Publication Date

September 13, 2019

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


Economic, Political

Gladys McCormick is an associate professor in history and the Jay and Debe Moskowitz Endowed Chair in Mexico-US Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University. She lives in Syracuse, New York, and has been a member since 2001.

Gladys McCormick

Alma matersBA (political and economic development/Latin American studies), Hampshire College, 1996; PhD (history), University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009

Fields of interest:  Latin America, Mexico, political violence, drug trafficking, economic development

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

I am from Costa Rica and I came of age during a time of economic upheaval and political turmoil in Central America. I arrived in the US for college in the 1990s, believing that I would go on to do a PhD in economic development with a focus on Mexico, a country that felt like my true home. Before heading to grad school, I spent a year working in New York City and grew increasingly disillusioned with the vision of Latin America espoused among experts in trade liberalization and emerging markets. One of my undergraduate mentors suggested I adopt a more historical approach and pointed me in the direction of Florencia Mallon's work on Peru and Mexico. She, along with Steve Stern and Francisco Scarano, eventually became my mentors at UW-Madison. I specialized in political economy and state-sponsored violence in 20th-century Latin America with a focus on rural Mexico.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am working on the history of Mexico's state-sponsored torture program since 1970. In it, I track how counterinsurgency campaigns against guerrilla groups during Mexico's Dirty War back in the 1970s set the basis for the normalization of modern forms of torture in today's Drug War.

I also teach and research the drug trade in Mexico after 1970. My goal is to collaborate on a book on the history of drugs and drug trafficking in Latin America.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? 

I developed an expertise on oral histories and on declassified Mexican intelligence documents, many which have been informally reclassified. Mexico has never had a Truth Commission or any formal reckoning with its history of violence, so it is arduous work to figure out what happened during its Dirty War. At the same time, I noticed links between the endemic human rights abuses of today with those I was studying during the era of guerrilla wars and counter-insurgency back in the 1970s. I thus decided to focus on political prisoners and their torture across the past few decades to explain Mexico's generalized culture of impunity today.

The human rights situation is so dire in Mexico that I felt compelled to take on more of a public intellectual profile. I write opinions pieces, talk with journalists, and lecture to a wide array of community, academic, and professional groups in the US on a range of issues pertaining to Mexico. This outreach grew to include immigration after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 and his anti-immigrant rhetoric. I had long mentored Dreamer/DACA students and I myself naturalized as a US citizen several years before, so I expanded my outreach.

What's the most fascinating thing you've ever found at the archives or while doing research?   

I first started working with the declassified secret police files the day after their release in 2002. I noticed family members seeking answers to what had happened to their disappeared son, daughter, sister, or brother. The experience of reading over these documents alongside the families was a profoundly humbling moment and signaled the importance of handling this history with utmost respect.

What do you value most about the history discipline?  

My training as a historian gives me a keen awareness of changes and continuities across time to explain the development of phenomena. Likewise, history lets me adopt an inter-disciplinary approach that draws together a range of sources and perspectives to my work.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?   

Membership keeps me connected to my field of Latin American history and introduces me to developments in other fields that connect to my own research and teaching. I appreciate how the AHA informs me of debates surrounding issues that showcase changes in our discipline, such as the use of oral histories and how scholars are straddling the academic and public worlds.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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