Borderlands History Interview Project: We speak to Deena J. González!

Deena Gonzalez

Dr. Deena J. González

As I prepared for this BHIP, I was reminded of the first time I read her monograph.  Deena J. González’s Refusing the Favor was one of the first history books I read that was written by a Chicana about Hispanas and ethnic Mexican women in the Southwest. I recalled sitting with my fellow classmate, Dennis Aguirre, on the stiff couches in the student lounge at UTEP, feverishly underlining passages in the text. While carefully studying her analysis, we marveled at the sources González was able to recuperate.  In subsequent years, this now dog-eared and tattered book has become a vital source for countless essays, including my dissertation.  When the opportunity came, I jumped at the chance to interview Dr. González about her career and her love for and interest in Women and Borderland’s history.

Currently, Deena J. González is Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Professor of Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. She earned her B.A. at New Mexico State University in 1974, then moved on to UC Berkeley in California to receive her M.A. and PhD in 1976 and 1985, respectively. She wrote a foundational text in Chicano/a history, women’s history, and borderlands history titled Refusing the Favor: The Spanish-Mexican Women of Santa Fe, 1820-1880 published by Oxford University Press in 1999. She’s authored several articles including “Gender on the Borderlands: Re-textualizing the Classics,” in a special issue of Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies in 2003, as well as garnered numerous awards, among them the American Council on Education Fellowship from 2010-2011.

Since the interview was shaped by my memories of reading Refusing the Favor, I started by asking González about the process of writing her first monograph.  Her project went through several phases, particularly as she grappled with languages. She realized some sources would be out of her reach as she battled to learn indigenous languages and perfect her knowledge of medieval, colonial and nineteenth century Spanish. This early setback caused her to reevaluate her study about the Spanish and U.S.-Mexico borderlands and she began to contemplate some of the major gaps in the literature.  Up to this point women had played minor roles (or none at all) in the histories of this region and González honed in on the opportunity to foreground these stories.

Provoked by advisors who told her she would not find much about women in the archives, she accepted the challenge and began her work on Refusing the Favor. González recalled, “I went to the archives and, of course, they are full of documents about women.”  After spending time with her sources, she began to refine her thoughts about the U.S war with Mexico, the loss of Mexico’s territories, and the absence of women’s experiences from this colonial takeover. She was particularly taken by the lack of information written about Spanish speaking Catholic women in these regions and how they contested and negotiated the brutality of colonization.  She spent nearly nine months collecting documents in New Mexico that later served as the foundation for her book.

Deena González’s study of Spanish-speaking women in the borderlands created the contours for Chicana history in this region. Her monograph sought to complicate U.S. West and borderlands historiography by revealing the layers of multifaceted violence inflicted on women as American colonization swept the American Southwest.  González’s analysis was connected to the growing literature of Chicano/a history that foregrounded “survival and resistance in the face of very longterm struggles.” Moreover, her work continued in the trajectory of Chicana scholars such as Vicki Ruiz and Antonia Castañeda, who proposed a Chicana feminist revision of entrenched Western histories. Thus, her book was grounded in women’s defiance, as González asserted that “the title of the book, has everything to do with this ‘I refuse the favor of your colonization of me!’” Indeed, González fondly described the countless moments of resistance she encountered in archival documents and the power these sources possess in the present.

In this respect, I asked Dr. González to speak on contemporary attempts to shun evidence, documentation, and fact as well as the desire to avoid and even disparage expertise and knowledge.  “How do we teach borderlands history in the age of Trump?” I queried.  González deftly walked the line between scholar and administrator as she called into question the waves of budget cuts that have hit universities and public education over all.  She contends that a small minority—Bernie Sanders calls them the 0.01%–somehow managed to elect one of their own.  González explained, “These people clearly did not like greater access to education, to learning, did not like greater access to healthcare, to any of the institutional life in this society.” She explained that these groups have been emboldened by Trump’s election to voice their anti-intellectual, white supremacist visions and their desire to deny facts. However, González cautioned rightly that these ideologies are not new, they’ve long outlined the fringes of American politics.  In this way she returned to the power of historical research by explaining how documents can reveal to us the ways in which marginalized people have resisted and negotiated oppressive regimes.  “We must keep our eyes on teaching the lessons of the past,” she said.

We spoke about many other issues related to her current research and her visions for borderlands history in the years to come. I recommend our audience listen to our extensive interview.  I will also add that before we began the interview, Professor González informed me she would have little time to expand on various topics because she was terribly short on time. Nevertheless, we had a spirited conversation within a small breath of time and it is evident that her feminist convictions extend far beyond her research and into her everyday academic mentorship and life.  Thank you again for joining us on the BHIP. Remember to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our new YouTube channel. Until next time.

Special thanks to Marko Morales for sound editing and Mike Bess for technical support.

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