BHIP

BHIP13: The Dr. Laura Gómez Interview

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Dr. Laura Gómez. Photo credit: Dr. Ernesto Chávez

I interviewed Laura Gómez for the Borderlands History Interview Project late last year, but had been waiting for just the right moment to release the interview. In celebration of Women’s History Month and within weeks of the 170th year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, March was just the month.  In fact, with my co-contributors, we decided we would dedicate this week to celebrating Dr. Gómez and her scholarship.  With the recent political focus on Trump’s border wall and his venomous rhetoric against undocumented immigrants—the racially bound “Mexican menace”—Dr. Gómez’s landmark book Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race is more important now than ever.  Recently, she spoke at the University of Texas at El Paso to commemorate the second edition of her groundbreaking book and to talk with students, faculty, and community members about its significance. Last Monday, Blanca Garcia-Barron reported back about her experience at the talk for the Borderlands History Blog.  It is in the spirit of understanding the legacy of Mexican-American racialization and in celebrating the women scholars who have worked tirelessly for decades to recuperate and expose this history that I would like to present my interview with Dr. Gómez.  Her insights on race, racism, Mexican-Americans and law reveal the power of her research in the era of Trump.

Currently, Laura Gómez is Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles where she teaches Civil Procedure and Criminal Law in the first-year UCLA School of Law curriculum and has taught courses in law and society and the Critical Race Studies Program in the law school’s upper-year curriculum. She received her A.B. at Harvard College in 1986, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University, in 1988 and 1994 respectively. As she worked toward her Ph.D., Gómez obtained a J.D. from Stanford University’s School of Law in 1992. She has written and edited several books including:  Misconceiving Mothers: Legislators, Prosecutors and the Politics of Prenatal Drug Exposure, published in 1997 by Temple University Press; Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race, first published in 2007, New York University Press. (Celebrating its 10th Anniversary NYU Press is ready to release the second Edition of the book in 2017), and Mapping “Race”: Critical Approaches to Health Disparities Research, Co- Edited (with Nancy López), published in 2013 by Rutgers University Press.  She has written numerous articles for scholarly as well as general readership about race and the law. Professor Gómez has had extensive experience outside of academia as well. As a law clerk for Judge Dorothy W. Nelson on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (1992-93) and later as a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico (1996-97), Gómez’s portfolio included Central American policy, South African policy, and Armed Services (for the latter, she held a top-secret government clearance).

While Laura Gómez is the first “non-historian” I interview for the BHIP, her research has done so much to advance the work of Chicanx and Latinx historians and scholars across fields in understanding the racialization of Mexicans in the United States. Indeed, her work has been foundational in complicating the black-white racial paradigm in the U.S. and providing the history of the legal framework used to racialize Mexicans and Mexican Americans.  Her book outlined the genesis of Mexican-American racial formation beginning in the nineteenth century and has allowed for relational discussions for other Latina/o history in this country.

With her diverse academic background in law and sociology, I asked Professor Gómez how she approached her research for this book.  She explained that as she worked on her Ph.D. in sociology and her law degree concurrently, she was very much thinking about the ways in which critical race theory and the law could be applied to understanding the history of Mexican-Americans in a state like New Mexico. Gómez stressed that the questions she asked drove her to search for answers in different fields and with the support of thoughtful advisors she was able to weave together methods and theories from sociology, anthropology, law and, of course, history in order to address the overarching political scope of her study.

In many ways Manifest Destinies is about contesting and complicating established historical narratives in the United States. Describing the North-South/black-white paradigm that has characterized nineteenth century racialization, Dr. Gómez stated that in her book she sought to complicate this narrative by foregrounding the connections between the U.S. war with Mexico that started in 1846 and the tensions that led to the Civil War fifteen years later.  Gómez wanted to reorient the story of race-making in the United States to include the invasion of Mexico and the “uneven incorporation” of Mexico’s territories and its people into the United States after 1848.  Moreover, she underscored the manipulation of the narrative of westward expansion—powerfully enshrined in the ideology of Manifest Destiny—that she explained shrouds this historical moment in invisibility. One, westward expansion is depopulated, but for the white settlers coming from the east, Native communities and Mexicans are erased. Second, the violence of the war and the expropriation of land is also unceremoniously removed from history books, making westward expansion seem inevitable and ordained for white Americans.

