S.7 E.2: “I Became What I Wanted”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews history professor and Latin American history expert Dr. Marco Cabrera Geserick.
Posted on January 14th, 2021 by

Professor Marco Cabrera Geserick of the Gustavus History Department talks about his family background, his path from psychology major in Costa Rica to PhD student and professor of Latin American history in the U.S., the revisionist findings of his 2019 book The Legacy of the Filibuster War: National Identify and Collective Memory in Central America, and baking baguettes in the time of COVID-19.

Season 7, Episode 2: “I Became What I Wanted”

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad of ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

Anyone paying attention to US politics and government in recent years is familiar with the senate filibuster. It’s a parliamentary maneuver to obstruct passage of legislation. Less familiar is use of the term “filibusters” to describe men like William Walker, who in the 1850s and ’60s led unauthorized private armed expeditions from soil bent on seizing land and power in Central America and South America.

My colleague and guest today, Dr. Marco Cabrera Geserick, of the Gustavus History Department is an expert on the second kind of filibustering, or more precisely on how it has been collectively remembered in countries on the receiving end of it. His research on the subject has resulted in his important and highly regarded recent book titled The Legacy of the Filibuster War: National Identity and Collective Memory in Central America.

In the words of one reviewer, “Cabrera’s book deserves close attention from scholars of Latin American history and the history of nationalism. His intriguing argument and theoretical framework make it a helpful addition to students of Latin American nationalism and collective memory.”

Professor Cabrera earned his PhD in history at Arizona State University, and I’m happy to say, joined the Gustavus faculty in 2019. Already a professor at Gustavus, he teaches a variety of courses in Latin American history, as well as courses on collective memory in Latin American United States. He’s also involved in the college’s interdisciplinary and peace studies in Latin American, Latinx and Caribbean studies programs.

I’m delighted he could join me for this conversation about his path to Latin American history; the legacy of the Filibuster War; the importance of Latin America, past, present and future; and not least, baguette baking. So, Marco, welcome. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Thank you, Greg, very much. Great introduction.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you, and I should note that you’re in Costa Rica as we speak. I’m here in downtown Minneapolis, and you sound like in you’re in the next room, so the wonders of modern technology. How is COVID in Costa Rica? How are things there?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Well, interesting question. I have been actually monitoring it since the beginning. Of course, I was in Minnesota at that time. I actually learned that Costa Rica was doing really, really well. The government really intervened, put a lot of restrictions in. But also, put a very big effort on producing… Because one of the alcohol companies in Costa Rica is actually owned by the state, so actually, they produce a lot of alcohol and gel for the whole population.

The post office was sending this to every house. And I see that, actually, they continue to make all this effort. There is no way to go to a bank or a restaurant, to any other place without, first of all, a mask on. When you enter, they take your temperature and they make you immediately wash your hands, or they use alcohol and gel before entering. And there is alcohol and gel everywhere that you go.

So, it’s really impressive and it worked very well, I will say, for the first two, three months. But then we start to have some concentration of people in certain areas, people that didn’t follow all the procedures. So, it’s rising. The good thing is that, for some reason, the amount of ICU beds have been always more than what we have been needing so far, so.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good. That sounds to me, at least early on… Well, it sounds like there’s actually a coherent national policy or message, unlike in this country. And also, good news about the ICU beds, which of course, is not the case in parts in this country. I was talking to a history alum who graduated, I think, in 2014 and she’s in Hong Kong. And she was saying how in Hong Kong, a hundred cases a day was cause for alarm. Can you imagine? I mean, it’s amazing. And the way people there, it sounds like in Costa Rica, at least for a time, were wearing masks without all the pushback that we have in this country. So, interesting.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Right. It has been politicized a little bit. I mean, after all, the US media informs a little bit how people here understand the world. A little bit, not fully. And then some people have actually followed those, I’m going to say, narratives that they also use in the United States. But in general, the cases in average, there are like 1,000 cases per day in a five-million-people population. If you take into account, I think Minnesota is about the same amount of people, but the number of cases every day is at least four, five times more, so.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Wow, what a difference. So, you’re safe and your family is safe. That’s good. Well and healthy. So, what were you teaching this semester, what courses?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

The one that just finished?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

I was teaching actually several classes. Two sections of my intro to Latin America, which is really a modern Latin American history. So, basically, I start with the independence period and try to bring it to the present as the most I can. Usually, I finish with the cold war period, around there. Some semesters, I can push a little bit to early 2000s. Sometimes, not.

