Radical Americas interview

Back in May, I had the pleasure of chatting with William A. Booth of Oxford about my book for the “Radical Americas” podcast. Here’s our conversation about things like “what IS early 20th century Mexican Socialism?” and the significance of the Socialist experiment in Chiapas.

https://www.buzzsprout.com/112436/1469662-the-radical-americas-podcast-episode-011

And while we’re at it, Dr. Booth also recently reviewed my book for the Journal of Latin American Studies.

Collaborative student research project

I am thrilled to finally be able to share the finished product of two semesters of collaborative student research that I had the privilege to supervise.

After my experience as a volunteer interpreter for the Dilley Pro Bono Project last fall, I proposed to their staff that my students and I could create a website comprised of background briefs on Central America’s recent history that would support the work of the volunteer attorneys that represent Central American asylum seekers in detention.

Many of my students volunteered to be involved and to write briefs as part of their final research project in my History of Drugs class in the fall of 2018. This semester (spring 2019), two of my students continued working on the site as independent studies with me. Emma Lightizer researched and wrote numerous new historical briefs, and David Smith edited, curated and compiled all of the other students’ work, in addition to his own research and writing contributions. He also designed and created the site itself.

You can read more about David’ work on the site here: https://www.uvm.edu/cas/news/original-student-research-foundation-new-website-immigration-attorneys

In using and navigating the site, readers will benefit immensely from the large amount of work David did cross referencing and tagging articles to maximize its accessibility of information. In most cases, briefs include not just cited sources, but also annotated lists for further, related reading. We very purposefully made sure that none of these linked outside resources are behind paywalls, again with the intention of maximizing accessibility to all readers.

I could not be more proud of all of my students for the work that they have done on this, and particularly of David for his careful, thoughtful and dedicated work putting all of the pieces together and making this site a reality.

Please use and share this site as you see fit.

https://blog.uvm.edu/sosten-centralamerica/

End family detention. End all migrant detention.

Podcast

A few months ago, I was honored to be asked by one of my students, the amazing Margaux Miller, to be on her podcast, My Older Sister’s Backseat. She asked me to talk about my experience translating for asylum-seekers in detention last fall, and we had a great conversation. I already knew from having her in several classes that Margaux is a superb researcher and writer, but I learned that she is also a really talented interviewer. Anyway, here it is. Make sure to check out all of her episodes.

https://myoldersistersbackseat.simplecast.fm/642359f9

Next week!

Next week I am returning to UChicago to give a talk on my book at the Katz Center, now as a tenured professor. I give lots of talks (especially lately), but this one is particularly meaningful to me, for obvious reasons. As a grad student, these were the seminars I most looked forward to, and I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that some day I might be on the other side of the table.

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Book

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The meeting of the American Historical Association (and the Conference on Latin American History) last week was the first time I’ve been back to the conference since I was on the job market (and interviewed for my current job), six years ago. It was a pleasure to see colleagues I rarely get to talk to in person and to catch up with old friends (including people who I count in both categories!). I was also very pleasantly surprised that we actually had a good turnout for our 8:30 AM panel on Saturday on Mexican anti-reelectionism. It was also a lovely opportunity to spend some time in Chicago, which is a city I still love so much after living there for so long during grad school at U Chicago and then my postdoc at Northwestern.

Last but not least, I also got to see my book on display for the first time, in Cambridge’s booth at the book fair. Photo by my editor, Debbie Gershenowitz, to whom I am so grateful for helping me to make my work into a book that I’m really proud of.

Credible Fear

In October of 2018, I had the remarkable experience of working as a Spanish-English interpreter for detained asylum-seeking women at the South Texas Family Residential Center (don’t be confused by the name, it’s a prison) in Dilley, Texas as a volunteer for the CARA Dilley Pro Bono Project. I spent a week interpreting for an attorney friend and numerous detained women, all from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (although there are women from all over the world held in the facility) to help them prepare for their credible fear interviews, which is the first step in petitioning for asylum in the US. It was exhausting, extremely sad, but also very inspiring. The women we worked with were all extraordinarily brave and impressively strong, and their optimism in the face of truly terrible experiences, back at home, on the long, dangerous journey to the US and then in prison with their children, was very moving to me.

