Journal of American History

Playing the Pivot: Teaching Latina/o History in Good Times and Bad

Pablo Mitchell

Oberlin College

Playing the Pivot: Teaching Latina/o History in Good Times and Bad

I will begin with a confession. As I see it, the first time I taught Latina/o history was a disaster. It was fall 2000, and I was a newly hired assistant professor at Oberlin College. I had just finished my dissertation over the summer and had almost zero teaching experience—I had been a teaching assistant for several courses in graduate school. I also did not like the idea of standing in front of dozens of twenty-year-olds and lecturing them on history-related topics, or on anything else for that matter. I had been fairly content squirreled away in the Pittsburgh hills, and the thought of several rows of skeptical students leaning back in their chairs, arms crossed, as I lectured did not thrill me. It did not help that I had gone to a small liberal arts college and had been precisely that kind of student—capable and engaged, but also skeptical and even a little suspicious of my professors.

At the same time, I was thrilled to be able to teach a course in Latina/o history. My colleagues placed no restrictions on me, no hints to stay away from this topic or nudges to include that event. I thought, and still do, that there are enough similarities between the histories of Chicanas/os and Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans, not to mention immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Central America and elsewhere in Latin America, to justify treating their diverse experiences in the United States within a single, semester-long course.

As I saw it, I could go in two directions. I could treat the history of each group as a relatively discrete unit—a section on Chicana/o history followed by one on Puerto Ricans, and so on, with transition days between topics to highlight similarities and differences. Alternatively, I could move chronologically from the sixteenth century to the near present, ending more or less with the Mariel boatlift in the 1980s. Along the way, I would shuttle around in space rather than in time, from the Mexican North and the American Southwest to the Spanish Caribbean and Miami and New York, describing what life was like in Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, how nuevomexicanas/os in 1898 reacted to the Spanish American War, or how Puerto Ricans viewed the Peter Pan flights from Cuba in the 1960s.

I chose the latter approach. I chose poorly. Without an adequate textbook, I spent the semester feverishly writing lectures, a man on the run trying to unite disparate histories into coherent narratives. I compared slavery in the nineteenth-century Caribbean with slavery in the Southwest; honor and shame in New Mexico and Puerto Rico; Desi Arnaz and Rita Moreno. Some lectures worked well; others were failures. I limped to the end of the semester and vowed, never again. Since then I have stuck, even clung, to the first option, organizing the course around individual groups. I still do not use a textbook, though I experimented one term with Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz’s Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History and was fairly happy with the thematic coverage, if not the obviously thin content (it is a cartoon history, right?). I use transition classes at the end of each section to reemphasize broader themes in Latina/o history. Sometimes I even compare slavery systems and talk about honor and shame.1

While the format of the class has changed, the goals have pretty much stayed the same. First, of course, I want students to learn something about the history of people of Latin American descent in the United States. I highlight major themes such as work, political activism, migration, and key individuals and events—Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, José Martí, Dolores Huerta; 1848, 1898, 1980. We watch clips from Zoot Suit, I Love Lucy, Salt of the Earth, High Noon, and West Side Story and migrate from Los Angeles to San Antonio to Chicago, Miami to New York, the islands to the rust belt to the sun belt. In addition, I incorporate the history of Latinos in Lorain, Ohio, into the class at several points. Oberlin is less than ten miles from Lorain, the home of prominent and longstanding Puerto Rican and Mexican American communities. In fact, Latinos have had a significant presence in Lorain for over seventy-five years. Mexicans and Mexican Americans arrived in the 1920s to work in Lorain’s steel mills, and thousands of Puerto Rican workers were recruited to the mills in the late 1940s and made their home in the city. Besides lecturing about the arrival of, first, ethnic Mexicans and then Puerto Ricans to the region, I ask the class to analyze assorted primary sources from the city’s past. We examine 1930 manuscript census schedules from Lorain listing Mexicans, Spaniards, Puerto Ricans, and Peruvians living side by side with Eastern European immigrants and native Ohioans on the south side of Lorain. The class also discusses articles from local newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s that describe, for instance, Puerto Rican social events and meetings of Mexican mutual aid organizations.2

I also see the class as a place to challenge students with a more complicated view of American race relations than many of them, especially those early in their college careers, have encountered in other courses. Most of the students see American history as filled, for the most part, with white people—with a few Native Americans present at first and a handful of important African Americans. Sexuality is another major theme of the course. It is one of my main research interests and an important intellectual topic for both white and nonwhite students. In fact, I think many students in the course would have serious misgivings about any survey of Latina/o history that did not directly address sexuality and sexual politics. In addition to lectures on topics such as sexual assault in the Southwest and antimiscegenation laws, I include primary sources ranging from newspaper accounts from across the country to poetry and film clips. Students also read essays on rape and Spanish colonialism, abortion rights mobilization by Puerto Rican nationalists, and Cuban gay men during the Mariel boatlift.3

