The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
By Harold Frost
“I started thinking about graduate school, and of course, questions came up: ‘How do you get into graduate school?’ Well, there’s this thing called the GRE, the Graduate Record Examination. I had no idea what that was. I had no idea that some kids study for months or years for their GRE. So I got some answers, I got help from several professors – you know what, it’s not a secret process, it’s not a secret society!”
(Update 2022: Loza is an associate professor at Georgetown University. Her book “Defiant Braceros” was published in 2016. Her website is MireyaLozaPhd. Brown’s American Civilization program is now called American Studies.)
Q. Ms. Loza, could you give a summary of the Bracero History Project?
A. The Braceros were Mexican men who came to the U.S. as guest workers on special temporary visas, starting in 1942 to help with war work and concluding in 1964. More than 4.5 million contracts were issued. Men came to work mostly in the agriculture fields, also for the railroads and in factories. “Bracero” comes from the Spanish for “arm.” With the Bracero History Project we are collecting oral histories from as many of these men as we can find, along with artifacts from their lives, and also oral histories from their families. We travel around the U.S. and Mexico conducting audio interviews – California, Texas, Oregon, Arkansas – all over the place. Several cities in Mexico. Also Chicago, my hometown. Chicago has the fourth largest urban Mexican population in the world. The largest population is in Mexico City; then it’s Los Angeles, Guadalajara, and Chicago. Nobody knows this!
Q. Let’s talk about your upbringing in Chicago and how you got from there to Providence. Then we can swing back to the Bracero Project.
A. I was born in Chicago in 1978. I grew up in the West Town neighborhood, which is now somewhat gentrified, but in the ’80s there was really not much put into the neighborhood in terms of schools or services. My father, Pedro, came to Chicago from a small village in Mexico in the late 1960s; he followed his brother to the U.S. – my uncle, Juan, who was a Bracero. He came here in the 1950s.
Meanwhile my mother, Marcelina, came to Chicago following her older sister, my Aunt Rosalba. The four of them were all working in factory jobs in Chicago and they met in the neighborhood. My aunt started dating my uncle; my mother started dating my father; weddings took place. In 1978 they decided to pool their money and buy a brownstone. Each family lived on one floor of the building; my aunt cared for all the children while the other three went off to work. There were six kids: my uncle and aunt had four boys, and my mom and dad had my sister Patricia and me.
I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Patricia knew English; I would speak English with her and Spanish with the rest of my family. I don’t remember which one I spoke first!
When we were children my father constantly told us, “In this life you can only work two ways, with your hands and your body, or sitting down with a pen in your hand, and I would much rather you work with a pen in your hand.” He and my mother had high hopes for us, high expectations. They decided to try to send us to private school, and they did it, they managed it somehow. They did whatever they had to do – my mom was very good at negotiations – she negotiated to help run bingo games at the school to help with our tuition payments. I graduated from Holy Trinity High School in Chicago in 1996.
I was interested in school but….(pause)….mediocre at it. By my family’s standards. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I tried. But I didn’t have the skill set I needed in terms of writing and reading, and I didn’t really know how to get it – the process of getting help seemed scary to me somehow, and kind of impossible I guess. I remember one time, I was at a tutoring session working on an essay, and we were still working on it when the tutor said, “OK, well, our time is up, why don’t you take the essay home and have your mom help you finish it, have her read it and comment on it.” I remember thinking as I went home, “If my mom could read English I wouldn’t need your help.” But I didn’t know if I could really get more help or how to get it.
I think I didn’t understand what was involved with succeeding at subjects that I found difficult. I would see people who were getting A’s in math, and I would think, “They’re getting A’s because they’re good at math, and I’m just not good at it, no matter how much I work at it.” I didn’t see myself as being good at math, reading, science. I didn’t understand that you need to ask for more help and look for more resources.
But still, my parents had high expectations. My oldest cousin went off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I thought, if he can do it, I can do it. That’s where I went to college.
