Across Nations and Cultures

In the Chinese province of Guangdong, historian Kathleen López recorded oral histories with the descendants of immigrants to Cuba.

Halfway around the world, in provincial towns across Cuba, she unearthed evidence of intermarriage between Cuban slaves and the migrant Chinese workers imported as laborers in the 19th century.

And here on the Rutgers–New Brunswick Campus, López often teaches students with family histories intertwined with the transnational migrations central to her scholarship.

 

On a Global Stage

For López, history takes place not just in a particular geographic location, but on a global stage where migrants travel among nations—and cultures. How appropriate, then, for her scholarship to span two departments in the School of Arts and Sciences, the Department of History and the Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies.

López is an expert in a fascinating, under-the-radar story of immigrants—the migration of Chinese to Cuba. “People are often taken aback when they hear of Chinese Cubans, or Japanese Mexicans, or Korean Argentinians,” notes López, who has traveled to Cuba more than 10 times for her research. “They think of Asian America as being bound by the United States or perhaps Canada. But the migrations of Chinese in the 19th century were equally as intense to Latin America and the Caribbean.”

For the first time, many of [my students] are thinking about their own personal family history in terms of a greater history of colonialism, slavery, and labor—and having some language to be able to discuss it on another level.

Professor Kathleen López

It’s a big, sprawling story, and one López tackles in the classes she teaches, as well as in a book manuscript tentatively titled Migrants between Empires and Nations: The History of the Chinese in Cuba.

And it’s a story her students find real and relevant, given how many of them have immigration tales in their own family histories.

“A lot of students, when they come out of my classes, immediately want to go home and talk to a grandmother or an uncle,” she says. “For the first time, many of them are thinking about their own personal family history in terms of a greater history of colonialism, slavery, and labor—and having some language to be able to discuss it on another level.”

Part of the appeal of López’s work is certainly its interdisciplinary nature—a quality that’s supported by the diversity of the scholars, centers, and initiatives available at Rutgers.

López’s graduate work was initially in Asian studies, and at Rutgers, she says, she is able to remain involved in disparate disciplines. Rutgers programs and initiatives, such as the Collective for Asian American Scholarship and Transnational New Jersey, allow her to move beyond the traditional constraints of academic disciplines. “Being at Rutgers really allows me the flexibility to tap back into Asian studies and the Asian diaspora, and to combine my interests with teaching and research,” she says.