When I was teaching my colonial Latin America class, that’s more specialized, if you want. It’s a 200 level, but it’s one of the most popular classes I teach. And this semester, they also are requested from me a special class, an IDS class, interdisciplinary studies, that actually, I had some freedom on creating this class. So, I decided to develop something that is very current and something that the students will relate, as well as our tool to put together.

So, it’s kind of three topics, but all of them are connected. Pandemics, so history of pandemics. The second one is talking about social justice in the pandemics. In that way, I was able to connect it to the protests around the United States and other parts of the world this year. And finally, end with that idea of a collective memory, connecting this, of course, with the protest and how some of these protests ended with the toppling or the overthrowing of some statues and also, the discussion even in local governments of what to do with these statues and what they represented.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That sounds like a fantastic course. I want to come back to that and hear more about it. Well, we can talk more about that later. I was going to ask you if you’re thinking of doing an example. We can come back to that. So, I was doing all online, again, for the second semester in a row. What about you? Were you doing a mix or all online?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

No. I decided to go all online. I had some experience teaching online before, so I felt very comfortable doing that. And also, I want to avoid any possible contact in any direction, either to get sick or for me to make sick somebody. So, I didn’t want to take that responsibility.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I felt the same way. So, since I was turning 67, I suddenly felt, “I better be extra careful.” It went okay. I mean, that may be even a little better than okay, I would say, but still not the same obviously as being in person. So, let’s talk. Your background is interesting. I mean, I find it interesting. Tell us a little bit about… You were born in Germany, right? So, tell us about your background, where you grew up and then we can get into how you became interested in history.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed. Well, I have to say that Latin American people, generally, are defined as a mixed people. That’s a term that, actually, it’s common in the United States. Of course, here in Latin America, we don’t even use it because almost everybody is mixed. It doesn’t even make sense to mention that, but in that sense, I’m even a little bit more mixed.

You’re right. I was born in Germany, in Berlin actually, a very cosmopolitan city and a very open-minded city in general, historically. My mom actually is from there. Although she was not per se born in Berlin because she was born during the war, the family, my grandma and my aunt and her had to run from one city to the other, hiding with the relatives and all that. Then she came back finally to Berlin and that’s where she met my father.

He went there to study in Berlin. He finished a master’s in economics and he also has an interesting background. He was born in Guatemala, but he actually had to leave Guatemala in 1954. Yeah, you may know the events that happened in 1954 in Guatemala, if you know a little bit of US history, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right. Is that Árbenz who’s there who were being [crosstalk 00:09:41]?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed, the fall of Árbenz. Actually, this is not something I mention that often in our more casual conversations, but actually my grandfather was a congressman during the governments of Arevalo and Árbenz. So, the whole family had to escape to save their lives.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Was your mom running… During the war, was she Jewish? Is that why she was moving around like that during the war?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

No, no, no, no. No, no. Although I don’t know if we had some Jewish background, at certain point in history, that’s very common in those areas, right? But no, as far as I know, the situation was mostly because the bombardments. The allies started to bombard Berlin. So, I remember, they always talk about an aunt of my grandmother and then she ran to Tilsit, which is a town that doesn’t bear that name anymore. It was located in East Prussia and now, it’s actually called Sovetsk and it’s in Russia. So, I always pick on my mom saying, “You are not really German. You were in Russia, so.” So, a little family joke.

But then they had to move to Nuremberg because then the Russians were actually taking over that part of the territory. So, they had to escape to another relative and so on. That’s what happened during that world event.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, your background, your family background on both sides, you have World War II and then the overthrow of Árbenz essentially by the CIA. Is that unfair to say? I mean, is that accurate?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Very fair. The CIA actually organized a whole, how can I say, the whole plan called PBSuccess, which you can find now on FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. You can find all the documents. And of course, people like Nixon, especially who was vice president at that time but also, the Dulles brother, Secretary of State, one of them and the Director of the CIA were directly involved in all these. So, yeah, you can say that the CIA was involved.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. That’s interesting family background. So, did you say your dad was born in Guatemala or was he born…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

He was born in Guatemala, yeah. The side of the family on my father’s side, they are all Guatemalan, but he was the youngest. He was very young when they actually had to leave. And then my grandfather, of course, was looking for an embassy to get some asylum, so protection. The only one that was not fooled at the time was the Embassy of Costa Rica; and so, that’s how we ended in this country.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That’s so interesting, contingency in history. Both your parents are living, right?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes. They are alive, yes.