Q. Did you find more help in college?
A. I did. I found resources in college that helped me quite a lot. In college there were a lot more students from under-represented communities and there was more help available. The Writing Center for help with essays and other sources.
The main thing that happened to me in college was, I had the freedom to choose what I wanted to study. My mother said, “I worked so hard so you will have a choice”– and in college it happened and it was great. I got excited by learning. I took classes in Latino Studies and I thought, “Here’s something I can be good at!” I could really wrap my head around it and keep getting better. Things clicked. I had an identity, a cultural framework, a vocabulary that meant something in my classes. My experience was valuable. I really enjoyed college. I discovered anthropology and loved it. I was able to arrange for a Latino Studies major through the Independent Studies program, and a second major in anthropology.
I ran into some rudeness. I would get questions like, “What’s your ACT score? I have a friend whose ACT is four points higher, you must have gotten here through affirmative action.” Sort of not well-mannered comments. So I had to deal with that. The thing is, even if I had gotten in through affirmative action, it didn’t matter, I was there, I had the opportunity, and I was going to do as much with it as I could, there was no point worrying about it. I was going to find a way to make it work. I was not going home. A lot of white students were going home.
I got my undergraduate degree in 2001. I wanted to keep studying anthropology. When I told my father about that, he asked me what I was going to do for a career. I actually didn’t know. I didn’t know what people who had studied anthropology did! I thought, well, maybe teaching – I knew that my anthropology teacher taught. But really, I didn’t have much of an answer for him, and he said, “Well, you’re going to end up being a cashier in a grocery store.” But I convinced him I would figure it out, I said, “I like it so much, I’ll figure it out.”
He wanted me to be a lawyer. He was very apprehensive about anthropology. For years I felt guilty and selfish about resisting law school: “I am a selfish child who doesn’t want to help the family.” The whole thing of family uplift was very big, and here I was, saying I didn’t want to go to law school. My uncle said, “I don’t want you to turn 40 and find out you’ve wasted 15 years of your life.” So I was getting a lot of pressure. But like my mom said, “Choose what you want to do.”
I got into the Summer Research Opportunities Program at the University of Illinois. It showed what people actually do with Ph.D.’s. One thing they do is field research. This was great. I went out and did research with a professor, got school credit, they paid me, the research was really interesting, it was very exciting! We researched community organizing in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. I didn’t know that learning, that knowledge, could be so practical! It was this big jump from reading books to doing actual research in the real world, studying actual issues of how people live, and what their daily habits are, and what constitutes their culture. I hadn’t really known how people with advanced degrees in anthropology made that jump.
I started thinking about graduate school, and of course, questions came up. How do you get into graduate school? Well, there’s this thing called the GRE. I had no idea what that was. I had no idea that some kids study for months or years for their GRE. So I got some answers, I got help from several professors – you know what, it’s not a secret process, it’s not a secret society! (Laughs.) And all these acronyms. Like, ‘ABD’: ‘all but dissertation.’ And I remember hearing about this thing called the ‘dissertation defense’ – does it take place in front of a jury? In some special room that looks like a courtroom?
Q. At what point did you start moving into history, alongside your work in ethnic studies and anthropology?
A. When I was an undergraduate. I took classes in the history department at Urbana, and I had a history professor named Matt Garcia, who was one of my mentors. So, yes, history was a major presence in my academic career from the start.
But I wanted to stay with anthropology for a while. I ended up in the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin starting in 2001. That was a very exciting place. There were tenured professors of color there. There were different tracks in anthropology – Borderlands Anthropology, Feminist Anthropology. I was interested in the Borderlands track. Martha Menchaca was a wonderful professor there, she brought history into anthropology in very concrete ways.
I finished my master’s at Texas in 2003 and did my Ph.D. course work there in anthropology. I loved being there, but the truth is, the kind of work I wanted to do was not well-funded, the anthropological study of Latinos in this country. A lot of times, anthropological work within the U.S. is not well-funded – there is more of a tendency to look outward – there’s money for looking at cultures in Asia, Africa, Latin America.
