We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Enrique Buelna discusses his book Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
Chicano Communists and the Struggle for Social Justice traces the early roots of the Chicano Movement. It follows the thread of radical activism of the 1930s and 1940s to today, showing the depth of its influence on Mexican Americans struggling to achieve social justice and equality.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
In this book, I detail the history of Mexican American militancy through a close examination of Ralph Cuarón’s life. His activist career becomes a vehicle through which I reveal and link the influence that these radicals, specifically members of the Communist Party USA, had on the lives of many in this community. Though the outlines of this history have been documented by some secondary sources, the details of how it unfolded and who was involved has not always been clear. What oral history offered me was an opportunity to unravel some of these details—identifying principal organizers, understanding their motivations, and the extent of their activities. Every interview I conducted with Cuarón, and his family, provided me with new threads of inquiry, which often led me directly to more individuals, either contemporaries working along parallel paths or fellow comrades who they collaborated closely with. As a result, I added almost twenty new subjects to my research, interviewed them all, and gained a tremendous amount of new knowledge. Those interviews not only helped me to situate Cuarón in the mix of all this activism, but they also helped to tell a fuller, and more accurate, picture of the militancy of this period. And, just as important as these individual memories were, their stories led me to search out new sources—archival collections, court documents, investigative reports—that proved vital in solidifying this picture of persistent struggle to bring about social justice and equality for this community.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
What I like most about using oral history as a methodology is the way in which it creates the potential for new knowledge. I get to jump back in time, along with the subject, to see those historic moments with fresh eyes. Sometimes these first-hand accounts confirm facts that I already know, but most often they reveal new experiences that question or upturn old assumptions. Interpretation and confirmation of the facts is always a challenge, but the opportunity to delve into the archives and compare notes with other investigators is exciting to me. Oral history, I believe, allows the historian as well as the student to engage with the subject in a more profound and meaningful way. In fact, this is why I became attracted to history in the first place.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
I believe my book offers an interesting mixture of oral history with archival research. This is not a biography, but it does weave together the critical moments in Cuarón’s life that helps create a gripping personal narrative. What my book sought to do was to disaffirm the notion that Mexican American labor and working class activism was inconsequential to the broader movement. As with many oral histories, what results is an account that brings the archival records to life, illuminating the resilience and determination of a people to make their lives matter. In this respect, Cuarón’s life—as with all the subjects—is the glue that helps bind this history all together.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
I want readers to understand that Mexican Americans have been an integral part of the struggle for civil rights, labor rights, and social justice in the United States since the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite the treaty that ended the war between Mexico and the United States in 1848, Mexican Americans were not considered equals among citizens. Identified as a pariah population, and one that threatened Anglo American power, every effort was taken to control and remove this population from the lands they once owned. Hence, the story of Mexican Americans is one that is deeply affected by conquest and settler colonialism. Yet, their struggle is also an immigrant one. What unfolds in the pages of this book is a narrative that centers on the struggles of this community to break down barriers, challenge entrenched power, and achieve first class citizenship. In this process, they devised bold strategies and alternative visions they believed would lead us toward a different America. In the end, what you will find in this book is a quintessential American story.