The early 20th-century civil rights movement in the American Southwest was not taught in Monica Martinez’s public school history classes in south Texas. It wasn’t until she came to Brown as an undergraduate and began to research the subject that she found herself confronted with the reality of the events of that era.
What began as a project on Mexican Americans’ quest for education equality soon shifted when, while interviewing activists who took part in the movement, they began telling her stories of their experiences with racism and police brutality.
Martinez took her interest in the topic to graduate school at Yale, where she focused her dissertation on the racial violence and killing of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans that took place at the hands of U.S. soldiers, state agents, and American vigilantes along the U.S.-Mexico border during that time. Her research examines how local residents challenged the state-sanctioned violence and traces how the legacy of that period affects social relations in the American Southwest today.
“People who are generations removed are still circulating these histories. Family members pass them along from generation to generation, and now what’s emerged 100 years later are these efforts by residents in Texas to memorialize this period,” Martinez said. “I think about what it means for Americans and people in this century to be remembering this period of violence and what kind of connections they make to violence that’s ongoing on the border today.”
She said that her research can be applied more generally to other moments of violence in history and how they too affect social relations.
“When we think about this period, it’s only one example. There are histories of genocide, colonialism, and slavery and all of these histories have to be engaged with and reckoned with. Nationally and globally, there’s a question of how to engage with histories of violence in a meaningful way.”
Martinez is currently preparing her book manuscript, ‘Inherited Loss’: Reckoning with Anti-Mexican Violence. She returns to Brown this fall as assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies. She comes from the University of Texas–Austin where she held the Carlos E. Castañeda Postdoctoral Fellowship through the Center for Mexican American Studies.
She credits her time at Brown as instrumental in acquiring the skills necessary for the breadth and depth of her research. Martinez received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a Karen T. Romer Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award (UTRA), and a CV Starr National Service Research Fellowship, which allowed her to receive invaluable mentoring from Brown faculty and to travel to Texas to collect oral histories and conduct research in local archives.
“At Brown I was introduced to this field and then given the resources to experiment, conduct research, and find out if I could see myself doing this as a career,” Martinez said. “I loved being pushed and learning from students from all over. It’s a global campus and the sophistication of the conversations in my ethnic studies and American studies courses helped push my undergraduate research.”
She credits her sister Andrea Muñoz Martinez, who also attended Brown, for setting her on the path to her current career by encouraging her to take an ethnic studies course during her freshman year.
“Really, unintentionally, she set me on this trajectory,” Martinez said.
For Martinez, returning to Brown to teach feels like “coming full circle,” and she said she’s excited to be a in a position of guiding students through the process of discovery just as she was in her undergraduate days.
“I’m looking forward to being in the classroom and raising students’ interest in American studies and exploring different methods for answering questions that maybe they didn’t know they had until they came to class.”
Martinez will teach both an introduction to Latino history and a seminar, “Race and Remembering,” in the fall semester. In the latter, students will examine how to present historical moments of racial violence — slavery or the atrocities of World War II — to different audiences, like museum-goers or elementary school students. They’ll also have the chance to create their own exhibit contributions on a moment of their choosing. Martinez anticipates that the topic will generate plenty of in-class dialogue and the conversations will extend beyond the classroom.
“I’m going to learn as much from them as they’re going to learn from me. It’s going to be a dynamic exchange.”