A Year in Review: BHB in 2016

The past twelve months will likely be remembered as one of the most frustrating years of our time. From civil strife and violence on American streets to brewing economic and political crises in Mexico to war in other parts of the world. At the blog, we have tried to make sense of these complex events from the perspective of our historical training. We have looked to the past to reflect on the present and think about our future. Over this past year, thanks to your support, our blog has also continued to grow. What follows is a list of some of our favorite and most popular contributions in 2016.

This year, our most popular essay was Lori Flores´s From Dissertation to Book: Writing a Book Proposal. We strive for practical contributions to be an important part of our work at the blog as a service to readers. In this piece, Lori writes: If you’ve just finished your dissertation, congratulations! Now set it aside for a good while. Trying to tackle dissertation-to-book revisions too soon will prevent you from seeing your graduate school-inspired language, and from knowing what needs to be tweaked, cut, or added in terms of content. Many times, you need a more distant perspective on your work in order to articulate to editors how you plan to produce a book, which is an entirely different beast in terms of framing, style, and structure. Feel free to circulate your work to valued colleagues for their input while you’re gaining that distance, and tackle other passion projects or interesting new readings in your field for some inspiration.

The blog has featured a number of excellent conversations with scholars. Lina Murillo’s Borderlands History Interview Project (BHIP) has continued to grow, adding two new episodes this year. She returned in March, interviewing Pablo Mitchell on his work: 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.

In the second episode from 2016, BHIP featured Grace Peña Delgado. In the interview, they discussed the development of Delgado’s scholarship. She explained: Listening to her grandparents recall the expulsion of the Chinese community out of Sonora, Mexico, Delgado realized she had no historical knowledge of this event. She saw promise in this little known topic and this transnational story became the focus of her dissertation and then her book. In the end Delgado believes her manuscript is a critique of nationalism on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In addition to BHIP, we’ve also featured great interviews conducted by Brenden Rensink and D.J. Gonzales. Rensink, in an interview that was later cited in online reporting by NBC News, talked with Sujey Vega about the history and experience of Latter-Day Saints Latinos. Gonzales has been collaborating with the blog for a while now, sharing with us his great Q&A series. In recent interviews he has spoken with George Diaz, Kelly Lytle Hernandez and John Mckiernan-González, and Marc Simon Rodriguez.

One of our most personal essays, which appeared in February, was Jessica DeJohn Bergen’s essay about developing her dissertation topic. In the essay, Bloodlines and Borderlines, Jessica reflects on how regional history in her home state of Louisiana has influenced national identity for many local residents, and the role of historical memory in this process. She writes: As far as I can remember, my family recounted histories of discrimination stemming from the 1755 Grand Dérangement, a ruler hand slap for speaking French in school, and tales of Cajun “royal ancestors.” These stories are incompatible. Perhaps the inconstancies have to do with the changing generation; the accounts of discrimination were my grandmother’s and the royalty story is my mother’s.  Competing views of Cajun identity exist, even though Acadians became Cajun after the Civil War, some argue.  But, why then since the 1955 Acadian Bicentennial Celebration have Cajun communities and boosters conducted a total recovery of language, food, literature, and music throughout Louisiana at the state, regional, and local level, when some members of the community such as my grandmother identify as Acadian, not Cajun?

Another powerful story, which really connected with readers, was Lina’s Demolishing the Barrio, which discusses the problem of gentrification working-class communities are facing in El Paso. Written from the point of view of her mother-in-law, Lina highlights how developers threaten not only the everyday life of these neighborhoods, but also are systematically erasing the past that is so important to the city. She writes: Currently, there is a local group of activists, academics, politicians and residents attempting to resist urban renewal plans that will devastate a major historical area on El Paso’s Southside.  Their efforts are forcing the city government to contend with an informed community bent on protecting historical sites and homes still inhabited by residents in this traditionally ethnic Mexican barrio.  As developers salivate over this potentially lucrative opportunity, developing $180 million multi-purpose indoor arena, residents and activists alike are coming together to fight the destruction of one of El Paso’s oldest neighborhoods and the potential displacement of dozens of families and businesses.

