University of Houston hosts book symposium on Smeltertown, Oct. 28

October 25, 2010

The University of Houston department of history will host a symposium featuring a new book by UH professor Monica Perales, "Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community," on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. in The Honors College Commons.

Nestled on the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, at the heart of a railroad, mining and smelting empire, Smeltertown was home to generations of ethnic Mexicans who labored at the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO).

Using newspapers, personal archives, photographs, employee records, parish newsletters and interviews with former residents, including her own relatives, Perales unearths the history of this forgotten community. Spanning almost a century, "Smeltertown" traces the birth, growth and ultimate demise of a working class community in the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border with ethnic Mexicans represented for the first time in this area at the center of transnational capitalism and the making of the urban West.

"Smeltertown was part company town created by ASARCO, part Mexican-American barrio located at the base of a giant cooper smelter," said Perales. "Families settled in the areas surrounding the smelter as people went to work at the company. By its height around the 1930s, the smelter was employing about 2,000 workers almost exclusively of Mexican origin. The community itself had a population of about 5,000 with the families who accompanied the workers. There was a vibrant Mexican barrio, Mexican-owned stores and Mexican-owned taverns and restaurants and the church was very much a space where Mexican workers and their families could gather and build community.

"It was an important history of the area that had been missing that needed to be told because it had so many important things to say about life on the border," Perales said. "The ways in which the residents dealt with labor issues, the way they dealt with discrimination on the job and the city as a whole, as well as the lives they created in a place that might not seem to have much worth remembers. The stories consistently, I found, recounted the beauty that could be found in the community as well."

Two eminent scholars on Mexican American history will comment on the significance of this new book and how the historical narrative of Mexican Americans is often buried in history survey books.

Vicki Ruiz, dean of humanities and professor of history at University of California, Irvine, researches 20th century U.S. history, Chicano/Latino history through oral narratives, gender studies, labor and immigration. She is best known for her two monographs, "Cannery Women, Cannery Lives" and "From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America." She was the first Latina president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association. She currently is a fellow of the Society of American Historians and a member of the national advisory board for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Ernesto Chavez is associate professor of history at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is the author of "Mi Raza Primero!: Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978" and "The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents."

The book symposium on the UH campus is sponsored by the department of history, The Tenneco Lecture Series, The Center for Mexican American Studies, Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies and Latin American Studies.

WHAT: The University of Houston department of history hosts a book symposium "Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community," by UH professor of history Monica Perales. Two eminent scholars on Mexican American history, Vicki Ruiz, dean of humanities and professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and Ernesto Chavez, associate professor of history at the University of Texas, El Paso, will discuss the significance of book.

WHEN: 4 - 5:30 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 28
Free and open to the public. For questions or further information, call Kairn Klieman at (713) 743-3106 or

WHERE: The Honors College Commons, M.D. Anderson Library, 2nd Floor (
Public parking is available in the UH Welcome Center Garage
Entrance 1 off Calhoun Road ( )

University of Houston

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