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In Dialogue with Prof. Mike Amezcua

Mike Amezcua is assistant professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University and was recently awarded the First Book Prize from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.


Uwe Brandes is professor of the practice and faculty director of the Urban & Regional Planning program and the Georgetown Global Cities Initiative.


Sooin Choi is a Georgetown Global Cities Initiative Student Scholar and is pursuing a graduate degree in Urban & Regional Planning. 


Uwe Brandes: Congratulations on your recently published and award winning book entitled Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification (University of Chicago Press, 2022).  Your research has everything to do with the way in which forces of globalization shape real communities in real cities. How did you come to write this book?


Mike Amezcua: The book Making Mexican Chicago is really a book about migrant city-building from the era of urban renewal to the era of neoliberal urbanism. I really begin with the moment of settlement in the Post-World War II period because there's already a lot of great scholarship on the roots of Mexican migration. Chicago grows to become the third largest Mexican diasporic metropolis in the United States. I wanted to explore this group's impact and settlement in what otherwise was a very segregated city; and also the political culture that developed in the scramble over urban space. 


Sooin Choi: What drew you to your specific research interest around migrants and the city?


MA: When I was an undergraduate at UCLA, I took courses with urban historians and architectural historians. One of my professors was Eric Avila, who was writing a book on Los Angeles and I became his research assistant. He produced a really wonderful book entitled Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. For me, that was exciting because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he was writing about the formation of LA and the ways in which white flight political culture came to shape that formation.


Later I went to graduate school at Yale, where I also worked with fantastic urban historians, and I became much more interested in Chicago at that point. I had a personal family connection to Chicago. My grandmother was born in Chicago in the 1930s and was deported with her family. I became fascinated with machine politics and the placement of the new expressways in the 1950s and 1960s. At that point, there were not a whole lot of books on Latinos and American cities. Chicago is also arguably the inventor of modern segregation, and I wanted to know how Latinos fit into this story of American segregation? Were they segregated? And if so, by what means? 


UB: Mike, can you take us into your classroom at Georgetown? What courses are you teaching and what kind of questions are your students interested in?


MA: Some of the courses that I'm teaching deal with the themes that we're discussing right now. One class is the history of American gentrification, which I taught last year. We looked at the word gentrification and the histories of neighborhood change over the course of the twentieth century to understand capitalist cycles of urban development and displacement. What was really great was that every student in that class had a story that resonated with their own hometown or city, whether that's Pittsburgh, Austin, Los Angeles or Miami. It really brought in each student’s personal stakes into the material. 


Another group of those students were really fascinated with political economy and that class produced a number of thesis students with whom I am now working. These students are focused on Washington, DC and the neighborhood of Georgetown, in particular, which has a long history of displacing black communities.  I think urban research classes and Georgetown students make a good combination. We live in a city that begs for more critical analysis and scrutiny.


SC: What does it mean to you to be an urban historian?


Urban historians are chroniclers of the past but also critical observers of the present, and I love that about our field. We look at urban space and ask “how did this come about?” The city and all that’s associated with it – from people, to buildings, to pigeons, to toxins, becomes the site of engagement for us. We have our own association called the Urban History Association. As historians, we are in conversation with history, and we’re interested in questions that might be relevant to scholars of urban planning, urban sociologists and urban geographers. It puts us, as urban historians, into an interdisciplinary conversation with other scholars who are asking other related questions. There is nothing I've ever written that doesn't require me reading the work of sociologists, geographers, and ethnographers. I’m also a Latinx urban historian and I think that we are in a very exciting small field and community of scholars, and there are a lot of great books coming out right now.


SC: Congratulations on your new book. I'm excited to read it!


MA: Thank you!

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