OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Miroslava Chávez-García

Portrait of Miroslava Chávez-García

Miroslava Chávez-García is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the history department, with affiliations with the Chicana/o Studies and Feminist Studies departments, as well as Latin American and Iberian Studies. She is the author of Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (2004) and States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (2012). Her most recent book, Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (2018), is a history of transnational migration, gender, courtship, and identity as told through more than 300 personal letters exchanged among family members and friends across the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. As private sources of communication hidden from public consumption and historical research, the letters provide a rare glimpse into the deeply emotional, personal, and social lives of ordinary Mexican men and women as recorded in their immediate, firsthand accounts. Chávez-García demonstrates not only how migrants struggled to maintain their sense of humanity in el norte but also how those remaining at home made sense of their changing identities in response to the loss of loved ones who sometimes left for weeks, months, or years at a time, or simply never returned. In 2020, Migrant Longing was named a 2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title and in 2019, it received the Barbara “Penny” Kanner Award from Western Association of Women’s Historians (WAWH). In 2017, “Migrant Longing, Courtship, and Gendered Identity in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” published by the Western History Quarterly (Summer 2016), was awarded the Judith Lee Ridge from the WAWH. The essay also received the Bolton-Cutter Award in 2016. 

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Relying on over 300 letters written in the 1960s and early 1970s and exchanged among family members across the U.S.-Mexico border, Miroslava Chávez-García’s presentation explores the ways in which the “intimacy of the archive” opens a world onto the emotional and personal longing of Mexican migrants. More than a collection of deeply personal, emotional, and individual self-expressive experiences, the letters provide a window onto the social, economic, cultural, and political developments of the day in and across Mexico and the United States. The missives are versatile, open to multiple interpretations, and reflect the hopes and dreams as well as fracasos (failures) of those who sought to improve their lives and those they left behind. As Chávez-García argues, embedding them in a richly textured historical framework not only works to breathe life into them but also connects them to the larger ebbs and flows of migration across the borderlands region.
Drawing on a cache of letters written between Jose Chavez and Maria Concepcion “Conchita” Alvarado--the authors' parents--in the 1960s, this article explores the world of a male migrant farm-worker seeking love and companionship. It argues that, more than beasts of burden in the post-industrial, agricultural capitalist machine, migrants such as Jose sought fulfillment economically, emotionally, personally, romantically, and sexually.
Using scientific research methods to identify, predict, and suppress crime is common today in criminology, penology, and crime mapping and statistics. One century ago, however, the use of science-based investigations was seen as the latest innovation in the fight against rising juvenile deviance in an increasingly diverse society. Miroslava Chávez-García’s presentation demonstrates how public and juvenile prison officials, among others in the early 1900s, viewed science as the cure for society’s ills, including crime. In embracing and harnessing the power of scientific thought, state officials nurtured the emerging carceral state, giving rise to a complex, research-based juvenile justice system in California.
This talk examines how and why Whittier State School (later, the Fred C. Nelles Correctional Facility), once hailed as a premiere reform school of the early twentieth century in the United States, declined so significantly in its treatment of incarcerated boys. While the Progressive reform movement of the 1910s, under the leadership of Fred C. Nelles, had brought about dramatic changes in the policies and practices of the school, with the shift away from punitive approaches to rehabilitative ideals, by the late 1930s conditions had deteriorated so badly that two Mexican American boys, Benny Moreno and Edward Levia, committed suicide within twelve months of each other, in 1939 and 1940, respectively. Reform school administrators argued that the boys’ mental deficiencies contributed to their deaths, while former inmates, the boys’ family members, and Latina/o community activists charged unchecked and sustained physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.