the current critiques of transnationalism among some scholars. He agreed that it is important to question historians’ romance with transnationalism, and engaged critiques made by sociologists Roger Waldinger and David Fitzgerald about the veracity of transnationalism in analyzing the experiences of immigrants. However, in the end, Gutiérrez posits that for particular groups who are consistently viewed as foreigners from 1850 until 1930s and even until the 1950s, how can scholars not employ the optics of transnationalism to understand and discuss this phenomenon?

Adele Perry focused on her new book Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World describing the lives of a family who traversed the Caribbean, various parts of North America, and the United Kingdom. As the family crossed national and imperial borders they encountered cultural, social, and economic boundaries that shaped and changed their racial and gendered lives on the margins of the British Empire. Perry suggests that mobility can cut across authority and that borders and boundaries are not rigid demarcations particularly in the expanding West, thus historians must also embrace mobility by following subjects across territories to understand the creation of their identities through time and space. Ana Elizabeth Rosas brought to life the experiences of children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border during the Bracero Program in order to locate their fathers.

Adding yet another layer to the inhumane and brutal policies of the Bracero Program, Rosas examined the unknown journeys of children who had come of age on a voyage to reunite with their estranged families. Rosas connected this history of migration and labor to contemporary stories of children from Central America, fleeing violence and destitution, and similar policies that today continue to enact cruel punishments on young migrants. Finally, Henry Yu brought the fascinating worlds of technology, history, and transnationalism together. With the help of graduate students, using incredibly innovative applications, Yu has been able to map the locations of Chinese migrants using immigration data. He suggested that historians not “think like states” and to mix methodologies in order to understand the history of migration in relation to transnationalism. Pushing the West farther into the Pacific, Yu recommended basic questions for further investigation and to continue to expand our vision of the West into the Pacific: is it normal historically to stay still or move? Is border crossing central to understanding transnationalism? This panel left my mind spinning and wanting to engage these ideas further.

Wednesday ended with a fantastic reception at the Portland Historical Society. After enjoying some quick snacks and sipping on lovely Oregon vino, I was able to reunite with old friends and colleagues and collectively freak out about the impeding job application deadlines and dissertations. In order to ease this anxiety we decided more spirits would be in order. In many ways this scenario characterized the rest of the evenings in Portland. And as most know, the most fascinating conversations occur in the hotel bar.

Thursday morning offered some exciting panels and I decided to attend Kelly Lytle Hernández and Katherine Benton-Cohen’s panel on “The ‘State’ and the North American West.” Although they were missing one panelist, Israel Pastrana (University of California, San Diego), the two remaining, Julian Lim (Arizona State University) and Grace Peña Delgado (University of California, Santa Cruz) ignited an exciting intellectual debate between the panelists, chair and commentator, as well as the audience. Lim presented a fantastic paper on the history of border crossing and the blurring of racial boundaries on the U.S.-Mexico border. Describing the ways in which Chinese immigrants developed strategies to enter into the United States vis-à-vis the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso international line during the late nineteenth century, Lim explained how migrants’ bodies defied racial mapping as they disguised themselves as Mexican, changing their dress and adapting their language, in order to cross the national divide. Lim argues that the state sought to code bodies as racially distinct, but subjects found ways to evade these rigid categories and cross the line.

Delgado’s excellent paper brought the State into closer view as she connected the expansion of state bureaucracy and surveillance with sexual policing at the turn of the twentieth century. By linking racial exclusion of Chinese migrants during this period to moral controls, specifically the traffic in white slavery, Delgado described the sprawling bureaucracy that was created in order to focus on sexual policing particularly along the border. Delgado discussed the Mann Act of 1910—still in existence today—a federal law that prohibited the traffic of women for prostitution or what the government considered morally corrupt acts. Benton-Cohen used Delgado’s analysis of the Mann Act to expand on discussions of the state and its relation to government institutions. The Mann Act was fundamental to the creation of the F.B.I. and both Delgado and Benton-Cohen sought to connect the current government obsession with surveillance to the system of government agencies created to police sexuality and morality at the turn of the century. As I thought about my own work on the border in relation to sexuality, population control, reproductive access, and surveillance, I was inspired to think more carefully about the role of the state or the absence of it during different moments in the birth control movement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

From the Oscar Castillo exhibit.

From the Oscar Castillo exhibit.