From this historical position, Professor Gómez explained that she unraveled the thread of race-making for Mexicans in New Mexico. As conquered people, Mexicans, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, were considered legally white. While Mexicans attempted through the courts systems to assert their legal whiteness and their federal citizenship, socially they were treated as a racial minority.  Many Mexicans sought to align themselves with whiteness—as a Spanish-speaking ethnic group— in order to contest Anglo-American claims that Mexicans were a “mongrel race.” According to Gómez, however, from a sociological vantage point, race and not ethnicity could best explain Mexican and later Mexican Americans “inequality that became rooted in the Southwest” in the years after the war.  “To describe it as ethnic is a misnomer…and that doesn’t capture the dimensions of racism and racial segregation that Mexican Americans had and continue to experience,” she said. “My project was to try to make this a conversation about racial inequality and have an open and blunt conversation about race.”

Our conversation continued from there to discuss the current situation in the United States and why the second edition of her book will be flying off the shelves.  Laura Gómez is thrilled that her book continues to be salient today—especially in the Trump era. We must “seize this moment of reactionary politics” she said, because the numbers are in our favor. Latinx are a young and growing population and we must be ready to expand our educational horizons in order to push back against this president’s agenda and the conservative forces feeding it. Her current project will certainly help with this as she is writing about the racialization of Latinx in the twenty-first century United States.

It was a fantastic conversation with Dr. Laura Gómez and I encourage our Borderlands History Interview Project audience to enjoy the entire interview via this link. Thank you again for joining us and we look forward to a new episode of BHIP soon.

Special thanks to Marko Morales for the great work with audio editing and to Mike Bess for some additional technical support.

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BHIP: Emma Pérez

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Dr. Emma Pérez. Photo by: Dr. Ernesto Chávez.

While completing my undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University, I was handed The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History by a professor in Ethnic Studies. He knew I was interested in writing about women, specifically Chicanas and Latinas, but I was finding it difficult to find “traditional” sources.  After wrestling with the introduction to the book for several weeks, I gave up. Theory, I reasoned, was not for me. But, I did not give it away. I held on to it for years, believing that one day I might gain the knowledge that would help me uncover the deeper meanings held within—or at the very least assist me through its intro.

In graduate school, I was fortunate to take a class called “Theory and History.” We began with Karl Marx and made our way through the works of some of the most famous thinkers, including Sigmund Freud, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Homi Bhabba, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, Judith Butler, and Emma Pérez. Through time and space, we traveled the globe and the ages to find thinkers, philosophers, and theorists who had asked questions about the notions of capital, consumption, fetishes, consciousness, sexuality, power, performance, gender, race, and resistance.  The Decolonial Imaginary was one of the last books we read in the course. Studying borderlands history, on the U.S.-Mexico border, students tackled Pérez’s book with fervor.  What did she mean by “decolonial imaginary”? What is interstitial space? Why were these concepts useful in “writing Chicanas into history”? We turned the book inside out. It was a marvelous discussion that included the use of the dry erase board for visuals.

Many years later, I finally had an opportunity to ask Dr. Emma Pérez herself these questions that had transformed our classroom so many years ago.  Currently, Pérez is Research Social Scientist at the Southwest Studies Center at the University of Arizona, and she is also Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies.  She received her M.A. and PhD. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1982 and 1988 respectively.

She has written several books including her major historical monograph, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (Indiana University Press, 1999), as well as some well received works of fiction. Her book list includes, Gulf Dreams (Third Woman Press in 1996 and mostly recently reprinted by Aunt Lute Books in 2009), her award-winning novel Forgetting the Alamo, OR, Blood Memory (published out of the Chicana Matter series through University of Texas at Austin in 2009. Forgetting the Alamo was awarded the NACCS Regional Book Award. Her most recent novel is Electra’s Complex (Bella Books) in 2015. Dr. Perez has published several noteworthy articles as well, including “Gloria Anzaldua, La Gran Nueva Mestiza Theorist, Writer, Activist Scholar,” in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal 2005; “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies (2003); and an article she co-wrote with Scarlet Brown titled “Women’s Studies on the Border: University of Texas at El Paso,” Women’s Studies Quarterly (2002).