Entwined with those more formal goals are other commitments. Precious few self--identified Latinos and Latinas attend Oberlin, and they are a mixed lot. They come from the Southwest and the Northeast, the Caribbean and Latin America, Chicago and small-town Ohio. Some speak Spanish, others do not. Some have one Latino parent, some have two. All, whether they articulate it or not, have an intimate relationship with Latino culture. But many, especially those of mixed heritage or those not fluent in Spanish, feel distant from what they (mis)perceive to be real Latinos. I think often about these Latino students during the semester, but especially in the first few weeks of the term when class schedules are still fluid and the particular features of the class are still emerging: that is, when they still might drop the class. I know that for many of these students a Latina/o history class or a Spanish class are early steps in coming to terms with their mixed ethnicity, and I am very careful not to alienate or discourage them with talk of “true” Latinos or “real” latinidad. I talk about my own nonnative Spanish and Anglo father and tell students that cross-cultural mixing is fundamental to Latina/o culture. It’s a little hokey, not to mention paternalistic, but I never had a Latina/o history class in college, and it would have meant a lot to me to know that I was one in a long line of mestizos and mixed bloods.

From the beginning, I also wanted students to work closely with primary sources. With my recently completed dissertation still fresh in mind, I imagined my students as colleagues, even co-conspirators, in the creation of new knowledge about the history of Latinas/os. At the same time, I was leery of assigning long research papers, perhaps projecting my own undergraduate bumps and bruises onto my students. Instead, I assigned three five-page papers spread out over the semester. The format of those assignments has hardly changed over the past six years. Each paper requires students to compare a primary source, such as a newspaper or magazine article or a census document (they can either dig one up or use the sources handed out in class), with one of the secondary sources in the class. Another constant in the course over the years has been the time and day of the week of the class. While I have toyed with the idea of switching to a fifty-minute, Monday, Wednesday, Friday format, teaching the class in two seventy-five minute chunks on Tuesday and Thursday has been hard to shake. I lecture for about forty or fifty minutes and then turn to small group discussions about primary sources or assigned readings.

One of the biggest problems I have yet to solve is finding a decent textbook. I simply have not found a textbook that both provides a sophisticated overview of Latina/o history and adequately addresses gender and sexuality. That problem aside, I have been generally quite happy with the other reading assignments for the class. Besides the handful of articles, many of them sexuality-related, I include three books in the syllabus, one each on Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American history. I recently added Vicki L. Ruiz’s From Out of the Shadows to the older standards, María Cristina García’s Havana, usa and Ruth Glasser’s My Music Is My Flag, and have been quite pleased with all three books, especially when students compare them during discussion sections. The books vary in chronology (from Ruiz’s twentieth century scope to the several decades covered by García and Glasser), historical method, and writing style.4

Since the Cuban American section comes late in the semester, I always appreciate García’s political history and more formal prose. Almost invariably, at least one student, usually a self-described history major, will praise the book as “real history.” That is a nice, if a little annoying, opening for discussions of writing history and how some historians choose to write concrete, authoritative prose, while others open possibilities in their writing for dissent and counter-argument, and how we as writers and readers need to recognize the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Central to that discussion is the fact that García, unlike Ruiz and Glasser, does not explicitly situate herself in her writing. Ruiz elegantly places herself at particular moments within her narrative, and Glasser’s introduction makes quite clear her “outsider” status as a non–Puerto Rican studying Puerto Rican musicians. Placed side by side the three books work marvelously in both conveying critical information and stimulating important discussions about history and history writing.

College-wide changes have also had a significant effect on the course. When I arrived in Oberlin in 2000, my position was one of five continuing positions in American history. Besides Latina/o history, the positions were in environmental history, Asian American history, nineteenth-century women’s history, and a position spanning the colonial era through Reconstruction. With an American historian in the college’s African American studies department, American race relations figure prominently in the history curriculum. That emphasis on race and ethnicity, however, has not come at the expense of chronological coverage. My specialty is the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and I have taught courses on Gilded Age America and U.S. history since 1877, while colleagues in environmental history and Asian American history have offered courses on recent American history and the 1960s. The lesson here is that even small departments can “pivot” and diversify their curriculum by devoting full-term positions to particular fields (Latina/o history and Native American history, for example) and by hiring with an eye toward chronological coverage.

It is also important to recognize the close ties between fields such as Latina/o history and ethnic studies. A commitment to ethnic studies is critical to the teaching of Latina/o history, at both large and small institutions. Ethnic studies needs several things to be viable at a small college such as Oberlin. First and foremost, the college must have a strong African American studies program. Oberlin fortunately has such a program, with four full-time, permanent positions and several associated faculty. Ethnic studies at a small college also needs at least two permanent full-time positions in at least two other specialties. A strong African American studies program and one professor each in Latina/o and Asian American studies, for instance, are great, but not enough. The pressures placed on faculty of color, especially female faculty of color, can be intense, even in a relatively diverse setting. When there is only one specialist in a given field, demands on that person’s time and energy (such as to represent diversity on alumni panels, admissions gatherings, or faculty committees; to advise, formally and informally, students of color; not to mention, to meet the high teaching expectations typical of liberal arts colleges) can easily be overwhelming. Finally, there must also be a critical mass of likeminded scholars, an intellectual community attuned to racial heterogeneity, to support research and writing.

