Ignacio Garcia is the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western & Latino History at Brigham Young University and President-Elect of the Mormon History Association.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?
I was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and my parents move to the United States when I was six years old, having waited for three years at the border before getting a green card. I lived in San Antonio, Texas for 18 years before going into the army. During my time in high school, I participated in the first school protest in Texas in the modern era.
In the army I was a combat medic and served a tour in Vietnam in in 1971-72 where I headed a dispensary emergency room in the Mekong Delta. I used my G.I. Bill to get a degree in journalism and theater at Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M-in Kingsville), where I also joined the Chicano Movement, serving as the editor of the underground newspaper, vice president of a workers’ association, and chairman of the La Raza Unida Party.
I worked a few years as a newspaper and magazine writer/editor, covering the war in Central America as a correspondent in-country. I then went back to school to get my Ph.D.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue an academic life and what went into your decision to obtain a PhD at the University of Arizona? What kind of importance did your family place on education?
My mother only finished the third grade and my father the second grade in Mexico, but they put a lot of emphasis on my getting an education. They wanted a lawyer or a doctor but eventually accepted an historian.
I came back to school after several years as a journalist because I was fired from the Tucson Citizen when I questioned their ethical practices in our coverage of El Salvador’s civil war.
After my B.A I started a master’s in history, but my brief case was stolen with all my files while I attended a college basketball game. In despair and unable to retrace my research steps, I left school and went to work for a newspaper as a sports writer/editor. I was working at the University of Arizona as a publications editor when I realized that I wanted to pursue an academic career.
What led to your military service as a medic and how has that experience affected who you have since become?
I went into the military because like most young Mexican Americans growing up in the barrios of San Antonio I had few possibilities for a job. I had two potential scholarship offers, one from the University of Texas and one from St. Mary’s University, but had no school counselor to help me and my parents did not know the language. I had wanted to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but familial opposition prevented me from doing so.
The army provided me the first opportunity to be on my own, taught me discipline and allowed me to use leadership skills I had learned in my barrio church. The war in Vietnam taught me much about my abilities to be compassionate, understanding of others, and to make tough and unpopular decisions.
I think the school protest, my time in Vietnam and my early religious life laid the foundation for the character I’ve constructed over the years. I still go back to those years when I find a need to make an important decision because back then I was less cluttered with the ways of the world and also much more optimistic.
In what ways have you experienced conflict between you ethnic identify and your identity as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
I don’t think that I have experienced conflict between the two identities, and part of the reason was my growing up in a poor and segregated barrio.
As Mexicans and Mexican Americans our members had either grown up with or come to experience discrimination almost daily. Thus, when white Saints were prejudiced or racist we chalked it to their sense of racial superiority over us because of their whiteness and not because of the church.
As I grew older and became more involved in the church and particularly since coming to Utah, I’ve had multiple differences with local leaders and some church policies, but my identity stays intact. One more reason is that it was in church that I began to develop my ethnic identity.
The interpretation of the Book of Mormon provided me a religious context to my identity as a Mexican Saint and my interaction with both my fellow white Saints and long-time Latino members helped develop my identity as a member of the church.
It was an identity that absorbed and consumed the good and the bad and produced a complicated, flawed, optimistic but devote outlook.
What events led to your service on the Utah Judicial Commission? In what ways did your understanding of race and ethnicity in the Utah criminal justice system evolve between the beginning and end of your tenure?
I was asked by a colleague who then worked with the governor if I was interested in serving on the Commission. He believed I could bring some needed insights to the justice system.
People on the Commission were attentive, but I found the Commission very unprepared to make significant changes or to look more profoundly at judicial issues. Like many good people they wanted a better system but within the parameters already established. Thinking outside the box was not a strength, and even if it had been, the Commission had little power except to make recommendations for judges for the Fourth District.
I don’t think I learned anything about race and ethnicity in Utah except that they were not well-understood by state leaders.
When did you first become involved with the Mormon History Association and what will be your duties as MHA president?
I think I attended my first MHA the year I first came to Brigham Young University in 1995. I was asked to be on a panel, but I don’t remember much except that I spoke on the concepts of “time and space” and how they could be used in Mormon history. I knew little about the genre except for some articles and books I had read years before.
I continued to attend periodically and to read more on the topic. A few years ago, I gave a plenary address to the MHA that impressed a number of people and I wrote several essays on Latinos in the Church, and on ideas on how to approach writing about them.
