About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Fleeing to Mexico

The NYT published a story on Sunday that USians are fleeing the United States for Mexico City - and judging by what friends and associates are saying from other areas in Mexico, other tourist destinations are getting their share of gringos, as well. This is, of course, a foolish decision in both personal and public health policy - neither of which are my goals to evaluate (read "shame") today.

As horrible as this story is in terms of public health, there is a shred of hope in this story. Consider what that first paragraph just said: People from the United States are fleeing to Mexico during a global health crisis because they feel they will be safer. Indeed, Mexico jumped to the third-most visited country in the world in 2020 (up from #7). Add to that, after living in Mexico for several months, many of them are planning on staying permanently. In short, young people imagine Mexico to be a safe place, and after visiting, they judge it to be a welcoming and comfortable place to live. 

Here is the good news: Despite the last 6 years of Mexico trashing and the near apocalyptic tone of "Mexico is a failed state" from the press, young USians are finding in Mexico a world that is preferable tot the United States. One hopes that positive aspects of Mexico are ones that they will look to recreate in the United States. Additionally, with this increasing number of people spending time in Mexico that have never before been there, one hopes that they will speak out about improving relations between the US and Mexico. That the NAFTA opened up the free flow of goods and capital, but not people and wealth between the US and Mexico was an opportunity lost. As more and more USians stop seeing Mexico as a "failed state" or a nightmare location, perhaps we can grow closer together under a new generation of leadership.

Here's the bad news: Note that above I said "imagine" when I mentioned what young people know of Mexico. During the current pandemic Mexico is not a safe place to be - not because it is Mexico but because traveling is not safe. Affluent USians have no idea to the extent to which they are contributing to the health divide between haves and have nots in many regions of Mexico, particularly as health resources are being so heavily taxed. Additionally, while these travelers seem to understand that violence in Mexico is neither endemic nor targeted at all people, they don't seem to understand the types of violence that do exist in Mexico that are real issues - particularly for women and the poor. And finally, not fully understanding the impact that "expats" have on Mexican housing and food prices means that where US migrants were previously welcome, they might be less welcome in the future if numbers continue to rise (particularly if they spread Covid-19). 

Here's the hope: Mexico and the United States are already far more closely united than most in the US (or even Mexican conservatives) are willing to admit. While we will probably never achieve completely open borders with a free flow of people, ideas, jobs, etc., one hopes that this "fleeing to Mexico" is a sign that we are ready to put away the nightmare of Mexico trashing from the last 6 year.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

On History

As the President of the United States takes the nation farther along the path of nationalism, authoritarianism, and - if his handlers prevail - theocratic white nationalism, historians are in the cross hairs. Right-wing media and the various branches of the Trumpen SS militia are gunning for history teachers (figuratively, for now) for not sticking to a triumphalist narrative that champions the Homeland. On the other hand, a smaller wedge of Left-leaning social justice advocates who have taken their justified concerns to unreasonable lengths want a purging of historical figures as nuanced, subtle, or human figures. And to be clear, I am not talking about taking down Confederate participation trophy statues. What is a historian to do?

The frustration of historians living in the United States in these days is palpable. You can feel their contempt and anger bubbling off the screens via journalism and social media day after day. So few people outside of the profession of history have any idea what historians do and why they do it. On the rare occasions that Historians enter the public realm they look like Shelby Foote (grand pappy spinnin' yarns) or Professor Bins (the dullest ghost whose boring recitations of history make students wish they were dead). Who is to blame for the lack of outreach and understanding about history?


Historians themselves have done their damnedest to create a profession impenetrable to outsiders, a professoriate that disdains public outreach (or innovation), and a publishing wing that revels in dullness and verbosity. Overwhelming stacked to the gills with professors with PhDs from the Ivy schools, the gate keepers of historical knowledge eschew any criticism of the profession as coming from a public too dull to really understand. But how could they? Once a window has been covered in tar and then coated in dirt you can't blame the person outside the house for not being able to see in. 

But we as humans crave history. We absolutely hunger after the stories of our past and the knowledge from whence we have emerged. Humanity takes great joy in recounting tales of heroes and villains, of wrongs and rights, of actions both great and small that set us on the course we travel today. Instead, historians have responded by shutting the public out of their conferences, limiting their writing to indecipherable babble, and engaging in debates about minutia that the public hardly cares about. Personally, I can endure any number of essays about who has the greatest interpretation of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 - but I would prefer to see a readable argument of events designed to help people in the United States understand why that Revolution matters here. 

And so, into the vacuum left by professional historians the fascists have rushed. They have (rightly) argued that the egg heads have abandoned history for the public - and there has until this point been few historians to answer them. Sure, there are a host of journalists with a sliver of education in the public eye talking about history: Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Dubner, etc. And there are a few working public intellectuals that are historians such as Sean Wilentz. But what is needed is for the historians of every community college, regional comprehensive university, and particularly the research universities (where historians are long on time and short on public exposure) to sally forth into their communities and engage in conversations about what historians do. There is a wing of historians engaged in public history - but often they are isolated in their departments or derided as "vocational" (because getting a job is sooooo gauche). 