Oberlin, for a moment, had that elusive critical mass in ethnic studies. For a couple of years, I was the only Latina/o studies professor at the college. I was also one of the very few teaching and writing about sexuality. In 2003, two new tenure-track colleagues changed that situation. The newly formed Comparative American Studies Program hired Gina Pérez to teach Latina/o studies and Meredith Raimondo to teach lgbtq (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered/queer) studies. Increasingly, students entered my classes with a deeper understanding of contemporary race relations and current social theory. Students have far better interdisciplinary training, and I have noticed more sophisticated discussions on, for instance, interlocking hierarchies of race and sex in Latina/o communities in a variety of historical contexts. At the same time, knowing that my colleagues address more recent events allows me to focus the class more tightly on the period before 1960, where I am, to be honest, more comfortable. Perhaps most importantly, along with a handful of other newly arrived faculty with ethnic studies specialties, there is now at Oberlin an interdisciplinary cohort of teachers and scholars committed to rethinking how the country understands race and sex. In such a setting, Latina/o history has become a critical aspect of a much larger, community endeavor.

The time of faculty expansion at the college, however, has for the moment come to end. Two years ago, trustee demands forced college faculty into making a tough choice: either eliminate seven continuing positions or have seven positions cut for them. One of the first positions considered for elimination was, unfortunately, the Asian American history position, one of two positions in Asian American studies. That history position, which was similar to my position in Latina/o history, had been recently vacated by an assistant professor who went to a prestigious research university. Of the first four positions considered for elimination, only Asian American history was not returned immediately: the position was “tabled,” and a final decision about its permanent return was postponed. 

The ensuing struggle to reinstate the Asian American history position drew together student activists, who rallied in support of the position, and faculty and administrators, including the president of the college, who argued elegantly and persuasively in favor of a permanent place for Asian American history in the college curriculum. As this essay went to press, the permanent position was re-approved, and, to my delight, a tenure-track search is now in process.

With the return of the Asian American history position, there is a renewed excitement among faculty, including myself, about the shared project of studying and teaching about American race relations at a small college. The return of the position is also a victory for the history department and its commitment to diversifying its curriculum. Like Latina/o history, Asian American history helps draw American history away from traditional topics. Without sacrificing chronological coverage, the history department can once again offer students a curriculum in American history that begins to truly represent the country’s racial heterogeneity. It was also reassuring to me personally. My position in Latina/o history is obviously similar to the Asian American history position, and it was, I admit, hard not to view the “tabling” of that position as a not-so-subtle comment on my own courses and scholarship in Latina/o history. The strong support for Asian American history signaled support for many forms of new knowledge at the college, including new knowledge produced by students and teachers of Latina/o history.

The fact remains, however, that Asian American history came very close to disappearing from Oberlin’s curriculum. Under different circumstances Latina/o history could have suffered a similar fate. It is a grim reminder that during periods of contraction, institutions large and small can all too easily roll back many of the advances that have allowed the development of fields like Latina/o history. Sad to say, we have pivoted the center, but the center lurks, willing and able to pivot back.

Pablo Mitchell is associate professor of history at Oberlin College.

Thanks to Gary Kornblith, Carol Lasser, Beth McLaughlin, Kevin Marsh, and the staff at the Journal of American History for their thoughtful comments and editorial assistance on this piece.

Readers may contact Mitchell at pablo.mitchell at oberlin dot edu.

1 Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz, Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History (New York, 2000).

2 Zoot Suit, dir. Luis Valdez (Universal, 1982); “Lucy Goes to a Rodeo,” prod. Lucille Ball and Jess Oppenheimer, dir. William Asher and James V. Kern (episode of I Love Lucy, ex. prod. Desi Arnaz), Desilu (cbs, Nov. 28, 1955); Salt of the Earth, dir. Herbert J. Biberman (Independent Productions, 1954); High Noon, dir. Fred Zinnemann (Stanley Kramer Productions, 1952); West Side Story, dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise (Mirisch, 1961). U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Lorain County, Ohio (Washington, 1930). The newspaper articles we discuss include Lorain Morning Journal, Aug. 4, 1949, p. 21; ibid., Nov. 2, 1949, p. 12; ibid., Nov. 22, 1950, p. 9.

3 Antonia I. Castañeda, “Sexual Violence in the Politics and Policies of Conquest: Amerindian Women and the Spanish Conquest of Alta California,” in Building with Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies, ed. Adela de la Torre and Beatríz M. Pesquera (Berkeley, 1993), 15–33; Jennifer A. Nelson, “Abortions under Community Control: Feminism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Reproduction among New York City’s Young Lords,” Journal of Women’s History, 13 (no. 1, 2001), 157–80; Susana Peña, “Visibility and Silence: Cuban American Gay Male Culture in Miami” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2002).

4 Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York, 1998); María Cristina García, Havana, usa: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994 (Berkeley, 1997); Ruth Glasser, My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917–1940 (Berkeley, 1995).

This article is reprinted from The Journal of American History 93 (March 2007), 1186–91.

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Diverse Surveys in American History


Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser