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Geraldo Cadava: Standing on Common Ground

Geraldo CadavaGeraldo Cadava is an Assistant Professor of History and Latina and Latino Studies at Northwestern University. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University (2008) and a B.A. from Dartmouth College (2000). His first bookStanding on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (Harvard University Press, 2013), won the 2014 Frederick Jackson Turner Award, given annually by the Organization of American Historians. His work has also appeared in the Journal of American History, the New York Times, and the Atlantic Online, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book tentatively titled The Roots of Latino Conservatism: Empire, Capitalism, and Culture from 1810 to 2010.

What was the most difficult part of getting your book published and turning your dissertation into a monograph? Do you have advice for this?

My grad school mentors frequently talked with me about turning my dissertation into a book. But the truth is that I didn’t really know what the difference was, at least at the time. Sure, I knew I had to clean up the prose and footnotes, use only one or two pieces of evidence to support a point instead of three or four, and work on my transitions between chapters. But I didn’t understand that writing a dissertation is a very different exercise than writing a book.

My dissertation was 300-hundred-plus pages divided into five case studies that had some coherence, made some interesting observations, and had lots of original archival research. Yet it lacked a clear focus, a narrative arc, and a single argument about change over time. As one reader of my dissertation told me—borrowing a line that her own mentor had used on her—I fired off arguments like scattershot rather than a single bullet that got at the heart of the matter. The fact that this advice got passed down from one generation to the next to the next made me think this is a pretty common characteristic of dissertations.

My dissertation had several arguments competing for attention, rather than a main argument with subordinate, or nested, arguments. It’s not that I needed to get rid of all arguments save for one, but I did have to elevate one argument above the others. Figuring out my most important contribution was extremely difficult work that took several years. It required help, feedback, false starts, and experience teaching survey courses and seminars on Latina/o and borderlands history, which helped me think about how my work fit into broader fields. Beyond the issue of trying to nail down exactly what I was trying to say, there was the anxious-making, instructive, and delightful process of getting the attention of editors, meeting with them, and selecting the right press.

At the same time, I began a tenure-track job at Northwestern University. Working against a tenure clock, I thought the most difficult part of getting my book published was balancing the interests of three parties whose desires potentially conflicted: my publisher, my colleagues, and me. My publisher, with whom I couldn’t be happier, probably would have liked the book to come out earlier than it did. Ideally it would have appeared soon after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the discriminatory immigration law, S.B. 1070. Meanwhile, my colleagues—those responsible for shepherding me through the tenure process—wanted me to write the best book I could write. To a person, they advised me to take my time with the revisions since my first book would define my early career. Finally, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get the story right, and to try my best to do so gracefully and artfully.

What initially drew you to your topic?

I have a few different answers to this question. The topic I eventually wrote my dissertation on was actually my third dissertation idea. I went to grad school thinking I’d write about the cross-border relationships of artists in Mexico and the United States from 1920 to the present. Then I thought I wanted to write about memories of the U.S.-Mexico War from 1846, when the war began, until 1916, when General John Pershing re-invaded Mexico to hunt for Pancho Villa. After my qualifying exams, I floundered while working on a draft prospectus because I wasn’t sure who my subjects would be and where I would find my archives. I ran into one committee member in the library and gave him an earful about my frustrations. He casually said, “you’re from Tucson, you like it there, why don’t you write about it?” It was one of those comments that may well have been an off-hand remark to him, but which changed the course of my career. As soon as I could book a ticket, I went to Tucson, spent a few weeks in archives there, and came back to school with a head full of steam. I wrote the prospectus in a matter of weeks and defended it soon thereafter.

Another version of the same story—how I arrived at my topic—is more personal. I was born in Tucson and I wanted to explain, perhaps even mainly to myself, the recent history of the place I was from. My father’s side of the family is descended from the Philippines, Mexico, Panama, and Colombia, while my mother’s side of the family is white, whatever that means. Both families settled in Arizona because my grandfathers were tech-sergeants in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In this sense, my book more or less tracks the chronology of my family’s history in Arizona. It also follows stories that intertwine with my own. I spent my childhood going to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where my grandparents bowled, swam, and bought groceries. I went to the Tucson rodeo (La Fiesta de los Vaqueros) many times. My paternal grandparents visited Jácome’s department store. My dad attended the University of Arizona, and I was always curious about why a larger-than-life statue of Pancho Villa sat in downtown Tucson. When I set out to write my dissertation, I didn’t know that I was writing the history of my family’s time in Tucson. But that is indeed what I was doing. It’s probably also not a stretch to say that I wrote it for them.

