On Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation announced its newest class of fellows — “geniuses” who have made remarkable contributions to their fields. We wanted to know what happens to a “genius” after the fellowship is over, so we spoke with Ramón Gutiérrez, a Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor in U.S. history at the University of Chicago, and one of the MacArthur fellows in 1983.
He told us about research in Chicano studies that fascinates him, what questions he asks in his own research, and what holes he sees in ethnic studies. During his time as a fellow, Gutiérrez wrote When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away, a monograph on marriage, sexuality and power in New Mexico.
Interview with Ramón Gutiérrez
How’d you react when you heard the news when you were a MacArthur fellow?
It was the second group of MacArthur fellows. I had read something about it, but I didn’t know much about it. You know, when someone calls you up — I think the amount of money I had was something like $352,000 by 1982 dollars. I said, “Oh, OK, thank you, that’s very nice of you,” but I didn’t really believe it until they said that within 24 hours, there would be a courier there with a check and an airplane ticket because [J.] Roderick MacArthur, who was then the heir to the MacArthur Foundation wealth, had invited me to go to his house in Chicago for a dinner. And so there would be a plane ticket and a chauffeur waiting for me on such and such a date. So the first check came and I thought, “Oh, wow, there it is.” I mean, what would you do if someone called you out of the blue? This was even before the Internet was common, so I couldn’t get on the Internet to see if it was true.
Do you know why they chose you?
I have no idea why. When I finished my doctoral degree, my dissertation adviser said to me — I got my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin — and I was going to get my first job at Pomona College in California. He said to me, “It’s probably going to be a few years before you transform your dissertation into a book, and it’s going to take a long time for people know who you are and what you’re doing and the kind of work you’re doing.” So he said to me, “If I were you, I’d buy copy cards and make 30 copies of your dissertation and send them to the 30 people on the West Coast you think are interesting for your work and that you want to get to know your work.” And so one of those 30 people nominated me.
Do you know who nominated you?
I have no idea.
A lot has happened since 1983, when you were named one of the MacArthur fellows. What big changes in the field of Chicano studies or race and ethnicity in American life have you noticed, that you’ve seen from when you were a fellow to today?
I’d say there are probably many more scholars of minority backgrounds or particularly ethnic groups that have been marginalized in society that are more dominant in the academy. For example, when I entered the academy … I was the only Mexican-American in the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin [studying] history. Now there are probably six or seven, so the numbers have gone up simply because of the demographic changes in the United States. You’d probably say the same for the study of Asia-Americans: very few in the academy 20 years ago, and now the academy is producing a large number of scholars that are Latino, Asian-American, Mexican-American. The numbers have remained rather steady in terms of African-American and that’s a larger, more complicated problem.
Lately, what’s the most interesting research that you’ve come across?
We as mammals have five senses. Clearly, the visual field is the one that is most developed in the human brain, but we also have the sense of smell, touch, taste and hearing. And so I was talking about the work that Osagie Obasogie [a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law] works on studying people who have been blind since birth and how they understand race. ….He interviewed 110 individuals asking them how they understood race. And for all of them, race was a visual category. They would describe the color of blacks, Asians and Latinos, of Native Americans, even though they had never seen such a person. …
Most of the individuals had learned these categories as young people, when someone was described as a black person, they would mostly describe phenotypic characteristics: That the person had black skin color, a dark skin color, that they had a particular shape of the nose, of the eye, that they had a particular quality or organization of face. So these individuals over time got many more inputs in their senses that they came to associate with the visual description of race and the color.
And those things included, for example, touching individuals who were African-American. And one person [in Obasagie's study] describes his experience [of] when he was in kindergarten, touching the hair of his classmates and finding that the hair was particularly kinky and something that he’d never touched before. He was unfamiliar with that feeling. Other students — other people who were similarly blind since birth — remember touching the skin of African-Americans and white, and noticing that white skin tended to be much softer and much smoother, and that African-American skin was dryer and rougher in terms of the sensation that one would have by touching it.
The issue of tastes that are always equated with foods of different ethnic groups [is another]. What comes out of our pores in terms of our body odors and oils is greatly determined by what we eat. So if you have a high garlic, for an Italian or a Greek person, at least I too associate particular smells with people from Greece or people from particular countries. An Indian from [South] Asia eating coriander and turmeric every day in high doses of their food is going to smell very differently than somebody who doesn’t eat onions, garlic or turmeric or coriander. It’s just the way it is. So these individuals [in Obasagie's research] would associate smells and taste of foods with particular groups.
And that was Professor Osagie Obasogie’s work that you’re talking about. What about the questions that inform your research? What are some of the biggest questions that you’re asking today?
I’m primarily interested in the rise of [the] Mexican-American civil rights movement. If you’ve watched the “Latino American” series on television in the last two Tuesday nights, it gives you a sense of the work that I’m trying to chronicle. I’ve been studying the work of a Pentecostal preacher. His name is Reies López Tijerina, and I’m trying to understand kind of both the social context by which he emerged. His early life, when he was an itinerant Pentecostal preacher he had a very radical end-world theology that the world was about to end and that it was time to repent, and that if people did not repent, that the second coming of Christ was about to occur. And that they would essentially be destined to damnation and perdition for the rest of eternity if they didn’t repent immediately.
So he starts that way and then he becomes aware of … he was preaching primarily to the plight of the poor people in the United States. He travels to New Mexico and learns about the way in which the Hispanic residents of New Mexico had lost their land in the 19th century. Then, he starts a movement to try to recuperate the land that they had lost, and so he becomes quite a radical activist and is seen as [being part] of the radical nationalist wing of the Chicano movement. So I’ve been studying him, and essentially his fall from power, and the eclipse of the radical Chicano movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
What are the holes that you see in either ethnic studies or Chicano studies today?
Race and ethnicity are seen as much more active processes. We used to think of an ethnicity as something static that someone had, or as a person’s race as biologically informed by particular genetic makeup that would produce particular skin color, hair, organization or facial features. That way of seeing race or ethnicity as static nouns has been kind of transformed by looking at race as a dynamic verb. So you get people studying the process of racialization or ethnicization, that is, how social groups, how institutions, how governments, how legal order, construct these categories and keep them in place.
I’d say there’s been a movement [in thinking about] race as dichotomous, that is black and white, or bichromatic, to polychromatic. … There are different racial groups in society and that American history is not all defined by black and white, and particularly in places like the West, you’ve had to deal with the presence of large numbers of American Indians, Asian-Americans who have been particularly — Chinese and the Filipinos who have come to the United States particularly because of the gold rush and railroads, and with the Filipinos, who have come because of the end of the War of 1898, and with the large presence of Mexicans and Spanish people who had colonized the Southwest since 1598. So that whole movement is trying to understand how complicated the nonwhite category that’s been used in the census, and understanding race.
I’d say that the third field of study would be how “whiteness” as a category has been merged as a racial category. We usually study how “blackness” or how “Latino-ness” or how “Asian-Americanness” … operated. But we never really have studied concretely, except maybe over the last 10 years, how the category of “whiteness” is organized and understood by people.