Tag Archives: Mexico

Member of the Week: Andrew Konove

HeadshotAndrew Konove

Assistant Professor

Department of History, University of Texas at San Antonio

@AndrewKonove

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

I just completed my first book, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City, which will be published later this spring. It traces the history of Mexico City’s infamous “thieves’ market,” called the Baratillo, from its origins in the seventeenth century to the present day, revealing how illicit street commerce has been central to both the urban economy and urban politics since the colonial era. My new research grows out of that project. I’m looking at how the circulation of informal currencies, which were traded in markets like the Baratillo, spurred new ideas about poverty, economic development, and sovereignty in Mexico and the Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I see it as a study that links economic ideas to on-the-ground economic practices and one that broadens my focus beyond Mexico City.

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

This semester I’m teaching Introduction to Latin American Civilization—my department’s one-semester survey of Latin American history. At first, the incredibly long time frame was a challenge (I begin the course discussing human migrations to the Americas during the last ice age and end with recent political developments in the region). But it’s actually become my favorite class to teach. I think it’s important for students to think about long-term patterns, something I deal with in my own research.

I’m also teaching a new class on Imperial Spain from the fifteenth century to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The idea behind the class is to put Spain’s interactions with Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders into same frame of analysis. It covers a similar period as my course on Colonial Latin America, but it takes a global perspective. Teaching this class is helping me to conceptualize a new project that looks beyond Mexico to the broader Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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

On my shelf is Patricia Acerbi’s Street Occupations: Urban Vending in Rio de Janeiro, 1850-1925, which I’m eager to read. Along with Sandra Mendiola García’s recent book, Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico, and my own forthcoming book, we’ve had a surge of recent scholarship on street vending in Latin America, and that’s very exciting! I’m also looking forward to Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, which comes out this spring.

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

I’d encourage them to think and read broadly about their topics, looking beyond their disciplines and outside their geographic areas of expertise. Some of the most helpful scholarship I read in writing my book was the social science literature on the informal economy and studies of street vending outside of Mexico and Latin America. I’d also push them to try to bring their research to a broader audience. We generally gear our first book toward specialists, but it’s also important to share our work with people outside the academy. From op/eds in the local paper to commentary in news magazines to articles in our schools’ alumni magazines, there are many opportunities to take our work to the public. And they might be surprised: in an era of short attention spans and rapid news cycles, there is a lot of demand for experts to provide historical context for present-day challenges.

What item sold at the Mexico City’s thieves market would most surprise or delight The Metropole‘s readers? 

In 1895 a vendor in the Baratillo was caught with rails stolen from the Federal District Railway. The report doesn’t specify the length of track he was trying to sell, but it seems like a particularly conspicuous item to try to unload.

Member of the Week: Monica Perales

Monica Perales. Photos owned by PeralesMonica Perales

Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History

University of Houston

@mperaleshtx

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.

Member of the Week: David Yee

yee photo uhaDavid Yee

Ph.D. Candidate in History

Stony Brook University

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

My current work is a social history of mass housing and inequality in Mexico City. The dissertation traces the rise of Latin America’s largest shantytown, Ciudad Neza, as it grew alongside a government-built housing complex named San Juan de Aragón. Both Ciudad Neza and San Juan de Aragón are representative of a crucial historic juncture for Mexico, and Latin America in general, an era when the optimism of modernist urban planning was eclipsed by the rise of the urban shantytown. I focus on housing to explore how it contributed to “a great divergence” among the millions of migrants who arrived to Mexico City in the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, public housing evolved into a mechanism for upward mobility among the city’s incipient middle-class at the expense of the informal poor, producing a new set of political subjectivities and cultural sensibilities among the city’s residents.

The project stems from my life-long fascination with the historical experience of people leaving the countryside for major cities. After pursuing several different ideas (street vendors, migrant associations), I found that struggles over housing provided a focal point and entryway into this experience and allowed me to highlight the diversity of the people arriving to Mexico City during the 1950s (erroneously portrayed in the press and scholarship as a monolithic mass of poor, illiterate campesinos.)

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

In the past, I have usually taught courses on Latin American history, but this past summer I was able to teach a course called “Cities in World History.” It was great to go beyond Latin America and teach about housing and architecture in places like New York and Paris. We also went up to the present and covered the rapid growth of refugee camps, a socio-spatial formation that exists in a peculiar kind of limbo state that contains both elements of transitory encampments and permanent neighborhoods. The refugee crisis is creating human settlements of millions of people and they’re challenging what we think of as “urban.” Ben Rawlence’s account of a massive refugee camp in Kenya (City of Thorns) and the UNHCR’s online resources on camps/cities in Syria were very eye-opening for the students.

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

There has been an effervescence of literature on Latin American cities in the past few years. The best of example of that work can be found in Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, which is really a great collection of cutting-edge work that spans across various disciplines and countries. I’m looking forward to the release of two books on Mexico City – Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City and Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy of Mexico City (both due out next year).

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

In general, there is no perfect dissertation topic. I found it was better to go through an early process of trial-and-error, doing some initial archival research to see what existed and where it would take me as opposed to trying to conceptualize and formulate everything in my head. Specifically, with urban studies, it is by definition multi-disciplinary/ interdisciplinary, opening up the opportunity to reach out to other scholars outside of your own department for advice, leads, or possibly to serve on your committee.

