Ignacio M. Garcia is the Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr. Professor of Western and Latino History at BYU. He is the author of several significant scholarly studies of Chicano and Mexican American history and he mentored several JI bloggers when they were students at BYU. Ignacio recently published a memoir, Chicano While Mormon: Activism, War, and Keeping the Faith, which is the first installment in Farleigh Dickinson University Press’s new Mormon Studies Series. Dr. Garcia’s memoir recounts his early years, from his family’s migration to Texas from Mexico, his growing up Mormon in a San Antonio barrio, his time in Vietnam, and his college activism in the incipient Chicano Movement. With the Latino/a population now the largest minority in the United States, and Latino/as joining the church in growing numbers, understanding Mormon Latino/a history will becoming increasingly important in years to come. As the first published autobiography of a Mormon Mexican American, Dr. Garcia’s memoir is an important milestone. For those interested in purchasing the memoir, here is a code for a 30% discount: UP30AUTH15 (enter it at the Rowman and Littlefield website, linked to above)
Continuing the JI’s occasional series, Scholarly Inquiry, Dr. Garcia agreed to answer the following questions:
1. Briefly, could you summarize the main points of the memoir for the JI’s readers?
I don’t know if you write a memoir with main points in mind. I surely didn’t. I simply wanted to tell about my life as I tried to figure myself out. But if there are main points, it is probably that it is possible to survive being a Chicano while Mormon or a Mormon while Chicano. While that statement might seem obvious to some, I think I get more questions on why I’m one while being the other than any other, especially in the academy. Another point would be that in deciding to remain faithful to both my ethnicity and my faith I accomplished things that I now enjoy and which I might not have achieved if one of those parts of my identity had been missing. It was also, in part to put closure to one aspect of my life while recognizing its value to who I am and what I will finally become. I see my life as a journey that makes sense only when I understand where I have been.
2. Tell us about the process of conceptualizing and writing the memoir. How and why did you decide where to end the account with your college years and early activism?
I see my early years as a time of evolvement and ones where I made commitment to certain values that are still dear to me. Some may have learned all they know in kindergarten but it took me longer. My values I learned in my little Spanish-language Mormon ward, in high school protests, the Viet Nam war and during my time in the Chicano movement. I did not have the quiet, orderly and religious experience of many traditional Mormons, and because I was Mormon I missed out on some of the things of the barrio. Because of this I became a stranger at one time or another to each, but eventually I submerged myself in both. I was thus “of the barrio” because I chose to stay in it, and “of the church” because I never left the faith. I remain in both worlds not because it was the natural thing to do but because I knew that is where I needed to be. When I decided to write the memoir I did so without an endgame. I didn’t know where it would end or what it would include. I could say that about a number of drafts that lie around my house and office. I knew it would be chronological because I hate memoirs that have little sense of history—I’m an historian after all. While I’m on the topic of hating, I also hate memoirs that have no substance, just nice sounding phrases and cute stories, a common occurrence in many of today’s personal narratives. I ended the memoir where I did because significant changes occurred in my life. I got a job, went fully back to church, had children, served as bishop twice and then went on to get a Ph.D. And, of course, I came to BYU. While my values remained consistent my circumstances did not and so I again adapted and evolved. I believe that is another story that I want to tell later. I may also opine that the great Mexican American and Latino memoirs seem to all end when the authors reach their early twenties even thought their greatest accomplishments were yet to come. I didn’t realize this until I wrote mine and so it may be something in the genes, though I don’t expect my life to be anything similar to them in scope.
3. How do you navigate the complexities of social activism when Mormonism tends to frown on intellectual/political campaigns as part of the religious experience?
I do so because I never learned not to. I was experiencing and fighting over things that came with being Chicano in America before I learned the rules of being a “proper Mormon”. I may add that my wife did too–we learned to “agitate” before we fully learned to “congregate”. Too many Mormons are nurtured and breastfed into avoidance of anything that complicates life and fail to learn the value of life’s messiness. At BYU we like to joke about all the things that Joseph, Brigham and others of our early leaders did in their lives that would get them in trouble on campus today. Yet, it was those complications that made them the men and women they became. As Mormons, we love miracle stories but only once we clean them up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty obedient fellow but I think there are times in which rules, traditions and our protocols actually work against us becoming true followers of Christ. I don’t claim to have fully figured out life but those experiences which were often messy and which did not have a simple and clean outcome were the ones from which I learned the most. To never question or try something out of the ordinary and avoiding all that might discomfort another Mormon is a terrible way to live life. I’ve always believed that the atonement was the one reason we should experience life. But in fairness I’ve never had the inclination to do something that was terribly wrong. As you can tell from my memoir, I was a rather orthodox Mormon kid but because I did not live in a traditional Mormon home my orthodoxy had more to do with the siblinghood of God’s children than in following rules and staying “spotless in the eyes of the world”. I will add that there is much in Mormonism that challenges the way we Mormons “behave”, we just don’t take time to notice and nurture those principles. It has not always been easy to engage in activism in the church and I’ve had to learn to promote different ways of thinking without alienating those who might benefit from them. Unfortunately, I’ve not always been successful, but I remain convinced that I have something to offer and so I remain committed to the church and I just keeping trucking along at BYU.
4. You’re the second BYU faculty member from the history department to publish a memoir in the last year (Craig Harline being the other — see here for the JI’s review) – what is the relationship, if any, between your several scholarly monographs and your memoir?
I can’t speak for Craig but for me it has been about trying to help the readers who know my work—or will–to understand how my experiences and the evolvement of my faith informs the way I do scholarship. That is important for me as a civil rights historian of faith. It’s no coincidence that Craig and I both speak of our challenges with institutional Mormonism. At the same time, it is easy to see that we took different paths in finding our “space” from certain institutional norms. After reading his memoir I concluded—though I haven’t spoken to him about it–that Craig became converted while on his mission to the notion that we do not have to be Mormon to find God and live a spiritual life. I, on the other hand, became even more firm in the belief that Mormonism has so much more to offer if it could escape its obsession with Americanism, capitalism and conservative politics . I believe that both of our memoirs are works of faith but ones that transcend the more common Sunday school version, which is sad because as a Sunday school teacher I love that hour as much any other on the Sabbath. To finally answer your question, I think that all my works have been about telling the story of my people in a somewhat personal way. And in at least the first two books I wrote, I was a small part of the story because I was a participant in the history I wrote about. Ethnographic approaches are complicated and sometimes problematic for historians but I felt that I needed to be honest in telling the reader that I was writing about something that was dear to me and in which I participated. The reviews of my work have always been good so I guess that at least the reviewers believed I had succeeded in providing both a participant’s passion and a scholar’s forthright analysis. I don’t believe that I always got the balance right but I think writing history this way has been a valuable contribution. I don’t know if anyone else in the department will write their memoirs but I do know that there are few personal histories that I would be interested in reading.
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this Scholarly Inquiry.
Back in 2007, the JI’s David G. discussed a pre-publication draft of Dr. Garcia’s memoir here.