Greg Kaster:

So, is your dad an economist or was? Was that his career?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

That’s right, yeah. He graduated as an economist in Germany, in Berlin. Then he came back to Costa Rica, and he actually started to work for the government very soon. And most of his life, although he had different positions, but most of his life, he was one of the main advisers for the Minister of Labor, mostly in the area of [gamification 00:12:57].

These kind of economies, like that Costa Rican one that has a more social democrat approach, of course, there is free market, but the government also interferes in many ways and planning. That’s a very important concept. So, he’s in charge of all that. Also, he was in charge of anything that has to do with negotiations with the unions and corporations to establish minimum salaries and things like that.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s interesting. What about your mom, did she have a career of any sort?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes. Actually, they met because she was studying economy as well in Berlin. Once she moved here to Costa Rica, of course, it was not easy to adopt. She was not that young. I mean, she was in, I think, in late 20s, early 30s when she came. It took her a while, but she was lucky enough to find some companies here that actually needed some bilingual people.

So, Siemens, for example, that’s a company that’s internationally known, a German company. And she was able to work there as an administrative assistant, and she did that as well for some more companies. Then my siblings were born, and she decided to take only half-time and be at home. So, she has been going back and forth between jobs and staying at home.

Greg Kaster:

Extremely interesting background of your parents. So, how did you find your way to history, in Latin American history in particular? Was that an interest you had from a very young age?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

That’s actually, yes. Very, very young age and it has to do precisely with my background. The problem, and I use the term “problem” not in a negative way but in the sense of something that you have to confront, is with these mixed backgrounds and as you say with some kind of historical backgrounds as well, to be on a birthday party when the whole family was together, was to basically be talking about history, economics and politics all the time.

So, I was basically bombarded by all that, but I was also very curious because I was growing up in country here in Costa Rica, I came here when I was almost six years old, that actually had a different view of the world. There was no such thing as civil wars. There was no persecutions of people. There was not even an army that could actually overthrow the government and things like that.

So, this is actually what sparked my interest in history, especially by newer topics, this trying to understand, “Hey, there are many ways to understand the world. There are many different narratives. How do I put all these together?”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and that fits with your current work progress and [inaudible 00:15:38]. I mean, certainly, curiosity is a part of learning for anybody. But I do think that we, historians, we are curious, sometimes even knowing new people, whether it’s curiosity about our own. In my case, I think that my mother is Greek-American because of my dad’s family and [inaudible 00:15:57] I grew up in Chicago with a Greek family, but at least born in the US but also rural. I mean, on my mom’s side in Southern Illinois, we have still a family farm. I was just always curious about my own background. Why did I think of myself as Greek-American? I still do even though that’s not all I am.

Anyway, that’s awesome. Then were there particular teachers at a young age that influenced you as well?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Not really, and that’s very interesting. I, of course, took up social sciences classes when I was in… That’s the name they have here, that includes some kind of a geography with history, with politics, with this and that in both elementary and high school. So, there were no real history classes as you have in the United States. And then once I was able to go to college here, then of course, I was definitely interested in history. I was one of those kids that read a lot and that… Interesting to know that instead of calming you down, like answering questions, it actually brings more questions. And you want to learn more and more.

Greg Kaster:

Interesting.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

And the system here is a little bit different from the US in the sense that you have take a whole year of humanities. It’s a whole morning every day of the week. So, in the whole year, that actually combines…

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I see.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

… three professors, a philosopher, a historian and somebody specialized in language, grammar and things like that. So, it’s a fascinating class. And just by listening to the names of the people that were talking about history, so not the famous people but actually, the historians and their approach and how they created history and how they… By creating, I mean how they wrote history and they analyzed history, that actually caught my attention a lot.

I have to warn you though. My bachelor’s is not in history.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I remember. Your PhD, but not your BA, yeah.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Exactly, although I was always interested in history. In Costa Rica, it’s not normal to have two majors or even a major and a minor. I really envy the US system because of that. Here, you have one major and that’s it. Then you have to…

Greg Kaster:

Tell us what your major was.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Psychology.

Greg Kaster:

Right, interesting. Which is highly useful to a historian, I think, in many ways. So, I love that about the humanities, one solid year of that. Is that your first year as an undergraduate or?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yeah, it was the whole first year. It was mostly humanities. I took some more elective classes, but that’s the most important of the first year.