After this panel, I decided to take a quick recess before I enjoyed the other non-panel activities of the conference in Portland. Later that afternoon, I ran off to see the Oscar Castillo photography exhibit at the Portland Community College. Organized by Miguel Juarez, doctoral student in UTEP’s Borderlands History Program, these amazing photographs captured various moments of drama in the Chicano/a movement in Los Angeles. Students from various fields arrived promptly for the reception, while Chicano historian Ernesto Chávez shared the historical context of the photographs and helped to explain some of the words emblazoned on protest signs and street art depicted in the portraits. The location was a bit removed from conference’s home base, the downtown Hilton hotel, but was definitely worth the trek to view this stunning exhibition.

Back at the hotel, I met with newly arrived comrades and colleagues as we toasted over beer and fried finger foods at the WHA Graduate Student Reception. We mingled and chatted and many aspiring young scholars introduced themselves and asked about the Borderlands position at UTEP. I must say, I was filled with excitement as they expressed their eagerness over the prospects of teaching in this program. Our Borderlands History Program has surely come a long way! As the food started to run thin, some folks talked about joining the Clements Center and Oxford receptions on the 23rd floor. Like good graduate students, the prospect of free food and perhaps rubbing elbows with super star scholars had us bouncing toward the elevators.

Kris Klein (left) and Gene Morales

Kris Klein (left) and Gene Morales

There was lavish food and free drink to be had as we sat crouched over a tiny cocktail table, overlooking Portland’s glorious downtown. I conversed with my dear friend Kristopher Klein Hernandez and the always generous Miroslava Chávez-García about the intersections of sexuality, intimacy, and privacy. Kelly Lytle-Hernandez and Ernesto Chávez sat near by discussing trips and research as we were joined by Jennifer Macias and Mary Mendoza. We quickly decided to move our party to the hotel bar. It is in this sacred space, the hotel bar, where unlikely friendships are formed and scholars that you admire (and are intimidated by) are seen speaking freely. There is no better place to have lovely, candid conversations or receive nuggets of wisdom than the hotel bar. As we descended from the top floor of the hotel, I spied all of these marvelous people and had the good fortune to meet Neil Foley. He kindly introduced himself to me and the other graduate students and began to ask us about our work. He stood pensive for a moment and then reflected on the swath of brilliant minds before him. He enlightened us with this bit: “Academics and their ideas are like zombies, they never die. Unless of course you take their brains.” We chuckled slyly.

From left to right: Kris Klein Hernandez, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Miroslava Chávez-Garcia, Lina-Maria Murillo, and Ernesto Chávez.

From left to right: Kris Klein Hernandez, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Miroslava Chávez-Garcia, Lina-Maria Murillo, and Ernesto Chávez.

Friday went by in a flash as I skipped the early morning panels to visit with and interview Maria Montoya from NYU (stay tuned for her BHIP interview) and managed to finish in time to attend two mid-morning panels quickly before attending the Presidential Luncheon. I started with the “Program Committee: Women in American West: Mapping Changing Landscapes and New Paths” panel where Vicki Ruiz introduced a superb group of women discussing new directions in thinking about women, gender, and sexuality in the West and by extension the Borderlands. Cathleen Cahill (University of New Mexico), Mary Mendoza (University of California, Davis) and Sarah Carter (University of Saskatechewan) examined different aspects of Jensen and Miller’s 1980 article “New Approaches to the History of Women in the West” by redirecting and expanding questions posited in this article almost 35 years ago.

Unfortunately, I had to leave midway through because I wanted to attend the “Chicano History and the Borderlands Western History” panel so I missed the surely excellent discussion that followed Judy Tzu-chun Wu (University of California, Irvine), Traci Brynne Voyles (Loyola Marymount University) presentation and of course Joan Jensen’s response. With Mario T. García (University of California, Santa Barbara) at the helm, scholars Marc Rodriguez (Portland State University), Oliver Rosales (Bakersfield College Delano Campus), Monica Perales (University of Houston), Ellen McCraken (University of California, Santa Barbara), Felipe Hinojosa (Texas A&M University) and Celeste Menchaca (University of Southern California) engaged questions about the growing field of Chicano/a history. I walked in as Menchaca asked how to engage Latino/a students who seek to understand their experiences in the United States in relation to that of ethnic Mexicans. García and Perales offered insights into the many ways to engage students from Central and South America and how Chicano/a history and methods can broaden the experience of Latinos and Latinas in the classroom.

The author (left) with Maria Montoya

The author (left) with Maria Montoya. Photo by Ernesto Chávez.

As soon as the panel was over I hurried to the Presidential Luncheon hosted by the outgoing President of the WHA Elizabeth Jameson (University of Calgary). I was feeling anxious because I was presenting after lunch, but I sat and listened intently to her presentation titled “Halfway Across That Line: Gender at the Threshold of History in the North American West” about still unknown histories of women in the West. She looked at the overlapping lives of Canadian, American, and Native women along the U.S.-Canada line and the ways they navigated state, social, and cultural forces to obtain land and live independently. I marveled at the way Jameson pieced together the intimate lives of her subjects and thought about the great responsibility we have as historians to handle the lives of our subjects with care. I left feeling emboldened to think about the women I write about with greater thoughtfulness and to recover their lives with as much care as women historians of the West and of the Borderlands have done before me.

