Jayson Maurice Porter
PhD Candidate in the Department of History
Jayson Maurice Porter is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Jayson focuses on Mexican environmental history. He teaches about tropical histories of science and technology studies, material culture, and Black geographies. His dissertation research focuses on pesticide-based eradication campaigns—against plants and people—in the Mexican states of Guerrero and Sinaloa. Previously, Jayson earned a masters of arts in history from the University of Oklahoma. He is a 2019-20 recipient of a Fulbright-García Robles fellowship.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I write about how attempts to control nature in Mexico—through agrochemicals, agricultural development, and irrigation—have changed the nature of control in Mexico. Long before NAFTA, Mexican export agriculture to the United States historically benefited U.S. consumers and agribusiness at the expense of Mexican farmers and environments. In this sense, my work puts agriculture and environmental change in the center of conversations about drug production in and migration from Mexico. American audiences hear a lot about these topics, but they seldom see how their consumption of Mexican agricultural products or how the U.S. production of pesticides sent to Mexico increases insecurity in many parts of Mexico.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
Well, I did not expect for my ideas on censorship in Mexico’s National Archive (AGN) to be read in Mexico City’s Congress. Even more surprising was the fact that my comments played a small role in keeping part of an AGN collection called Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales open to the public. I will never forget the first week of 2020 when I was cited in and invited to Congress and then several senior scholars of Mexico thanked me personally for helping to protect the future of our historical research.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I am inspired by the social, cultural, and political relationships between Black and Mexican communities in the past, present, and future. I am from Philadelphia, but I grew up mostly between Tucson, Arizona and Jackson, Mississippi where I developed overlapping perspectives on race in arguably the hardest states to be Mexican and Black. For me, agriculture and migration are historical parallels between our communities. Pesticides and oilseeds, such as cotton, are my connective tissues of choice. Few things inspire my work more than the uneven impact of pesticides on people of color. Be it in irrigated fields in the United States or Mexico, people of color have been exposed to harmful agrochemicals at alarming rates. Pesticides have military stories in my research and life, too. My Uncle Tommie died from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and since my analysis touches on the testing of Agent White and Blue in Sinaloa before Vietnam, I cannot wait to dedicate my work on pesticides to him.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
The Mexican states I study, Guerrero and Sinaloa, present great research challenges because they are dangerous and riddled with archival silences. I have experienced challenging and even frightening obstacles since I started this research in 2014, but I hope my findings will help me share stories about the most marginalized communities there. I hope to continue publishing in Spanish to share my work with those communities, too. As a Fulbright-Garcia Robles scholar this year, I cannot travel to either state, but it has been rewarding to conceptualize novel strategies to research those regions. Lastly, I love to tell new stories about Afro-descendants in Costa Chica, Guerrero. Since my research draws connections between licit and illicit oilseed production in Guerrero, and many licit oilseeds came from Costa Chica, my narrative sheds new light on the environmental history of the Black diaspora in Mexico.
The Department of History at Northwestern fits my interests perfectly. I felt comfortable about my environmental analysis, but I came to Northwestern to receive closer training on southern Mexico. My principal advisor, Paul Gillingham, is one of the few scholars of Guerrero in the United States, and his focus on violence and political discourse has greatly influenced my environmental analysis. I’ve also benefited from studying the history of drugs with Lina Britto, the Black Pacific with Sherwin Bryant, and histories of science and medicine with Helen Tilley. The Department of History has generally embraced my ideas, and I am grateful for this spotlight to thank Paul Ramírez, Caitlin Fitz, Daniel Immerwahr, and Ken Alder for offering me incredible directed readings. Beyond my department, Northwestern also provides me with a brilliant community of Black scholars in African American Studies, Anthropology, and Political Science with whom I’ve learned much and stayed sane.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Your first idea might not always be your best but give it some time to flex. For instance, when you’re reading a book for a seminar or research and you think of something random but related, write it down, follow it analytically, and put faith in your ideas. You never know where they could lead. I used to question my train of thought and avoid slipping down rabbit holes, but learning to embrace the circuitous route has led me to many helpful ideas. It makes sense to think before you speak, but sometimes you need to be confident but humble to talk through as you think. To consider your thinking is done before you speak or write requires a brand of overconfidence less conducive to innovation. I’d also suggest considering starting therapy sooner than later. I began therapy during my first fellowship year abroad, but I should have prioritized it sooner because talking through my self-doubt is productive and generative for my life inside and outside of academia.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I am honored to be an author and member of Noria’s new Program on Mexico and Central America. It is an international research team of 27 scholars, journalists, and photographers, who each have personal experience studying violence and insecurity in the field. I’m sort of the group’s environmental nerd. Being invited to work with some of my favorite scholars as a graduate student is a dream come true, especially because collaboration is not always embraced in our fields. Being a Fulbright-García Robles scholar has certainly changed my life, and I’m proud to have published and presented in Spanish, but being acknowledged for my insights at this stage in my career simply feels unreal. I am humbled and encouraged by my team in ways that give me the confidence to finish my dissertation strong.
Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
I anticipated that Guerrero would be a difficult place to research. However, I was not prepared for the utter lack of archival institutions there. Most of the state’s municipal archives were sent to the state archive in the mid-twentieth century, but the state archive has been closed for over a decade. This historical erasure was rough, but it forced me to find new solutions to tell stories about the state’s people and places. My solutions were environmental and located in Mexico City. In lieu of local archives, I learned how to navigate public health, agrarian, and engineering records. In time I gained enough from archivists at over a dozen institutions that I have assisted or consulted many historians working in Mexico City. In the National Military Archives, where I’ve consulted after much trial and error, a few archivists even gifted me a 15-disc collection of Guerrero’s state archive. Since this archive has been closed for years, I’ve shared the collection with my advisor at Mexico City’s Program on Human Rights to be digitized for public access. Hopefully, this will help others avoid my mistakes.
Published: April 27, 2020
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