English Seminar Inspired by California Cultures Initiative

“California is the land of dreams and disaster,” said Desirée Martín, assistant professor of English. “Narratives of California as utopia almost always create dystopia in the process.”

Graduate students from across the humanities studied with Martín in a seminar this quarter inspired by the California Cultures Initiative (CCI), a programming endowment administered by the UC Davis Humanities Institute. Examining some of the contradictory narratives of California, the seminar titled “California(s) Cultures: Region, Nation, Borders” looked closely at received narratives of California and helped graduate students think through California as a region extending beyond the United States/Mexico border.

Martín finds the narratives of California origin fascinating. They are often stories of decline, asking how California arrived at a fallen state from past glory. Even nineteenth-century texts such as The Squatter and the Don by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton represent California as a place that has already been corrupted, yet California is also repeatedly represented as a place where utopia is possible.

In addition to California origins, narratives of Tijuana and Los Angeles provided major focal points for the course. Like the larger region, both cities are seamed with contradictions and dualities.

“Though the quarter is too short to delve into all of the complex cultures and issues surrounding the two Californias,” said Martín, “the seminar gave us the opportunity to think through the ambivalence surrounding the California border region.”

Los Angeles narratives focused on the fragmentation of the city with attention to race and gender, space and time. Texts such as Helena Maria Viramontes’s And Their Dogs Came with Them and Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go emphasize the deep divides in Los Angeles.

Tijuana is often thought of as an escape, a place that exists in a less modern time period. But some texts, particularly the film Sleep Dealer and the documentary Maquilapolis, show that Tijuana is a modern destination. It draws immigrants from throughout Mexico and Central America to its factories.

Martín’s own work is grounded in border studies: her first book Borderland Saints examines the construction of border, region, and nation in the United States and Mexico through representations of popular, unorthodox saints in Chicana/o and Mexican culture. Future projects may grow from seminar topics such as the role of environmental justice in marginalized communities and the question of what remains after industrial production. Martín explained, “As we challenge some of the accepted myths of California, we also begin to question some of the accepted myths of our production cycle.”

According to Martín, the course was inspired in part by a Winter 2010 CCI Faculty Research Seminar titled “California Convergences: People, Places, Products.” Convened by Professor of History Louis Warren, the group discussed the region of California–not just the state, but also Baja California–as a place of convergence for diverse people, places, and products and thought through California in terms of transnationalism and regionalism.

Graduate courses like this one extend the work of the California Cultures Initiative, which aims to enhance connections of humanities research and scholars at UC Davis to their surrounding region.