Grad student Jason Ruiz examines early travel discourse
By Jason Ruiz, Ph.D. ’08
This past summer I packed up my grad school life and headed to South Bend, Indiana, to assume the position of assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. As I loaded up boxes full of books and files, I found myself scratching my head and wondering how I came to write a dissertation examining perceptions of Mexico in the U.S. popular imagination during and immediately after the long reign of the dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876–1910). Like a lot of my friends and colleagues, I entered graduate school with only a vague notion of what I wanted to study, and I’m still surprised that travelogues and other travel paraphernalia were among the things I needed to pack. My dissertation, “Americans in the Treasure House: Travel to Mexico in the U.S. Popular Imagination, 1876–1920," argues that American travelers helped to produce ways of knowing Mexico as a desirable but dangerous Other that reverberate even today. It surveys a wide array of popular sources, from stereoscopic slides and travelogues to picture postcards, to argue that travelers performed the cultural work of helping U.S. Americans to imagine Mexico within their nation’s growing empire, a project with its roots in the mid-19th century that accelerated after 1898.
I came to this topic by accident, while I was helping a friend introduce her class to primary research at the Minnesota Historical Society. Between students, I absentmindedly searched for the terms “Mexico" and “travel" in the library’s search aid and came across a title that
was too tantalizing to ignore. The book was called The Devil in Mexico and it seemed that the MHS had a copy because its author, Gulian Lansing Morrill, had been a prominent citizen of Minneapolis in the early 1900s. (The archives also hold a photograph of Morrill helping to dedicate the city’s first municipal Christmas tree.) Morrill fashioned himself a globetrotter, calling himself Golightly and dressing himself in Victorian travel garb. But unlike the countless polite Progressive Era travelers who couched their distaste for the places they visited in euphemisms, Morrill quite explicitly saw it as his mission to expose what he saw as degeneracy in the non-Western world. Such titles as Hawaiian Heathens and Rotten Republics reflect his disgust with the far-flung places that he visited, though the reader senses that Morrill was both interested in and repulsed by the “vice" and sexual excess that he observed.
The Devil in Mexico (1917) was so outrageous in its claims of Mexican backwardness and lasciviousness that I wondered if Morrill was even a real person or some character concocted to appeal to readers interested in Livingstone-like adventures. Even the name Golightly Morrill suggested that the author presented his travels with an ironic smirk. “This Tropic of Cancer country is a tropical cancer," he wrote in the preface to The Devil in Mexico, “and it may be that the only cure is Uncle Sam’s sword." It was not until a couple of years later, after I presented on Morrill’s work at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, that one of the author’s descendants contacted me and affirmed that his great-grandfather was a real person — one as flamboyant as his books suggested. I subsequently visited the home of the widow of Morrill’s grandson, who showed me Mrs. Morrill’s travel diary, as well as a number of snapshots taken by their son Lowell.
In the end, Morrill and his polemical writings made only a brief appearance in my dissertation, but the author does deserve the credit for sparking my interest in the discourses of travel to Mexico that circulated in U.S. popular culture during the Progressive Era. This research has taken me to archives at the National Museum of American History, the Getty Research Library in Los Angeles, and the Autry National Center’s Institute for the Study of the American West, among other places. My training at the University prepared me to engage with the archive, but — more importantly — encouraged me to look for and think critically about the narratives of race, class, gender, sexuality, and modernity that were woven into depictions of travel to Mexico. As I move on from my graduate school days and the intellectual, critical environment fostered by our department, I hope to challenge my future students to look for the deeper meanings in everyday texts — and to let themselves find those texts in surprising places