Latina Historian Monica Muñoz Martinez Talks Preserving Southwest History

Monica Muñoz Martinez is a Latina historian who specializes in the Mexican history of Texas

Monica Muñoz Martinez Latina Historian

Photos courtesy of Monica Muñoz Martinez and The University of Texas at Austin

From Celia Cruz to Sonia Sotomayor, the history of the Latinx community is full of changemakers who have broken barriers and paved the way for future generations, and are still doing so today. Despite this rich history, it’s frequently marginalized by the larger mainstream narrative, watering us down to supporting characters of other people’s stories or completely leaving out our contributions altogether. But if we look at the actual academic field, it’s not hard to see why. In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of historians are white, while Latinxs only make up 13.9 percent of the field. If we’re not there advocating for our history to be included in textbooks, to be taught, to respected and celebrated, it will likely get misinterpreted or even erased. That’s where Monica Muñoz Martinez, an award-winning Mexican American historian, author, and history professor at The University of Texas at Austin, comes in. She specializes in the history of the American Southwest from a Latinx perspective, a history that’s an important part of American history as whole but rarely gets the attention it warrants.

“I love the opportunity to meet people and learn about their lives and families. I love all of that work,” she tells HipLatina.

Because of her upbringing, it was no wonder that she developed a strong passion for the past. Born and raised in Texas, she grew up constantly surrounded by changemakers. Her parents, who both attended Robb Elementary School, had participated in a student walkout at Uvalde High School in 1970 after a popular Latino teacher didn’t get his contract renewed for the following school year. The walkout was protesting discrimination and advocating for bilingual education and inclusive history curriculum. She also knew family members who had firsthand accounts of the Civil Rights Movement and introduced her to the powerful oral storytelling tradition.

“When there was a family get-together or when older family members came to visit, I was the kid that, instead of going out to play, would sit at the table and listen to the stories, which encouraged me to learn about my family history,” Martinez explains. “Learning about their lives taught me to not forget where I came from and to make sure that we were opening doors because we had doors opened for us. Like, I went to a school in Uvalde that was far superior to my parents’ because the civil rights movement impacted the school district. I benefitted from that. So that curiosity was really important.”

Those experiences allowed her to learn about reflection and introspection from an early age. Whenever she and her sister visited the town where their mother was from, they cleaned the graves of her great-grandparents to celebrate their return. She learned about her grandfather through storytelling too, the stories of him growing up in Uvalde, how he started working in a mine at 15, and how his dad died in a mining accident. As a result, the teachings of the older relatives in her family were fundamental to her understanding of history.

This profound connection and understanding of history through her home education stood in stark contrast to what she learned in school. No one was talking about history from the perspective of social justice and community advocacy. No one was teaching her about the power of protests and organizing. In fact, it wouldn’t be until she traded her home state for Rhode Island to attend Brown University that she was actually able to study the history of civil rights in the Southwest, traveling 2,000 miles to do so.

In this new academic setting, Martinez had the guidance of professors who provided her ample opportunities to work as a research assistant where she was able to help build archives, conduct interviews, record oral histories, and travel across the country. Working with community members to digitize papers, records, and photographs, as well as teaching them how to preserve these materials, is, as she states, “the first step to them being able to write parts of history.”

These efforts were especially important when working with marginalized communities including Latinxs and women, whose histories largely haven’t been preserved by archives or libraries because of white, male, and Western-centric attitudes, policies, and practices that have always dominated and continue to dominate the profession.

For example, we often think of oral history as the trademark way to share information for many marginalized communities around the world. But in fact, the first oral history collections, as she explains, focused on male politicians and business leaders, rendering them a sort of default for how historians would continue to conduct research. As a result, the way we not only discuss but also collect pieces of history is informed by “colonization and conquest,” to reaffirm what we already know rather than being open to something new.

Another important aspect to consider is the idea of a code of ethical standards. In Martinez’s eyes, it’s not enough to make history available to the public; the families and descendants involved also have to be considered in what would be “restorative” and educational, including a historical marker, exhibit, or statewide recognition, especially in issues of state-sanctioned violence. Researchers have to be careful in these situations not to retrigger the family, diminish their generational trauma, or repeat harmful behaviors in their preservation efforts.

While these are all ongoing issues to keep in mind, all while the Mexican American history of the Southwest is constantly undermined or ignored, it’s her love for her home that keeps her going each and every day.

“If you think about the history of the Southwest and the history of what we now call Texas, it has these intersecting histories of colonization, conquest, and slavery, and they are all mutually informed. Sometimes, the way we teach history is in silos but we’re not encouraging historians to think relationally about different communities. For me, Texas is this really fascinating place where all of these histories intersect.”

