Conference Notes: WHA 2017

The Western History Association conference is one of my favorite conferences of the year. Reuniting with old friends and colleagues living far away and, of course, discussing what is new in Borderlands and Western history. This year, however, something was off. Many spoke about the tense energy suspended like a low cloud over conference attendees making it difficult to fully engage in panels and discussions. Maybe we were feeling weathered. The one-year anniversary of the 2016 Election was just days away. It has been a very rough year.

Despite the melancholy, there were several moments of brightness, energy, and riveting conversations. I attended numerous borderland panels, sometimes walking in and out due to my own meetings. We also started a new short interview format called “Conference Capsules: Historians in a Flash” where we spoke to Katrina Jagodinsky about a new volume she co-edited with Pablo Mitchell about law in the borderlands. It was an information-filled conference to be sure and I started it off with a 5:00am flight from San Jose’s Mineta International into San Diego’s Lindbergh Field arriving to the conference hotel minutes before my first, must-hear panel of the conference.

After grabbing my third piping hot cup of coffee that morning, I quickly headed to the first panel on my list: “Reproductive West” with Professor Elena Gutiérrez at the helm. This panel is indicative of the more recent interest in the history of reproduction and decentering narratives starring Margaret Sanger in the Northeast. Moreover, all of the panelists on the roundtable were discussing aspects of their forthcoming manuscripts, which signals further interest among publishers for cutting edge work on reproduction during a time when women’s health is under attack by conservative forces in the country. Natalie Lira began by discussing her ongoing research on the history of sterilization in twentieth-century California. Using disability studies theory along with racial formation analysis, Lira was concerned with understanding the potential for resistance among wards of the state demeaned “feebleminded” and thus candidates for involuntary sterilizations. Brianna Theobald presented her work on the history of reproductive policies and practices among Native American women on the Crow Reservation in Southern Montana. She described the centrality of oral histories to her research and how using a reproductive justice framework allowed her to contextualize the experiences of women of color beyond current discussions in reproductive history.

Next, Alicia Gutiérrez-Romine’s research examined the borderland abortion networks that flourished in the years before Roe v. Wade. She described the countless women—at one point a group of women rented a bus— who crossed the border into Tijuana to obtain illegal abortions sparking the claim of so-called butchers across the southern line. Continuing with discussions of the U.S.-Mexico border, Heather Sinclair discussed questions of reproduction within what she called a “settler-colonial relationship” between Anglos and Mexican-origin people in El Paso, Texas. While Mexican labor, particularly of women as domestic workers, was prized, Mexican women’s reproduction was considered a threat for the racial makeup in the city. Finally, Jennifer Holland tied many of these themes together as she discussed the centrality of abortion politics in redrawing the political map of the Rocky Mountain West. It was a lively discussion, and given my own research on the history of Planned Parenthood, contraception and abortion in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, I was all too eager to join in. Elena Gutiérrez, author of Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction, guided the discussion and asked the panelists about the significance of population control rhetoric and policy during the twentieth century and how this might inform a deeper analysis of immigration, incarceration, and women’s access to reproductive care and overall concerns for reproductive justice.

Reproductive West

This roundtable could have gone on for another hour, but at this point folks were hungry and eager to get back out into the halls of the lovely Mission Bay Hilton to continue meeting and greeting colleagues from across the country. Unfortunately, this was one of the only complete panels I was able to attend during the conference. Meetings and conversations over coffee filled my time during the conference, so I either missed large parts of panels or had to leave in the middle of them. What follows are snippets of some of the partial sessions I was able to attend.

I made it to most of the plenary celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s groundbreaking Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. As a newly minted PhD I was struck by the legacy of the Legacy of Conquest and of its reception at the Western History Association conference nearly 30 years prior. Steve Aron (UCLA) moderated the panel and began by saying how Limerick’s book had up ended traditional histories of the West and made many of the old, white men in the organization uncomfortable to say the least. We enjoyed commentary from Paul Hutton (UNM), Katrina Jagodinsky (UNL), Amy Lonetree (UCSC), Noam Maggor (Cornell), Mary Mendoza (U of V), David Wrobel (U of O), and Thomas Andrews (UCB). Hutton also noted that Limerick’s book had unleashed a “crap storm” in an organization that was dominated by men with a membership of just 15 women at the time of the book’s publication. He reflected that Limerick had brought life back into the profession and no one since Frederick Jackson Turner had managed such a feat!

Mary Mendoza regaled the audience with 30 year-old reviews of Limerick’s book that just about called Limerick’s analysis heretical. She noted Limerick’s revolutionary influence on the field: “What was once understood as New Western History, is now just known as Western History.” As each panelist stood to describe the impact Legacy of Conquest had on their research and careers, I was fortunate enough to be sitting directly behind Patty (as many affectionately call her) in the audience. She chuckled, grumbled, and talked with her neighbors as speakers recalled all the chaos surrounding the book back in 1987. Limerick’s overall mood suggested she was truly moved by how her work had inspired so many to view the American West, Southwest and Borderlands fields with a more critical lens and how it continues to influence new generations of scholars three decades later.

