No work, so I can work

The Claremont Colleges kick off another academic year today, but you can’t take any of my classes. That’s because I’m on sabbatical for the fall and spring semesters.

This is the second sabbatical I’ve been lucky enough to have during my career, the last one being six years ago. That doesn’t seem all that long ago and then I remember Bush was still president. The election of Barack Obama, the death of Michael Jackson, and our collective awareness of the “Great Recession” were all part of my year of research and writing. So was buying our first house, and my two kids (there were only two then) turning 3 and 1.

Back then I was still working on my first book, which became Latinos at the Golden Gate. I had much of it researched, and most of it written, but it was still really underdeveloped and kind of all over the place. My sabbatical not only made it a better book; I’m not sure I would have ever had the time to bring it all together and get it published if not for that year. (And now that first book will be coming out in paperback in the spring!)

It already feels like I have a lot going on, almost as much as I normally would at the start of a typical academic year. The big exception is that all of it is related to one, overarching project: Mexican Americans and the Vietnam War. That’s the topic of my second book, which is now officially in progress. I’m also partnering with a local arts center in Pomona on a public history project that’s also related to Latinos and the military, only with a focus on the Pomona Valley. That’s a two-year project that will involve a lot of interviews and culminate in a museum exhibit in 2017.

After a wonderful “family” summer filled with trips to Big Sur, Yosemite, Comic Con, and Palm Springs, I’m primed and ready to get a lot done during this sabbatical year. I’ve been reading a lot these past few months as well as doing a bit of archival work. The months ahead will involve a lot more primary research––both archival and oral interviews––but my primary goal is to write as much of book #2 as I can.

I feel privileged to work at a place where support for faculty research is real and meaningful. I also feel lucky to be in the position to write this book at this moment.

In the months ahead I might start making use of this space to write a little more informally about my work. In the meantime, I wish all my colleagues a productive and fruitful academic year 2015-16!

Nam

 

Chicano Vietnam Veterans

My work on Chicano/Latino communities and the Vietnam War was featured in a front page story in last Sunday’s Inland Valley Bulletin. The story also ran in other small papers throughout the LA area, since the IVB paper is part of a group of local papers covering most of the Southland. You can read the full story here.

dad

There are a few errors and inaccuracies in it. For example, I never refer to the process of oral histories as “giving a voice” to anybody. In most situations, we are all people who have a voice and who have the ability to “speak it” in a literal and symbolic way. The work of the oral historian is to seek it out, to record it, and to preserve it in an intentional act that is done in relationship to the narrator. But when we see ourselves as “giving voice” to subjects who didn’t have one to begin with, we start to recreate a lot of the problematic power imbalances that created that misperception in the first place.

In any case, these are small discrepancies for me considering the context. I mean, it’s a newspaper, not an academic journal article. I will say that going from a seemingly casual conversation about my work with a reporter to a feature story on it is a good lesson in how to be better prepared to speak to reporters in the future.

Overall, I was honored that my work gave the newspaper an reason to highlight the experiences of tens of thousands of veterans and their families. I’m also glad that more people who are the subject of my work now know about it.

One of the nice results was that the various papers also spotlighted some of the veterans I’ve interviewed. In some, the stories of my dad and uncle were spotlighted. You can read that article here. And in other papers the story of Louis Ramirez was featured in a thoughtful write-up. You can read that one here.

This history means a lot to me. A big part of that is the fact that it means a lot to thousands more.

Historical Songbook: “Los Hijos de Hernández” (1986)

Los Tigres del Norte are the most famous and accomplished conjunto band in Mexican musical history.

Their own story spans the border between California and Mexico (the group came together in San Jose, CA), and does so while playing norteño music that has a lot of cultural significance for Mexico’s north and the US Southwest (especially Texas). In short, they are emblematic of so much of the transnational character of Mexican American history.

Los Tigres are famous for their style of corridos, a Mexican folk tradition that often communicates the particulars of everyday life of most mexicanos, including their social/political struggles. For Los Tigres, their narco-corridos—songs that detail aspect of the illegal drug industry—are some of their most famous. Hardly confined to the dramas of the drug wars, they are a politically and socially-conscious group for a host of other issues as well.

In 1986, they released a song that demonstrates their both their radical sensibilities and its artistic expression, “Los Hijos de Hernández.” The song tells the story of an encounter at the border between a man and a border agent. Here is a quick translation:

Returning from my land,
and crossing the border,
an officer asks me
to fulfill my duties.
That if I had papers
I have to show to them.

And while he was reviewing them
I heard him murmur
something that made me angry.
That with so many emigrants already
many North Americans
can not work.

I told him very angrily
that which you murmured
has a lot of truth.
Latin Americans,
in the view of many Americans,
have taken away their place.

If we work very hard
and are not “chicken” either,
if life must be risked
in the fields of combat,
they have advanced us
because we know how to fight.

My children were born here,
ignoring the prejudice
and the discrimination
their homeland claimed,
and on the battlefield
they showed heart.

There no one noticed
that the Hernández’s they signed up
were cannon fodder.
Maybe my sons took
the places not filled
by the sons of some Saxon.

If on the payroll
look you in disgust
at my name in Spanish,
you will see on another list,
that upon reviewing, are missing in action.

While this he shouted,
the migrant wept,
and he said with emotion:
you can cross the border
anytime you want.
You have more valor than me.

Though the song is from the 1980s, and about the 1980s, it is also all about the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. It testifies to the widely-held belief that Chicanos and mexicanos were disproportionately sacrificing their lives for a nation that denied them substantive equality in most other sectors. In this way it is a reflection of the ways the Vietnam War remained such an unsettled event, both for the wider US society as well marginalized communities within that larger whole (like that of Mexican immigrants).

Or maybe its a tale that reflects the hidden ways the US did grapple with the lessons of Vietnam. After Vietnam, the US armed forces were all-volunteer, with the hugely unpopular draft coming to a formal end just before the conclusion of US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Among the many strategies the military would come to employ to assure a ready supply of able-bodied, trained soliders, would be to create new targeting strategies to attract more young men of color.

“Los Hijos de Hernández” reflects the contradictions of this increasingly “brown” army. Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike would often be coveted and welcome into the US military while still forbidden entry or effectively marginalized within the US.

“Los Hijos” is a fantastic song in so many ways. Among its more powerful qualities is its desire to voice an experience that is so true, often (and tragically) unifying within the ethnic Mexican community, and yet almost completely absent from the mainstream US imagination. As a snapshot of the mid/late 1980s, the song also unifies the narratives of (im)migration, labor, war, and memory in a very powerful way.

Nixon the Racist

More tape recordings of President Richard M. Nixon’s private office discussions were made public today.  Covering Januaury and February 1973, these tapes reveal what the former President thought of the Supreme Court decision making abortions legal.

“There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white. Or a rape.”

Nixon secretly taped all business in the Oval Office during his Presidency.  The tapes reveal him to have been a suspicious man, confused and often bewildered by the difficulties of the Vietnam War which dominated his two terms.  They also contain more than a few episodes where he and his advisers are discussing the events relating to the break-in at the Watergate, the cover-up of which eventually caused his demise.

These audio peaks give us a fuller picture of the man, including his view that there should be hotter women in the GOP and that abortion would be useful for those women who were about to give birth to an interracial baby.

Ah! White supremacy!!

You can read the news on these releases at the LA Times and the NY Times. You can listen to the audio tapes yourself here.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.