I am thrilled to be returning to Brown, my alma mater, in two weeks to participate in a panel discussion with Kate Goldman, the manager of Brown’s Center for Latin American Studies, who was one of my fellow volunteers in Dilley. Free and open to the public!

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What Professors Want College Students to Know (crowdsourced)

I am teaching a first year seminar at UVM right now, which has a significant advising component.  In preparation, I asked friends, colleagues and family members who teach at the college level what they as professors think new college students need to know to succeed, and distributed the list of suggestions to my students this week. My only requirement was that the advice be supportive rather than scolding. In some cases I have paraphrased, and in others condensed/combined related or redundant items. Here is the compiled list, in no particular order.  I have of course added many of my own pieces of advice to students, and can only personally take credit for those. Thanks to all that contributed, including those whose insights I received secondhand! 

WHAT YOUR PROFESSORS WANT YOU TO KNOW

  • Know all of your professors’ names. Call them Professor [Last Name] unless they explicitly tell you to call them something else. Spell and pronounce their names correctly. 
  • Read the syllabus. All of it, carefully. Know the policies and deadlines in each course.
  • Check your university email regularly. Respond to email in a timely manner.
  • Write polite emails. Sign them with your name.
  • Go to all of your professors’ office hours every semester, even if it’s just to say hi. We like it!
  • Meet with your academic advisor regularly (at least once/semester).
  • Use campus resources like the writing center and on-campus tutoring.
  • Put all of your exams and deadlines in a calendar.
  • The university is here to support you in many ways—don’t hesitate to reach out when you need help.
  • Be proactive about getting help BEFORE things get to a crisis point.
  • Your professors want you to succeed and are on your side. They are not angry at you when you don’t succeed. It’s not personal: your learning is our job.
  • If you WANT to piss off your professors, using your phone, smartwatch or laptop for anything other than taking notes during class is a reliable method.
  • Don’t ask “did I miss anything important?” if you miss a class. (Yes, you did.) Instead, do what you can to get caught up (do the readings and get lecture notes), and go to your professor’s office hours with specific questions about things you didn’t understand.
  • Know the consequences for your choices (missing class, not passing in work) and act accordingly. 
  • Buy a stapler. Use it.
  • Do the reading. You might be able to pass without it, but you won’t earn an A in most classes.
  • Go to class regularly. Get there on time. Take good notes.
  • Actively participate in discussion-based classes and class sessions.
  • Take responsibility for your own learning. Be persistent when you are struggling to learn something new, but also be patient with yourself if you don’t succeed right away.
  • You start each class with zero points and earn up to 100. You do not start with 100 points and have them progressively deducted.
  • Slow and steady: if you do the work and show up to class you are setting yourself up to succeed, even if you’re not doing everything perfectly every time.
  • Come to class ready to learn, and acknowledge what you do not understand.
  • Come to class with informed, thoughtful questions. Write them down for yourself. Read them aloud if you need to, if you are shy.
  • Don’t only look at the grade on your papers. Read all of your professors’ comments on your work carefully: their only purpose is to help you learn and to do better on the next assignment.
  • Learn from your mistakes. If you don’t get the grade you were hoping for on an assignment, figure out what you can do differently next time. Ask your professor if you are not sure.
  • Follow up if a professor invites you to talk to them more about something.
  • Take our advice when we suggest you get help on your writing (or any other particular skills).
  • Throw your whole self into understanding the world better through your studies rather than stressing about the grades you earn for your coursework.
  • Support each other. The other students in your classes are your colleagues, not your competitors. Swap contact information with at least one person in each class.
  • Think about college as a progression. Each year you will advance in terms of knowledge and skills.
  • Use software well. Learn all of the relevant features of programs like Word and Excel. Investigate things like citation software and Dropbox.
  • Use the internet well. Learn how to do effective Google searches.
  • Study abroad.
  • Discuss any need you might have for a deadline extension with your professor BEFORE the deadline.
  • Take care of your health. Eat well. Sleep enough. Wash your hands a lot. Exercise. Wear sunscreen. Practice safe sex. Go to health services when you get sick. Get therapy if you need it. Dress warmly in the winter, even if it means sacrificing fashion. 
  • Take care of the health of others: stay home when you are contagiously sick. 
  • There are nearly endless valuable resources at the library. Explore them and use them!
  • Spell check and proofread everything.
  • Plagiarism is always a terrible idea.
  • Citation is always a good idea.
  • Always back up your work, either in cloud storage or on an external hard drive. Do it regularly.
  • Learn a second language. Then learn a third one.
  • Work/life balance is important. Find stuff you like to do that isn’t academic, whether it’s a sport, a club or a hobby you do on your own.
  • PS: read the syllabus.

