Where did the months go this year? The BHIP took a bit of a break since our last interview in December, but we are back and ready to meet another wonderful Borderlands scholar. It is my pleasure to introduce Pablo Mitchell to our BHIP audience. Dr. Mitchell is currently Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and is Professor of History and Comparative American studies at Oberlin College. He received his M.A. in 1995 at the University of New Mexico and his PhD in 2000 from the University of Michigan. He is the author of several books, including the award winning, and one of my personal favorites, Coyote Nation: Sexuality, Race, and Conquest in Modernizing New Mexico, 1880-1920 (University of Chicago Press, 2005) as well as West of Sex: Making Mexican America, 1900-1930 (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and his latest, a textbook titled History of Latinos: Exploring Diverse Roots (Greenwood Press, 2014). We talked about his research, his ideas about sexuality, race, gender, and the body, as well as emerging questions in Borderlands history, and teaching history.
Mitchell pointed to one of the underlying tensions he feels has driven his work in Borderlands history. He explains that while some historians continue with a Boltonian sense of the borderlands, his allegiance lies more with Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s theories that have provided the theoretical framework for his research. Anzaldúa’s work helped Mitchell to think about sexuality, race, gender, and borderlands and to ask different questions of archival materials and read against the grain.
I asked Professor Mitchell about his research and the ways in which he complicates sources. Mitchell’s use of the body not only as a trope, but also as a material space for race, gender, sexuality, and class formation in Coyote Nation and West of Sex always fascinated me. Mitchell explained that his training with intellectual foremothers like Carroll Smith-Rosenburg (her 1975 article “The Female World of Love and Ritual” remains tremendously relevant today) and others at the University of Michigan helped him focus more intently on sexuality and gender formation as he began to work on his dissertation.
Mitchell was influenced by scholars like Mary Douglas and Ramon Gutiérrez whose work Mitchell said helped him to combine ideas about purity, sexuality, and bodies. Along with the help from his wife, who was in medical school at the time, he spent time talking with medical students about bodily entrances and exits, orifices, secretions. He became keenly aware of purity, dirt, and pollutions. Thus as he interacted with sources he pondered how certain actions, like spitting or speaking in the wrong place were embodied actions linked to larger historical processes helping to construct gender and sexual norms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
He contends that the border/borderlands becomes a fascinating place from which to understand the movement, control, and repression of certain bodies. As border enforcement tightened and groups of people were seen as belonging to the national body politic, others were systematically viewed as interlopers many times based on bodily comportment and lax adherence to bourgeois norms. Mitchell explains that while skin color is significant in understanding issues of race, the border region allowed for a more nuanced understanding of racial formation not always premised on skin pigmentation. Viewing the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as an important region for the construction of race and citizenship, Mitchell explains helps him to complicate the history of the American West and U.S. history as a whole.
Perhaps one of the most (personally) exciting moments of the interview was his answers to my questions about emerging topics in the borderlands historiography. What should junior scholars write about? What should we be focused on? What new research must we embark on? He advocates for more “fined grained” studies.
Rather than male centered political histories, those formidable traditional Borderlands histories that cross centuries, Mitchell asks about gender and sexuality on a smaller scale? How do we unpack ideas about femaleness, maleness, heteronormativity along the border in the 1920s, 1930s, or 1960s? Mitchell states that these questions help us understand the nuances of people’s intimate lives and can be far more interesting in helping us understand racial, class, and gender formation in the borderlands.
We talked about so much more! His ideas about teaching Latina/o history in the United States, the history of sexuality, and bringing U.S. history to the borderlands. We discussed his new projects and work with fellow borderlands scholars, as well as his longing for more history of women in the borderlands (Heather Sinclair and I are almost finished Pablo!). As always there is so much goodness on the audio interview that I cannot possibly capture in this post, please listen to the audio below.
Again, I would like to thank Pablo Mitchell for his generosity and kindness as well as all those who continue to listen to the BHIP! Remember to like us on our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. Until next time everyone!
Special thanks to Marko Morales for editing the audio.