As a historian who studies the built environment and housing in Mexico, what has your response been to the two massive earthquakes that just hit the country?

More than anything else, there has been a tragic loss of life (361 people so far) that stretches from Mexico City to Chiapas. They were jolts that revealed the underlying divisions in Mexican society, while producing acts and sentiments of solidarity that transcended those divisions experienced in one’s everyday life and daily routines. At the time of this interview, I see hundreds of volunteers throughout the city as I go through my day. The memory of the more devastating 1985 earthquake is palpable in every sphere of society. There is a large void to be filled among historians in regards to the urban social movements that preceded the 1985 earthquake, its role in the expansion of Mexico’s civil society, and the urban reconstruction phase in the aftermath of the earthquake (one of the largest since the Marshall Plan in Europe). Two great pieces for further reading are: Elena Poniatowska’s Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (a book on the 1985 earthquakes) and a recent article by Pablo Piccato, “Lessons from Mexico’s Earthquakes: 1985 and Today.”

Making My Way Down to Mexico City

A few weeks after co-editor Ryan Reft and I decided to feature Mexico City as the Metropolis of the Month for May, I received a call from my parents inviting me to accompany them on a short trip to Mexico City over Memorial Day Weekend. The coincidence seemed auspicious, and so I accepted the offer despite my suspicion that they invited me to serve as their private translator. None of us have been to Mexico before, and so after booking my flights I headed to the public library to begin my preparations for the trip.

I learned to travel from my father, who is also an academic and an elite-level trip planner. We share an appreciation for a well-constructed itinerary of long walks, museums, meals, and a solid afternoon nap. From him I learned what to do before a trip to ensure the optimal balance of stress-free sightseeing when visiting a new destination: familiarize yourself with the geography, brush up on the language, book the essentials (hotel, car, meal reservations) in advance, pick a few must-see sites and events, and play the rest by ear.

Mx BooksI began preparing by reviewing some travel guides. I usually borrow physical copies from the library, preferring to peruse several guides rather than buying just one (though my favorites are often the guides published by Lonely Planet). Depending on availability, I have also downloaded guides for free from Amazon through their Prime or Kindle Unlimited programs. I use the guides to read up on the history of the destination, discover the neighborhoods I am likely to visit and stay, and glean some basic advice such as if I will need immunizations or an adaptor for my iPhone charger.

Through my undergraduate coursework in Latin American Studies I studied Mexican history from pre-Columbian civilizations to post-WWII neoliberal “reform.” The historical background provided in the guidebooks refreshed my knowledge of the Spanish conquest, Mexican Independence, the Porfiriato, and the Revolution. For a deeper but still national review of the country’s history, I re-read the sections on Mexico in John Charles Chasteen’s classic textbook Born in Blood and Fire. Finally, blog posts on The Metropole by Pablo Piccato, David Yee, and Matthew Vitz provided insight specifically about Mexico City, including more particular elements of the city’s past.

Desiring to also gain a more contemporary understanding of Mexico and Mexico City, I also sought out works of literature and non-fiction. After finishing my dissertation, I picked up Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo—an old favorite of mine, with the added benefit of being very short. Although the book was published in 1955 and the story is set in a fictional rural town far to the east of Mexico City, the fractured and surreal narrative of the inhabitants of Comala evoke the upheaval that the Revolution and industrialization inflicted on Mexicans in the early twentieth century. I then savored Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century by Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez excels at providing readers with a thick description of the city’s subcultures, particularly of punk rockers and religious sects. Hernandez also evocatively portrays the transnational, postcolonial in-betweenness felt by many Mexican-Americans living in Mexico. Just from reading his descriptive forays throughout the city, I have a better understanding of the city’s geography and the character of its neighborhoods. I’m taking Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City by John Ross with me to read on the trip.

In the midst of all of this reading, I have also been brushing up on my Spanish. Despite nine years of formal language instruction, five months living in Buenos Aires, and a bachelor’s degree, my conversational Spanish eroded throughout graduate school. To ensure that I would be able to say essential phrases like “más vino, por favor,” I used the DuoLingo app to refresh my vocabulary and practice verb conjugation. I also began watching Spanish-language videos on YouTube. As a devoted fan of beauty and makeup tutorials, I found several makeup artists and influencers who produce videos in Spanish. Although I’m not sure I’ll have a chance to discuss como contornear el rostro (how to contour the face) with anyone in Mexico City, the videos got me to actively listen with a level of attention that that language-instruction videos usually fail to inspire.

Since we will only be in Mexico City for two full days, I have only picked out a few must see sites beyond the Zócalo and the Museo Frida Kahlo (my mom’s sole request). I’m hoping to check out the Museo del Estanquillo, a collection of popular art assembled by writer and DF resident Carlos Monsivais, and the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. And, just as I do everywhere I travel, I have to visit a grocery store and try out the city’s public transportation. I truly derive no greater pleasure in life than perusing the aisles of grocery stores abroad, finding new foods to try while simultaneously marveling at how similar grocery shopping can be throughout the developed world.

We leave on Friday, and so I’d love to hear recommendations from readers of The Metropole for where we should eat near Centro Historico, Roma, and Condesa. The only thing that could make this a more historically informed trip would be to have the input of UHA members in the creation of our itinerary. ¡Gracias por adelantado!

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her travel writing can be found here.