Greg Kaster:

And it sounds like you were introduced already at that point really to historiography and to the study of the writing of history, which I want to go into.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Very early though. I mean, we’re talking about historiography coming from people like Voltaire and maybe some of the early German nationalists and those concepts that are very early interpretations of what history is, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

But still, it makes you think, “Oh, okay. So, history is not just writing down what happened. It’s what happens has a meaning, and how to interpret that and how to narrate it is a very important aspect of history. Therefore, you have to understand or have to come up with a concept of, “Well, what is history?” Right?

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. Yeah, and that the discipline itself has a history, writing discipline.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds fantastic. So then, were your interests in history already centered on Latin America, Central America at that point?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

That’s a very good question. I love that life is actually full of accidents. Some people call these accidents opportunities, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

I prefer to call them accidents, and they become opportunities if you take them, and luck has a lot to do with all that, because I finished my bachelor’s in psychology and my goal, of course, at certain point, was to continue with that. But actually, that’s when I arrived to United States, which I have to clarify. I didn’t come here to actually study. My wife actually got a scholarship, a Fulbright, to come to the United States.

And of course, we didn’t want to separate. So, I decided to take two years off and just come with her. My goal was to actually take some classes in psychology or in labor psychology, mostly. I was working as a human resources manager at the time. So, I thought, “Okay, this is something I can take advantage, learn a little bit of English, and take some classes, and then go back to Costa Rica, get a new job but with better skills.”

Well, I always loved history and then I decided to actually some history classes. And that’s when I realized, “Oh, I forgot how much I love history.” I was lucky enough that actually I love history so much that I did very well in these classes, so much that actually one of the professors approached me and told me, “Marco, if you want to get a master’s, I can actually put a word. Let’s put an application and let’s see if we can get you in.” And I was like, “This is one of those accidents, right? But okay, I’ll take it.”

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. And I loved what you said about… I’m trying to tell that to students too. That, “Be open” I found myself when I started saying this, maybe it has to do with my age, I’m not sure, but I’m constantly telling students to be open to opportunities, at least be open to opportunities, to echo you. You don’t have to take them necessarily, right? But to be open to them, because they can become incredibly important in your life or your life’s journey, as people say.

So, were those classes you were taking at Arizona State?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes, indeed. I was taking them because my wife actually, that’s where she decided to go to do her master’s. So, yeah, it was there at Arizona State. Well, I was lucky enough to be accepted into that program, but it was only for a master’s. Again, I think that your passion shows, I think. So, I was really eager to learn. I was really interested.

Then another professor, actually the Chair of Graduate Studies after my first years told me, “Marco, you should start to think if you want to get a PhD. I think that we can get you a scholarship and everything.” So, I kept doing my work and applied again, and then I was able to continue for my PhD. So, again, a little bit of accidents, a little bit of opportunities, but I think it was great.

And something you just mentioned is very important. That actually, sometimes, we think that once we are 25, our life is over. We already took our decisions and there’s nothing else to do. And if you think about it, I reinvented myself basically from scratch, and then the nice thing is I became what I wanted because I’ve always wanted to be a historian. I always had that thing eating me from inside like, “Be a historian, be a historian,” and finally, I had the chance. So, I left everything behind and started a new life as a historian, which I don’t regret at all.

Greg Kaster:

I’m so glad you did that. No disrespect to human resources folks, but yeah, history. And the other thing is… So, one quick question, your wife’s name is and what does she do? What was her field or what is her field?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

My wife, her name is Diana Coleman. Actually, she works on religious studies. She also has a PhD from Arizona State, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, so she was on a Fulbright related to a religious scholarship in religion?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yeah. Well, we’re getting into a more personal thing. Actually, I’m talking about my current wife. My first wife was the one that I actually came with.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, excuse me.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Also, an interesting background because she…

Greg Kaster:

Excuse me there, okay.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

She was a Chilean Costa Rican.

Greg Kaster:

Was she a historian, your first wife or not? She was in…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

No, she was a psychologist.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, she was a psychologist too. Okay. So, I love exactly what you just said about so many of our students… Not so many but certainly, more than I think should be students or parents think they have everything figured out, even before they start college, which is just not the case. And one of the things I’ve loved about this podcast is how many of our colleagues at Gustavus, I know this is true also for two, did not start out doing what they currently do. And you’re another example of that.