Every working academic historian needs to be engaged in public outreach right now. And what should they be doing?

1) Explaining what historians do and how history works.

2) Explaining the skills that come from studying history.

3) Making complex, subtle, and professional histories readable and accessible - and explaining why the public should care.

4) Telling stories: It is not beneath historians to tell tales that inspire teach us about our possible futures.

Historians don't have to abandon the professional academic pursuit of history - but they should understand that unless they make it accessible, understandable and open to the public, that they will continue to get excoriated by the left, ignored by the public, and one day, forced to stand in front of a firing squad by the US right-wing.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

A Couple of Points on that LeBaron Situation

In 2015 I co-edited an edited collection with Jared Tamez on the "Mormons in Mexico," and the borderlands, which looked mostly at the mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2011 I published a book which looked at one of the offshoots of mainline Latter-day Saint practice in central Mexico. I've travelled in this area and I have taken students to this part of Mexico. There are a few things about the current narratives regarding the LeBaron ambush and killings and the narrative around them that isn't sitting well with me:

1) The LeBarons, the Romneys, the Browns, the Allreds, the Whettens ... or any other white Mormon in Mexico (be they LDS or otherwise) are pretty much passing footnotes in the global history of Mormonism. Interesting footnotes, but hardly the foundational families or stories of what has become a world-wide movement.

2) The LeBaron community and the traditional "Colonias Mormones" are not one and the same. LeBaron isn't considered to be one of the "Mormon Colonies" by Chihuahenses or the LDS folks in the other colonies. It is true that if you go back to the late 1800s they share the same roots, but that divide sets in pretty quickly, and the early 20s those are very different groups and communities.

3) Hey, reporter or blogger or anthro student ... you may be crowing that you "got a Mormon in Colonia Juarez to talk to you about their community." Ummmm... those folks are not some sort of locked and hidden enclave that refuses to talk to outsiders. If you roll up to the traditional Mormon Colonies like Dublan or Juarez, pretty much anybody is going to talk to you. Tour buses visit from Mexico City. John Hatch even runs a tour company in the colonies and will take you anywhere you want to go, either in the colonies or around Chihuahua. Nelda will talk to you about Apaches. Mauricio will sing cowboy songs to you. And they will all talk about the colonies. But then again WHAT ARE YOU TALKING TO THE LDS COLONISTS FOR? They aren't part of this story. They are cool places to visit ... but they are not part of this story.

4) Jorge Castaneda - as much as he perturbed me in his work for the PAN - is one of the few folks talking about there being other reasons for this violence than a cartel accident. Is it about water rights? Maybe. I personally doubt that based on other water contexts in the state, but it is certainly still possible. The strike hit two different groups of cars, 10 miles apart. It is hard to think this is an "accident." We just have too little information at this point for US tanks to start rolling into Chihuahua.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

One Lecture

That’s all I’m asking for.

Just one lecture.

In teaching my Modern Mexico history course, I decided to start drawing more parallels to moments in US History to help students better relate to the content. When we talked muralists, I mentioned People’s Park in San Diego. When we talked about Emiliano Zapata I mentioned the Gorras Blancas in New Mexico and their issues with access to land and water. When we talked about the Mexican rural police constabulary known as the Rurales, I mention the Texas Rangers and their butchering of Tejanos and Mexicans before, during, and after the Mexican Revolution. With these and other examples, I was generally greeted with blank stares or confused looks. Finally, one day after I made a union comparison that got zero response, I mentioned to students that if they were going to be high school teachers (our university is primarily a teacher training institution), that they should pay more attention in US History. To this, one of the co-presidents of MEChA enrolled in my class politely responded that frankly, after lecture she had to go home and look up the references to US History I made, because aside from Cesar Chavez and the Zoot Suiters, none of those incidents or people were taught in her US History classes.

I apologized.

So, today, US History teaching colleagues, I am asking that you find one traditional lecture you can swap out of your lineup and give that slot to a topic on Latinx history in the US. Maybe you drop one WW II lecture or (I'm not unreasonable) one Vietnam lecture and swap in a discussion of the American GI Forum, Hector Garcia, and the link to Latinx civil rights. Maybe you cut out a lecture on 1950s television and swap in a lecture on the Bracero program, or even an expanded lecture on the UFW that includes Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta. Maybe one lecture on the New Deal gets set aside and there is a discussion of LULAC and their fight for civil rights. Bert Cornona, anyone? Ruben Salazar? Betita Martinez?

But I also have a bet for you. I bet that in the process you’ll find that it would be even easier to just integrate more Latinx history into your courses. I’m betting that you will find so many interesting, inspiring, and instructive stories that you'll pass up the one-lecture concept and just shoot for full integration.

Talking about Brown vs. Board of Ed? How easy it is to discuss the Alvarez vs. Lemon Grove or Mendez V. Westminster cases. Talking labor rights? Maybe show a little love to the mexicanos working in the railroads in Chicago and St. Louis. Talking about US expansionism? Squeeze in an explanation of the Herrera family and their fight for land rights in New Mexico. How about transnational anarchism and the Flores Magon brothers in the US?

