Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Better Book: Living Descendants

              Three and a half years ago, I had the good fortune to join Barbara Welke, Mitra Sharafi, and Daniel Sharfstein at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Legal History for a roundtable on working with the living descendants of historical actors.  As we explained:
Online databases and communication technologies, the transnational turn, the study of memory and agency, and genealogy all lead legal historians to work with descendants of subjects. . . . Scholar-descendant exchanges shape and enrich legal history, making the past recoverable and vivid.  Joint projects that broaden arguments and audiences can result. . . . The scholar offers new strands in family or community histories.  Descendants’ experiences and understandings reveal impacts, limits, and reverberations of legal dynamics or push scholars to move beyond legal frames in productive and unfamiliar ways.
I joined the panel to discuss the topic of today’s post, my experience working with a descendant of a central character in Almost Citizens. The story began around eight years ago.
Just weeks after receiving final approval of my dissertation, which centered on a 1904 Supreme Court litigant names Isabel Gonzalez, I received an email from Belinda Torres-Mary.  She was also researching Isabel Gonzalez and had been for years.  I held my breath.  She was fascinated to learn new details about Gonzalez’s unsuccessful experience as the first Puerto Rican person to demandU.S. citizenship from the Supreme Court.  She was not an academic historian.  Gonzalez was her great-grandmother. Belinda was a passionate genealogist. Exhale.
Soon, Belinda and I were trading research leads.  She told me anecdotes.  Tacking back and forth, we discovered many more records. A long-passed woman I had spent years getting to know came to life once again, now in a new way.  As a result, the book’s account of Gonzalez is much richer than the dissertation’s.
As our collaboration deepened, we discussed how we each understood Isabel Gonzalez.  I saw her as a tragic hero of sorts. When she sought to migrate from San Juan to a better life in New York, Ellis Island inspectors discovered that she was an unmarried mother who was also pregnant and ordered her to be deported as an undesirable alien. Gonzalez filed a suit that eventually reached the Supreme Court. She argued that Puerto Ricans could not be deported because they had become U.S. citizens after the annexation of Puerto Rico in 1899. The claim tapped into longstanding interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment as making citizens of all Americans other than American Indians. But the justices ruled more narrowly: Puerto Ricans were not aliens, hence not subject to deportation. Nothing needed to be said regarding citizenship. The tentativeness was typical of the early-twentieth-century Insular Cases, through which the Court contributed to a sea change in constitutional law alongside lawmakers, bureaucrats, presidents, and private actors. But the sum result was momentous, a turn away from the Reconstruction Amendments, rights, citizenship, and statehood and toward colonialism.
Belinda declared Gonzalez to be the Puerto Rican Rosa Parks. Initially, the comparison typified for me the difference between our projects.  Belinda saw her ancestor as a heroic figure in a long U.S. march toward inclusion and liberty.  If asked, I probably would have said that even Rosa Parks was no Rosa Parks.  Certainly, the professional historian in me felt compelled to emphasize differences between the women.  Gonzalez’s activism had not made her famous.  It had not arisen out of a commitment to a mass social movement or come to be supported by one.  She had engaged in legal maneuvers rather than direct action.  She did not prevail.  The unmarried and pregnant Gonzalez was not a model of respectability.  She was from a different community and drew on a heritage of Spanish rather than U.S. rule.  It was not clear that she had African ancestry; she seemingly never identified as of color.
              But the deeper I have delved, the more wisdom I have found in Belinda’s analogy.  However Gonzalez self-identified, racial prejudice lay behind the effort to deny her U.S. citizenship and behind the Court’s tepid response to her challenge.  Both controversies were profoundly shaped by being launched by women.  Law played crucial roles in both cases, in part because its future shape was uncertain.  Although neither dispute resulted in a constitutional ruling, both quickly came to be understood as signal events in processes of major constitutional change.  Both cases asked federal courts to reinvigorate legal legacies of Reconstruction.  Gonzalez and her allies deployed honor in ways that prefigured later uses of respectability.  They argued that Puerto Ricans’ honor made them worthy of equal treatment, and that denial of such treatment unjustly dishonored them.  In both cases, a modestly situated actor meaningfully influenced constitutional change.  Both disputes were key events in iterative processes of legal transformation involving a diverse array of officials.  And as recent events sharply remind us, the constitutional revolutions that resulted in both cases were incomplete and unstable.
              Working with Belinda also made my process of researching Almost Citizens feel similar to my experience of reading good fiction.  The book’s characters, themes, insights, and events kept overrunning the interpretive bounds within which I sought to contain them.  I found the world that emerged from the archives to be immersive and consuming.  I aimed to capture these novelistic sensations with a character-driven approach that attended to narrative and people as much as it did to analysis and argument.  Of course, I did not have the luxury of inventing plot turns and characters at will.  But I did have characters who were real and compelling.  Their struggles helped form the world we now inhabit.  For Belinda, that was doubly true.  Isabel Gonzalez’s decisions brought Belinda’s ancestors into existence.  Unsurprisingly, strongly felt familial ties linked great-granddaughter to great-grandmother.  Perceiving Belinda’s passion for Gonzalez’s story inspired me to deepen my depictions of Gonzalez, her choices, and their consequences – all to the book’s benefit.
That Belinda and I even met reflects a sea change in the practice of history.  Since I began graduate school, innumerable primary documents have become text-searchable online.  Books, census manuscripts, passenger manifests, judicial documents, legislative hearings, and newspaper articles that required research trips, microfilm readers, hours of painstaking review, and no small amount of luck now spit up information on a person or theme of concern with little more than an entry in a search box.  In many cases, the impetus behind this mass digitization and metadata creation has not been the needs of academic historians, but the demands of genealogists and the growing sophistication of character recognition software.  Increasingly, scholars seeking to learn about particular historical figures find themselves working in tandem or collaboration with genealogists investigating their roots.  One additional reason is that the digitization revolution has made scholars' output ever more accessible, as Belinda discovered when she began searching mentions of her great-grandmother.
              The rise of genealogy and new research technologies has transformed the ethics of researching and telling history. I am lucky not to have encountered the more acute conflicts that can arise. Belinda encouraged me to make my own decisions about what to include in the book and how. Here, it helped that Belinda had developed her own writerly voice.  She expressed aspirations soon after we met to write a young adult biography of Isabel Gonzalez.  I think it’s a great idea. With any luck, I’ll interest her in letting me assist while she takes her turn in the author’s chair.
Even in functional partnerships, working together involves give, take, and the question of whether each person is doing their share of both. Early on, I worried that I was more of a taker. Belinda offered up family history that I had no other way to access.  To my delight, I came to realize that the scarce commodity that I could contribute was undigitized archival material and historical methods with which to make better use of what was online. I was pulling my own weight because history had something unique to contribute.
If I stumbled, it was in over-skepticism. When Belinda recounted the family lore that Gonzalez had married a gentleman before migrating to New York, my first thought was that many more families claim ancestral earls than actually have them. Silly me. As our research continued, Belinda remembered that the story was told in Spanish. Gonzalez had married a “caballero.” Perhaps that was a last name, not an adjective? Some searches in digitized church and county records confirmed it. Gonzalez’s first husband, Juan Caballero, died of tuberculosis in his early 30s, shortly after Gonzalez became pregnant with his second child.

              Working with Belinda was also a reminder that Gonzalez has many other living descendants. Some knew her well. All share in her history. Few would accept every interpretive choice that I made. Yet I am obliged to them, especially Belinda. I hope they recognized Isabel Gonzalez in what I wrote, even as they also saw her in a new light.

--Sam Erman