So, one of my favorite examples, our chaplain at Gustavus, Siri Erickson, who was a chemistry major at Carleton College.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Interesting.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:25:09] then wound up becoming a college chaplain. So, this idea that there’s one straight path is just not always the case. Often…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

And Greg, it is a shame that actually students are pushed into a direction that is maybe not exactly what they want, or they don’t even know it. I think that all students should take one or two years to really figure out what they want and take classes in different areas. I’m saying this because I have seen a lot of my students that may be also from humanities, but also a lot of students out of the humanities are taking my history classes. And suddenly, they are in love with history, which makes me wonder why they never thought about history as an option. Then they’ve got minors as well or they become double majors, which actually is great if you are…

I used to have a student, for example, that he was studying to become an accountant. And then after one of my classes, he decided to actually double major in history as well. When he actually finished, he was hired immediately. And one of the reasons, since he explained me later, is that actually his boss realized that he was going to be a great accountant, but that he was going to be able to write good reports. He will be able to do some research. So, normal accountants would don’t understand from the beginning what research means and how to look for things. Then also, some more skills that you learn as a historian, but employers know these.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

The unfortunate thing is that students don’t know it. Right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with you. Talent, it’s so true. Employers know it. That’s exactly right. I’m thinking of some study I read. I don’t remember. It’s not that long ago, but where humanities majors do better in the graduate management exam than, face straight, econ majors. I mean, it is not a knock against our colleagues in that department who are fantastic and their students, but there’s something. I don’t know if it’s true in Costa Rica. Is that humanities track still in existence, do you know, required for undergraduates at university?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes, because it’s part of the public system. Here, we have, of course, some private universities, but the strongest universities are actually all public ones and that system hasn’t changed much.

Greg Kaster:

I don’t know. I mean, I wonder sometimes if we had a track like that, let’s say, how much of a difference it would make. But it’s funny. No matter how much we sell, you and I have emailed about this and talked to one another about this. We all have in our department. We’re kind of in sales, right? Selling history, history major, because the proof is there. The proof, it’s abundant. I mean, classics majors, history majors, English majors, philosophy majors, contrary to the stereotypes, they’re all doing quite nicely, and the data are there to prove it.

So, yeah, your stories, I love that. I’m glad we focused on your psych major track, and from there to history. So, did you choose to focus on Costa Rica? I mean, one could say, “Well, you’re from there. That’s what led to you focusing on it.” Or is it more complicated than that?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

It’s a little bit more complicated, precisely because my background. Of course, I have an interest in European history, in general. That was not my specialty, although I thought about it for some time. But I realized that actually as a Latin American, although you can say I’m a mixed person in that sense, but I feel more Latin American than German and more Costa Rican than anything else.

I think that as a Latin American, I could actually bring something to the United States that was important. And it has to do with this idea of I’m a very proud Latin American and that I think it has to do actually to do a little bit with my first wife as a Fulbrighter. The Fulbright scholarship, the logic behind it, is to actually do exchanges. So, people from the US can know, go outside of the country and know other cultures but also, for people from other countries to come to United States.

So, people in United States can actually have this interaction and get to know people from those places. So, that’s my approach. My approach is, “Okay, I’m here to help you understand Latin America.” I think that’s my mission, right? And that’s the emphasis I give to my classes.

Greg Kaster:

Well, you’re definitely good at that. We’re glad you’re doing it for our students at Gustavus. The book, I mean, I’ve read just parts of it. I’ve read the reviews. It’s excellent. It’s readable. It’s important. It’s revisionist in ways we can get into here, but is it essentially an outgrowth of your dissertation? Is that how you got into the topic?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Right. It came out of my dissertation, basically. The book, actually, I think it is really relevant but then you could say I’m biased.

Greg Kaster:

No, I want to be [inaudible 00:30:30]. It’s really relevant, yeah.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

I think it’s very important because there are actually a lot of books, especially in Spanish about the Filibuster War itself. And this, again, has to do with the curiosity. I have been both on the inside or an outsider, because I saw this people here in Costa Rica celebrating this war, the national heroes come out of this war. And then I realized later that that’s not common in the rest of the Americas.

The most important day that’s celebrates the nation, the national identity in the United States is July 4th. If you check in most countries, I will say in all other countries in the Americas, it’s the same. Independence Day is the birth of the nation, and it’s celebrated as such because a key event for any nation state. In Costa Rica, not. The Filibuster War actually happened almost 40 years after independence. And although there is a celebration of Independence Day, definitely, the Filibuster War is more important.

So, of course, I was always curious why. Why is this people so interested on this and that’s where this book came out, to understand a little bit that… Sorry, go ahead.