I bet that when you talk about the 1960s/70s and a radical envisioning of the US, there would be some room for the East LA Blowouts next to the Berkeley free speech protests. I think you’ll find comfortable accommodations for Oscar Acosta in that Hunter S. Thompson discussion, or for Rudolfo Anaya next to the Black Panthers talk. Jackie Robinson? Slip in a discussion of Roberto Clemente and maybe Joe Kapp for good measure.  

How about those culture classes? Consider the Chicanx roots of punk – thank you ? and the Mysterians. How about Richie Valens, Sunny and the Sun Glows, or Cannibal and the Headhunters slipped into that 50s rock and roll lecture? It will work just fine to slip in Gloria Estefan and Selena Quintanilla next to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper (you remember Madonna - she’s the Italian-American Selena).

I’m not saying you have to turn your US History class into a Chicanx Studies class. Far from it. But I know way too many US Historians who have goals of creating progressive, inclusive classroom histories who have hardly heard of any of the people or incidents I mentioned above, or if they have, they aren’t always making it into the class.

Maybe you’re the exception. Maybe you have five classes or have already obtained thematic integrative nirvana. But if you haven’t …

Start with one lecture.

Suggested reading list to get you started:
·         Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States - Felipe Fernández-Armesto
·        Occupied America, 8th Edition, Rodolfo Acuña
·        Crucible of Struggle - Zaragosa Vargas
·        From Out of the Shadows - Vicki L. Ruiz
·        Latino USA - Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz
·        Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States - Manuel G. Gonzales

Monday, November 7, 2016

Banana Republic ... Food For Thought

Kudos to Patrick Blanchfield and Patrick Iber for an article that has the potential to draw attention to foreign policy as well as the every day ways perceptions of Latin America are reinforced in society.

Follow the link for a great read over at the Baffler on the topic of using "Banana Republic" in the 2016 political race.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Endemic Violence

In the last two weeks Public Radio shows "All Things Considered" and "On The Media" have either proclaimed (Ari Shapiro on ATC talking about Honduras) or let their guests get away with (Bob Garfield, On the Media talking about Rio) calling violence in Latin America "endemic."

These old stereotypes of the fiery, violent Latino who is born to kill and has no control of their emotions are as old as the Anglo-Iberian feud itself. "Those places" like Brazil and Central America are tagged as having been bathed in violence passed from parent to child and exist in a time warp of barbarism. When the media speaks of this violence as "endemic" it creates justifications for coups, assassinations, and general disregard of the national sovereignty of the nations of the Americas in order to bring civilization to the barbarians of the south. While one might expect better of outlets like NPR or PRI, they can often be as bad as a Wall Street Journal article from Mary Anastasia O'Grady herself.

C'mon, NPR, you can do better than this.

For further reading (I'm looking at you media types), see Phillip Powell's Tree of Hate or Greg Grandin's Empire's Workshop. Maybe even treat yourself to Duncan Green's Faces of Latin America or the classic Open Veins of Latin America by Galeano.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Is Mary Anastasia O'Grady Really That Ignorant of Argentine Economic History?

Foaming at the mouth - this time with glee - Wall Street Journal Chicago-school huckster and snake oil salesperson Mary Anastasia O'Grady has declared that Argentina has entered into an era of "hope" because Kristina Kirchner isn't on the October ballot. Thus, a reign of terror has come to an end. As O'Grady barks in the WSJ (13 Sept 2015): "Biblical pestilence, plagues, fire, drought, floods, even skyrocketing prices are scary, but not more so than the continuation of the insidious kirchnerismo."

Of course, she goes on to say that all of Argentina's economic woes are the product of Nestor and Kristina Kirchener, that ruled in succession from 2003 to 2015. Kirchener, she says, "took office in 2003 as the country was struggling to recover from a currency and debt crisis." That is a really great way of saying a total economic and political collapse and four-year great depression caused by the economic shenanigans and crony capitalism of Carlos Menem - himself a convicted arms smuggler and bribe-taker. Even before Menem there was an incredible inflation crisis, and prior to that, the right-wing military dictatorship left Argentina with a massive debt before it collapsed. 

It burns me up that the right comes into places like Argentina and gives you a dirty war and total financial collapse and from O'grady you get it being called "a currency and debt crisis." When the left comes in and implements policies that pull the bulk of Argentines out of poverty - but that still fail to fix the overall problem's of Argentina's economy - it is worse than Biblical plagues. 

I don't think Mary Anastasia O'Grady is stupid - so I can only assume she is so doggedly wed to her narrow narrative of fascist-governments-licking-the-boots-of-American-and-British-bankers-and-massive-poverty-is-fantastic that she knowingly omits the past. Argentina has trouble of a nature that neither the right nor left has successfully offered the best solutions for. Instead of using her influence at the WSJ and with American capital to analyze the situation, O'Grady uses it to build more enmity between "us" and "them." Giving Mary Anastasia O'Grady a soap box to stand on is like those parents that took their nine-year-old to the gun range and gave her an uzi: too much power in the hands of somebody that just doesn't know what they are doing.