“Heart of the Mission”: An Interview with Dr. Cary Cordova

This past year, Dr. Cary Cordova, Associate Professor of American Studies at UT-Austin, published her first book, The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco with University of Pennsylvania Press. To celebrate the release of Heart of the Mission, Sarah Carlson, a doctoral student in UT-Austin’s American Studies program, sat down with Dr. Cordova to discuss the genesis of the project as a dissertation; the various pools of inspiration from which Dr. Cordova drew her research questions; the writing process and its relationship to teaching and community engagement; and much, much more. Please read on!

Cordova book cover

SC: Can you tell us generally just a little about the book, the project, and how you came to it initially?

CC: I’m originally from San Francisco, and I had come to graduate school here at the University of Texas at Austin in American Studies. It was around the time for me to figure out what my dissertation was going to be about and I was struggling. I knew that I had come here specifically to work in Latino Studies, but I had somewhat initially thought that my interests were going to be literary. But, because I had a background in art history and because a lot of things were happening in the Mission District in San Francisco at that time in terms of gentrification, I suddenly started thinking about the possibility of writing about where I came from. I had travelled a lot and I had seen the ways in which there is the influence of geography and economic demographics on how people understand Mexican Americans or Chicanos or Latinos. And I had never seen work that represented San Francisco in that conversation in a meaningful way.  So that became the project.

SC: So it started as your dissertation. All projects inevitably change, so how did this change from when it started as a dissertation and also, when did you know it was time to shift gears. How do you know when you just have to say, “this is different from what I started with?”

CC: Okay, so there are a couple of gears in there, because there are a couple ways in which it finally became a dissertation, and then it finally became a book. In terms of a dissertation and the process of it coming alive, I had help and support from archives and fellowships that made it possible to write. That’s important. But also I think that I had gotten to a point where I just needed to be done. And I think that it’s a really important, transformative moment, mentally for a scholar, when you are so committed to being done. That was incredibly helpful for putting words on a page.

In terms of how the project changed: I think the project was always perhaps overly ambitious. I sometimes counsel students now to bring it down a notch. I learned that there were some things I just wasn’t going to be able to do. Those things are on shelves in my mind. And so there was some level of acceptance for that.

The hardest part about transforming the project into the book was that I had to both expand it and cut it a lot.

SC: Okay, can you talk about that? Simultaneously writing for expansion and concision?

CC: Basically, I had to cut probably 20,000 words or something. Like a lot of words. Thousands of words. And probably more than that because there were also spaces that needed clarification. In terms of a transition from the dissertation to the book, there were at least three new chapters that were added.

So there were more chapters but less space. Which was maybe a good thing for me, because it made every word excruciatingly important. I think it’s really helpful in a way in a book that you realize that you don’t have to be as repetitive or redundant as you do in a dissertation. There’s some way in a dissertation in which you have to constantly affirm your argument. In a book you have some level of fluidity and maybe also hope that people have been reading along with you and that these things you’re pointing out are not necessarily coming out of the blue. You can focus on the really necessary parts.

I think there’s a huge learning curve to writing a dissertation. None of us has ever done it before. Some of us have maybe seen it done by others, but that’s quite different from trying to figure out:  “How do I structure things? Am I going to be chronological? Am I going to be thematic? How do I integrate my sources? How do i have an argument? What is my argument?” And so for the dissertation, those are just basic fundamentals, and then for a book its important to reach out much more to other scholars and hopefully other people in the community in the world that have an interest in the topic. Trying to make it legible and accessible and teachable are some of the things that go into transforming a dissertation into a book.

SC: You mention that no one has done a dissertation before they do one, and that you have to confront all these daunting questions. But of course, other people have done it, just not the way you do it. So who are people or what are other projects that, during your dissertation, you looked to or were inspired by? And then during your book, what or who informed the way you did things?

CC: I think when I was initially processing what I wanted to do I was really inspired by by the work on the Harlem Renaissance, and I loved how a variety of scholars had pinpointed this moment in time when a lot of artists and writers and intellectuals were communicating with each other and forming an intellectual community. I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which that registered for me in terms of thinking about the artists and the activists that I knew from San Francisco, especially in the Mission District. So I think that scholarship was an inspiration and ambition.

SC: Where do you see this fitting in academic conversations, but also in a broader conversation beyond strictly scholarly writing?

CC: In terms of where the work fits, I have always thought of my work as some sort of an intersection between American Studies and Latino Studies, and I’ve gradually learned that I’m very historical. I always approach my work as an interdisciplinary scholar but I have come to realize and accept that there are a lot of ways in which my work has been deeply informed by historians and the techniques of historians.

I would also hope that it is readable. I did want it to be accessible to the people I was writing about. I think that that was a really important component for me.

SC: Speaking of the relationship between scholarly work and communicating with audiences besides scholars: how does your research affect how you teach? And how does your teaching inform what you’re doing as a scholar?

CC: A lot. I think one thing that I learned as a teacher was to try to simplify, to try to really find my priorities in terms of what I was going to lecture about or what I was going to focus on in classroom. And I started to think about the applicability of that as a writer and the ways in which I really needed to prioritize what was most important in my argument and allow for the fact that maybe not everything else was going to fit in perfectly, maybe it was okay to lose some information for the sake of streamlining and making something more cohesive.

That was really important. I think also teaching helped me think about chapters in a more helpful way, because I started to think about the relationship between lectures and chapters. Approaching chapters as lectures can allow you to think of a chapter as its own contained way of reaching people–still part of the book, but also including its own argument and its own life. I felt like that was helpful for me in terms of structuring my ideas.

SC: Related to teaching and writing, I have one last big question. What advice do you have for students, whether they are working on their undergraduate term papers, working toward a dissertation, or turning a dissertation into a book?

CC: So, if its about writing, then I think part of writing is allowing yourself to do research, enjoying the process of research, but writing as you go. You can build an endless archive of research, but if you’re not transforming it into your words, then you’re just creating a harder and harder situation for yourself to finally bring your words to the page. Do a little bit of research, a little bit of writing, a little bit of research, a little bit of writing.

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