Greg Kaster:

No, I was just going to say let’s… So, what year is Costa Rican independence? Is that in the 1820s?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

That’s right. Costa Rica was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, which is basically what now is Central America. And so, they became independent at the same time in 1821.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. So, the Filibuster War, is this William Walker, that character involved in…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed, yeah. William Walker, a very interesting character, a lawyer, a journalist, and a medic, had a very strong influence from the ideas of the manifest destiny in the United States. And also, remember this is the 1850s. He was also involved on these ideas of expansion of slavery, and he saw Central America as a good opportunity. It’s important to understand that he was not the first filibuster.

But wait, filibuster actually, is an interesting word. It comes from the Dutch “vrijbuiter” which actually translates very closely to freebooter in English. But then it was transformed into Spanish as “filibustero,” and then it became filibuster in English. And actually, the use of the filibuster to refer to somebody speaking for a long time in the senate comes from that because there was a senator that actually tried to defend William Walker and his adventure, and even tried to finance him and he took the senate for hours and hours talking about this. That’s where the term the Senate filibuster comes from.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so hard because that’s right. That term, as a political term in United States history, hinders the discourse at the same time as the filibusters, right? William Walker.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

When was the actual war in Costa Rica? What year was that?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

The war in Costa Rica starts in 1856, and it continues intermittently until 1860. The core of the war last for about a year and a half, 1856-1857. Then Walker is defeated, but he returns three more times. So, he was insistent.

Greg Kaster:

And your book, as you were saying just a minute ago, your book pushes back. It has to revise, it helps to revise at least this idea that national identity is sort of, correct me if I’m wrong, but the seeds of it at least are predating independence. And you’re showing, “No, it comes long after independence.” Go ahead.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes. There are several points or arguments I present in this book and that’s a very important one. Usually, the idea is that a nation is a process. That the fact that France, Germany, Italy exists is because there was already an identity long before. But what happens is that these German people didn’t have the power to create a country that unified them, so all the Germans could live together in one single place. Sometimes, these people, go all the way back.

For example, now that Netflix has a show about it, the Germans go all the way back to Arminius, to Hermann the German as the quintessential German, that the first expression of German is in that. From there on, it’s just a process that finally ends with the unification of Germany. And this is used in many countries, that there is an ethnic group that is the core or the root of the nation. Well, of course not. The case of the Americas in generally is the other way around.

For instance, there was a creation of the nation state, and later, the notion that we are one single people that came. Because of course, we have a lot of countries that took a long time to form. The shape of the country in terms of territory is not the same now as it was a hundred years ago. Even the United States, I mean, when was the last state really incorporated or within the 20th century and with the incorporation of new territories, that means the population of new people that may think different, that eats differently, that et cetera, et cetera. So, that means that national identity is dynamic, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right. It’s all fascinating. Talk to us a little bit about your answer to your question. So, you’re curious about why is Costa Rica celebrating this victory in the war?. What do you find about that celebration and its role in Costa Rican nationalism?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

I found something very interesting. Very interesting contradictions. The main hero in Costa Rica, his name is Juan Santamaria, and you can see that name everywhere. Even the main airport in Costa Rica is called Santamaria. You can see that name everywhere. He was a very interesting character. He was a soldier during the war. He is of mixed background. So, it seems that he has some African background but also, some European background.

He was just a very common soldier. So, he’s not a president or a general, which usually are the heroes of the wars. And that is already different because that means that the people can identify with this hero. But also, something very interesting I found was that Costa Rica doesn’t have an army. Since 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army. By now, the people that are around in this country, most people have never seen a tank in their life. They have never seen a machine gun in their life. They have never seen a war. And still, they celebrate a soldier as their national hero. It’s a great contradiction.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

So, starting to analyze this, I realized that the figure of Santamaria is a contested figure. The state, of course, through the education system tries to promote one idea of Santamaria as a patriot, as somebody who sacrifices for the country. This is typical. All national heroes have the same narrative, right? They sacrifice for the country because that’s what you’re supposed to do as well.