90 years of retrospect

Here are a few of the central questions the still haunt Mexican politics that I address in my book, and some nutshell versions of my best efforts to answer them.

1) What were the origins of the PRI, and why did the Mexican Revolution, a notably heterogeneous conflict with a multiplicity of discrete factions, produce a single party-dominated political system?

One of the things I try to do in my book is to illuminate the relationship between the Mexican Revolution and the political system that took root in Mexico in the decades that followed, and to provide a clear explanation of how and why the former produced the latter.  This is why I describe my book as "a new genealogy of the modern Mexican political system."  

It is very easy and perfectly reasonable to be cynical about the very notion of an "institutional revolution," particularly with the benefit of historical retrospect. It is nevertheless worth remembering that many politicians of the first few postrevolutionary generations took the immense task of institutionalizing the Mexican Revolution both seriously and literally, and the regional Socialist parties that inspired the initial design of the PRI and its predecessors were intended to be the peaceful, institutionalized expression of the Revolution and one of the primary tools for fulfilling its extensive commitments to Mexican citizens. Subsequent failures by the three successive parties of the revolution to make good on those commitments in a sustained and meaningful way are of course a different matter, but we cannot really understand the form those parties took without taking seriously the intentions that inspired their original design.

The Socialists of the Southeast (Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco and Yucatán) fervently believed that the political system they created via their corporatist political parties, comprised of ligas de resistencia (local organizations that were typically a cross between a trade union and a mutual aid society) that all belonged to a centralized, state-wide umbrella organization, were democratic; however, although elections remained a key element of the Socialists' political practice, by "democracy" they meant state-led progressive reform intended to insure social welfare, labor rights and a more just and equitable relationship between labor and capital, overseen and regulated by the state. Electoral democracy was another matter: unanimity among the Socialist base was the expectation on election day, even when opposition candidates were allowed to run (which they were not always).  This was hugely influential as a model for building substantive, durable working relationships between constituents and political elites at the national level.  But as it was applied at the national level with the creation of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) in 1929, much of the idealism and reformist fervor was stripped away, leaving a powerful tool for organizing popular support for politicians, whether or not they planned to uphold revolutionary principles. No opposition faction was nearly successful at building a durable political party during the 1920s. What's  more, in nearly every case, the powerful parties that did emerge either failed or declined to build substantive and lasting relationships with popular constituencies.  Lastly, most opposition leaders were either dead or in exile by 1929 (see below re: violence).  For all of these reasons, the PNR, which borrowed liberally from the Socialist model, was able to dominate the political system so thoroughly from a very early point, and no tradition of multi-party competition was established.

2) Why did that system work for as long as it did, and why was/is it so hard to uproot it?

As idealistic as southeastern Socialism inarguably was in its design, it always had some authoritarianism in it, too.  This varied a bit from state to state: the most authoritarian version of Socialism in the region was in Tabasco, which, for various reasons, was the brand of Socialism that ended up being most influential at the national level.  Some of that had to do with the personality of Tomás Garrido Canabal, who led the Socialist party and movement there, but some of it was also about local circumstances. With good reason, Socialists across the Southeast felt that they had to protect their hard-won political rights at all costs in the face of a constant onslaught of well-financed counterrevolutionary attacks against them by local elites whose political power and economic prospects were substantially threatened by Socialist governments. This was all the more true after the assassination of Felipe Carrillo Puerto of Yucatán, the leader of Socialism across the region, in January of 1924, by delahuertista rebel forces, almost certainly with the enthusiastic support of local henequen barons.  The Socialists accordingly designed their parties and their movements to be as impervious as possible to attack by reactionary outsiders.  In practice, this impulse made the Socialist political system less democratic and party leaders less tolerant of organized challenges to Socialist dominance.  Socialists (again, especially in Tabasco), were extremely determined to give no ground to their opponents or enemies, and created a political system that was extremely difficult to reform, in which there was very little opportunity for participation in the political system outside of the Socialist party and the ligas de resistencia.  At the same time, there were real, material incentives for citizens to work within the system: workers in Tabasco had some of the highest wages and most extensive workplace protections in Mexico by the early 1930s.  The same general arrangement eventually also turned out to work very well at the national level, although with the same weaknesses and liabilities in practice in the long-term.

