Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History
University of Houston
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My current research blends my interests in Mexican American, labor, and food history. I’m working on a book project that explores Mexican women’s food labor in Texas — this grew out of some of the stories I found of Mexican women’s food experiences and entrepreneurship in my first book, Smeltertown. Mexican women played a central role in cultivating, processing, and selling the food that fed Texans and tourists alike. I’m also interested in exploring the cultural dimensions of the work they performed within their families and communities as well as in broader ways to help define a regional cuisine — how Mexican women’s bodies and images, for example, were used to cultivate ideas about authenticity. Building on my oral history interests, I’m also working with my colleagues in the UH Center for Public History to launch an oral history project called “Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey,” which will be a multi-year project to collect the first-hand accounts of a range of Houstonians and how they experienced this historic storm.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Over the last few years, my teaching has gravitated towards food and public history, and even more so in my new role as the Director of our Center for Public History (CPH). This coming spring, I’ll be teaching Introduction to Public History — the first time this course has been offered at the undergraduate level in quite some time. In our work at CPH, we see the city of Houston as a vital laboratory, it is a place where the local is global. Through this class, I hope to get students to appreciate the ways in which history doesn’t just exist in classrooms and textbooks, but in our communities. One of or projects will be to work with archivists at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center to examine the changing landscape of Houston’s East End, a historic Mexican American neighborhood that has been undergoing rapid change in recent years.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Jerry Gonzalez’s In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles (Rutgers University Press, 2017) offers a new perspective on post-war Mexican American History and suburban history — this is an important addition to both fields. I am also very excited about Miroslava Chavez Garcia’s Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). This book, based on a collection of 300 personal letters exchanged by her parents and family members offers a fascinating look at how people created and sustained lives across the borderlands in the latter part of the 20th century. It is a truly beautiful book that humanizes immigration and immigrants, focusing on their hopes, desires, and sometimes failures.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I believe that everyone has an important story to tell. In my research and teaching, I am guided by the conviction that by telling these stories – of everyday people and communities – the historical discipline enables us to move toward a more civil society and a place where we can understand our shared humanity. I think this is especially important when we think about cities and urban spaces, and what they mean to the people who inhabit them. My advice to scholars starting out in this field is to be open to listening to people tell their stories on their own terms, and to be willing to learn from them.
What cookbook (or book about food) should be on every urbanist-foodie’s shelf?
What a great question! I have been reading a lot of food books lately, and food studies is such a rich resource for understanding the history and culture of a city. I love teaching Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Harper 2011), which does a really great job of showing how immigrant cuisine in New York adapted to the realities of urban life. For cookbooks, I’m currently loving Sandra A. Gutierrez’s Empanadas: The Hand Held Pies of Latin America and Lesley Tellez’s Eat Mexico: Recipes and Stories from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets, and Fondas.