On the case of Santamaria, this is another very interesting fact connected to the development of national identity in Costa Rica because Santamaria, as a person, is a member of the people, not of the elite. Then the people use Santamaria in order to contest the identity that elites want to establish. An example, the day that Walker was defeated was May 1st, 1857. So, the state started to recognize May 1st as the main holiday. No problem there until we reach the 1890s and you, as coming from Chicago and being a historian of the US, know very well what happened in that period in Chicago. We’re talking about the Haymarket affair, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Incredible labor radicalism, unrest, yeah.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Exactly. And, well, this is going to spark unification of the labor movements around the world and they’re going to actually declare May 1st as the International Day of Labor, which interesting. I always find this fascinating. It’s celebrated everywhere in the world except the country where it happened.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

So, that’s another thing that we can analyze as well, but that’s another story.

Greg Kaster:

It is.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

The fascinating thing is that by the 1910s in Costa Rica, there’s a shift and suddenly, the government drops May 1st as that main holiday. The reason for that is that the labor movements in Costa Rica since the 1880s started to adopt May 1st and celebrate it as Labor Day. This is very conflictive because this is the time in which the United States is expanding as an empire in the Caribbean and Central America. And the United States, it is expanding with an economic system that actually, full capitalism, that is contradicting what these labor movements are going to promote.

So, suddenly, the same day that you’re celebrating the nation, is the same day that labor movements celebrate their day. And the government realized that people are going to connect both. Why? Because the labor movement is rejecting US capitalism. And what is the May 1st, the government is celebrating? A war against a US army. So, it’s very easy to connect both. So, the government decide to drop it and put another date in order to take away the power from the common people to take over this holiday.

Greg Kaster:

So, Santamaria, is he still celebrated? Is the idea that that is consistent, but the non-elites use him differently than elites?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes. And you can still see it in any protest that you can see on the streets when labor starts to protest for better salaries and things like that, or even in cases of corruption. Lately, there has been a couple of cases of corruption and people go to the streets to protest against this. It’s very interesting, very emblematic that they actually use the name of Santamaria, and because Santamaria represents sovereignty, but not the sovereignty of the state, the sovereignty of the common people.

Greg Kaster:

People.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

And therefore, they use Santamaria pointing out that to the government and saying, “If you are going to steal our money, that means that you are not better than the filibusters. And therefore, we are Santamaria, and you are the filibusters.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

It’s fascinating, the use of the meaning of Santamaria.

Greg Kaster:

Right. It’s so amazing. We, historians, how are things remembered, but also as your work shows, other work on this as well, I mean, I’m thinking and remembering the US Civil War, for example. Our memory is contested. I mean, certain people, certain, let’s say, elites in Costa Rica want something to be remembered one way, but you can’t always control that as your example, your research shows so vividly.

Back to the question of relevance, which I wanted to touch on, you raised earlier. What is the relevance in your view of this history to today?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

You mean of the book and specifically or…

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Well, basically, to show that national identity is dynamic. That actually people in governments always try to impose their own ideas of what identity is. And that we have to understand that values change and therefore, societies have to change. And therefore, representation has to change.

The idea, for example, in the United States of having all those statues, which is going back to the class I taught last semester, of former confederate generals, I think that that was not actually really a killing at that time, except to certain members of the elites in the south. But right now, most of the country is not in favor of that.

So, although there has been some pushback against taking down the statues, I think it’s important to remember that the statues only are valued or are only important in relation to what they represent. And if people don’t see those values in those statues anymore, they either have to go or put in a museum or something like that, because they don’t represent what people are anymore.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Finally, I just read Jefferson Davis is finally coming out of Statuary Hall in the US Capitol. I mean, think about it. It’s mind-boggling that he’s been there, the leader of the Confederacy. Right?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

It’s incredible.

Greg Kaster:

A trader.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

And exactly the right word. If you think about it, you don’t see those kind of statues in any other country. It’s ridiculous.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, only in this country and that’s a whole… I mean, the memory of US Civil War is absolutely fascinating to me and the way that we have celebrated, some of us anyway, treason, traders. So, let’s talk a little bit more about your… First, congrats on the book again. It’s really good and…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

… accessible. It’s scholarship that is accessible. You gave a great presentation in our department’s [inaudible 00:43:48] for the past series for students and faculty. I wish we had recorded it actually. So, people should read the book, buy the book and read it. And let’s talk a little bit also about that course, which sounded so interesting to me, the course on pandemics and collective memory. So, did you organize it around specific pandemics?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

I decided to create the three different units. So, the pandemics one, I wanted to give a historical background, so students will not find that this pandemic an absolute, unique, and not understandable phenomenon. I think that one of the problems that we confronted especially at the beginning of this pandemia was uncertainty and that produced a lot of anxiety, right? So, we studied… Let me see. I may forget all of the ones that we studied, but we studied a little bit of the Black Plague in Europe, of course. Then there was an epidemic in the United States, especially in Philadelphia in the 1800s.

