- "Why is there a town called Montezuma in the middle of Iowa?":An Interview with Omar Valerio-Jiménez
Omar Valerio-Jiménez was born on one side of the border, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. He grew up on the other side, in the Rio Grande Valley town of Edinburg, Texas. He earned his first degree at MIT, on the East Coast, and then worked as an engineer for five years. For graduate studies, he relocated to California, and earned a doctorate in history from UCLA. For several years, he taught at California State University, Long Beach, and later at the University of Iowa, and then returned closer to home: he is currently associate professor of history at the University of Texas–San Antonio (UTSA).
Research for his first book, River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands, published in 2013 by Duke University Press, delved into the colonial history of Tamaulipas-Texas, bringing attention to a history of violence, resistance, and accommodation to state power. The book received the Clotilde P. García Tejano Book Prize in 2014. A subsequent publication, Major Problems in Latina/o History, a textbook produced with Carmen Whalen, was designed for courses in history, to promote critical thinking and evaluation of sources.
For his recent book, he turned to the Midwest: here he describes his search for information on Latino presence and history in Iowa, including articles on the Midwest for his students. Together with two colleagues, Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez and Claire Fox, they created a symposium to hear from scholars focusing in the Midwest, followed by a summer seminar, and used their work to recruit and edit an expansive collection of studies, published in 2017: The Latina/o Midwest Reader. This past summer, he agreed to an interview about this book.
Juan David Coronado (JDC):
Your focus early in your academic career was on northeastern Mexico and South Texas. Explain this shift to the Midwest.Omar Valerio-Jiménez (OVJ):
In 2009, I moved to Iowa and my wife and I were driving on I-80 halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City where we saw a sign for a town called Montezuma. And I thought, "Wow, why is there a town called Montezuma in the middle of Iowa; in these corn fields? It got me interested. Once I got there and settled in and started teaching, I started researching because I sort of wanted to know more about Spanish and Spanish language and Latinos [in the area]. That got me thinking about "how are things going to be different here?" because I was from South Texas, where Mexican culture is taken for granted. When I was growing up we didn't think we were minorities because everyone around us was Mexican: the dentist, the mayor, the police officers, you know? Then I went to Southern California, [previously] you know in Massachusetts you feel like a minority, but in Southern California you definitely do not feel like that much of a minority because there are so many Latinos there. Going to Iowa, there you will feel it again, like in Massachusetts. One of the first courses that I taught was Chicano history. I called it Chicano history because that is what it was called at Cal State Long Beach. It was well enrolled, but I realized that in talking to some of the students and staff, the non-Latino staff in our history departments, they had no idea what a Chicano was. Some of them had signed up thinking it must be about Latinos but they did not know, they could not tell me the difference between a Chicano and a Puerto Rican, or between a Mexican American, they did not know what the word meant. I remember asking a staff member, and I remember she gave me some very strange explanation. I thought I should change it to Mexican American history because the people did not know what Chicano meant.
One of the things I had to do was to give a lot more background because what you thought everyone should know, they didn't. The populations...