The journalism scholar says that learning a language is key to unlocking layers of overlooked history.
Melita Garza, assistant professor of journalism, has a new book coming out in January. Photo by Glen E. Ellman
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Topics: Faculty Q&A, Schieffer College of Communication
You had an extensive career in journalism before moving into the classroom. Why did you choose the field, and where have you worked?
I wanted to be a journalist since the fourth grade when I read a children’s book about a girl reporter. I thought, not only is this person doing good, but she is having fun, seeing the world and meeting interesting people. Plus, she got to write, which I always loved to do.
I was a journalist for about 24 years, mostly at major metropolitan newspapers. I got my foot in the door as a reporter trainee at the Los Angeles Times, and from there, I got my first job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — I didn’t really even know where Milwaukee was. Then I went to work at the Chicago Tribune for 15 years. I covered everything, and I loved it because no day was the same. After going to London and finishing business school, I returned to work for Bloomberg News in New York.
Your upcoming book, They Came to Toil: Newspaper Representations of Mexicans and Immigrants in the Great Depression (University of Texas Press, 2018), examines how newspapers covered the forced deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s. What interested you in the topic?
One day I was on the internet and I came by a video clip from a 1995 film, Mi Familia. It showed a beautiful scene of an idealistic Southern Californian family in 1930. A voice-over said, “Then came the day everything changed, the day my mother didn’t come home from the market. It was the time of the Great Depression. I guess some politicians got it in their heads that Mexicans were responsible for the whole thing.” I had studied the Great Depression, but I never saw anything saying that the Mexicans were responsible for it. I had to check it out.
Describe the transition from writing in a journalistic style to writing a book.
I got to do something that I’ve always wanted to do, which was to work on something longer than a daily journalism story. But I see all of this work to be very closely related to journalism. It’s all about having questions and looking for answers. You’re on the trail of a story, and you don’t know where it’s going to take you, so you just go out and look for every scrap of information you can find.
The book focuses on content from three newspapers in San Antonio. Why did you choose these papers as the focus of your research?
San Antonio was a pivotal city for Mexican-American national identities, and it was there where a lot of ideas were formed, in part because this newspaper, La Prensa, was widely circulated throughout the United States and Mexico. It was kind of like the USA Today of its time and it was all in Spanish.
What role does language play in news?
In my book, I quote a poet and writer, Sabine Ulibarrí, who asserts that language and culture are inextricable. He says: “The language, the word, carries within it the history, the culture, the traditions, the very life of a people, the flesh. Language is people. We cannot even conceive of a people without a language, or a language without a people. The two are one and the same. To know one is to know the other. To love one is to love the other.” So, language is the key to culture and to understanding how these newspapers interpret reality.
How is your research relevant to the news coverage of immigration today?
We like to think today that our media is so fragmented and fractured or splintered, but if you go back and look at, just in this one city, in these three different newspapers, you see three diametrically opposing depictions and representations. So much so, it’s almost like Alice Through the Looking Glass, where you can jump in one paper and it’s Tuesday but then jump in another where every day is Tuesday.
Are there any similarities between journalism today and the time period you write about in the book?
We think that things are so different today because we have digital this and that, but a lot of the ways that we tell stories now are not that different from the way that they were told before because good storytelling is ancient.
What should journalists today consider when covering immigration?
There are some things I think would make someone a great reporter to cover immigration, but those things would just as well make them a great reporter to cover anything. First and foremost, learn as many other languages as you can because if you don’t understand the language, you don’t really understand the people. Secondly, no matter what your beat, you should read as much as possible and try to go beyond the standard histories or what you’ve been told.
What impact do you hope to see as a result of your book?
There is quite a lot that I hope people will take away from it, but one thing is that I hope there will be more attention paid to Spanish literature and journalism in modern research, that we will recognize that constitutes American journalism and literature and that to overlook those voices means that we are overlooking important pages in American history.
— Jacob Smith
Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
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