The last panel I attended for the conference, titled “Women and Health in the West,” was my own. I enjoyed sharing the podium with my dear friend Kris Klein Hernandez (University of Michigan), Lisa Riggin (California State University, Fullerton), and our commentator and chair Isabela Seong Leong Quintana (New Mexico State University). Klein Hernandez traced the life of one of his subjects “Fifi” as a transgender woman in El Paso, Texas in the latter twentieth century. He pointed to the history of transgender surgery, health, and access to proper care and how these were manifest along the U.S.-Mexico border for transgender subjects. Lisa Riggin discussed the fascinating and controversial life of Inez Burns the so-called “Abortion Queen” of 1930s California. Riggin described Burns as one of the wealthiest women in California at the time and her demise came from the moral policing that helped to elevate key political figures like Pat Brown, who later became governor of the state.

In my paper, I wanted to contextualize the birth control and population control movements of the 1970s with the rise of Chicano activism in El Paso, Texas. As city fathers sought to allow Planned Parenthood to join with city-county clinics in order to offer greater access to contraception, citing the concerns of overpopulation on the border, Chicana activists in South El Paso fought to create clinics that would address the health concerns of poor, mostly ethnic Mexican residents of the barrio including concerns for family planning. Quintana challenged us to think about the significance of place, particularly when discussing the U.S.-Mexico border. How does looking at the history of women and transgender health on the fringes of the nation-state enhance our understanding of our subjects nationally and transnationally?

While attending panels helps us to understand and engage with the growing fields of Western and Borderlands history, perhaps the best part of the conference was talking and engaging with old colleagues and new friends. Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of meeting a group of graduate students of color, mostly women, who are carving new inroads into the scholarship of Borderlands history. Over late night drinks we talked about lack of ambition, or perhaps the better term is rivalry among this small, but growing group of women in the academy. We recognized that we might be applying for the same jobs and that the competition would be stiff, but we genuinely wished each other well and want each other to succeed. We traded secrets about teaching, managing our dissertation writing schedules, and about the stress of applying for jobs. These conversations took place several times over the course of the 3 and a half days I was at the conference. Each time I left feeling lighter, happier about entering into academia with such a strong and vibrant group of women. On the final night of “after-panel” debauchery, I marveled at how lucky I was to sit surrounded by so many vibrant minds, enjoying their generosity and their sincere affection. Another fabulous WHA conference in the bag and I am already looking forward to next year!

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4 thoughts on “Conference Notes: Western History Association 2015

  1. Michael K. Bess

    Lina, great essay! Really enjoyed reading it. What advice would you have for first- and second-year graduate students who want to get over a sense of feeling nervous about networking at conferences?

  2. Hi Mike! Thank you so much for your kind words! Well I think being nervous is a natural reaction to meeting new people, especially when you admire their work. There are several ways students can t meet other graduate students and scholars and network at conferences:
    I’ll rank them here in order of difficulty (depending on how shy you are):

    1.) Easy: Become a part of the organization and volunteer at the conference. For instance the WHA has a great system that has graduate student volunteers assist in various events at the conference. There is no better way to meet senior scholars than by assisting them at the registration table.

    2.) Moderate: Ask a question during the Q&A part of a panel, introduce yourself, tell folks what school you are from, and ask away. This is generally a good way to have scholars notice you. If you are feeling more adventurous talk to panelists after the panel is over, introduce yourself there, tell them about how your interests dovetail with their own.

    3) Difficult: Enter the sacred space(or what others call the hotel bar), even if you don’t drink this is still the best place to meet folks, grab a soda water/cocktail and start chatting. Look for other graduate students and talk with them first, build relationships with them, exchange information. If you are more daring or maybe you’ve had a cocktail for courage, introduce yourself to scholars you recognize, and let them know how much their studies have influenced what you want to do. Also, if you happen to be there with your mentor, part of their job is to introduce you to folks, so let them.

    More importantly remember to have fun, relax and enjoy the experience of being at a conference! Hope this helps!

  3. Michael K. Bess

    I agree, I guess the whole point of going to a conference is getting out of one’s comfort zone and reaching out to make new connections. Volunteering is a brilliant, and I love your notion of sacred space. lol. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for this Lina! I missed a lot, particularly the sessions on Wed. and Thurs. since I didn’t get in till Thurs. afternoon.

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