Then this past year I was asked by Patrick Mason, then MHA president, if I would serve as President-Elect of the organization. He added that the MHA board had voted unanimously for me. I was shocked to the say the least, but he said the board wanted someone with an established reputation in the academy, who had written about Latino Saints, and who could help recruit more scholars of color to the MHA.
As president I’m in charge of setting the theme for our 2020 conference in Rochester/Palmyra, deciding on speakers, and continuing to recruit and develop scholars of color in MHA. That conference falls on the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 100 years since women’s suffrage, and the area is important to the abolitionist movement.
We will be incorporating these three movements and their visionaries within the context of the Latter-day Saint experience in our panels, plenary addresses and our tours.
What are the most important changes MHA has made in the past decade and where do you hope to see the organization 10 years from now? What factors most influence the organization’s ability to realize the progress you envision?
While I’m not as versed on the development of MHA, in the last decade I have seen a marked improvement on the quantity and the continued quality of the scholarship. International scholars as a group have also increased in numbers and the topics have become much diverse. The number of women scholars has increased dramatically, and their scholarship has immensely raised the scholarship bar for the organization.
The next goal and one that will help keep it vibrant and growing is increasing the number of scholars both of color and of international perspective. MHA must be an inclusive organization and one that attracts and works with scholars around the globe.
To that end and through the leadership of our current president, Paul Reeve, our Executive Director Barbara Brown and our board, we have created a global outreach slot on the MHA board and we are working to connect with various Mormon studies organizations around the globe.
Of course, all of that can only be accomplished if more and more scholars see Mormon history as a legitimate field of study.
One last point on this topic: I really believe that our horizon will expand as we get our current membership to see their work through a global perspective, and to that end we hope to have some workshops and roundtables deal with that perspective in the Rochester/Palmyra conference.
Are you aware of any serious research being done on the history of Latino/a members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America?
I believe the Church History Department has been gathering documents, oral interviews, reports, etc., for years and this is good as scholars develop an interest in the topic. There are only two or three Latino historians in MHA and in the field, and few non-Latinos doing work on this topic.
There are, however, some real important works coming that I believe will spur interest in this field and which will serve as a great foundation for future work on Latino Saints.
But, if there are Latinos out there in the academy or non-academicians who have an interest in the history of the Latter-day Saints, please come talk to me and let’s see how we can help each other.
Who was Eduardo Balderas and why are you working on his biography? What sources are proving most impactful at this stage of your research and when do you anticipate finishing your work?
Eduardo Balderas was the first translator hired by the Church (1939); its first Latino Patriarch (I believe) and one of its first Latino temple sealers. His translations took the gospel to the Spanish membership in ways never done before; his patriarchal blessings provided vision to many Spanish-speaking leaders; and his translation of temple ceremonies and rituals to Spanish made available temple covenants available to the Spanish-speaking.
The research has been difficult because he left almost no written record, his families kept few of his papers, and no work besides a couple of articles has been done on him. There are, however, interviews he gave, books he translated, various letters which mention him, and some people still alive that knew him. I think I will have enough—though not what I would like—to write a good biography of him.
What kinds of conflict did Balderas experience between his ethnic and religious identities? Did he perceive any of the general authorities with whom he interacted as being especially understanding and welcoming?
Because Balderas did not leave any written record we have to go by the interviews that he gave and those he gave to Church periodicals, thus making it difficult for him to point out any conflicts.
What I do gather from the material found so far is that he was very proud of his “Lamanite” heritage and that he made no disparaging comment about his people or about white Saints.
He also spoke in glowing terms of the Church leadership. From what I gathered he had fond memories of Spencer W. Kimball, Antoine Irvin, Rey L. Pratt and Gordon B. Hinckley, the latter who spoke at his funeral.
Also, he was a deeply humble man and so whatever conflicts he had, he kept them close to the chest.
Who do you rank as the top five most influential Latino/as in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and why?
I would have to start with the Rivera sisters (Agustina, Dolores, Domitilia) who helped form the first Mexican branch in Salt Lake City, then Balderas, of course; Orlando Rivera, one of the first Latino bishops in the Church and the one most committed to Chicano civil rights; Margarito Bautista, the first branch president in SLC and one of founders of the Third Convention which broke and then came back to the church; and Arturo De Hoyos, BYU professor and a strong promoter of a Lamanite identity. Those lived mostly in the U.S.
There are other Latino leaders from Mexico and Latin America but I know less about those. My hope is that one day there will be enough Latino scholars writing about the lives of these individuals and many more throughout Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean.
This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies.