The mission of SAR Press encompasses not only publishing research at the forefront of anthropology and Southwest and Native studies, but also providing resources to our past, present, and future scholars, as well as any scholar looking for more information about the publishing process. To that end, we are publishing a blog series comprised of interviews with diverse scholars including first-generation scholars and those from marginalized communities who have recently published or are in the midst of publishing their first book and who can offer guidance and encouragement to colleagues who are just starting to think about publishing. We hope that these interviews make a small contribution to supporting people as they begin the publishing process.
Our latest interview features Alina Méndez, one of SAR’s 2020–2021 Mellon fellows. While at SAR, Méndez worked on a book project titled “Subsidized Labor: The Bracero Program in the Imperial Valley–Mexicali Borderlands, 1942–1969,” which examines the socioeconomic transformations that the Bracero Program generated in California’s Imperial Valley and across the US-Mexico border in Mexicali, Baja California.
If you would, tell me a little bit about who you are, where you are in your career, and what you study.
I’m an assistant professor in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. This would have been my third year on the tenure track. My work looks at the Bracero Program in a US-Mexico borderlands context, not just the US side, which has tended to be the focus.
Tell me about your background as a scholar.
I’m a historian by training. I got my PhD in history from UC San Diego, and my focus is Mexican American history. Within that, I look at labor; I look at migration; I look at relational racial formation.
Do you have other scholars or writers in your family, or were you the first? What started you on this path?
I don’t have any scholars or writers in my family. My brother’s five years older than me, and I think I was in eighth grade when he went away to college. To me that was just transformative because then I realized that I could go to college as well. So I really credit him for inspiring me and making it seem like it was possible to go to college and leave the small farming valley where I’m from. Our parents were farm workers. They never really had much of an education, but my dad is full of stories. Whenever you spend some time with him, he’ll share a story about when he was twelve and traveling to other states in Mexico to cut sugarcane or when he was involved with the United Farm Workers. That’s how my parents met. They were boycotting or picketing one of the local farms in the Imperial Valley, and I think my interest in history stems from just sitting around a dining table and hearing what they had to say about being farm workers, about being immigrants.
So tell me where you are in your writing and publishing process and how you got started.
When I heard that I had received the SAR Resident Scholar Fellowship, I thought I would I work for nine months on revising my book manuscript and then submit by the end of the summer. I think it was around then that everything started shutting down. Even that spring, I knew that my revision plans for the manuscript would have to change, I just thought they would be delayed by a few months. I was going to write another chapter that was based on archival research, and I thought if I did archival research the summer before my fellowship, I’d be able to write a new chapter. None of that has happened. So I think it’s a work in process—trying to be realistic about what kinds of revisions I can make during a pandemic. As I’m making peace with perhaps not writing an additional chapter this year, I think it might become an article that I could write and publish several years down the line.
Even though I’ve been talking to people over the past few months, I don’t think anyone has spoken that much about the pandemic. Clearly, we’re all kind of doing the same thing in the sense of being more isolated, but I don’t think anyone has told me how it’s actually affected their work.
For example, I’m working on a primary source document project that looks at women’s experiences with the Bracero Program because women were not technically participants in the program, but obviously every man who participated had a mother, a wife, sisters. My project has been trying to bring women out of the shadows. One of the struggles has been getting the permissions because these are primary sources that students would read with an introduction and then write their own research paper. And Mexican archives are just not responsive at all. I get e-mails and then complete silence, or they’re not answering phone calls or not answering e-mails. So for this particular project that’s been catastrophic. I’ve had to rethink the project, the sources that I’m including, and it won’t be as expansive. It’s been very, very challenging.
How have you gone about approaching editors or publishers, and do you have advice for other people?
I think my story is a little bit unusual. After I completed my dissertation, I submitted it to a few dissertation prize committees, and it won the Herbert G. Gutman dissertation prize. That prize came with an advance contract with the University of Illinois Press, and it’s specifically with the Working Class in American History series. So if all goes well, my book will come out in the series. But even before I was done with the dissertation, I heard the advice that as you’re writing, you should keep an eye on your bookshelf and see where your favorite authors are publishing. I must have heard that advice ten times during graduate school every single year, and I think that’s what I would have essentially done. I had already identified a few presses, several series where I think my work fits, and I would have gone about that route, contacting the acquisitions editors, the series editors. Now that my book will be in a labor history series, I am conscious as I’m revising of what readers expect to see from a book in that series versus another. I was finding the dominant themes in these different series and the different kinds of topics that various presses are interested in.
