What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Director of ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies Matt Garcia

One Side of My Family Were Fruit Pickers, the Other Side Worked for Sunkist

April 15, 2016

Matt Garcia is director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author most recently of From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. He was also the outreach director and co-primary investigator for the Bracero Archive Project, which collects and makes available oral histories and artifacts related to the program that allowed guest workers from Mexico into America between 1942 and 1964. Before Garcia discussed the legacy of the 1965 immigration act, he talked about his running habit, the most beautiful movie he’s ever seen, and the traits he thinks are most American.

Q: What dessert do you find impossible to resist?
German chocolate cake.

Q: What do you think is the most beautiful film ever made?
White Ribbon. It’s a German film by Michael Haneke. It’s about Germany before World War II and the kind of sickness within the culture that anticipates Nazism. It’s visually stunning.

Q: Since we’re talking about immigration at this event, how did your family end up in Upland, California, where you were born?
One side of my family is Mexican and they were citrus pickers. They worked at the Claremont Colleges doing food service and pruning trees. The other side of the family is Anglo and worked in the white-collar section of Sunkist. It was a meeting of both sides of railroad tracks.

Q: What kind of car do you drive?
I drive a 1991 Mercedes Benz 350 SDL that occasionally runs on grease—vegetable oil. When I lived in western Massachusetts, I used to get it from my mechanic. But now I go to various private depots.

Q: What’s one thing you learned about the Bracero program that you didn’t know before you became co-primary investigator for the Bracero Archive Project?
That there are still so many around. That was so surprising. When we showed up for the first interviews in Coachella, we had an overwhelming number of braceros waiting for us. In a 10-day span, we did over 700 interviews with braceros and their families. The other thing is we never anticipated the diversity among braceros. There were significant numbers of indigenous braceros discussing the tension between indigenous and mestizo workers.

Q: What do you do to decompress?
Run. I’m a runner.

Q: How much is too much to pay for a good cup of coffee?
I think $6 is really too much. I think there’s a $5.99 one in Tempe.

Q: If you could only take one more journey, where would you go?
Probably Puebla, Mexico. It’s kind of a mix of indigenous Mexico and European Mexico. There’s great bread, great food. The museums are great. It’s small, but not too small—the perfect size.

Q: When you turn on the television at your house, what channel is the most likely to be on?
HBO. Veep—that’s my obsession these days.

Q: What does it mean to be American?
It means being flexible, being accepting, and being ambitious.

*Photo by Jaclyn Nash.