History in Action Project Awards: Q&A with Daniel Morales


The first History in Action Project Awards (HAPA) were announced in September. Here, we catch up with the three inaugural winners to find out more about their projects, continuing with sixth-year doctoral candidate Daniel Morales. 

Daniel Morales, from Azusa CA, works in United States and Latin American History. A doctoral candidate at Columbia University, he has been working on issues of migration, citizenship and economic development, his dissertation examines the rise of migratory networks across Mexico and the United States in the early twentieth century. He is working with the South El Monte Arts Pose (SEMAP) on “East of East”, a project that looks at the history, arts and culture of El Monte and South El Monte.

Q: How will you be using your HAPA grant?

Well, we will be traveling to Los Angeles and participating in a series of events. Nick and I are speaking at several high schools, teaching students how to conduct interviews and collect historical materials. We are conducting our own interviews with dozens of residents on issues as vast as Mexican labor camps, immigration, the bracero program, and local activism in the mid-twentieth century. We also have several public events with lectures and where people can bring material for the archive. The first are two dates where we are collecting interviews at La Historia Society, on January 8th and 11th. On Janurary 10th we have an event focused on South El Monte. Oh yes, did I mention, we are building a whole new digital archive on the history of this community that we hope will become a valuable source for everyone writing on the San Gabriel Valley.

Q: What organizations are supporting or sponsoring this project?

We have been very lucky to get support from a variety of organizations, without which none of this would be possible. Last year we were able to begin to project with help from the Los Angeles County Department of Cultural Affairs, which allowed the cooperation from La Casa del Hijo de Ajizote in Mexico City. This year we are getting help from the two city governments, La Historia Museum, the UCLA Oral History Center, and most importantly- Columbia University! SEMAP has really grown into a great collaborative project through all the people who have given time and support over the last year.

Q: What opportunities for “community outreach” (as it is described in the HAPA grant) do you envision?

I’ve always struggled to describe a project that has ranged from art installations to archiving interview collections and everything in between. However, all these events center on getting the community involved with its history and establishing a lasting presence. This is why we are focused on teaching people how to collect oral histories. We want this to be a self-perpetuating process where others will get involved after we are gone. The archive will hopefully become a valuable source for academics, journalists, writers, and just anyone interested in what happens in East of East (Los Angeles).

Strawberry pickers in the fields outside El Monte. | Courtesy of La Historia Society of El Monte

Strawberry pickers in the fields outside El Monte. | Courtesy of La Historia Society of El Monte

Q: How does this work connect to your research at Columbia?

I work on the establishment of migrant networks between Mexico and the United States, and this community turned out to be a great place from which to see this transformation. Last year I conducted interviews on Hicks Camp, a Mexican labor camp that was started in El Monte in the 1910s. I was interested in how railroad workers first came to Los Angeles and started to work in the fruit industry, and this was a perfect example of that. I’m hoping to see if there are any documents from that era this time around, especially on return migration to Mexico.

Last year I wrote an article on Hicks Camp that forms the basis of this year’s work.

Q: What drew you to this particular project, as you proposed it?

Thanks for asking. Well, this area, especially El Monte/South El Monte is one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in the United States, yet so little has been written about it! Imagine if no one ever studied the Bronx or Harlem, yet this place has a similar importance for Los Angeles. A community that saw all the major changes in the twentieth century, from agribusiness to industry to post-industrialization. A community that has been the gateway for immigrants from Europe, Mexico, Japan, China, and many other places for a century. A place where many of the pivotal events in California’s history played out, and gave rise to a fusion-culture that only Los Angeles could make. Oh, and did I mention, I’m from the area?

Q: What drew you to the idea of “History in Action” more generally? What does “History in Action” mean for you?

It’s an odd name no? As if history is not in action normally, not affecting society and instead locked up in books in an ivory tower somewhere. All history is action, every act of remembrance carries significance. I once worked on a museum exhibit on African-American soldiers during World War I, the 369 Hell Fighter Regiment. One of the aspects I highlighted was the fight to remember the fight – to erase their existence from memory and the struggle by survivors to keep memory of their existence alive. Engagement with the public is paramount when we work, otherwise, what’s the point? This is why the work we are doing in Los Angeles is so important, we are trying to broaden the field of what is considered historically important to include communities and a whole valley that is often forgotten.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the course of your HAPA grant work? What are your (and your partner organizations’) larger goals for the project?

I’ve mentioned some of them before, obviously contributing to the archive, organizing and making it operational is at the top of the list. Secondly is to expand the number of articles for our column on KCET Departures and Tropics of Meta, I would like to write at least two out of the work we will be doing. This year we are getting much more cooperation than last year, with help from many academics, activists, and community organizations, we want to grow that into an ongoing collaboration that can continue for years. Ultimately, we would like to blur the line that exists between local community made history and the academics who write about the same spaces.

Q: Any final thoughts?

That California food is much better than New York food! .. Oh, I’d like to thank everyone at History in Action for this grant, as well as our collaborators at Columbia and participating institutions.