- How History Happens and Why Culture Counts:Twenty Years after Becoming Mexican American
It has now been two decades since the original publication of George J. Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American. Its twentieth anniversary presents an opportunity to locate Becoming Mexican American in history, think about what came before it and what has transpired since, and appreciate and understand the book as a node in a network of intellectual and social transformation. In the life course of an individual, twenty years is a long time. In the life of a scholarly field, however, twenty years can be a relatively short interval. People tend to change more rapidly and more markedly than reigning scholarly paradigms. In research, the settled truths of the past serve as the starting point for each new research project. The people who control entry to the profession and who pass judgment on other researchers' achievements hold their positions because their own work secured validation from the gatekeepers of a previous era. The importance of precedent in law, of the canon in literature, and of the archive in history all guarantee that the premises of the past will persist powerfully in shaping scholarship in the present. Although the academy always claims to value novelty and innovation in the abstract, in practice traditional epistemologies and ontologies are rarely challenged, much less dislodged. In American studies from the 1930s through the 1980s, core assumptions about the relationships linking the nation and the imagination, the land and the people, the market and the community produced a depressing and debilitating sameness in scholarly works, as David W. Noble demonstrates conclusively in Debating the End of History (2012) and Death of a Nation (2002).
Nevertheless, a lot can change in two decades. The publication of Becoming Mexican American helped set the stage for a dramatic, transformative, and enduring shift in the nature of American studies scholarship. The field is [End Page 405] very different today than it was twenty years ago. Scholars no longer confine their inquiries about the nation and its imagination within the neat juridical and geographic boundaries of the United States. Attempts to discern the core qualities of the discrete and presumably unified identities of Americans have given way to studies that stress the provisional, performative, and political work of creating new strategic and tactical identities. The desire to find spheres of sameness like those that supported the egalitarian social stances of previous generations of scholars has been tempered by recognition of the dynamics of difference, of the composite, contested, comparative, and relational dimensions of our shared social experience. Rather than seek fixed and final solutions to social problems, scholars today learn lessons about the present from the uneven history of perpetual struggle in the past, from the swings of the pendulum that turn defeats turned into victories and victories into defeats.
Sanchez's book promoted a new awareness of the always already international aspects of national life. It revealed how the history of the Mexican working class in Los Angeles was also the history of US capital disrupting and transforming the social and spatial organization of Mexican society. It showed how investments by US financiers destroyed cooperative farming and drove people from their lands by promoting the consolidation of large haciendas. Yet these very disruptions, Sanchez argued, prepared emigrants for modernity and change. The building of railroads in Mexico by US interests created hardships for peasants by driving up land prices, but those same railroads made it easier and less expensive to journey to the north. Investment patterns even changed the region's geography. Travel by rail rather than by road made it easier to travel from Juárez to Los Angeles than from Juárez to Mexico City. Rail subsidies and route priorities made it cheaper and faster to travel the 700 miles from Juárez to Los Angeles than to travel the 135 miles from Tijuana to Los Angeles. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the imperial reach of US national culture eclipsed Mexican...