I was also lucky enough to be a Ford fellow, and what’s great about the Ford dissertation fellowship is that they invite you to the Ford fellows conference for two years. They do this amazing thing where they invite acquisitions editors, different presses, and they put them all in this large open courtyard. They all have their table, and they all have their signup sheet. So it’s a very low-stakes informal conversation that you get to have with editors where they just talk to fellows. And it was such a great experience because I knew what my project was, but I didn’t necessarily know what press I was going to pitch my project to. It was more like, this is my project, what do you think? That was very helpful. I’ve heard stories from people who tell me that they met with an editor at a very large conference and the conversation was constantly interrupted by people who were buying books or had questions or were trying to drop off their business card. My advice is just to speak with editors as early as you can. I think when you’re a graduate student, a conversation is more relaxed and there’s not this urgency. You can speak more freely about the kinds of things that you’re interested in learning about.
What about the writing itself? Do you have anything to share about your experience of writing, anything that’s helped you?
My advice is to share with diverse audiences. For example, I shared a chapter with fellow resident scholars and SAR’s senior scholars a few months ago. And it was really interesting seeing the kind of feedback they had. I think I was the only historian in the room, and I could see that their training in anthropology really shaped the kind of questions and comments they had. I’ve shared my work with historians interested in labor, and of course all their questions and comments are about labor; you go to a migration conference, and it’s all about the migration process that I’m writing about. But as you share your work with people in different fields, people in different stages of their careers, you get a sense of the many kinds of questions that perhaps you hadn’t really thought about as you were writing within your niche.
My other piece of advice is, I think, what most scholars hear all the time about writing every day at least for thirty minutes. I’m a procrastinator at my very core. I struggle so much to just open the Word document that I’m working on every day. I was lucky enough that my institution paid for the Faculty Success Program, which the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity offers. When I was completing the boot camp, I thought, I know this, but I need to write every day. What was really helpful is that during one of the weeks, they asked you to document the kinds of blocks that you feel are stopping you from writing every day. So that’s when I realized that my procrastination is at the very root of my anxiety about writing, and every day as I’m having that writing resistance, I have to think about why I’m so anxious about opening the Word document today. And I try to work through those emotions to finally get to the writing stage.
I also really recommend being part of a writing community, having working groups. Now that we’re all at home, Zoom has been a lifesaver. I Zoom with friends almost every day to work. We turn off our cameras and just work and then check in at the end of our work session. And that’s been very helpful. So not only sharing your work, but also just having someone to hold you accountable.
It was interesting when you were talking about being in a room full of anthropologists or being at this conference or that conference where everybody’s focused on one thing. How do you deal with that? How do you sort out all that advice and choose your own path?
One of the reasons I admire the work of anthropologists is that they’re very good at utilizing theory to make their work universal. People are always interested in seeing how you employ a theoretical concept but also bring in a more specific kind of case study, ethnography or archival work. So, for example, in some of the feedback that I got a couple of months ago on my chapter, the fellows were interested in one particular place in the chapter where I really explain the work itself, the agricultural work and what that entailed. And I could see that as ethnographers, they were really interested in seeing that kind of methodology woven into the chapter. Some of my favorite books are in anthropology or in sociology, and that’s what I hope will be appealing about my work—that it’s firmly grounded in historical methods but speaks to many topics.
I think there are many layers to the work we do. When I entered my graduate program, I just wanted to write a history of my valley. I just wanted to make sure that the histories of people like my mother’s family weren’t lost. And then once I started reading for the qualifying exam, once I had to write in a way that spoke to academics, then of course I added those layers: How am I contributing to the existing literature? What new methodologies am I bringing? But I hope that at the end of the day, the academic format of the book won’t take away from the personal stories, from the essence of what I’m trying to capture in the book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.