AHA Member Spotlight: James Mestaz
James Mestaz is an assistant professor at Sonoma State University. He lives in Santa Rosa, California, and has been a member since 2022.
Alma maters: BA, University of California, Los Angeles; MA, University of Miami; PhD, University of Illinois at Chicago
Fields of interest: Indigenous, environmental, Latin America
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
As a working-class Mexican American growing up in California, I always valued family and community. When I enrolled at UCLA as an undergraduate, my dream was to become a successful businessman and give back to my Latinx community. I altered my plan after enrolling in my first history class. I became interested in Mexican history when I noticed the gap between the racist stereotype of the “savage Indian” and the true intellectual achievements of my Indigenous ancestors. The historical fiction of backwards Indigenous people—and all negative depictions of marginalized groups—has helped perpetuate a misguided social Darwinism that inhibits challenges to extant social structures. Having felt the sting of racism myself, I embraced academia as a tool to expose both oppression as well as the resistance tactics used to bring liberation, which might prevent future injustices. I dedicated my life to teaching and mentoring university students and opening eyes to facilitate positive change. Equally important has been the opportunity to work with—and help students connect to—grassroots and community organizations engaged in social and environmental justice initiatives. I have not strayed from my original plan to give back to the Latinx community but having the opportunity to educate, mentor, and inspire university students continues to be fulfilling beyond belief.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I landed my dream job as assistant professor of Latin American history at Sonoma State University. After living in six other states, I was thrilled to return to California and live closer to beloved family members. Growing up in California, I have always recognized the Cal State system as an ideal work environment. There is nothing more rewarding than teaching inquisitive, energetic, and savvy students from mostly working-class backgrounds, many of whom, like me, are first-generation university students. Teaching at a Hispanic-serving institution also helps facilitate classroom discussion as most students, even if they are not Latinx, at least have some familiarity with Latin America and the people who come from there. I have fully embraced the opportunity to work with and learn from brilliant, friendly, and well-established scholars and educators in the history department, as well as in the university in general. I also get to continue to act as a bridge between grassroots/community organizations, the university, and students, as it’s refreshing to be employed by a university that facilitates social and environmental justice initiatives.
To top it all off, I live practically in paradise! Sonoma County is beautiful. I am surrounded by rivers, creeks, lakes, mountains, and trees, and the ocean is a half-hour away. I live in wine country that is also the craft beer capital of California, and the cuisine is exquisite—plus I love hosting family and friends to share all of that with them. The local population is diverse, educated, and open-minded. My dream has always been that my teaching, writing, work with Latinx communities, and mentoring students would help create a better world: my job and surroundings allow me to do just that.
What projects are you currently working on?
My forthcoming book, Strength from the Waters: A History of Indigenous Mobilization in Northwest Mexico, is set to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in October 2022. I am also currently finishing up a chapter entitled “Yoremes, Commodities, and Contentious Notions of Natural Resources in Northwest Mexico” for publication in the edited volume Indigeneity, Shatter Zones and Unruly Spaces: Mapping Statelessness in the Americas’ Transnational Pacific.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
One of the first AHA meetings I attended was in 2017 in Denver, Colorado. I had recently earned my PhD and was trying to figure out how to transform my dissertation into a manuscript. Among the limitless sage counsel my former adviser, Chris Boyer, gave me was to meet with publishers at the AHA Exhibit Hall to discuss my project. By chance the first booth I approached was that of the University of Nebraska Press (UNP), supervised by acquisitions editor Bridget Barry. Luckily Bridget was a trained environmental historian who recognized my project’s potential, and her encouragement really boosted my confidence. I met several great representatives from academic presses that day, but I always felt that UNP was the perfect fit for this first project. Bridget talked me through every step of the publication process, from submitting a book proposal and sample chapters, to responding to reader reports, editing proofs, and even fielding last-minute questions leading up to the printing itself. My book would have eventually seen the light of day, but UNP helped it reach its full potential and now it will be published in October. This once seemingly daunting task of publishing a first book ended up becoming a rewarding experience, all thanks to that first meeting at the AHA.
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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