The last reason I’ll give for how I settled on the particular subjects of my dissertation—a rodeo, a department store, public universities, public art controversies, etc.—is that I’ve always been interested in the relationship between culture and politics, and I’ve always been drawn to stories that didn’t quite fit my pre-conceived notions of a time, a place, or a community. For example, I chose to write about a department store as a stand in for Tucson’s Latina/o and borderlands history during the Cold War, a period generally defined by studies of migrant labor, immigration restrictions, deportation, and the rise of the civil rights era. The store’s conservative Mexican American owner didn’t make sense to me. He represented a historical puzzle that I needed to solve. He became a foil for the liberal activism of the Chicano Movement, whose business also allowed me to explore cross-border consumerism and U.S.–Mexico relations. The store offered a different, and I thought fresh, way of understanding the histories of Latinos and the borderlands in the mid-twentieth century.

What are the drawbacks/limitations to your source base (particularly oral histories)? 

There’s nothing like flipping through your finished book to help you see its shortcomings, and how much more you could have done with it! At the end of the day, the book is what it is and I’m proud of it. But there are so many other ways it might have turned out. When I started my dissertation I thought of myself mainly as a cultural historian in the American Studies mold—I liked reading literature, watching films, listening to music, and thinking of the relationship between these things and politics and society more broadly—but as I finished my book I became increasingly interested in questions of political economy, business, and historiographies of Mexico and the American Sunbelt. In some ways, all of these different topics and approaches made their way into the final product, which makes my book a blend of cultural, social, transnational, economic, and political history.

But if I’d started my project with the same set of interests that I’d developed by the end, I’m sure it would have been a much different book that relied on a much different set of archives. I probably would have spent more time in the national archives of Mexico and the United States, exploring in greater detail the economic, legal, and political relationships of the two countries. I might have extended the geographical range of my study, comparing the Arizona-Sonora borderland with others to the east and west, although I think there’s something to be said for drilling deep into the history of a particular place. What I sacrificed in terms of breadth I’d like to think I made up for in depth.

I certainly would not have abandoned the use of oral history. It ended up being a methodology that was vital to my book. I needed oral histories to complement the archival record. I learned a lot about doing oral history while writing my book, and if I knew then what I know now I think I would have gone about it differently. One challenge is that it’s tricky to write about people who are still alive and whose memories as historical actors are as fragile as our own. When I tried to pin down a 70-year old man about whether a particular event happened in 1963 or 1964, or in January or February, he didn’t know. At first I was frustrated, but I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to answer such questions about things that happened decades ago either! Another potential pitfall is that the people you write about won’t always like what you’ve said about them. So be prepared and develop thick skin! One of Alex Jácome Sr.’s descendants sent me an extremely harsh assessment of what I’d written about the department store owner, even though he’d approved all of the quotes from our interview that I used in my book. He suggested that my book’s problems could have been avoided if I’d shared a draft with him, but I knew he shouldn’t have had that kind of editorial influence. It was hard for me to read because he and I had developed a friendship over the course of many interviews, lunches, and family gatherings. And perhaps it stung because I’d become too close; in the end we all have to behave according to the standards of our profession, instead of according to our interviewees’ wishes or sense of duty to their families. Finally, get signed interview release forms as soon as you can, ideally right after you conduct the interview. It’s so much harder to track down your interviewees years after you’ve talked to them!

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives while doing research?

For sure the strangest and most interesting thing I encountered while doing research was a world of Latina/o conservatism that I knew nothing about. I’d never encountered someone like department store owner Alex Jácome before. He was a Mexican American—or an American of Mexican descent—who was friends with Barry Goldwater, had a strong dislike for César Chavez, and deeply opposed the Chicano Movement for civil rights. I knew about the Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans of Miami, but through my research a more national, intra-group, and much deeper (not to mention unexplored) history of Latino conservatives came into focus. That’ll be the subject of my second book: The Roots of Latino Conservatism.

What do you see as the future of transnational and borderland studies?

I think that transnational and borderlands studies have already morphed into broader trans-regional comparative and global histories. Perhaps “morphed” isn’t exactly the right word, but I do think there is a progression towards the study of history across bigger and bigger scales, from borderlands to transnational to global. So it’d be foolish of me to say that transnationalism and borderland studies are here to stay, and in their current form. Surely other ways of thinking about the past will replace or reshape or reconfigure them depending on the demands of future moments. But I do think they’ve helped us see histories bound by the containers of individual nation states as grossly inadequate ways of understanding the evolution of the world we live in today, and in this sense I do think they’re here to stay. Once you go transnational, there’s no going back, right?

