History Professor featured in Liberal Arts Life and Letters Newsletter
Professor John McKiernan-Gonzalez studies community health issues along the border
Posted: January 5, 2006
By the time John McKiernan-Gonzalez graduated from high school, he had lived in more countries and experienced more cultures than many people do in a lifetime. A native of Queens, New York, McKiernan-Gonzalez started his schooling in Ethiopia where his family lived for three years. During elementary school, they moved to Colombia to be closer to his mother's family. Middle and high school were spent in Mexico and the United States.
"When people hear how much I traveled as a youth, they assume my parents were in the military," said McKiernan-Gonzalez, an assistant professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin. "Actually, they were both teachers who just loved to travel."
Moving regularly and being introduced to so many different cultures gave McKiernan-Gonzalez a unique perspective on people, their communities and their history.
"I'm fascinated with people's stories," says McKiernan-Gonzalez. "The experience that truly transformed my life was working for the Student Coalition for Community Health while attending the University of Alabama. My job was to interview people about their health but what I found was how people tied stories about their health to the story of their life, family and circumstances."
The goal of the Student Coalition for Community Health was to promote health screenings and immunizations to underserved populations. McKiernan-Gonzalez was assigned to Lowndes County, a black belt county that in 1987 was still largely segregated in practice if not by law.
"When I arrived, people thought that I was white and that the program was some type of new civil rights movement," he said.
The experience sparked his interest in history and healthcare and so, after completing his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in Ohio, he worked for two years as an epidemiologist with the Cook County Department of Public Health in Chicago.
"Officially I was hired to conduct the department's HIV testing, but I ended up fielding calls on a slew of medical issues because I was one of only a few employees who was fluent in Spanish as well as English," said McKiernan-Gonzalez. "What really bothered me was the lack of concern among the professional staff about the fact that Spanish-speaking clients were not receiving accurate and comprehensive information. Much of this seemed to stem from a feeling that Mexicans were 'new' to the United States and didn't deserve the benefits provided to others."
For McKiernan-Gonzalez, history offered a way to challenge this sense of Mexican 'newness.' He enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Michigan, one of two universites at the time that offered both medical and Mexican American history tracks. While working on his Ph.D., McKiernan-Gonzalez was awarded a graduate fellowship to work at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute. . . .
Photo by: Marsha Miller