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Portrait Gallery: Aaron Navarro, associate professor of history

Aaron Navarro, history profAaron Navarro's curiosity about his immigrant grandparents spurred his interest in Mexican history. He's also a marathoner and rare book collector.

What is your position? How long have you been at UNT? 

I’ve been here since 2004, and I’m associate professor of history.

Your first book, Political Intelligence and the Creation of Modern Mexico, 1938-1954, was published in 2010. How were you able to collect such controversial information?

When I went to Mexico in 1998 to start my dissertation research, the question was how opposition presidential campaigns informally shaped the seemingly authoritarian political system in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s. When I arrived at the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City, I was pleased to learn that there was a collection of documents from one of Mexico’s two main intelligence bureaucracies newly available to researchers. No U.S. scholar, and only one Mexican scholar, had worked through these papers. For a year I worked through the whole collection, about 3,000 boxes of un-catalogued papers from the 1910s-1980s. I also gained access to the archives of the Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional, which at the time were still very difficult for U.S. scholars to enter, especially working on a sensitive topic like mine.

In the end, I learned the intelligence services took over, as I realized that they were the crucial tool the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) had to use against the opposition and also a forum for co-opting young military elites away from careers in politics in favor of running the intelligence bureaucracies. Finding those papers changed the entire argument of the dissertation, for the better I think.

What is your take on the Mexican drug wars?

President Felipe Calderon came to office with a decided plan to deal with the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico, and he put it into operation 10 days after taking office. The main problem is that this has put Mexico on a policy track that cannot lead to success and that Mexico cannot afford to lose.

Given the heroic amounts of drugs that U.S. consumers demand, and the inherent profitability of that trade under the current legal system, the chances of eradicating drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border is virtually nil. So, Mexico cannot win. Yet, if this administration were to pull back from the policy, which it shows no inclination to do, it would basically indicate the weakness of the state and allow the cartels to win. The Mexican state could never return to a policy of fighting the cartels because the precedent would have been set.

Thus, the policy allows no opportunity for the state to win and a very real possibility for the state to lose. The current stalemate with a rising death toll amounts to a victory for the cartels, as the government cannot restore order. It is worth mentioning that tourism in Mexico is a major source of earnings and has suffered losses in the range of $1-2 billion per year just in the past few years as tourists go elsewhere out of security concerns.

Why did you decide to specialize in Mexican history?

At the University of Texas, I needed an honors thesis topic. I had enjoyed the Latin American courses I took and knew that UT has the great Benson Latin American Collection.  Since my paternal grandparents - who were migrant workers from Mexico - died when my father was a boy, I had never known much about that side of the family. The questions I had about my family history undergirded the academic questions I started to pursue in my studies.

What’s your favorite Mexican dish?

I could survive on a steady, if unhealthy, diet of cochinita en pibil and good tamales.          

What’s your favorite Mexican holiday or tradition to celebrate?

I like Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead (Nov. 1-2), but not for the decorations and food, which tend to obscure the meaning of the day. It is a day to reflect on the lives of those who have gone before and seek some kind of emotional communion. It is that contemplative time that makes it most interesting to me.

Tell us about your family

My wife is a chemical engineer who works at Texas Instruments and we have a two year old daughter.

What are your hobbies?

I collect rare books and first editions. I also enjoy distance running and have finished seven marathons so far. My personal record is 3:43.

(It's not possible to know everyone on a big, busy campus. So InHouse periodically publishes Portrait Gallery features to help us learn about our colleagues and their contributions to the university's success. Send suggestions for Portrait Gallery subjects by email to InHouse with "Portrait Gallery" in the subject line.)

Posted on: Mon 02 May 2011

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