Book Spotlight: Miroslava Chávez-García’s States of Delinquency

“A fascinating and compelling study that reconstructs the forgotten lives of California’s marginalized and criminalized youth,” is how one reviewer described Associate Professor and Chair of Chicana/o Studies Miroslava Chávez-García’s new book, States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (University of California Press 2012). The reviewer, Alexandra Minna Stern, goes on to describe the work as one that “illuminates the unsettling history of the juvenile justice system and demonstrates its relevance to the disproportionate incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities today.”

States of Delinquency documents the experiences of young Mexican Americans and African Americans in the juvenile justice system between the 1880s and 1940s. The book focuses on the ways that scientific practices such as IQ tests and eugenics fieldwork were used to perpetuate systems of racism that kept these youth under lock and key.

What drew Chávez-García into this research were the stories of the youth. She read the archive of prison files and field notes “against the grain” to unearth the voices and experiences of the youth who lived their lives in the juvenile justice system. Chávez-García recently sat down with Humanities Institute correspondent Sarah McCullough to discuss her new book:

How does this book contribute to major conversations in your field? What gaps does it fill?

My field is Chicana/Chicano history and youth studies. My book engages in conversations around youth, race, and delinquency. Much of the work on early 20th century Chicana/o history focuses on Chicana/o immigration, political and labor activism, and the shaping of communities throughout the Southwest. My work takes something specific that people haven’t paid attention to, which is the youth. The biggest intervention that I make in this work is looking at the process of criminalization and racialization of young people. Much of Chicana/o history looks at the 1940s and the pachuco and pachuca era—the Zoot Suiters—and the ways in which the larger society as well as their own parents criminalized young people for their style of dress, polyglot language, youth culture, and, most insidiously, their biology.

In this work I go back to the early 1900s to show the ways youth were criminalized, racialized, and pathologized based on their biology. Deviancy was measured through scientific instruments, such as the IQ test and fieldwork, carried out by eugenics social workers. They were trying to figure out the causes of delinquency during the Progressive Era. Crimes seemed to be on the uptick, so researchers were trying to figure out the causes of delinquency. This book shows how eugenics-based ideas of heredity were used to identify those deviants who couldn’t be improved, and those who could be rehabilitated.

What conversations might this book join beyond your home discipline?

My book contributes to sociology, especially to work in juvenile delinquency and criminology. Studies from these fields tend to be more quantitative, and my research puts a human face behind those statistics, figures, and theories. In criminology, little attention has been paid to race and class. I did an article looking at the role of race and ethnicity in the field of criminology, and its absence was really surprising given that, right now in the correctional system, there is over-representation of black and Latino youth, and the scholarship has not caught up.

I think with my work I’m adding to other fields that consider issues of youth, race, and science. People who work in corrections today have told me the underlying practices discussed in my book still go on. The correctional system is still concerned with these central questions, which originated in the Progressive Era: How can we diagnose these young people? How can we figure out what’s wrong with them by using scientific instruments? The histories discussed in my book have a long trajectory.

Who is the audience that you imagine for this book? How do you envision it appealing to readers outside of your discipline?

When I wrote this book, I took some time to read books that I wanted to emulate in order to tell a good story. I didn’t want it to be a prison history book or an institutional history. I wanted it to be about these boys and their experiences. So, I crafted each chapter around an individual to tell a bigger narrative, to capture the reader. I wanted to open it up to as wide an audience as I could.

I’m giving a book talk at Whittier Public Library, which is close to the main institution featured in the book. The Whittier correctional institution has been there for 100 years, and it has a lot of connections to the community. I gave a talk at Whittier College two years ago, and I had people emailing me about their interest and connections to the research. The community is very interested in the history, as it is very much part of their history.

What might this book have to say about the role of the humanities, broadly speaking?

My book brings up the importance of issues of race, ethnicity and culture. Sometimes in the humanities we are trained to put ourselves in boxes. But what matters is your work. My work is very historical in that it is about a very specific time and place, but yet it is also about these larger processes. It is about how institutions and how the state attempted to regulate, control, and identify particular populations for particular purposes.

What really engaged me in this project were the stories of these kids just trying to make their way in a difficult world. For example, one Puerto Rican boy was coming from the island with his family, traveling via train to San Francisco and on to Hawaii. Somehow he fell off the train in Indio, California (near Palm Springs) and he was left there. He managed to migrate north and find some relatives in San Francisco, but then the police caught him taking bikes and he was sent to Whittier State School, primarily, I think because he had no close family members. Eventually he caught pneumonia there and died. These stories are so sad when you see these cases with very similar profiles: no parents, no caretakers, poverty, and little direction or support, much less love. It’s so hard when you don’t have anyone supporting you. That’s what drew me in—the stories.

I think as a field, history and other disciplines lost sight of the institutions that regulate our lives. Individuals don’t have all the freedom that we think they might. Yes, they resist and challenge, but there are many barriers. I wanted this book to show how limited the lives of these boys were when they were institutionalized.