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Heatherton Dissects Research Process for Global Radicalism Book

In contradictory social spaces, different radical traditions can be forced together, eventually producing new ideas, according to Christina Heatherton. 

People came together 100 years ago, as they still do, with different experiences, different histories, and different radical lineages,” Heatherton said. “We all make sense of the world with the tools available to us. Often, in the process, we produce new ideas. I’m interested in the spaces where this occurs.” 

Heatherton, the Elting Associate Professor of American Studies and Human Rights at Trinity College, delivered a lecture sponsored by Boston College’s history department on Nov. 10. Heatherton discussed her book, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution.

The book examines how activists around the world became united in revolutionary Mexico, according to Heatherton. She began her talk by reading the introduction of the book, which primarily focuses on the symbolism of unbraiding rope as a way of showing the stakes and scope of the United States and Mexico’s relationship in the 1900s. 

“[Ropes] serve to illustrate the stakes and scope,” Heatherton said. “Unbraiding the strands of accumulation just to show what are all the places that are being connected, right?”

Heatherton continued by discussing how unraveling a rope strand symbolizes the intertwining relationship of the United States and Mexico during the Mexican Revolution.

“How do you think about these new [rope] strands emerging in the early 20th century that are coming out of the U.S.’ evolving relationship with Mexico?” Heatherton said. “And how does that give us a sense not only of what the shape of global capitalism looks like in something that we could sort of hold, but also then how do you instantly have a sense of how people are connected or might have understood themselves in their struggles connected?” 

To write her book, Heatherton said she drew upon prison records, oral histories, and art pieces to highlight the effects of the Mexican Revolution. Heatherton said to gather this information, she visited international archives. 

“I was able to find ways to go to conferences in Amsterdam and in Ireland,” Heatherton said. “I spent some time at Trinity College Dublin.”

According to Heatherton, she collected so much research from archives that she could not include all of the information in her final book.

“There was a whole chapter I was going to write about James Connolly that I just didn’t have time for but was able to, you know, move on to some other archival trips,” Heatherton said. “For example, to the International Institute [of] Social History in Amsterdam, sometimes with a digital camera, and just taking pictures as quickly as I could.” 

Heatherton advised those doing research to befriend the archivist at each archive, as they provided different angles for her to write her book. At the Henry Leavenworth Chapter in Arlington, Va., Heartheron said the archivist helped her find more in-depth research, beyond what she initially had in mind.

“I was just interested in looking at Ricardo Flores [Magón], Mulholland and his brother making the files,” Heatherton said. “But I talked to the archivist about the project. He first gave me a database of all the prisoners who had been in Leavenworth at that time, so I had a really clear sense of who was a political prisoner and who maybe wasn’t a political prisoner … And that was really phenomenal.” 

Heatherton described a meeting she had with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation—a far-left political and militant group in Mexico—where an engineer was trying to explain the functions of a water system to a group of people who did not speak the same language. Heatherton said the experience helped her think about the Mexican Revolution’s legacy and its relation to the fight against neoliberalism, which is a central theme in her book.

“I remember looking around the room and just kind of getting chills by what it meant to try to transmit knowledge, you know, to a group of people who wanted to come together for some shared purpose but were struggling to find language together,” Heatherton said. 

Heatherton said over the course of her research, her ideas evolved in an unexpected way. She encouraged audience members to be open to several different topics when performing their own research.

“I tell my students, you know, like, sometimes you choose a topic and sometimes the topic chooses you,” Heatherton said. “Make sure you allow yourself to be open to what’s trying to speak to you.”

November 12, 2023