Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Publish Or Perish: Remembering History

Review: Homecoming Trails in Mexican American Cultural History: Biography, Nationhood, and Globalism

Michael Sedano


One might be forgiven thinking of Roberto Cantu only as the remarkable engineer who refurbishes the Antikythera maquina for The Mexican Flyboy in Alfredo Vea’s 2016 novel. I think of Roberto Cantu as the earnest UCLA grad student eloquently explaining historiography in Spanish at the 1973 Festival de Flor y Canto at USC. After I spent a career in private industry, I then learned Cantu engineers academic conferences with the same vision his literary counterpart puts together time machines.


Roberto Cantu’s 2021 collection, Homecoming Trails in Mexican American Cultural History: Biography, Nationhood, and Globalism, reflects one of Cantu’s most eclectic conference assemblages of historians and critics, including novelists writing as historians. The book results from Cantu and Cal State LA’s conference, 2018 Conference on Chicano History, Historiography, and the Historical Novel: Out of Many, One (link). 


Academic conferences fill important roles the life of a young faculty member. Having landed a tenure-track position, the burgeoning scholar will prove themselves to colleagues by attending and presenting at conferences, by publishing articles in journals, and by publishing a book. 


When a conference presentation gets converted to a chapter in a book, it’s a homecoming-to-tenure trail in a chicana chicano professor’s history. Most of Cantu’s scholars didn’t “need” the publication. One’s a Chancellor, another’s Emeritus, another’s a “Distinguished.” Beatrice Pita and Rosaura Sanchez, for example, who publish two of the collection’s seven chapters, are seasoned scholars who also published one of the first science fiction novels in Chicano Literature.


That deserves a footnote, que no?


In fact, the authors roster reads like a who’s who survey of the first fifty years of formalized C/S in universities. That’s fully intentional on Cantu’s part. The 2018 conference convened to recognize CSULA Chicano Studies Department’s 50th anniversary.


And there are lots of footnotes. And “Works Cited” appendices, what I learned were called “bibliographies,” but then, I remember when there wasn’t something called “Chicano Literature” and the MLA was the sine qua non of citation style. And the writing we learned was stilted and formulaic.

Among the worst rites of passage in a young professor’s career is sitting through two days of academic panels. In a typical session, a moderator fails to control early-program speakers and the last speakers have to rush through a twelve minute plan in three. Speaker after speaker takes the rostrum and starts reading a typed manuscript, making little to no effort to personalize the presentation nor respect their audience. And when a reader goes overtime--"only two more pages left"--that’s plain rude, as well as boring.


Thank you, Professor Cantu, for avoiding that kind of material in this collection. I didn’t attend the conference, but it sounds like these presenters actually talked to the audience. That’s what these chapters sound like, a scholar who respects the reader. Homecoming Trails in Mexican American Cultural History is an academic book—it’s meant to be studied, underlined, dog-eared, and its footnotes followed back to the primary sources. Unless it's a library book. But it’s not a bad read. These are seasoned academics who gave themselves permission to write elegantly while protecting conceptual rigor and teaching you a lot. I hope they talked their papers at the conference.


Cantu’s introduction places a frame around both the conference and the 50-year history of Cal State Los Angeles’ pioneering degree. David Montejano, an Emeritus from Cal Berkeley, is so seasoned he cites his own work as a lens to understand the movement. Pita and Sanchez’ chapter on markets, trade, colonialism, and environmental consequences reads with ease and sounds like the opening lecture in a fascinating graduate seminar.

The final chapter, Julio Puente Garcia’s Battling for the Spanish language:cultural conflicts in Rolando Hinojosa’s novel Generaciones y semblanzas, is the only purely academic essay. It reads like the work of the young scholar he is. It's Cantu's one missed opportunity to do some serious editing. But the subject, Hinojosa, should already have been awarded a Premio Cervantes, so it’s great seeing this essay wrap the collection while adding to the Post-Doc’s curriculum vitae. Chicanos do not read enough Hinojosa.


Seasoning makes a difference not only in style. I’m interested to see a plurality of raza sources in the bibliographies and footnotes. Go back 50 years and CSULA C/S had to hire high school graduates to teach C/S courses, according to Cantu. Go back 40 years and C/S publications find their footnotes devoid of raza names. One Homecoming Trails memoirist says we are in our fifth generation of Chicanx scholars, and it shows. Homecoming Trails bibliographies name a plurality of Chicana Chicano authors. 

Then there's that German guy Heribert von Feilitzsch writes about, Uprooted: The Story of Frederico Stallforth. Here's a real treat of historiography, a superbly narrated spy story from WWI. Stallforth, a Mexican, buys ammunition and weapons in NYC to stall the US war effort in Europe. The foreign agent is never punished for his work.


Footnote: Quinto Sol Press published the first book with the words “Chicano Literature” in the title, 1969’s El Espejo: The Mirror. Selected Chicano Literature. No one mentions that in Roberto Cantu's line-up of scholars, so I’ll end my review on this note: while no book can ever comprehend an entire cultural history, Homecoming Trails in Mexican American Cultural History makes an important contribution.

Homecoming Trails in Mexican American Cultural History: Biography, Nationhood, and Globalism. (link to publisher). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021. 

ISBN: 1-5275-6795-8

ISBN13: 978-1-5275-6795-5




Daniel Cano said...

In his influential essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, some claim one of the best writers in English, offers numerous examples of poor writing among professionals. Ironically, the majority of the worst examples are college professors. So much learning and knowledge to share, yet they keep it locked inside ambiguous, abstract, and, often pretentious language, which means it reaches a limited audience, and graduate schools, it seems, will continue offering tenure to those who fit the mold.

Chuck said...

I’ve once worked with a graduate student from history who had an offer to interview at a major university withdrawn because at a major conference she chose to not read a paper, and instead gave an extemporaneous presentation geared toward that audience. I found that appalling.

Chuck said...

I worked with the graduate student in history who had an interview withdrawn from a major university because she chose to not read the paper and, instead, cave in extemporaneous presentation geared towards that audience. Appalling …