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The Loneliness of Writing History

Writing is ... frustrating. It is probably because I am needy, and as a child I always looked to my parents and teachers

By Dr. Rudolfo Acu??a
Published on LatinoLA: December 11, 2008


The Loneliness of Writing History


I am often asked whether I enjoy teaching or writing more. It has never been an issue with me ÔÇô teaching is my first love. I like writing but it does not give me the same sense of intellectual or personal fulfillment. I am addicted to the caritas (faces) of students.

Writing is much more frustrating. It is probably because I am needy, and as a child I always looked to my parents and teachers for the approval. This is something that got me into trouble because I would act up to get attention.

The most frustrating part of publishing a book is when the reviews start rolling in; there is no real mechanism to clarify points raised by reviewers, and similar questions that you are certain that readers might have. A give and take never really happens.

I recently received a review by a Brown University graduate student, Mark W. Robbins, published in the "Southern California Quarterly", of my book "Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933" (U Arizona Press). The review was fair and comprehensive ÔÇô unlike so many that give the impression that the reviewer hurries the reading of the book and then throws a report together.

Putting the "Corridors" book into perspective, it was forty years in the making, and I had to cut it down from 1,500 manuscript pages to about 450 pp. Publishers today rarely publish books longer than 350 pages. Thus, I had to cut a lot of background material and tuck information into the footnote comments. I stored a lot of the material that I cut in my archives at the California State University Northridge library.

But to get back to the questions Robbins' raises; he writes "Acu??a occasionally operates under the assumption that ethnicity should prevail over class affiliation." He cites my saying that the indifference of the Tucson Mexican elites to Mexican laborers during the late 19th nineteenth made it easier for whites to exploit the workers. Gibbons concludes that I seem to expect the middle class to identify more with the workers than with the white middle and upper classes.

In a perfect world, I would expect this. However, all too often Chicano and friendly white scholars have not distinguished between the the upper and working classes. I once told Leonard Pitt who wrote one of the best books on Mexicans in California, "The Decline of the Californios" (California U), that while I condemned the lynching and other injustices committed toward the Californios, I could feel little sympathy for them. Few advocated for the Indian or the poor, and indeed discriminated against them.

I am not surprised that the Tucsonenses acted out of concern for their own self interest. But for a long time this was hard for me to deal with since many of the Tucsonenses are my ancestors.

The question of Mexican identity on the border as I attempted to explain in "Corridors" is very complex. Nogales, Sonora is much closer to Tucson than Tijuana is to Los Angeles. You had family on both sides of the border. This is complicated because the population of Sonora for most of the nineteenth century out numbered that of Arizona. During this period, most Mexicans identified as Sonorans rather than Mexicans.

The only thing that many had were their pretensions. They were from familias buenas.

While the white and Mexican elites often had business and personal relations, it was American feelings of superiority (reinforced by a heavy migration of Texans) that maintained the Mexican identity and retarded assimilation. Racism had the positive effect of reinforcing identity and foster a resentment toward white people who they often considered below them.

As Carlos Velez-Ibanez has shown between 1870 and 1890 intermarriage rates between mostly Anglo males and Mexican females was almost 24 percent which accounts form a lot of interclass and intercultural relations. Between 1890 and 1910 it was 9.1 percent and falling.

The Sonoran and Mexicans formed their own newspapers banks, and other separate organizations. I show this in "Corridors" through the formation of mutualistas and finally la Alianza Hispano Americana in the 1890s which were in response to American nativism. After this point "amor propio," self-respect, became the over riding factor

In this context, Mexicans could not have become Americans even if they wanted to.

Robbins is correct that the elites cooperated with whites in small ways. Some of these ways were very negative such as their participation in the Camp Grant Massacre in 1871. They served as foremen, interpreters, merchants and brokers for the white establishment. Most their fortune depended on the Mexican market on both sides of the border -- and being part of it..

Some of Robbins' questions from my vantage point are obvious. He cites me as saying that Mexicans were 22 percent of the registered voters in Clifton-Morenci in 1904, and asks what were the implications? Given that the camps were 80 percent Mexican, I would ask, just 22 percent? On the other hand, this suggests that many Mexican workers by this point were citizens and stable members of the community rather than transients as portrayed by the mine owners and others.

As for the support for Republican candidates, I expressed my ambivalence to Republicans throughout the book. But let's face it, the labor movement until recent times was white and Democrat, and the Western Federation of Miners that had a reputation as a radical union was racist and xenophobic to the core. The WFM and other unions supported the Eighty Percent Law that required 80 percent of the miners to be American citizens. (Also see my treatment of the formation of the American Federation of Labor's Pan America Federation of Labor).

Here is where the sense of the Mexican elites' identity was offended. They rightly perceived the law as anti-Mexican. They had no problem condemning Pancho Villa and the radical trade unionist, but when the discrimination spilled over to all Mexicans, even those of "familias buenas", they drew the line. It is not that the elites were devoid of any sense of community or familial pride. They also formed alliances with Republicans because of business and political interests; they bartered votes for programs such as adult and bilingual education.

I thank Robbins for raising his concerns. He made me think. As I mentioned before, the border is a complex place. My grandfather lived on the border for 90 years working in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Nogales and Tucson. He refused to learn English, and though his children were born on this side, always considered himself a Sonoran.

"Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933" (U Arizona Press)

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