Plus, there’s so much more work to be done. Pekka Hämäiläinen and Sam Truett’s article “On Borderlands,” in the September 2011 issue of the JAH, made the convincing argument that what we’ve got now in borderlands studies is a series of deeply rich and informative case studies of particular places and regions, without a broad synthesis of and consensus on American borders—how they developed across the continent and throughout the hemisphere, where they’re located, how they’re related, what they mean, what they say about us then and now. There also need to be more studies that compare borderlands around the world. How can we make claims about the unique elements of particular border regions without asking the question, “unique in comparison with where”?

What are your thoughts on the strengths/weaknesses of the discipline’s reliance on monographs? Given the changing nature of the academy (the so-called crisis of the humanities and the drop in tenure track jobs) and changing technologies (particularly the growing availability of e-books), what are your thoughts on the future of tenure and publishing?

Wow, these are big questions, and in many ways I feel too junior to answer them sufficiently. I’m certain that others have thought about them more deeply and clearly than I have. I only recently completed my first book because that’s what I had to do to get tenure, so there never really was a question about whether I would write a book or not.

But since you’ve given me the opportunity to think about such issues, let me offer a couple of thoughts. First, even if the process was at times painful, it’s deeply gratifying for me to see my book on a shelf and to know that it’s out in the world. I don’t mean that it’s personally rewarding or that I’m proud of myself—though there are elements of truth to that as well!—but rather I’m gratified that I’ve had the opportunity to contribute something to the deep body of scholarship on Latino and borderlands history written over the past several decades, and in doing so to have taken part in a conversation about who we’ve been and what we might become. So I still think there’s a place for historical monographs, even if some other medium replaces them as means of professional advancement, and even if they’re supplemented with other forms and genres of historical writing, such as articles, opinion pieces, blog entries, or musings on social media.

One of my grad mentors frequently said that she doesn’t want to abandon any form of discourse that has the potential to change the world. I’d offer the perhaps narrower formulation that I wouldn’t want to abandon any discourse that can help us be more informed and think in new ways about our past.

What surprised you while writing this book?

A couple things surprised me while writing Standing on Common Ground, and since its publication. At the outset I did not appreciate how deeply intertwined my own personal story was with the history I was writing. It’s not that my book is in any way autobiographical. I never wrote in the first person, and, truth be told, I still don’t like seeing the first person pronoun used in historical writing. I prefer for my background to remain the subtext for the history I write, rather than the text itself. That said, I did come to see Arizona-Sonora history through the lens of my own past, and my own past through the lens of Arizona-Sonora history. My background certainly influenced the kind of history I wrote. Even if my book wasn’t about the Arizona-Sonora border region, it (and future projects) would be about the Arizona-Sonora border region, since my experience there shaped how I understand the world, the particular research projects I’m interested in, and the relationship between past and present in general. How could it be otherwise?

I also came to learn a lot about my research and writing process. I like being able to immerse myself in the place that I’m writing about. Now that I have a family I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to do that in the same way again. But I loved living and thinking in the place that I was writing about as I did it. I also learned that my thinking isn’t always linear, at least at the beginning of a project. My mind went down so many rabbit holes as I researched; I had the urge to chase down leads that weren’t always productive or didn’t always make their way into the finished product. I take too many notes. When it comes time to write, I need to put myself on a schedule. I write best in the morning, and research best in the afternoons. I don’t know how “surprising” these things are, but they’re important things that I learned about myself in the process of writing my book. We’ll see if they remain true the next time around!

Finally, I’ve been surprised by what it has felt like to let go of my first book. In this professional environment, we’re expected to be well into our second projects before we complete our first one. We have to have ideas about our second projects during our very first job interviews. I understand the utility of this, since it gives search committees and departments some sense of how you see yourself developing as a scholar over the next several years. But I think it also puts a good amount of pressure on many scholars to dive right into another monumental piece of scholarship—one that most historians probably think will be even more monumental than their first project, since we’re encouraged to think bigger and bigger—without taking a moment to appreciate how many years of our lives we spent working on the first book.

I myself thought I’d dive right in. I’d accepted that my first book was bound to have imperfections, that it’d only be a reflection of my thinking and scholarly development at a particular moment of my career, and, hopefully, that I’d have several more opportunities to write better books. I also knew what I wanted to work on. But after the book came out I found that I needed a few months—maybe it was even a year—to unwind and mentally shift from one project to the next one. As a full confession, I’m sure that having my first child in the same month that my book was released didn’t speed up the transition to my second project!

A related point is that as a first time author I didn’t think much about the afterlife of my book as I finished writing it. I was too concerned with just getting it done and trying to do it well. But once my book came out I started thinking about its reception, how it would be reviewed, and what audiences it might reach. When you get too carried away with that stuff, perhaps that’s the best time to dive into your next project, to move on.