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“Imagine What You Don’t Know”: Author Kelly Lytle Hernández Visits Ethnic Literature Seniors

Rosemary Quintero
Kelly Lytle Hernández (right) and Ms. Quintero’s Ethnic Literature 12 students.

Seniors in Ms. Quintero’s Ethnic Literature 12 classes enthusiastically welcomed UCLA professor, historian and author Kelly Lytle Hernández on Thursday, Jan. 18th. Lytle Hernández spoke to students in the CCHS library during second period about her book “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire and Revolution in the Borderlands”, which seniors started reading in November of last year and recently finished. During her presentation, she emphasized the importance of education, activism, and empowerment, and discussed her work as a historian.


Lytle Hernández grew up in San Diego, where she said it was common to see Border Patrol agents coming into schools and buses, taking people away. She described how her own experiences with local police as a young Black woman demonstrated a pattern in police treatment towards people of color. “I wanted to understand, how is it that the Border Patrol goes after one community, the local cops come after another, and it seems separated but our experiences are so similar, but we weren’t talking about it?” she told students.


Her exposure to Border Patrol from such a young age led to her writing her first book, “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol”. Lytle Hernández later published a second book, “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles”. In this book, she included stories of individuals who had been incarcerated in Los Angeles, one of whom was Mexican anarchist and journalist Ricardo Flores Magón, one of the main subjects of her third book, “Bad Mexicans”. She explained that “Bad Mexicans” grew into fruition after former president Donald Trump referred to Latin American immigrants during a presidential debate as “bad hombres”.


“When he used that word, as a historian, I thought, […] I’ve read people in the archive call people “bad hombres”, literally make a list of so-called “bad Mexicans” or “bad hombres”, and then go hunt them down,” said Lytle Hernández.


As Lytle Hernández documents her book, Flores Magón and other “rebel journalists” formed a newspaper – Regeneración (“regeneration” in Spanish) – during Díaz’s rule, where they published articles criticizing then-Mexican president Porfirio Díaz and his administration, who remained in power for thirty one years. The journalists of Regeneración (known as the Magonistas) were censored, jailed, and eventually exiled from Mexico. They fled to the United States, where they continued to publish Regeneración and stirred resentment against Díaz as both U.S. and Mexican authorities attempted to catch them. Their activism was the catalyst for the Mexican Revolution, and the deportation of their leaders and supporters led to the border surveillance system in place today.


Lytle Hernández expressed how “thrilled” she was that high school students are reading her book. She said her goal was to reach out to Latinx youth and empower them with their own history, as many students do not learn about their own heritages in high school.


“I grew up on the shoulders of Harriet Tubman and Ella Baker; I don’t know if I could have gotten out of bed in the morning if I didn’t know that history is in my communities, […] that is what sort of sustained me as a young person,” Lytle Hernández said. “[I wanted to] be like, “Look at these extraordinary characters, […] folks who made Teddy Roosevelt stand up and pay attention, poor folks who started a revolution that’s able to really throw off Anglo-American power and profit in Mexico in the early 20th century. If they could do that, imagine what you could do.”


The author expressed her disappointment that many people do not know the history of the U.S.-Mexico border, despite immigration being one of the most important issues in politics in the present day. She said she calls “Bad Mexicans” her gateway book in hopes that the public will want to learn more, both about the border and history in general: “If you read this book, you think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ Imagine what you don’t know.”


Many seniors asked Lytle Hernández about her research process, citing difficulties they had encountered while researching for an Ethnic Literature Padlet project. Lytle Hernández told students that she often spends days and weeks in archives, following “footnotes” of sources she finds. If something isn’t what she hoped it would be or if she can’t find something, she said she has to “stick with the story” and continue digging.


In addition to being a professor and historian, Lytle Hernández is one of the leaders of Million Dollar Hoods, an organization that maps out the costs of incarceration in Los Angeles. The organization has compiled LAPD records and oral stories from victims of police violence, which will be released this year. Lytle Hernández explained how being a historian has been emotionally difficult at times and how when she first started working as a historian, “I treated the archive as like a science project, and [the emotional aspect was] removed from it for the most part.”


Now, after decades of experience, along with her work with the Million Dollar Hoods archive and “Bad Mexicans”, she said her perspective is much different and she now focuses on honoring a subject’s life. “[It’s] not just a story that I’m writing, it’s somebody’s experience.”


As a historian, Lytle Hernández said her work does not revolve around discovering new information, but as passing it on to others by incorporating her own perspective. ”I work on the border, I work on immigration. I’m a Black woman, bringing my experiences and my perspective to those stories. And I really foreground the story of race […] You all have something else you could bring to all of our stories, whether it be histor[ical] stories or sociological stories.”


At the end of her talk, Lytle Hernández encouraged students to make a difference in the world, citing the boldness of Ricardo Flores Magón, the Magonistas, and countless other rebels during the Mexican Revolution. “Whatever your passion or interest is or your skills, take something and go […] Whatever your little bit of contribution is, […] you don’t have to be Barack Obama [to] go around the world. Do your bit, whatever that is, and you will make a better world.”

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About the Contributor
Sofia Pezo, Digital Media Editor
Hi, I'm Sofia, a CCHS senior and the Digital Media Editor for the Centaurian. This is my fourth year as a member of the Centaurian. Outside of journalism, I'm a member of AVPA Theater and the Citizens Around the World Club. I also am the Co-Engagement & Recruitment Chair and a tutor for Wise Readers to Leaders, and I enjoy reading, writing and solving Sudoku puzzles in my free time.

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