- Courtesy Photo
Manuel Romero's own story has been inscribed into several decades of Utah life—as activist, teacher and public servant. But his first book came out of his fascination with how he was connected to an even larger story.
Mi América: The Evolution of an American Family is in part a memoir of his own journey from a kid growing up in Bingham, Utah to becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college, ultimately leading to high-profile roles in the state ranging from executive director of the non-profit Centro de la Familia de Utah, to member of Utah Transit Authority Board of Directors, to Community Relations Program Manager for the Utah Department of Human Services. Yet it's also a chronicle of his family history in New Mexico, connected to that state's own unique history going back 500 years.
According to Romero, the broad idea of exploring his own family history traces back more than 40 years, "ever since Roots came out back in the '70s." The more direct inspiration, however, came after a longtime friend with whom Romero studied in Mexico reached out to him about contributing a paper to the San Antonio-based Bilingual Review. "He asked for a 20-page paper about my experience [as a graduate student in Mexico]," Romero says. "When I was done, I had submitted 40 pages. He said, 'You have to narrow it down, but you have the makings of a book here; you can really expand on a lot of that stuff.' I felt I couldn't write about my experience in Mexico without writing about how I got there."
"How I got there" turned into a trip through the centuries, reaching back to the Spanish arrival in and conquest of Mexico, the expansion of that Spanish territory northward, and the creation of a unique hybrid Spanish-Indian culture in New Mexico as the territory made transitions from Spanish rule, to part of an independent Mexico, to a short-lived independent revolution, to part of the United States. As a through-line along that story, Romero uses genealogical research to look at the roles played by some of his own ancestors on both sides of the family tree, including an Aztec princess.
While Romero acknowledges that Mi América could have been either just a memoir, or just a family history, or just a history of New Mexico, he says it was important to him to fold all of those stories into one. "I studied political science, and that's what I used to teach," he says. "Through the years, though, I never really read anything about the story of how people like my family got to this country. As I dug further, I found more and more. ... It was a story, I felt, that had not been told."
Given a contemporary political narrative that frames people of Mexican descent as others and outsiders, with a focus on those who are recent arrivals, it was particularly important for Romero to bring to light the history of what is now the American Southwest, and the long legacy of Mexican people there. "I wanted to give readers, especially those who were Mexican-American, a different perspective. This isn't something we were taught or read about in school. Even before the Pilgrims, there were already people settling here. I wanted to reframe things."
Mi América also takes time to look at Utah's own multicultural history through Romero's youth in Bingham, where his parents relocated from New Mexico in the mid-1950s. "Bingham was quite a melting pot," he recalls. "It was huge to tell that story. I was able to capture that there were other people who settled here, and we have our own history that just doesn't get talked about—to tell the Utah story through brown eyes."
Telling stories like this, according to Romero—including his own growing social consciousness as part of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the 1970s and beyond—become a crucial part of instilling a sense of pride and self-awareness, one that can inspire ongoing activism. "I was trying to show how others helped us get here, how others sacrificed for us to get here," he says. "While interviewing people, I kept hearing comments like, 'I didn't know this, I didn't know that. It gives me a sense of who I am.'"
"I had my own negative stereotypes," he continues. "When people talk about 'who was here first,' ... we are not new arrivals. We've been here a long time, and people don't know that story."