November 25, 2009

The ASARCO smokestack looms above the Smeltertown graveyard.

Little evidence exists today of Smeltertown, a Mexican American neighborhood that grew up around a smelter in El Paso, Texas. Smelter employees and their families lived there for almost a century before the discovery of widespread lead contamination in the 1970s. The environmental crisis created a complicated situation that ended in the destruction of the community.

Monica Perales, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston, captures this story in Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Border Community, a book under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. She conducted research and honed her thesis for the book in 2006-07 while she was a Summerlee Foundation Fellow in Texas History at SMU’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies.

Perales says her year at the Center “allowed me time to think about place and memory as key components of the history I wanted to tell and really pushed my work in new directions.”

The Clements Center annually awards four yearlong postdoctoral fellowships for scholars studying the American Southwest and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The support enables them to work at SMU revising and polishing their dissertations into book-length manuscripts. Fellowships to emerging and senior scholars have resulted in 23 books published by 14 university presses and seven pending contracts.


Brian DeLay, now an assistant professor of history at the University of California Berkeley, says his year as a Clements Center Fellow (2005-06) “gave me opportunities to test my ideas on smart and critical readers, including history faculty, center staff, graduate students, Dallas-area historians and other scholars who attended the manuscript workshop.” His War of a Thousand Deserts (Yale University Press, 2008) states that Indians played a key role in bringing Mexico and the United States to war in 1846. “Although many scholars have written about the coming of that war, none had noticed the central role of Apaches, Comanches and others.”

Entering its 13th year, the Clements Center has grown into an internationally recognized incubator for research and writing on the American Southwest and borderlands. The Center was established in 1994 through a $10 million gift from former Texas Governor William P. Clements ’39. The gift also endowed the Clements Department of History in Dedman College and funded development of a Ph.D. program in American history.

“The Clements Center has a wonderful reputation among the scholars of not only the Southwest, but among American historians in general.”

Former Clements fellow and Finland native Pekka Hämäläinen recently won the Bancroft Prize, the most coveted honor in American history writing, for The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), his book about the nation-changing power of the Comanche Indians. He argues that Comanche power led to Spain’s failure to colonize the interior of North America and, ultimately, to the decay of Mexican power in what is now the American Southwest.

Hämäläinen, associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, worked on the book while he was a Clements fellow in 2001-02 and acknowledges in the volume the support he received while at SMU.

“The Clements Center has a wonderful reputation among the scholars of not only the Southwest, but among American historians in general,” Hämäläinen says.

The Center also provides travel research grants to graduate students working on their dissertations, offers research grants to visiting scholars to use DeGolyer Library’s special collections, and organizes an annual symposium. In February, the topic will be “On the Borders of Love and Power: Families and Kinship in the Intercultural American West.”

Integral to the Center’s success is the work of its longtime director, David Weber, the Robert and Nancy Dedman Professor of History in Dedman College. Recently named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Weber is considered a preeminent historian of the American Southwest and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. His research has helped clarify some of the region’s myths about its history. “We’ve had a major shift in the understanding and appreciation of Spanish and Mexican heritage in Southwestern America in my lifetime,” he says.
– Kim Cobb

ASARCO photo by Jesus Delgado. Reprinted with permission of Borderlands, a student writing and research project of El Paso Community College, El Paso, TX 79998. Ruth E. Vise, Project Director. All rights reserved.