In March, we marked the centennial of Francisco Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Brandon Morgan wrote about the events celebrating this history in that border community. He highlighted the impact the attack had on the life of Columbus one hundred year ago: Lives of everyone in the town were shattered. Dean specifically recalled the harrowing experiences of civilians killed during the raid. He recounted the story of Charles C. Miller who was killed as he attempted to secure weapons from his drugstore across the street from the Hoover Hotel where he had been living. After her husband was shot down, Mrs. J.J. Moore hid in the brush out by her home when villistas shot her in the hip. Outside the Commercial Hotel, Villa’s men shot Charles DeWitt Miller—an out-of-town visitor—as he attempted to escape in his new Model T. Inside the hotel, male guests and William T. Ritchie, the hotel proprietor, faced threats and several—including Ritchie—were eventually forced downstairs to the street where they were executed.

During the summer, we launched a pedagogy series sharing our experiences teaching Borderlands history in the classroom. We began with Tim Bowman, who emphasized the need to incorporate new literature (and the challenge of doing so) into the syllabus: Given the tremendous numbers of exciting new books and articles that are published on an annual basis, it can be difficult for any historian to stay on top of all of the new contributions that scholars make to the field. One solution that I have found (and I’m certainly not alone in this) is that it is often useful to put articles and monographs on my syllabi before I have actually read them. This, of course, is inherently dangerous—what if the book or article in question doesn’t translate well to the classroom, or, what if you find the material less than satisfactory but still have to figure out a way to teach it? Inevitably, this will happen from time to time.

We followed up Tim’s post with my short essay on utilizing a Borderlands perspective in teaching world history to undergraduates. I wrote:  Imperial frontiers is a topic that I have long found fascinating, and now given the chance, I wanted to explore it further with students. One of my favorite readings on this subject, which I assigned to students for group discussion, was Porfirio Sanz Camañes’s “Frontera, límites y espacios de confrontación en la América Hispana durante el siglo XVIII.” In it, Sanz examines the conflicts that occurred in the region of Río de la Plata before a new treaty was signed between Spain and Portugal. Sanz considers how the concept of the “frontier” and “border” evolved during the colonial period. It’s a great essay that also helped me conceive my lectures on the colonial empires in South America.

The series ended with Brandon’s essay reflecting on his experience teaching an online Borderlands history course. He included some of the texts that played formative roles in how he approached the class: To consider the ways in which armed conflicts over territory and resources defined the boundaries of nascent nation-states in the mid-nineteenth century, we read John Little’s Loyalties in Conflict: A Canadian Borderland in War and Rebellion, 1812-1840 and Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. Taken together, the books helped students consider the ways in which the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837-1838, the Comanche Wars, and the U.S.-Mexico War defined the territorial, political, racial, and political limits of the respective Canada-U.S. and Mexico-U.S. borders by the mid-nineteenth century. One common critique of Little’s analysis is that he dismisses the role of indigenous peoples in the border between Vermont and Eastern Townships in his analysis, a stark contrast with DeLay’s direct evaluation of Indian conflicts’ impact on the U.S.-Mexico War.

One of my favorite posts of the year was the essay that Lina and I wrote about the TV series Westworld, critiquing it from the perspective of Borderlands history. In it, we note: In Westworld, as in the founding myth of western expansionism, certain preconceptions pervade. The foundation, and point of reference of Westworld is the frontier town. To be a part of it, you must dress and act accordingly. Certainly, guests occasionally run amok killing hosts with abandon, but this violence and the construction of masculinity that goes with it, do not violate the unwritten rules of that space.

Going into the new year, we hope to build on this work and expand the number of scholarly voices, you, our dear readers, can encounter on BHB. Also, we hope you can join us at the American Historical Association in Denver next month, where Lina, Kris, Jenny and I will be talking about blogging and digital humanities. Our roundtable, “Blogging on Borders: A Roundtable on Digital Humanities as a Tool for Dialogue at the US-Mexico Line,” will take place on January 5th from 3:30 to 5PM at the Colorado Convention Center.

We wish you a happy new year going into 2017!

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