What happened next was, my mentor at Urbana, Matt Garcia, got hired at Brown, which wanted to expand its presence in Latino Studies within the structure of the American Civilization Department. Matt got in touch with me in 2003 in Austin and told me that Brown would fund some of the things I was interested in, studying the Latino presence in Chicago. He told me I could do this work with more of a historical perspective and convinced me to jump ship to American Studies at Brown, and the Public Humanities program of Steven Lubar. I started at Brown in the fall of 2004.
Q. OK, so, I’m confused – how does Steve Lubar and Public Humanities factor in? I know he’s a noted professor at Brown.
A. It’s a little confusing! Steve Lubar came to Brown from the Smithsonian in 2004 to build the public humanities program, which is a new version of the old museum studies program. Today, as you know, there are so many ways to present historical material to the public – you’ve got the Web, traveling exhibitions, more history on TV, and so on. You’ve got so many questions about how the public understands the narrative of national history. Public humanities delves into all of these things. I had been interested in museum work anyway. So I am now in public humanities and it’s great.
Q. A moment ago you said “American Studies” rather than “American Civilization” – I’ve heard rumblings that Brown is thinking of making that exact change after all these years of calling the department “American Civilization.”
A. This might happen, there is definitely a movement afoot to change the name. I guess a lot of people are saying “American Studies” now, so, yeah, I say it sometimes. “American Studies” seems to be the more common phrase in the academic world now, so maybe people looking for a job would find it more useful to have that on their resume.
Q. What’s your one-sentence definition of the field?
A. It’s the study of the U.S. in an interdisciplinary fashion. It’s history-heavy, with other lenses, anthropological, literary. There are various themes that come up along the way, having to do with race, class, gender, sexuality.
Q. As you thought about Brown, what was your response to the Ivy League thing?
A. I knew Brown was Ivy League. That seemed very exciting to me. Everyone in my family and social circle was excited except my father. He said, “Well, why not apply to Harvard or Yale?” He was kind of disappointed really. (Laughs.) He always had this dream of his kids going to Harvard or Yale or the University of Chicago. What happened next was interesting. He needed time off from work to drive me to college, so he went to the owner of the cold storage facility where he worked and asked for a week off. This was in the summer of 2004. The owner said, “Sure, no problem. Where’s she going?” “Brown University. It’s in Providence, Rhode Island.” The owner said, “She’s going to BROWN?” “Yes, Brown University.” “Wow! My kids tried to get into Brown and they got turned down! She must be brilliant!” My father replies, “Well….she’s kind of average.” (Laughs.) At least, that’s what he says he said. But he was very impressed by what his boss said. It changed his whole perspective. And when he saw the campus he fell in love with it, it’s so beautiful, and he was so proud that his daughter was going to a school that has a Rockefeller library, that some of the Kennedys had gone to.
A section of Brown University photographed by Richard Benjamin. University Hall, center-left, was built in 1770.
Q. That’s a great American story – your father, born in Mexico, a working man in a cold storage plant in Chicago with forklifts running around carrying pallets of, I don’t know, frozen hamburger for McDonald’s, and he’s telling his boss that his daughter got into Brown, and the kids of his boss didn’t get into Brown but the boss is thrilled anyway. I love it. I will just add, the campus is strikingly lovely and welcoming. I remember Pete Hamill responding to Brown along the lines of “This is what a college campus should feel like.”
A. Brown is really good for me. I’m very happy with the choice I made. It’s a great education. You get a lot of personal attention, it’s not such a huge place where you get overlooked. I get amazing support and encouragement and feedback – I could never imagine getting so much support anywhere else. Also, you know, a lot of people in my neighborhood really haven’t heard of Brown very much, so when I’m home in Chicago, I don’t get this “Wow, she’s so smart” thing going on. People can look at me and say, “SHE went, it must not have the snooty uppityness other schools have, maybe I should apply.”
