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UC San Diego History Professor Presents Award-Winning Research about Mexican Immigration

Image: Natalia Molina

Natalia Molina, award-winning professor of history and urban studies. Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

UC San Diego Department of History Professor Natalia Molina, who also teaches urban studies, was recently awarded the 2015 Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship for her book, “How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts.” Molina’s publication examines Mexican immigration from 1924 to 1965 to understand how broad themes of race and citizenship are established. She will discuss her research publicly as the next keynote speaker in the Division of Arts and Humanities’ Degrees of Health and Well-being lecture series, Wednesday. Jan. 27, 7:00 p.m., in UC San Diego’s Great Hall.

The Glasscock Award supports humanities research through fellowships and grants. Molina will formally accept the award Feb. 24, at Texas A&M University’s Glasscock Center Library, where she will also give a lecture about her work.

“The Glasscock prize provides a stage for talking about immigration thoughtfully,” Molina said. “Immigration is such a hot topic today, yet in our 24-hour-news-cycle, fueled by sound bites, we often don’t discuss this pressing issue in an informed way.”

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act, which, according to Molina, transformed immigration in unanticipated ways, most notably paving the way for immigration from Latin America and Asia.

“As the United States stands poised for yet another major immigration reform, we should be able to learn from the past to inform our futures,” noted Molina, who uses the term “racial scripts” to describe ways in which racial stereotypes are constructed and used to determine the ways marginalized groups are treated by the courts, law enforcement, public health officials, employers, co-workers, neighbors and others with influence.

Molina’s award-winning book looks at the ways Mexicans were excluded from citizenship from the 1920s through the 1950s, including deportation practices. Still, after the mid-1940s, Mexican Americans became a permanent and visible part of U.S. society.

“Their second-generation numbers eclipsed those of the immigrant generation. When Mexican American World War II soldiers returned home, they, like their African American counterparts, demanded democracy and equality. They waged and won civil rights battles, such as in the precedent-setting Mendez v. Westminster school desegregation case,” noted Molina. “Despite these affirmative steps that narratives of assimilation would have us believe would entrench groups into mainstream American society, Mexican Americans continued to be seen as outsiders.”

Molina explained that the narrative of Mexicans as not full citizens was continuously re-inscribed and regenerated, raising questions about how and why Mexican Americans were excluded from the popular narrative of the American “melting pot.”

Molina also pointed out that the phenomenon of racial scripts is widely visible today, evident in discussions of immigration issues at many levels, particularly in discussions of immigration along the Mexico-U.S. border in the current run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

“Some may want to readily dismiss billionaire and Republican presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, as a nativist because of his views on immigration, but we need to see how he is shaping the discourse on the topic,” Molina said. “Trump famously promoted the image of Mexican pregnant women strategically entering the United States to give birth to ‘anchor babies’ with the goal of securing citizenship. Jeb Bush, his competitor, argued that it was actually Asians who were having ‘anchor babies,’ which effectively shifted the derogatory term from Latinos to Asians,” said Molina, adding that these examples persistently equate being ‘American’ with whiteness.

Molina’s interest in the impact of racial scripts and stereotypes has roots in her own experiences, which include growing up in Echo Park, a working-class, predominantly Mexican community in Los Angeles that also included Chinese immigrants, Vietnamese refugees, Filipino nationals and working-class whites. Her next project, “Place-makers and Place-making: The Story of a Los Angeles Community,” will examine a century of change in that neighborhood.

For more information about Professor Molina, visit her website.

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