Journey into an Undocumented Past: Why I Became a Historian

I became interested in history when I was deployed in the Middle East in 2008. I was troubled by boredom and the simplistic (and nationalistic) ways in which both my subordinates and superiors spoke and thought about American history and politics. I began reading history books that complicated the past and reconfigured the present. I also became fascinated by social and cultural history—something that at once excited and baffled me. Before then, I had only learned about great men, but now I discovered histories of slaves, workers, dissident soldiers, and scrappy radicals.

I knew I wanted to write this kind of history. As someone who had been an undocumented immigrant, who grew up extremely poor, and who watched my parents do back-breaking work to ensure I was fed and received at least a basic education (they had none), I wanted to honor their sacrifices and the memories of those who were not as lucky as I was to get a green card and to have a shot at a dignified life.

With that hope in mind, I left the military after being honorably discharged, enrolled in an open-admissions university in Utah, and completed my bachelor’s degree in three years, from the start with sights on applying to a PhD program in history. I was accepted at several universities and chose to attend Duke University, where I currently work under the supervision of the civil rights historian Nancy MacLean.

My proposed dissertation attempts to make sense of how Chicanos came to see the undocumented cause as their own. I disagree with the assumption that this affinity was natural. Instead, I argue that it was historically contingent, and that it came at a puzzling time: during the 1970s, a period of deep economic recession and high unemployment. In other words, Chicanos took up the undocumented cause precisely when “the significance of illegal immigration,” as the labor economist Vernon Briggs noted in 1975, was most pressing for Mexican Americans, the people most likely to be affected negatively by low‐wage, low-skilled immigration.

During this summer, I would like to blog about my experience shaping, researching, and writing about this topic. As I travel to archives, interview subjects—Chicanos and (formerly) undocumented people—and grapple with my historical problem and its implications, I would love to share my experiences, frustrations, challenges, and joys in a blog titled “Journey into an Undocumented Past.”

I sincerely believe that historians in the 21st century have both a duty and a tremendous opportunity to reach out and engage the public. In an age of information saturation, the historian’s role as social mediator is critical. We continue to confront questions of income and gender inequality, racism, war, and other contemporary problems with historical roots, and I believe this project can make a small contribution to public understanding about how historians make sense of the past and help shape the future.

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  1. Arnita Jones

    Very much appreciated your first posting and admire your intention to build a career that includes a substantial public component. Look forward to continuing to read your blog. Also you may find of interest two organizations that relate directly to public history, the National Council for Public History (NCPH) at ncph.org and the (closely related) International Federation for Public History (IFPH) at http://ifph.hypotheses.org.

    Arnita Jones, AHA ex director emerita

    Reply
  2. Allison Hess

    What an inspiring story. I look forward to reading the results of your research. I hope you’ll share the findings and your passion for history with undergraduates at at your alma mater, Weber State. We are all so proud of you and what you’re accomplishing.

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  3. Ryan Poe

    Great story, friend! I look forward to your future contributions. What do you mean by historian’s role as “social mediator?” I concur that in all questions can be better informed with a historian’s voice present in the conversation. If I can project your meaning, maybe historians as “social mediators” (perhaps not the best choice of words) can make the difference between a veneration myth of the founders and the nuanced views of the nation’s founding and early national period offered by historians? If that’s the case, then we definitely need to assert ourselves into the conversation!

    Can’t wait to see what the future of your dissertation holds! Best of luck, and keep us informed!

    Reply
    1. Dan Boone

      Concerning the history of the United Farm Workers in relation to undocumented workers, the most thorough and accurate history of the Union is Trampling Out the Vintage, by Frank Bardacke (2011). That telling may not be consistent with your thesis, but it cannot be ignored.

      Reply
  4. Ángela

    Great post. if you research brings you to LA in the fall, let us know! our students and faculty would love hearing about your experience and research

    Reply
  5. Max Krochmal

    Great stuff, Eladio! If you haven’t already made contact, talk to my buddy Jimmy Patino (con enye) at U of Minnesota. His diss and book mss focus on movimiento-immigrant relations on the ground in San Diego/Tijuana. Good luck!

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