Q. Any worries about starting over again in American Studies after so many years in anthropology?
A. Yes. I only had two years left for my doctorate, maybe three. I thought, “Start over in American Studies? Are you kidding?” I was happy in Texas. Except for the financial situation. But it’s worked out really well. When I started at Brown in 2004 I was saying “I’m not a historian, I’m an anthropologist,” but then two years into it, it dawned on me, I’m thinking more like a historian, I’m looking for historical perspective on various issues. I said to myself one day, “I might be a historian!” I’m totally OK with that. It’s a big change of gears but it has worked out.
Q. When and how did you get involved with the Bracero History Project?
A. That was in 2004. Steve Lubar wants his students to get involved with historical debates that have actual repercussions in people’s lives. He’s interested in helping history come alive for people who consume history in all these various ways. So after I got to Brown I began working with the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian, as part of their effort to expand their involvement with Latino history.
The Smithsonian had recently gotten a pretty scathing review from a group of Latino scholars about the institution’s commitment to the history of Latino communities. “Willful Neglect” was the title of their report. So the Smithsonian established the Center for Latino Initiatives, which provided some of the initial funding for the Bracero History Project. The National Endowment for the Humanities also provided funding.
The National Museum of American History has a big collection of photographs of the Braceros, about 1,800 images. The museum wanted to expand on this with oral histories and a collection of artifacts. Their intention is to create a traveling exhibition that will launch in 2009. Also, they’re creating an online archive, which is already started. It’s at braceroarchive.org. They wanted to work with academics who know Latino history, and speak Spanish, to develop the archive.
When I was a junior at Urbana I had written a report about my uncle, based on an oral history I’d done with him, when he was a Bracero. That’s what Matt Garcia remembered when he contacted me in 2003. So I’m involved with doing the Bracero oral interviews right now. We’ve also partnered up with University of Texas at El Paso and George Mason University.
I should tell you, at first I didn’t think I could get very excited about the Braceros. Sometimes the things that you know most about, the family things, don’t seem so extraordinary to you. But as I’ve gotten into the project I have gotten so excited about recording the stories of these men, of what they went through, of how difficult it was, and also the stories of their families, what they went through. The treatment the men received, which was abusive sometimes. The bitter cold of Michigan winters, and they didn’t really have the clothes for it. How they got sprayed with DDT from head to toe to kill any bugs. How essential the transistor radio was to one man, how much he needed music, so he carried this transistor radio everywhere he went, and guarded it, and what radio stations he listened to, where the radio signal came from. He donated the radio to our collection. This was really cool, because we had stories about how men purchased and carried radios, music was very important to them as they worked and as they relaxed after work, and now we have an actual radio from a Bracero.
Another man who had worked on the railroads in the ’40s had kept all his equipment – hammer, spikes, and so on – and he donated everything to us.
One man told us how he carefully carried a candied apple thousands of miles from America to Mexico so his daughter, one time in her life, could eat a candied apple. We’ve gotten beautiful stories of women in the U.S. who married Braceros, the stories of their wedding days, and their first homes. Stories of Moms with tears running down their cheeks at railroad stations in Mexico, saying good-bye to their sons, not really knowing where they were going.
We are making a big effort to document how the Bracero Program affected women both in the U.S. and in Mexico. Also the impact on indigenous communities – this last collecting trip I spent time in the Yucatan talking with Mayan people. In September we’re going to Arkansas – Julie Weise, a graduate student at Yale, has uncovered evidence that the Braceros in the South used old maps left behind by black sharecroppers to find their way to Chicago. Maps of the Freedom Trail.
Q. Another amazing American story.
A. Yes! So we’re going to investigate that: How, exactly, did Mexicans make it to Chicago? We know that some of them left where they were working in the South and went north and got jobs in meatpacking plants and places like that, but how, exactly, did they do that? Bracero history is much more complicated and textured than I first thought – every day is an adventure.
Q. What are the nuts-and-bolts of doing the interviews?
A. The first thing we do, in the cities we travel to, is have town hall meetings at the venue that we have partnered with. This might be a local museum – in Chicago we were at the National Museum of Mexican Art. In Portland we were at a local union hall. We rely on the local venue to get word out that we’re coming, and also the local media.
