UW News

April 24, 2013

Carlos Gil tells family story in memoir, ‘We Became Mexican American’

UW News

Cover of Carlos Gil's memoir, "We Became Mexican American"Carlos Gil is a University of Washington professor emeritus of history and author of the new memoir, “We Became Mexican American: How Our Immigrant Family Survived to Pursue the American Dream.” He answered some questions about the book for UW Today.

Q: What is the concept behind the book?

A: An examination of ordinary families and the individuals that comprise them may provide the fullest and most constructive understanding of a given historical period. This, I think, is the main idea behind my book.

For instance, what better example can you have in trying to understand the economic and social underpinnings of Mexican immigration to the United States than my uncle Miguel arriving in Tucson, Ariz., a day after crossing the border on foot in 1922, and within hours being offered a job by an American agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad to do work in northern California?

And when my mother and grandmother crossed the border at Nogales, Ariz., a few weeks later, they too were offered a job inside of an hour or so.  My mother wrote in her memoirs, “trucks were lined up waiting for us — to pick cotton.”

Here is a clear example of the “pulling” factors often described as the mechanisms that trigger migration across international borders. What is the obvious pulling factor here? The answer is cheap labor to fuel economic development in the American West. It’s been going on ever since.

Q: How did you turn decades of family memories into this book? 

A: My book is based on long interviews I recorded of my old folks decades ago, all of them now deceased. And so, as they spoke, sitting in their favorite chair or at the kitchen table, they culled their own memories of what was most important.

In terms of the process itself, I transcribed and translated from rustic Spanish to plain American English.  It was hard work but completing the task was heartwarming and personally rewarding.

Q: You write that the chapters about “putting down roots” were the most challenging as you sought to understand your family’s evolution after settling in San Fernando, Calif. Why was this the case and how did you resolve the challenge?

A: The memories that my old folks shared with me involved the days of migration itself, leaving their home in Mexico and traveling over hill and vale with a knapsack on their back, literally, looking for new communities and benefactors on the road north. After I boiled down my text I came to realize that their journey stood out as an amazing and worthwhile experience no matter how trying it might have been — one they would never repeat.  For this reason I think it became a golden memory for them, though a costly experience.

The story about their settling down in my hometown of San Fernando, getting married, having children, facing ever greater challenges because of the growing family, less money to go around, the Great Depression coming on, wrestling with the new social mores and cultural ways — these memories were not so golden.  They were stressful and seemingly never-ending, and so I think my old folks seem to have shut them out.

As a consequence, I had to reconstruct them with the aid of my siblings who remembered far more than I did — hurtful things, all human experiences, of course — but I had to give these recollections a literary body. It wasn’t easy because I had to re-live much of what I had mentally put into a closet myself, visualizing our growing up from our parents’ perspective. Doing so was cathartic for me and for those of my siblings who survived to read my pages — they told me this much.

Q: You write that “taking up life in a completely different land is akin to reforging one’s personality or one’s sense of self … and demands a process that is highly complex in itself.” Would you tell a bit about that process?

A. The immigration experience is indeed underappreciated by those of us who don’t immigrate. My grandmother’s world, for example, was marked by the traditional order of late-1800s Mexico where everything in life was measured by how you dressed, the color of your skin, the Spanish inflection in your voice, how devoted you were to Catholicism, and much more — all this defined her 100 percent.  In 1930s southern California these values didn’t count as much and yet she couldn’t set them aside like you take off your coat.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: What I hope my readers take away is that Mexican/Latino immigrants attracted to America by giant economic “magnets,” so to speak, then as now, go through a transformational experience when they leave their world and try to fit into ours; that the complexity of it depends on many factors.

We, their children, the new Americans, do not always appreciate this — a sad loss in my view. I hope my own descendants avoid this blankness.

  • Gil published “We Became Mexican American” through Xlibris in late 2012.