BHIP #6: A Conversation with Dr. Maria Montoya



Join me in welcoming Dr. Maria Montoya to the BHIP as she helps us bring this fantastic year for the Borderlands History Blog to a close. I was fortunate to meet with her at the Western History Association conference in Portland, Oregon. It was a chilly morning in late October when I sat with Professor Montoya to discuss her research, teaching, and new projects. We discussed the convergence of Western and Borderlands history in her work and teaching. Dr. Montoya is currently Associate Professor of History at New York University. She received her M.A. in 1990 and her PhD in 1993 from Yale University.

Dr. Montoya has written extensively on the history of the American West and borderlands. Her first book Translating Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict Over Land in the American West, 1840 to 1920 about the various state and capitalist forces that altered the American landscape after 1848 received excellent reviews, she has several articles and chapters in edited volumes including one with Vicki Ruiz and John Chavez, titled “Creating an American Home: Work, Gender and Space in Rockefeller’s Coal Towns.” Her second manuscript titled: Taking Care of American Workers: The Origins of Universal Healthcare in the American West 1900-1950 and a text book Global Americans: A Social and Global History of the United States are both forthcoming. We talked about what inspired her research and her teaching, and how borderlands history and methods have influenced how she engages her scholarship.

A well-known historian once said that our projects are generally autobiographical in nature.  After receiving her B.A. at Yale University, Dr. Montoya went to New Mexico to work on her M.A. and to study the history of the Maxwell Land Grant. Moved by her family’s own fears, since they owned the rights to the top soil but did not the mineral rights of the land, Montoya wanted to recuperate the history of those who had lost so much in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Questions about land, property, and the capitalist forces that had dispossessed so many from their land surrounded her research.  “What does it mean to a community to lose land? And what does it mean to women in particular?”

These questions produced her first monograph Translating Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict Over Land in the American West, 1840 to 1920 and reaffirmed fundamental questions to borderlands history about contested lands and space. As a graduate student she traveled around the areas of Southern and Northern Colorado and New Mexico, respectively, conducting oral histories with viejitos about their experiences working at Bandelier National Park outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Inspired by her family’s story family and the region where she came of age, Montoya collected the sources for what would become her first book.

We talked about the significance of borderlands history and methods in her work. A borderlands history perspective, Montoya explained, helps to make U.S. History and the history of the American West more complex. Rather than “Liberty marching across the plains” unabated, a different vision of the West and the United States as a whole emerges when we view it from the vantage point of borderlands history. In many ways a borderlands lens forces us to include different groups of people, vying for resources and land, which derails the progressive narrative of American history. Montoya contends that this makes for a messier and more difficult discussion, one that negates triumphalist visions of U.S. History. Borderlands methodology, then, allows for a multiplicity of archives to come alive, particularly the use of oral histories. Montoya believes that borderlands methods encouraged her to use different archives and voices as she engaged her research.

Professor Montoya also discussed the ways in which borderlands history and the history of the American West influenced her teaching. Borderlands history, changes the periodization for the U.S. history survey course, for instance. Rather than beginning with conquest of the Eastern seaboard, you think about the vast networks of Indigenous nations that populated the Americas, then you are forced to contend with Spanish, British, and French colonization. Borderlands makes “you take a more continental approach” to U.S. history and allows us to view the history of the United States as integrated into a much more hemispheric process. For more on Dr. Montoya’s teaching philosophy, check out the latest Western Historical Quarterly (Winter 2015) article titled “Field Notes: Teaching about the West and Water in China.”

We talked about her future projects. Montoya’s forthcoming book focuses on “progressive ideas about labor and capital and the ways that people are trying to negotiate these ideas between WWI and WWII.” Simultaneously, she’s working on a fabulous text book that uses borderlands methods in order to better analyze the history of the United States. With other notable scholars, including borderlands historian Steve Hackel, Montoya explained that a more global perspective of the U.S. history allows for greater nuance and an ability for students, particularly first generation students, to see themselves as part of the historical narrative of the United States.

What a sensational way to end this year with an interview with Dr. Maria Montoya! I think our conversation embodies the spirit of the BHIP: to have informal discussions with outstanding scholars about the significance of borderlands history and methods and how borderlands influences other fields in U.S. History. I greatly appreciate her generosity and humor as we discussed her early days as a professor and her attempts to wrestle with the different identities she’s maintained as a historian (“am I Western, Chicano/a, U.S. historian? Why do I have to be just one?”) To listen to the entire interview and Dr. Montoya’s words of wisdom please click the link below. Thank you again for tuning in!


Special thanks to Marko Morales for editing the audio interview.

Categories: Interviews, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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