Usually anywhere from 30 to 100 people show up for the town hall meeting; I would say the median is 50. We describe the project in detail, explain everything – that we’re creating an archive of oral histories that will be stored at the University of Texas El Paso and at the National Museum, that we’re creating a traveling exhibition, that scholars will use this material for years to come. That we are very hopeful they will come back the next day and consent to be interviewed, and that we would be very happy to accept any donations of material items they’ve saved over the years – tools, radios, old I.D. cards, photos, shoes, hats, anything they may have preserved from those days. And we schedule interviews for the next day. Sometimes we do interviews that same day with people who have come a long way and don’t have the ability to stay overnight.
Many people participate wholeheartedly. Occasionally we encounter suspicion – “You’re with the National Museum of American History, are you a branch of the government checking up on us?” We do our best to explain that we’re not here to do that.
Starting the next morning we record interviews with digital audio equipment. Our team usually consists of four to six interviewers; each of us might do about half-a-dozen interviews over the course of the day. A good interview might take an hour and a half. We conduct probably 90 percent of the interviews in Spanish. The team of interviewers sometimes includes local graduate students; we try to train them a couple of days before. Also, Brown has been very great about finding ways for Am Civ undergraduate students to help us, by providing money for travel and living expenses.
My Uncle Juan came to be interviewed in 2005 in Chicago. He’s in his late 60s now. I’d heard his story before, but I told him, “This is my profession, this is what I do now, I need you to tell me the story with as much detail as if it were the first time you ever told me.” He retold everything. He sat there for two hours and laughed and cried and told the whole story. It was great. And the bonus was, he finally understood what I do! He became immensely proud of the whole process and he stood up and said to everyone, “I am asking you, pleading with you, to participate with your whole heart – it’s important for all of us to participate and give young women like my niece a chance to preserve our history and learn from it, and help us learn from it.” He got choked up.
Q. As you know, 50 years ago, 60 years, oral histories were looked down upon by many or most historians, but now they’re viewed with considerable respect. Maybe the process of gaining respect started in the 1930s with the enormously valuable WPA oral histories. Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker, “Oral histories are, as evidence, not without problems. Much depends upon the sensitivity, acuity, and fidelity of the interviewer.” And I should note that A.J.P. Taylor, a great and controversial British historian with lots of opinions about everything, regarded oral histories with scorn. But many excellent scholars now see the material as useful, indeed powerful, if treated with care. What’s your view?
A. I don’t know if, during these interviews, I am always hearing what truly, exactly happened. I don’t think the human mind lends itself, generally, to exactness when it’s trying to remember something from many decades ago – although some people remember things very precisely. My feeling is, I’m documenting the way these people understood what happened to them. There’s no way other than oral interviews to get at the stories of these people – there is not much of a paper trail in the archives about the Braceros as individuals. So you gather as many oral histories as you can, you compare, you contrast, you examine as much paper documentation as you can, you study material objects, and you piece it together, slowly and carefully.
Q. How many oral histories are available at the archive?
A. About 500. We would like to get as many as we can before the money runs out from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I’m hoping we will get over 600. It would be beautiful if this could be the largest Latino history archive in existence. The only one that’s larger focuses on World War II veterans, at the University of Texas. We’re neck and neck with them now. I’m hoping!
We have people at UTEP working on transcriptions. At the Oral History Institute. That’s a very complicated and time-consuming part of the process – we need to have people who know local idioms and local geography.
Q. Are you working on the traveling exhibition?
A. I’m not writing the script but I have input into it. I gave them my best thoughts on topics, and I gave my opinion on what photographs work best.
Q. Is your dissertation going to use this material?
A. Yes. I think I can have it done in another year-and-a-half. Brown has given me a dissertation writing fellowship. I don’t have a working title yet. Then, when I’m done with that, I’ll go off and find myself a job.
Q. What kind of job do you want?
A. I am actually torn. I love public history. I also really love teaching. I would like to find a job that combines public history and teaching! ●