Why do we study history? There is more than one legitimate answer, but for many scholars and their students, history is a critical magnifying lens. When we look through the historical lens, we see not only our collective past but our contemporary situation with added clarity that leads to nuanced understanding.

Last October, during “Chasing Slavery: The Persistence of Forced Labor in the Southwest, a conference organized by Texas State University history professors John McKiernan-Gonzáles and Jessica Pliley, tough topics were openly examined by an impressive gathering of labor scholars and historians from across the U.S., plus a group of activists from New Orleans.

Notably, the human pain of bad policy was acutely on display in the last panel of the three-day conference. Ismael Martinez, a member of the Seafood Workers’ Alliance and an H-2A guest worker provided riveting testimony about the inhumane conditions he and others faced at a crawfish farm and facility in Iota, Louisiana.

When asked what people in the room could do to help aid migrants forced into illegal labor, Martinez didn’t hesitate to say that we can begin by listening to the pleas of people all around us, here in Texas and beyond. He said we could interview people to get their first-hand accounts of the abuse they’ve suffered or are now suffering. Clearly, this is the work of historians, lawmakers, journalists, and activists. He also said we could bring medicine and supplies to people in need.

The Academy Helps To Illuminate Human Suffering

The other three scholars on the day’s final panel also made sharp observations that were well-conceived and well received. For instance, Borderlands historian Grace Peña Delgado of the University of California at Santa Cruz stepped out from behind the dais to address the attendees in a more informal and conversational style. It did nothing to detract from the serious of her talk.

She explained how the U.N. definition of slavery was diminished in Mexico in 2012 via the removal of “means” as a criterion. Peña Delgado claims that the decoupling of means (how it is done) from purpose (why it is done) led Mexico’s ultra-right government under President Felipe Calderón to redefine trafficking in accordance with their draconian drug war-related wishes. She also explained that Mexico is mimicking U.S. immigration policy by focusing on the closing of its southern border to migrants and illegally trafficked individuals from Central America.

Each presenter came to San Marcos with crucial insights and stories to share. For me, Ismael Martinez stole the show on Saturday afternoon at Flowers Hall. His testimony was rich raw material for scholars of contemporary history. It was also informative and motivating for legal scholars and labor activists.

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not part of the equation for laborers caught in the web of international trafficking and exploitation. Their suffering is not abstract and not another rhetorical point to be made in this paper or any paper. Ismael Martinez could not have been clearer in annunciating the need on the ground today. For him, there’s no delicate debate. There’s simply a need for justice.

The Art of Understanding

Chasing Slavery’s opening keynote on Thursday night was delivered by Ambassador (ret) Luis C.deBaca of Yale University’s Gilder Lehman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The objective of his well-attended talk was to offer an alternate and more inclusive vision of who belongs in the nation, and what benefits and consequent responsibilities citizenship (American or Mexican) affords.

He said that historians look at slaveries across time and space, and he admitted that the important work that historians and legal scholars do is “not enough” for a comprehensive understanding of the history of forced labor and the human migrations that support it. Ambassador deBaca said we need painting and poetry to provide a richer knowing. “Artists see things, he deadpanned. He used two artists in particular to further his main points. First, he showed a modern-day painting called “La Conquista del Colorado” by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau Nieto.

“We in the Latino community saw ourselves in this,” said deBaca about the painting. Reckoning with the harsh reality of Spanish military invasion and his own ancestral connection to it, deBaca offered, “What was the alternative?” The question gets to the heart of personal and political identity. He also said, “Traffickers are not victims.” He did not excuse the behavior that human traffickers engage in—he explained how a “coyote” sees himself.

deBaca also featured paintings by Ettore “Ted” de Grazia, an Italian-migrant laborer in southern Arizona 100 years ago. deGrazia, like Ferrer-Dalmau Nieto, interpreted the historical record in paint. deGrazia’s paintings, unlike Ferrer-Dalmau Nieto’s portray an emotional quality absent in “La Conquista del Colorado.” The conquistador is a speculator. All he sees before him is opportunity to take, whereas deGrazia is fascinated with the impact of colonialism on the land and the people of the land.

The humanity of the oppressed and the oppressor surfaces in art. It reminds us how what happened here 500 years ago still matters immensely today. deBaca said, “I want to challenge us not to despair. We need a critique without cynicism.” Tapping his Catholic faith and sounding like a priest, deBaca said, “We don’t have to suffer like this. We don’t have to be naïve to talk about peace in a militarized society.”

Recalling the immense courage of Frederick Douglas, deBaca said, Douglas defied the time and place of The Confederacy, and that we can be guided by his example and find the fortitude to do the same today. 

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