Jenn Lina Celeste

The following day, between my own panel (where I presented with Sandra Enriquez [UMKC], Jennifer Macias [U of U], and chaired by Marisela Chavez [CSU-DH] to discuss the significance of oral history in recuperating Chicanx/Latinx history), I also managed to interview Katrina Jagodinsky, Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We talked about her new co-edited volume she put together with Pablo Mitchell tentatively titled Laying Down the Law: Critical Legal Histories of the North American West. At the crossroads of Critical Legal History and New Western History (or just Western History), the volume’s contributors analyzed the various ways the lines between law and society are blurred in this region. Ten scholars from across various historical fields included chapters: Sarah Deer, Brian Frehner, Andrea Geiger, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Katrina Jagodinsky, Pablo Mitchell, Danielle Olden, Allison Powers Useche, Tom Romero, Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, Jeff Shepherd, and Dana Weiner.

You can listen to our 15-minute conversation here.

Also celebrating a thirtieth anniversary was Gloria Anzaldúa’s path breaking book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza and panelists David Gutiérrez (UCSD), Natalia Molina (UCSD), Elliot Young (Lewis &Clark College), and Ana Elizabeth Rosas (UCI) discussed significance of her work for historians of the American West. Sadly, this was one of the panels that I was not able to fully enjoy as I arrived late, after my interview with Jagodinsky, and then had to leave early due to another meeting. Fortunately, I had just enough time to hear comments by Gutiérrez and Molina who both praised Borderlands/La Frontera for its profound rendering of the U.S.-Mexico border as a queer, Chican@, and multilingual borderlands. As Molina pointed out, most Chicanx/Latinx scholars have been moved by Anzaldúa’s analysis for decades, in fact her work has inspired much of our own, but rarely is she cited for her theoretical analysis. Gutiérrez explained that he was most affected by Anzaldúa’s queer, feminist rhetoric at a time when machismo ruled. Her work against misogyny, Gutiérrez declared, broke new ground for building solidarity and her “study of and commitment to ambiguity” had unlocked doors to greater historical questions within Chicana/o studies. Anzaldúa’s articulation of nepantla, the Nahuatl word that signifies the interstices, the in-between spaces, has been fundamental to my own work.

Historians WHA17

The following morning, I was only able to go to one session, titled “Reel History: Useful Videos for Teaching Race in the American West.” This was organized by the Committee on Race in the American West (CRAW) and panelists included: Kathleen Brosnan, University of Oklahoma, Cathleen Cahill, Pennsylvania State University, Ernesto Chávez, University of Texas, El Paso, Sara Gregg, University of Kansas, Mary E. Mendoza, University of Vermont, Kathryn Morse, Middlebury College, Marisela Ramos, Phillips Academy, Douglas Sackman, University of Puget Sound, and Traci Brynne Voyles, Loyola Marymount University. Now this was a fantastic panel for those interesting in using film/cartoons/commercials/ documentaries or other types of film in their classes that can visual assist in the conversation about race and racism in the American West and borderlands. Cahill showed an excellent short-cartoon from Disney describing American concerns for WWII. Slogans like “Spend for the Axis or Save for Taxes” were juxtaposed against the images of two different versions of Donald Duck. One, a slick talking zoot suit wearing criminal type, luring people to spend their hard-earned money; the other Donald was a spend-thrift Scotsman help bent on doing his civic duty.

Reel History

Another interesting example was Ernesto Chávez’s use a laundry commercial from the 1970s that feminized and racialized the labor of Chinese workers. Before I had to leave, I was able to see Mary Mendoza’s Warner Bros’ clip from a Speedy Gonzalez and Sylvester the Cat cartoon. Running across the U.S.-Mexico border where a fence is already in place, Speedy easily fools and out-runs Sylvester who is protecting a giant cheese factory on the U.S. side. Using film to unpack the ubiquitous racial stereotypes of the twentieth century can help students understand how engrained these ideas and images are in our collective imaginations and, unfortunately, how they so often rely on tropes of the Wild West and borderlands to survive.

After this panel, I grabbed a quick lunch, headed off to the airport and flew back to San Jose. Despite the fascinating panels and excellent conversations with friends, there was still something not quite right about the WHA this year. Perhaps its location on the Mission Bay, while beautiful, seemed isolating from the rest of San Diego and had some of us feeling a bit trapped. Or maybe this sensation was caused by the one year anniversary of this dystopian nightmare we call Trump’s first year in office. Conversations about the job market, working, writing, and even attending conferences were marred by the continued assaults against the academy, freedom of speech, access to healthcare, student loan debt, sexual assault, and so much more. Yet, we presented our findings, discussed our conclusions, and engaged in the human and necessary exchange of ideas. I cannot think of a better way to continue to #Resist.

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Categories: conferences, Essay Series | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Conference Notes: WHA 2017

  1. Betsy Jameson

    This is a great blog! One minor correction–there were far more than 15 women members of the WHA prior to 1987. When I attended my first conference in 1986, a fifth of the panels were about women’s history. There was an upsurge of women members in the 1980s, due to the growth of women’s history and the influence of feminism in the academy, as well as the publication of Jensen and Miller’s “Gentle Tamers Revisited” in 1980 and the 1983 and 1984 Women’s West conferences.

  2. We are thrilled that you enjoy our blog!!! Thank you for this important point Betsy! This was a mistake on my part. I should have clarified that Paul Hutton made the remark about “only 15 women in the organization”–a clear exaggeration–during his comments on the panel. I believe he was making the point that at the time Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest made a huge impression on the men in the organization. Despite the upsurge in women attending conference meetings in the late 1980s, it is interesting that some remember those years as still being heavily dominated by male members.

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