Number 40, Spring 2003

Book Review
Trilogy to examine anthropologist's work
by Devra Weber, Professor of History, UC Riverside

Manuel Gamio’s El Inmigrante Mexicano, la Historia de su Vida (Entrevistas Completas 1926-1927) published in Mexico, December 2002, is to be released in paperback later this year.1

This volume is the first of a three-part project co-edited by Juan-Vicente Palerm, director of UC-MEXUS, anthropologist Roberto Melville of CIESAS, and historian Devra Weber of UC Riverside. Weber edited Volume I and wrote the introduction.
The next volume, edited by Melville, will be Gamio’s “Mexican Immigration to the United States.” The last, which Palerm will edit, is a series of essays on Gamio and Gamio’s work by scholars from both sides of the border.

The publication of El Inmigrante Mexicano is timely and long overdue. Mexican immigration has swelled since the l980s, changing Mexican communities and politics in both the United States and Mexico.

Gamio interviewees
Rosita Gallardo Bañales and José Mendez Bañales were among those interviewed for Gamio's book.
Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.

Areas, such as East Los Angeles, which were clearly Chicano in the 1960s, have become neighborhoods honeycombed with groups from Mexican towns and cities. Spanish has again become a language widely heard on the streets of the Southwest and it is spreading to other parts of the country. Mexicans have organized in unions, civic groups, federations and binational organizations to improve conditions in the United States and in their homeland.

El Inmigrante Mexicano contains 131 interviews collected by Manuel Gamio in 1926 and 1927 while researching his study, Mexican Immigration to the United States. The interviews were gathered by Gamio and his assistants in the Mexican communities of San Antonio and El Paso-Ciudad Juarez; Los Angeles; Tucson, Phoenix and the mining towns of Globe and Miami, Arizona.

Gamio culled information from the interviews for his study, but had little interest in the interviews themselves. A colleague, University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield, urged Gamio to publish the interviews and eventually took over the task of choosing and editing them for publication. Seventy of these interviews were published in 1930 as The Life History of the Mexican Immigrant.

Both books became classics. Scholars, researchers, students and those interested in the history of Mexicans in the United States or Mexican immigration have all delved, at one time or another, into a weathered copy of Manuel Gamio's The Life History of the Mexican Immigrant. The work is footnoted in almost every book on Chicano history.

Among U.S. academics, Gamio is best known for these works on immigration. In Mexico, however, where Gamio is known as the father of Mexican anthropology, the excavator of Teotihuacán, and a public intellectual, almost nothing is known of his work on Mexican immigrants to the United States.

The questions Gamio asked in the 1920s are still germane to conversations of this decade. Gamio s work on immigration, and the questions he asked reflected cross-border conversations and debates among scholars, organizers, artists, revolutionaries and workers of the early decades of the 20th century. These conversations came out of revolution, social change and war, and challenges to the ideological rationale for slavery and colonialism. They were part of debates about the economics, social effects and policy implications of Mexican migration, national identities, academic disciplines, intellectual experimentations and artistic flowerings. Despite the passage of time, these discussions are still part of ongoing conversations about race and culture, immigration, gender and familial relations, change and identity, politics and political change.

Most importantly, Gamio's El Inmigrante Mexicano: La Historia de su Vida contains the voices of Mexican immigrants of the 1920s, and sentiments, worries, concerns and desires very similar to those of immigrants today. Immigrants interviewed in the 1920s worried about their children, especially their daughters, growing up in the more lax surroundings of the United States and its pervasive consumer culture. Workers voiced an anger laced with sadness about the treatment they received at the hands of bosses, police or Anglo Americans. Interviewees repeatedly said they were going back to Mexico, as soon as things get better, although jobs, marriage, children, grandchildren and time often led to an unintended permanence. Immigrants proudly proclaimed their Mexicanidad even if, for various reasons, they stayed in the US.

Reading these interviews in Manuel Gamio’s El Inmigrante Mexicano: La Historia de su Vida will shed light on the past and also on the dreams, aspirations and experiences of contemporary migrants.

1The hardcover edition of Volume I compiled by Devra Weber, Roberto Melville and Juan Vicente Palerm, introduction by Devra Weber, appendix by Merced López, Manuel Gamio and Luis Felipe Recinos is a joint publication of The Regents of the University of California and Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS). The book is available online at http://www.maporrua.com.mx from Angel Porrua Grupo Editorial, Catálog: 131875-01; ISBN: 970-701-312-5, 640 pp. 22 X 29 cm, 1,650 g.