This is true of law enforcement officers like the Texas Rangers who, as she explains, perpetuated harm across racial and ethnic groups including Mexican Americans, Mexican nationals, and African Americans by employing the same strategies of state-sanctioned violence. From lynchings to deliberate shootings, the white majority was hoping to seek “control” over many other non-white groups.

In many ways, it’s not too different from what we’re seeing today as public elected officials in many U.S. states are regulating what is taught in the classroom through book bans and curriculum design that excludes or diminishes race and ethnic struggle. While it’s primarily happening in Florida, it’s also happening on a larger scale across state lines, which Martinez describes as a harmful abuse of power.

“The field of history has made great advances in documenting the history of marginalized communities and making those histories publicly available, so it’s very concerning when elected officials who are not educational professionals or historians are trying to create policies that impact the classroom,” she says. “We need to shine a light on troubling parts of our history and insist that we have to learn from them or those kinds of events could repeat. Right now, we’re seeing backlash against the progress that’s been made in giving people more truthful and accurate representations of the past and some of the influences of those periods of violence continuing to shape policy today.”

However, college curriculum isn’t impacted by government policy and her classes have become so popular and so needed in the current political climate. For example, she’s always being asked by the administration to increase the enrollment size of her classes because so many students want to take them and is constantly receiving requests from K-12 teachers for collaborations with their students.

“Although there was an effort to try to suppress these histories or control how people learn about them, there’s just so much public interest. People are excited and want access to histories that they didn’t have access to before.”

These reactions, more than anything, have fueled her to continue her important work as a professor at The University of Texas at Austin (UTA), where she has taught since 2020 offering courses in U.S. history, Texas history, Latinx history, Mexican American history, borderlands history, women and gender history, public history, digital humanities, and civil rights history. For a few years before that, she taught similar subjects at Brown University.

But it wasn’t always easy. in her first history class as a college student, she actually got a C on her first paper, not because she wasn’t intelligent but because her earlier education hadn’t taught her how to write and communicate her ideas, preventing her from having “the skillset to survive.” It was thanks to her mentors, professors, and other student resources, however, that she was able to get the help she needed to boost that skillset. It was also her early professors who would go on to introduce her to other professors on campus, leading her to get invited to participate on research teams, receive paid research opportunities, travel around the country, and receive fellowships while she wrote her thesis. From PhD students, she learned about opportunities for graduate school and was mentored through the application process. When she eventually was accepted, those past experiences encouraged her to pay it forward and she found herself mentoring the following class of students as well. And now as a professional teacher, she’s finding that it’s still the students who keep her coming back to the classroom each year too.

“I can never anticipate how they’re going to connect to the material or identify with somebody,” she says. “You don’t know how what you teach might inspire or prompt somebody to think about the world differently and can inform what they think about the future. It’s always exciting and dynamic and the students themselves help me change my lectures every year based on what I hear about their interests. That to me is what’s the most fun about teaching.”

And the thing is, you don’t need to be a professional historian or even a student in history to start engaging with the field and its practices in your everyday life. As Martinez explains, preserving your family history and genealogy is one of the most important things you can do right now: preserving important documents by bringing them into the house and not letting them be exposed to heat or extreme temperatures; digitizing photographs; and storing physical copies in acid-free folders. She also recommends audio or video recording your elders telling stories or talking about photos in the family photo album where they can describe their context, who’s in it, where and when it was taken, and more details that would otherwise be lost to time and memory. And of course, she offers the reminder that it’s also important to practice the same ethical and moral standards that historians do by ensuring that the relatives and people you’re working with provide consent and are comfortable sharing their knowledge.

“Depending on family’s histories, not all parts of people’s past are cherished happy memories. Sometimes we have some family members who don’t want to think about the past because some of it was traumatic. For example, people’s stories of migration can be very difficult. If there are topics that people don’t want to discuss, there might be multiple reasons why. So only invite people to share what they want to share.”

In all of Martinez’s work, whether it’s in the classroom or her current research in Uvalde helping families dealing with traumatic violence, she’s never been as motivated to advocate for her community’s history to be taught in the classroom and remembered in the larger collective memory of this country. Latinxs are important not only because we’ve contributed a great deal of innovation and labor to the world but also because we’ve lived in the U.S. for generations. We’ve raised families, worked in a variety of jobs, fought against injustice, and survived violent attacks. For those reasons and more, she says, we deserve to be included in history and be a part of how the field is changing as both the subjects of history and historians themselves. She notes:

“Historians advance and our collective understanding of the past changes when new archives become available or were found, or some of the old archives and documents that have been read millions of times are read from a different perspective or with new context and insight. The field has made tremendous advances but it still has a long way to go to preserve the collections of people whose histories have not been preserved according to a very restricted definition of what’s significant or who’s significant and why. There’s still important work to do.”

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Chicano History Featured historian History latina latina historian Monica Muñoz Martinez oral history southwest Texas uvalde
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