For me, history remains a grand adventure, one, which began at the kitchen table listening to the stories of my mother and grandmother and then took flight aboard the local bookmobile. As a historian, I have had the privilege of interviewing people whose quiet courage made a difference in their lives and in their communities. In the summer of 1978 I traveled to Guadalajara to interview labor and civil rights activist Luisa Moreno. On the last day of my stay, I blurted out, “I know what I’m going to do for my dissertation. I’m going to write about you.” She shook her head and said, “No, no. You are doing to write your dissertation on the cannery workers in southern California. You find these women.” I did and that’s how my life work in Chicana history began.
In From Out of the Shadows, I tell stories over time, to look at the dynamics of cultural coalescence and the claiming of public space. For example, I want the reader to imagine what it was like to be a woman in the 1930s – to recognize the opportunities available to Mexican women in the U.S. and, very importantly, what was beyond their grasp. Here it is a question of providing an understanding of what decisions they could make within the parameters of their world, of considering the structural elements in their lives (deportation, repatriation, poverty) as well their possibilities and aspirations. In what ways did education and popular culture feed their dreams? As an oral historian, I consider the dialectic between reminiscence and reticence as well as the process by which the past becomes memory and then memory becomes history.
With the assistance of over 230 contributors, Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia represents an eight-year labor of love. Whether carving out a community in St. Augustine in 1565, to reflecting on colonialism and liberty during the 1890s, to fighting for civil rights through the courts of the 1940s, Latinas have made history within and beyond national borders. In envisioning the encyclopedia as both an essential reference work and an engaging read, Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Carlos Cruz, and I are heartened by an e-mail sent by María Garciaz, Director of Salt Lake City Neighborhood Services. “On weekends I sit with my nine-year old daughter and eleven-year old son and they each read a section. We have some wonderful conversations about each woman they read about. . . .The encyclopedia is a powerful tool.”
Since 1996 twenty-two students have received their Ph.D. under my direction and the majority of these scholars have secured tenure-track, tenured, or public history positions, including Matt García at Arizona State, Emilie Stoltzfus at the Congressional Research Service, Lilia Fernández at Ohio State, Lara Medina at CSU Northridge, Frank Barajas, CSU Channel Islands, Mary Ann Villarreal, University of Denver, Laura Muñoz at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and Steven Rosales at Grand Valley State.
One of the nicest and perhaps most astute comment made about me as an instructor came from a former graduate student who in his thesis thanked me for my “gentle heart and ruthless pen.”
After almost three decades, my current research includes a biography of Luisa Moreno.