Professor Monica Varsanyis NEH-Funded Research Looks at Hispanic Identity in New Mexico

Professor Monica Varsanyis NEH-Funded Research Looks at Hispanic Identity in New Mexico

Professor Monica Varsanyis NEH-Funded Research Looks at Hispanic Identity in New Mexico

Monica Varsanyi, associate professor of political science at John Jay College, obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her research project, "The Contentious Evolution of Hispanic Identity During the Chicano Movement in New Mexico, 1962-1974," which she has been working on this summer.

The project is inspired by research Varsanyi first conducted for Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines, a book she co-authored with Doris Marie Provine (along with Paul Lewis and Scott Decker), who is also part of the NEH project. During her research, Varsanyi became fascinated with the dynamic between New Mexico and Arizona, two neighboring states with much in common but vastly different stances on immigration policy. Arizona, for example, does not allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition while New Mexico does. Similarly, Arizona doesn’t allow undocumented people to hold a driver’s license, while New Mexico was one of the first states to extend this privilege to that community. Arizona has among the strictest, most conservative immigration policies in the nation while New Mexico’s policies are among the most liberal.

How could this be?

One common explanation is that New Mexico is a state of immigrants, therefore it must be immigrant-friendly.  But Varsanyi said this is far too simplistic of an explanation.  Varsanyi’s new project focuses on tracing the complex history of the Chicano people, a history she hypothesizes has had a big effect on the state’s attitudes towards immigration.

"My contention is to understand how identity evolved in the Chicano period to start embracing ‘Mexican-ness’ and Mexican roots. I think this has something to do with how New Mexico has become a more immigrant-friendly state," Varsanyi said.

Rather than simply being a "state of immigrants," there is a distinction among New Mexicans between those who are descended from Mexico, and Hispanos who are descended from Spanish settlers. Traditionally, Hispanos have rejected any connection to Mexico, tracing their ancestry back hundreds of years to some of the earliest European settlers. This framing of identity by some New Mexicans as non-Mexican prompted a social movement in the 60s called the Chicano Movement, in which the term Chicano came to represent people with Mexican descent who sought to express cultural pride and self-educate themselves on their history and shared cultural identity.

Varsanyi contends that this cultural pride that developed in the 60s has contributed to a more liberal and understanding view of Mexicans, and therefore immigration. "From a scholarly perspective, very little is known about the Chicano period in New Mexico," she said, "so I hope to add some voices and information to that discussion."

The project for which Varsanyi obtained the NEH grant of $6,000, and about which she intends to publish a journal article, is largely historical in nature, comprised of archival research and oral history interviews. "A lot of the people I’m interviewing are in their 80s, so I’m happy to be interviewing them to capture their stories before it’s too late" she said, adding that while some historical research has been conducted on Chicano populations in Texas and California, there is a scarcity of research on New Mexican Chicanos.

More broadly, Varsanyi said she is thrilled that the prestigious NEH decided to fund her work. "I’m just very appreciative of the support. The NEH is under pressure to be eliminated by the current administration, so I think socially relevant research in the humanities is very important, and there should be a mandate for the federal government to fund this kind of work."

Varsanyi plans to continue her work studying the Chicano movement, which she said contributes to the larger goal of identifying how states create immigration policy and understanding why Arizona and New Mexico, once considered a single territory, now lie on polar opposite planes when it comes to immigration policy.