Member of the Week: Mike Amezcua

Version 2Mike Amezcua

Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies

New York University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am in the process of completing my first book manuscript which centers on the making of Mexican Chicago and its distinct neighborhoods from postwar urban renewal to the era of gentrification. Bookended by these two major processes of spatial precarity, the book also highlights the political capital and sweat equity created by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans as they built strong political, commercial, and cultural networks that shaped the trajectory of their neighborhoods amid residential steering, municipal divestment, and predatory land expropriation. These neighborhoods are now some of the most desired areas by higher income groups of people looking to return to the city and who covet the colorful aesthetics of Latinx urbanism while also participating in the widening displacement of working class Latinx residents. My interest in Chicago stems from a variety of sources, but I would have to say it was my first trips to Chicago in the 1990s (I’m originally from LA) to visit friends involved in arts and music in the Mexican community of Pilsen that helped solidify my love for the city and set me on my path to understanding how and why immigrants from Mexico made a “home” out of this unfamiliar climate, Latino-ized a Central/Eastern European built environment, and learned the playing field of an Irish American political machine.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach a variety of thematic courses in US twentieth century, Latinx, urban, and political history. I’m currently teaching an undergraduate seminar titled “Nativism, Walls, and Democracy.”  This class is designed to unpack a moment we are in, in which white supremacy, nativism, and racial violence are routinely covered in the media as something newly enabled by the Trump era. This seminar’s goal is to have students read, discuss, and reflect on the country’s much longer history of white racial violence and structures of exclusion against racial minorities and immigrants. The students learn about the material forms of exclusion, its carceral and fortress manifestations designed to keep immigrants and people of color out, and its legacies of settler colonialism. The class also attends to how racism, nativism, and exclusions have at many points throughout history been in political harmony with the project of American democracy. I believe student learning is enhanced when you center the voices of communities who have historically been the targets of nativism, walls, and exclusion. My own work relies heavily on consulting community archives especially immigrant communities who have endured all sorts of exclusions. Teaching in New York City, the quintessential immigrant city, presents an incredible opportunity to have my students visit local community archives, museums, and institutions to supplement their learning with the memories and experiences of immigrant communities.

 What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

One of my articles recently published in The Sixties focuses on the fraught relationship between Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and his Mexican constituents. The article has generated a healthy number of responses from readers, many from community members who have taken the time to write me and share their own personal stories of working for Mayor Daley and the Cook County Democratic Party in one capacity or another in Mexican neighborhoods. I’m very excited about following up on these leads and further documenting the extent and range of Latinx political activity in Chicago for future public-facing projects. Speaking of Latinx politics, I am looking forward to reading Johanna Fernández’s exciting new book, The Young Lords: A Radical History (University of North Carolina Press).

 What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Urban history is a rich and exciting field that is constantly changing as scholars ask new questions and continue to push its boundaries, adding global, relational, environmental, and technological dimensions, and going beyond the human to more biodiverse subjects such as animals and plants that also form part of metropolitan landscapes. As a Latinx urban historian living in the 21st century, I’m still deeply invested in questions surrounding race, inequality, placemaking, and erasure, and I would encourage young aspiring urban historians to question the silences in the archive, and to think beyond the institutional archive. Many communities can’t be found there or are severely under-archived. Perhaps this is the DIY punk in me but I would advise young urban scholars to dig for stories in unexpected places. Start a community archiving project, talk to people, conduct oral histories, take photos, visit community gatherings. If you are lucky, you might get invited into people’s homes and get a chance to view family photos and documents. Be part investigative journalist and part urban archeologist in order to become a better historian.

 In the past you have written about jazz. Are you an avid jazz listener? What tracks would you recommend to your fellow urbanists?

I am a huge fan of jazz and music of all types. I’ve been buying and collecting records since I was 14 years old and have amassed quite a collection. I’ve also been involved in DIY punk and hardcore music since my early teens, playing in bands and independently producing records by other bands. As for jazz, I love postwar bebop and hard bop, especially jazz with very fast melodies and hooks. One track I’d recommend to our fellow urbanists is the 1959 track “Grand Central” by John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. It is aptly titled as it sounds like trains and bodies hurriedly moving about in rapid motion. Another favorite of mine is a track called “The Fox” by tenor sax player Harold Land, also from 1959.  The album cover is a modernist depiction of a fox rapidly moving about the city.

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