3) What is the long-term relationship between Mexico's postrevolutionary process of state formation, and state-sponsored (and/or tacitly sanctioned) violence?

It is commonly suggested that the assassination of Alvaro Obregón in 1928 was the catalyst for the formation of the single party-dominated system in Mexico.  It is indubitable that it was critically important to the ability of Plutarco Elías Calles and his allies to marshal the majority of the Mexican political class into the PNR once it was founded in 1929.  But other deaths also made this possible.  The history of southeastern Socialism makes this plain.  Felipe Carrillo Puerto was assassinated by counterrevolutionary forces in 1924.  Socialist governor Carlos Vidal of Chiapas was killed in the Huitzilac Massacre of 1927, after he helped to lead the movement that opposed Obregón's reelection to the presidency in 1928; by that time he had already survived at least two previous assassination attempts.  Hundreds of people who joined the anti-reelectionist movement were also killed, in addition to the opposition presidential candidates, Generals Francisco Serrano and Arnulfo Gómez.  Meanwhile, their sympathizers were purged out of the federal legislature, and effectively silenced under the implied threat of further violence.  Tomás Garrido Canabal survived the 1920s, but barely: there were several attempts made on his life, just none that succeeded.  By the time Calles and his allies convened the PNR, very few opposition leaders were left standing. Some, like Serrano and Gómez, had been killed.  Others, like Jorge Prieto Laurens, Adolfo de la Huerta and José Vasconcelos, had fled into exile. Likewise, radicals who were allied with Calles were sidelined or killed, Carrillo Puerto being the most important example (and Garrido Canabal being the most important counter-example), meaning that there were many fewer powerful voices to object to the PNR's turn away from land and labor reform than there once were.   At the same time, it is important to recognize that while Mexico had no postrevolutionary purges on the scale of Russia, China or Cuba, the lived experience and firsthand witnessing of violence was deeply influential to the framers of the modern Mexican political system, as well as to everyday citizens who had seen that you could very conceivably be killed for voting a particular way on election day.  

In sum, on the one hand, the bloody attrition within the political class over the course of the 1920s made possible the creation of a single party-dominated system by ridding those left standing of thorns in their collective sides, like Gómez and Serrano.  On the other, the framers of the PNR designed a political system with the prevention of recurring political violence very much in mind.  Nevertheless, targeted political violence was deeply embedded in the foundations of the party and the system it and its successors collectively dominated for so long, from the outset.

 

fourteen years in the making

If you count all of the time I spent researching this project, starting with my MA thesis on the Chiapas Socialists' landmark 1925 women's suffrage law, through all of my dissertation research on Socialism in the Southeast, and then the seven years of research, writing and revision I've done since then, I have worked on this book for fourteen years.  And it is finally here!  It is available for purchase already at Cambridge University Press and at Amazon on Feb 22.

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Recent journalism on Mexico in English

I recently asked friends and colleagues on my personal Facebook page to recommend recent journalism on Mexico in English; the goal was to revise and update the last two weeks of my "Modern Mexico" syllabus for the coming semester (the course has a significant journalism component).  I thought I'd share the list as the inaugural post in this new blog.  

Here are the recommendations I have collected so far, in no particular order.  Thanks to all who contributed to this list (Michael Lettieri, Patrick Timmons, Alaina Harkness, Elizabeth O'Brien, Kate McGurn Centellas, Theresa Braine, Ulysses de la Torre, Brian Palmer-Rubin).

In a different class this semester, I am teaching Alfredo Corchado's stunning memoir, Midnight in Mexico (2014).  See also his reporting for the Dallas Morning News.

See also the ongoing work to bring Mexican journalism to English-speaking audiences:

I will update this list if/when I receive further recommendations.