'To Know Mexico Better Is to Know Ourselves Better'

Ruben Hernandez-Leon (left), director of UCLA's Center for Mexican Studies, and Juan Marcos Gutierrez-Gonzalez, consul general of Mexico in Los Angeles, at the center's opening event.

UCLA is expanding its studies of and ties with Mexico with the creation of a dedicated center under the Latin American Institute and new programs of scholarly collaboration and exchange. At the inaugural event for the Center for Mexican Studies, speakers honored decades of service by UCLA's "dean of Mexican studies," Professor James Wilkie.

In two decades Mexico has witnessed a transition to an export economy, the rise of medium-sized cities in central and northern Mexico, new social movements, a dispersal of political power, and a sharp fall in birth rates.

It will come as a surprise to some that, formally, UCLA had no Center for Mexican Studies until Thursday, April 2, when Juan Marcos Gutiérrez-González, the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles, Universidad de Guadalajara Professor Jorge Durand, and other distinguished guests turned out for the official launch on the Fowler Museum Terrace. In all, about 120 people attended the event and reception with music by the Son Jarocho band zocaloZüe. UCLA sociologist Rubén Hernández-León, an expert on the Mexico-U.S. migratory system, is the center's first director.

For decades prior to last Thursday, UCLA had been producing specialists and publications on Mexico, while serving as a frequent stop for the country's intellectuals. Especially since he founded the Program on Mexico at UCLA in 1982, one scholar, James W. Wilkie, has been responsible for an outsize share of the activity. Under his leadership, the program pioneered studies of modern Mexico in global and comparative contexts and hosted international conferences. On Thursday, a series of speakers recognized Wilkie's contributions, and a smiling Wilkie handed off "the virtual baton" of Mexican studies to Hernández-León.

"Establishing this center is the first of a number of steps required to raise the profile of Mexico and Mexican studies at this university," said Hernández-León. "But it is precisely the importance of Mexico to Los Angeles, California and the country that makes promoting research and disseminating knowledge on Mexico a fundamental part of the scholarly and social responsibility of UCLA."

Jorge Durand

Keynote speaker Jorge Durand

"To know Mexico better is to know ourselves better," he added, noting the omnipresence in Los Angeles of "some of Mexico's most notable exports: music, visual arts and aesthetic ideas, constantly present in every venue."

Hernández-León explained that he was seeking "synergies" and a common agenda for study with related units on campus. Further, the center will actively seek new partnerships with Mexican universities. Professor Nicholas Entrikin, who as vice provost of international studies oversees the International Institute and its new mandate to internationalize UCLA, said that his campus-wide initiative "includes a very specific emphasis and plan for work with Mexico." UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and Latin American Institute (LAI) Director Randal Johnson accompanied Entrikin in November on visits to leading universities in Mexico City.

Also at the event Gutiérrez-González, the L.A. consul general, congratulated Hernandez-Leon, Johnson, and Entrikin on the launch of the center. For the LAI, which this academic year spawned two centers on the Southern Cone of South America and on Brazil, the creation of the Center for Mexican Studies completes a process of restructuring.

"The Mexican government really appreciates, in these times of a lot of confusion about where international relations are going…," said Gutiérrez-González, "to know that we have institutions like UCLA that really appreciate the importance of the bilateral relationship itself."

Durand, an anthropologist at the Universidad de Guadalajara and co-chair of the Latin American Migration Project, in Thursday's keynote address discussed Los Angeles's status for half a century as the "migratory capital" for U.S.-bound Mexicans. Before the World War II–era Bracero program that brought temporary workers to California, he said, "the Texas border was the port of entry for every Mexican who was passing into the United States." At that time, 70 percent of Mexicans living north of the border were in Texas, and San Antonio was the undisputed migratory capital.

UCLA History Professor James W. Wilkie

UCLA History Professor James W. Wilkie

For all of Mexico's impacts on a changing United States, however, Hernández-León indicated that the new UCLA center would concern itself first of all with transformations occurring within Mexico. In just the past two decades, he said, the country has witnessed a transition to an export economy, the rise of medium-sized cities in central and northern Mexico, globally influential social movements, a "dispersal of political power" in competitive, multi-party democracy, and a sharp fall in birth rates.

"The demographic transition which took several generations to complete in most countries has occurred there in the passing of one generation to the next," said Hernández-León. He added, "If most projections are correct, by mid-century the demographic transition to an older society with fewer and fewer young people leaving their homeland will end Mexico-U.S. migration as we know it."

That vision of a Mexican studies that looks well beyond the U.S.-Mexico border is consistent with the legacy of Wilkie and his generation of scholars on campus. At the launching event, one of Wilkie's former students, Raúl Lomelí—who went on to found the nonprofit SABEResPODER, among other accomplishments—made remarks summing up not Wilkie's voluminous scholarship, but his effect on students.

Calling Wilkie a "transformational figure, a mentor and a friend" for decades of UCLA students now scattered from Latin America to Eastern Europe, several of whom Lomelí consulted before his talk, he said, "I could spend hours telling you about how much you have impacted me and those friends. We are your children."

Published: Wednesday, April 08, 2009