5 Questions with Alumna and Cal State East Bay History Faculty Anna Rose Alexander
Anna Rose Alexander calls history “storytelling with purpose.” Piecing together historical narratives, reconstructing events and then sharing them with her students at Cal State East Bay, where she has taught history since 2016, are what drive her.
Proudly a first-generation student, Alexander (History, ’06) specializes in Latin American urban and environmental history and authored City on Fire: Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860-1910 in 2016. Based on her doctoral dissertation, her research uncovered the hazards of industrializing the Mexican capital city in the 19th century.
Alexander has taught Latin American history in British Columbia, Alabama, and Georgia, but it is at Cal State East Bay where she feels most at home. One of her favorite ways to engage with her students is through East Bay Historia, a collection of original essays by her history students that are accompanied by illustrations by students in Chico State assistant professor Josh Funk’s art classes. While this cross-disciplinary, multi-campus effort is a unique collaboration, what makes this so dear to Alexander is that Funk (Art Studio, ’07) is her older brother.
“Having these beautiful, very poignant illustrations has elevated our journal to new heights,” she said. “The best part of my job is working with my brother.”
How did Chico State prepare you for your role at Cal State East Bay?
[History Department faculty] Steve Lewis was and remains my advisor and I still seek him out for advice today. Other amazing professors who went out of their way to help me succeed were Karen Nissen and Robert Tinkler. It was at Chico State where I found my people and nerded out with other historians. I have fond memories of traveling to conferences with the History Honors Society (Phi Alpha Theta) or competing on the Forensics Speech and Debate team, where I built lasting bonds of friendship and cultivated skills that I use every day in my job. I wish I could persuade more of my students to do those types of things while in college—they take time, but they’re worth it. Giving my first speech in a competition was a very scary experience, especially knowing that judges were critiquing my every word and gesture. But if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and try new things, you don’t know what you’re good at, or conversely, what you’re not so good at. I appreciate that Chico State gave me the space to experiment and the courage to put myself out there to find out who I really was.
Why did history appeal to you, in particular Latin American history?
It’s storytelling with purpose, and a real connection to daily life. You get to have the fun of the humanities by creating narratives and telling stories and then really dig deep by doing systematic archival research. Connecting history to what we’re experiencing today is the best way of understanding our lived experiences and the cultural realities that shape our world. I remember sitting in Steve Lewis’s “History of Modern Latin America” class and being at the edge of my seat on the first day. I was blown away that I had never learned anything about Latin America until my junior year of college. The only reason I ended up in that class was for the non-Western requirement. I’m so glad it was a requirement because it changed my life and even changed how I understand American history. US and Latin American histories are so interconnected. Our present conditions of immigration and drugs are direct results of US intervention and US involvement in Latin America.
How do you get your students engaged in history?
I enjoy assigning historical fiction projects where students have to embody someone in the past. Every year, I hold a Fidel Castro funeral in my class, and my students eulogize him from different historical characters who knew him throughout his life. It creates historical empathy and students have to do significant research in order to try to write a eulogy for Castro from the perspective of someone like Nikita Khrushchev. The assignment shows how complicated history can be by presenting a whole collection of competing voices side by side.
What are the origins of your book City of Fire?
While I was doing some of my graduate work in Puebla, Mexico, I was in the archives, looking for a project and I kept seeing the term “fire” pop up, which was really perplexing. It’s Mexico, everything’s adobe and tile, why are things catching fire? And that became the research question: “Why is it so flammable down there?” That led me on a wild goose chase, and I ended up in patents and medical archives and found this array of different sources telling me that fire was really a problem in the late 19th century. All sorts of people were trying to combat it in different ways—engineers were trying to fix the problem, medical physicians were trying to heal burns, and all of this because new materials were coming about from Europe. Mexico City wanted to be the “Paris of the Americas” and it started building with wood. The city became super flammable at this point. They started using new fossil fuels in homes and businesses and people had to contend with that.
What does it mean to you to have been a first-generation student?
It means I had a few more obstacles to overcome than other students, which made me more resilient and resourceful in the long run. I was very active in high school and was on the honor roll, but my parents and I didn’t talk about college. Shortly before I graduated high school, my mom got a job working at Chico State’s College of Agriculture, and one of the perks was that she got a tuition waiver for her children. She also started to learn about things like FAFSA, which helped me get a Pell Grant and various other grants that made it possible for me to attend. Sixty-four percent of our students at Cal State East Bay are first-generation. That gives me a real connection to my students, and I proudly say on the first day of class, “I’m first-generation and if you ever want to talk to me about hurdles that you have, I’m a resource.” It makes me more accessible to my students and lets them know that I understand where they are coming from. I don’t remember hearing the term “first-generation” when I was in college, and I would never have proudly displayed that back then. Now, I am proud being first-generation and will tell anyone who will listen.