UCSB Latin American and Iberian Studies Program

Interview with Professor Miroslava Chávez-Gárcia

Miroslava Chávez-García is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). She is the author of Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson, 2004) and States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (Berkeley, 2012), her most recent book Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Chapel Hill, 2018), was selected as a 2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title and in 2019 it won the Western Association of Women’s Historians Barbara “Penny” Kanner Award to honor the book that illustrates the use of a specific set of primary sources (such as diaries, letters, and interviews). 

Can you tell us a bit about your most recent book, Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands? 

Drawing upon a personal collection of more than 300 letters exchanged between her parents and other family members across the U.S.-Mexico border, Migrant Longing recreates and gives meaning to the hope, fear, and longing migrants experienced in their everyday lives both “here” and “there” (aqui y alla). Oral histories, photographs, music, radio programming, newspapers, and family memorabilia are also used to sketch the broader social, political, economic, and cultural contexts in which they crafted and exchanged the letters. Interpreted as tools of courtship (with all of their manipulations), and read closely as emotionally restorative, confessions of the heart (with all their sincerity and vulnerability), the letters nurtured and, in some instances, constituted the relationship. 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. The book 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 gender identities in response to the loss of loved ones who sometimes left for weeks, months, or years at a time, or simply never returned across the transnational landscape. 

With this richly detailed account, ranging from the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s to the emergence of Silicon Valley in the late 1960s, Migrant Longing opens a new window onto the social, economic, political, and cultural developments of the day and recovers the human agency of much maligned migrants in our society today. 

How does your work shed light on Latin American and/or Iberian studies?

I believe my work contributes a new level of understanding to the emotional and personal toll of human migration across the Americas and the impact of that movement not only on those who migrate but also those left behind in countries of origin. 

Can you  tell us about how you became interested in pursuing an academic career in history?

I became interested in pursuing an academic career as a consequence of discovering that I knew little about my history and that of my Mexican and Mexican American community in the United States and wondering why I had not been taught this history in high school. Knowing that this history was lacking, that the research into the history of Mexican and Mexican American communities, especially the role of women and gender, was thin, I decided to make it my purpose to help contribute to our knowledge of Mexican and Mexican American peoples in the United States. I had several professors at UCLA, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, who influenced my career path and I am grateful for their mentorship. I try to “pay it forward,” as they say, with mentoring students, undergraduate and graduate, particularly first-generation, who need such advice and attention.

Is there any advice you have for Latin-Americanists pursuing academic careers?

Pursue research that is broadly based and covers many issues that are of importance today and in the past. You want to keep yourself relevant and be able to speak to many people in the field of Latin American Studies. Given that the field is so diverse and so competitive to land a faculty position, it is important to be able to speak to a wide range of topics. I know that’s a tall order but you want to be able to show that you can teach both colonial and modern Mexican history or modern Central America and Mexico.  

Any other fun details, hobbies, or news you’d like to share with us?

We recently adopted a dog from the Santa Barbara Humane Society. Her name is Chiquita and she’s 5 pounds of love and fun. She’s a Terrier-Chihuahua mix and has brought much joy to our family. She is easy going, loves to play and run at the beach, and super fun. When I hop on my bike to ride home, I think of her and a smile crosses my face.