Local author and retired professor Carlos Gil will spend the next year traveling around the state of Washington, speaking to people about immigration, diversity and what it means to be American.
Gil, a Kenmore resident of more than 40 years, was designated the 2019 Humanities Washington speaker by the Humanities Washington office, formerly known as Inquiring Minds. This designation enables him to share his talk, “From Mexican to Mexican American: A Family Immigrant Story,” with schools, museums, libraries and other Washington state nonprofit organizations.
Gil is an emeritus professor of the University of Washington. When he started teaching there in 1974, he said “colleges were struggling with how to offer courses on minority groups that had not been paid attention to before.”
“People like me, Mexican Americans, didn’t exist in the books and newspapers of America,” he said.
Now, immigration, especially at the southern border, is a hot topic. Gil, 81, has been retired for 15 years, but is excited about the opportunity to speak to people around the state, and offer a “human story” of immigration, “with all its complexity, heartache and hope.”
“I’m always hoping to talk to college students and encourage their interest in the humanities — in people instead of machines — and helping them address who they are and where they come from,” he said.
Gil’s talk is also available in Spanish. His talk notes that “the arguments [about immigration] have become cartoonish, with one side often painted as naïve and another as xenophobic.”
“Most Americans don’t have an immediate experience of what immigration is,” he said. “Every country has a right to manage its borders, but they have to do it intelligently…We’re walling them out instead of asking why.”
Gil is a second generation Mexican American and was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He then attended Seattle University, studying history and psychology. He moved to Kenmore initially when he was working as an office clerk at the St. Edward Seminary.
He has children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in the area, but said they are farther removed from immigrant experience and more “Americanized.”
In his talks, he covers three main topics: the phenomenon of migration, cultural challenges and the impact down generations.
Many of his points are illustrated in his most recent book, “We Became Mexican American: How Our Family Survived to Pursue the American Dream,” which is about how his family migrated to the United States, settled in southern California and assimilated to their new life.
In writing his book, he sought to understand Mexican immigration to the United States by tracing his own family’s history from the 1920s to the 1970s. In the process, he discovered the excitement, culture shock, inter-family conflict and questions of identity that so many immigrants who are seeking a better life elsewhere face. Gil’s talk explores these topics including immigration to Washington state, all through the lens of a single family’s story.
“Even if you’re not Mexican American, if you’re Polish American or German American, people have come up to me and said, ‘you’re talking about my family,’” he said. “My family is not unusual. And yet our story is really compelling.”
“We Became Mexican American” was awarded “Best Biography” in two book competitions in the United States in 2013 and one in The Netherlands in 2015. For more information, see www.facebook.com/WeBecameMexicanAmerican or diversitycentral.com/diversity_store/books.php.
Gil’s upcoming talks are in Lynden and Ferndale on March 23. See www.humanities.org/speaker/carlos-gil/ for future events.