Dr. Pérez was ready for my first question, in fact, she’d been asked it many times before. “Why use postmodern theory, specifically Foucault, when attempting to write Chicanas into history?” I pondered.  When she first read Foucault’s History of Sexuality, she said, she was moved by his ability to synthesize historical information, always foregrounding the “bigger picture.” Foucault’s concerns with power—who wields it and why—helped Pérez grapple with larger historiographical questions about Chicana’s visibility in U.S. history overall.

One of Pérez’s greatest insights came in the discussion of silences in Foucault’s theory. As historians, we are taught to read the sources, to examine the evidence, but what if none exists? How do we read the silences? For Pérez documentary omissions and silences have the profound ability to produce erasure, and thus must be excavated. The “voices” of colonized people, of Chicana/Chicanx people, Pérez contends, are in the interstitial spaces.  She comes back to the notion of interstices and the interstitial when she talked about her time with Homi Bhabha.

With her students Pérez introduces the method of critique, which Foucault stealthily employed, in order to locate sources of power. Why are certain narratives considered “mainstream,” why are particular stories reified in our everyday lives, while others are not only forgotten, but purposefully excluded from our day-to-day interactions with history? In this manner, Pérez explains, students begin to ponder the way institutions hold power over these histories and control what is considered valuable for examination.  We find that power is located at the cross-sections of race, gender, sexuality, and class, and held by those who seek to gain most by keeping marginalized voices at bay.

These lines of inquiry bring students to further critique the reasons why the history of Chicanx and Latinx are obscured in U.S. history, why this history is marginalized in history departments across the country, and why they are generally excluded from historiographies of particular regions—like the Southwest.  But, as Pérez asserts, critique is not enough, we must then remediate the damage done.

We returned to a dialogue about interstitial spaces and her connection to Homi Bhabha, a renowned post-colonial theorists, and his own analysis of interstices.  Drawing from her own history of engaging the concept, Pérez recalled when she was accepted to the School of Criticism and Theory, during her tenure at University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), in 1993.  During this summer institute she took several seminars with Bhabha, who had scholars read about the “interstices”—the “in between” spaces. She remembered talking with him after a class one day, mentioning that his concern for articulating the “interstices” was similar to Gloria Anzaldúa’s deployment of “nepantla” in Anzaldúa’s visionary work Borderlands/La Frontera.  Published in 1987, Anzaldúa used “nepantla” a Nahuatl word that signifies, “in the middle” or “in between,” as a concept to describe the production of a hybrid identity for Chicanx in the borderlands.  It was important to reference Anzaldúa’s use of this term, since, as Pérez noted, so often others believed they were the first to engage its meaning. It was in this moment, during our interview, that Pérez so beautifully illustrated how to “write Chicanas into history.”

Our interview continued in this manner for nearly an hour and a half as we discussed what it means to “queer” borderlands history, as well as the politics of diversity in academia, her recent move to the University of Arizona, her joy in returning to the borderlands, and the overall fatigue we, as scholars of color, feel in the era of Trump.  Despite the fatigue, Pérez reflected, we cannot afford for a moment to be lax.

As we interpret theory, as we reach into the deepest regions of our consciousness for solace, we must constantly confront the material circumstances that deprive us of freedom and peace.  She remarked that while identity politics has been stripped of its meanings, we must continue to fight for justice through an intersectional lens. “Race is just not enough,” she responded. We must understand the ways gender, race, sexuality, and class work in concert to oppress and marginalize in our society. Fortunately, Pérez sees positive moves in this direction.  The generation of scholars that are coming forth, she says, have her “err on the side of hope.”

Enjoy the full audio of Dr. Emma Pérez’s BHIP here and stay tuned for more from the Borderlands History blog this coming fall. Remember to ‘like’ us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube channel. Until next time…

Special thanks for audio editing to Marko Morales.

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