Greg Kaster:

Cholera?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes, the cholera one. Yes, we studied that one and then we moved also to talk about AIDS in the United States, for example. Oh, of course, the Spanish influenza in 1918 in the United States. So, the idea was to actually analyze these, not only how they happened but how they are remembered, but also the social and economic problems that they caused and how people confronted them. And the idea was to give some tools to the students to understand the current pandemia.

Greg Kaster:

It’s just terrific. And then to understand that, one, as you said this isn’t unique, right? And two, for me, this is where history has helped me in the current context. For example, I’ll just mention this. There’s been a lot written about sort of the doom of cities now, cities as places where disease spreads.

Well, wait a second. Think about having pandemics [inaudible 00:45:49] and cities are still with us, right? Cities are working with us, and then that takes you into the question of why? Why do cities matter and why are they important? And that’s a whole and other podcast, of course. I just think that historical perspective is really useful actually in helping me, and I hope students, as well and others psychologically to cope with what we’re going through. So, I find history can be sobering but also hopeful at the same time.

For example, until just recently. I didn’t know until this, I guess it was this fall, early this fall, when I saw a video of a historian doing a wonderful talk on the 1918 pandemic and today. Nancy Bristow, I think, is her name. She pointed out, which I did not know, that Woodrow Wilson as president never mentioned the influenza pandemic, at least not publicly. Not once, which is incredible.

And then again, to your point, so the curiosity, so why? And that leads her to argue, “Well, to mention it would have been to acknowledge that in a way, he was the source of a lot it in that he was the commander in chief, and the United States was going into World War I. And so, many of the infections were from soldiers and military and on and on.” And also, it would counter American exceptionals. Anyway, the idea that the president at the time didn’t say a word about it, and that there were anti-mask persons and anti-mask [crosstalk 00:47:16]. So, I think that’s so important, that historical context.

So, that was one unit, and then the other two units were… I know the third was collective memory. What was the other one?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

The other one I called it social justice, but of course, the idea was to talk about the protests because the pandemic didn’t come as the… You can it’s maybe the main feature that defines this 2020 year, but the protests also are very important. They are very unique, at least for me. I haven’t seen a protest in the United States so massive, first of all. I mean, they happen all across the country. Not only massive, but how long it lasted. I mean, it went on and on and on for months.

And the repercussion as well, the repercussion, which is the last unit, for example, the toppling of statues all across the United States. There are redefining of identity, but it was so strong that they are also influencing other countries all across Europe. Some very important statues went down, and people start to talk about it. Mexico also took down some more statues. The Christopher Columbus statue is not in Mexico City anymore, for example.

So, you can see this connection. The reason is because pandemia, of course, one of the main aspects that we started, was economics and social justice, and how, of course, those that suffer the most are the poorest. In the United States, there is a clear connection between racism and how people are treated. And therefore, access to health, care, for example, access to economic opportunities that can save them from unemployment and things like that.

So, of course, I study that, and you can see the connection. Definitely, there is a connection, not only because of death of George Floyd and the accumulation of a lot of non-punished crimes by the police, but because it was a symbol of the system. So, the system is not only the police, of course. The problem is what I was trying to say but also, the economic system that is not helping people. The people of their own country is not being helped by the government, which that is what they are supposed to do. That’s why they exist, and this is what they are protesting against, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I couldn’t agree more and the ways in which this pandemic has exposed… We knew, right? But class inequities, round up with race and ethnicity, round up with geography, where you live, and on and on and on. So, rural people who may not have the same accesses to good health care, maybe even the vaccine as urban people. It’s all fascinating. I mean, at one level, I’m pretty sure we’d say at one level, it’s the scholars, the historian. I find it absolutely fascinating at another level versus someone living through it. Nah, I just want to get and be home for [crosstalk 00:50:18].

Just the vaccine, I mean, being developed that quickly is a fascinating… And this may be the first time in history that that’s ever happened where vaccines went so quickly and some effective vaccine as well. So, all the stuff about memory, I find really, really important and interesting and you know more about it than I do. It’s certainly been an area of proof of studies in our discipline.

I think of a historian doing work on, for example, how slavery has been remembered. Everything has a history and I suppose everything has a memory too, a collective memory. So, let’s switch to teaching a bit since that’s what you and I do for a living primarily, most months of the year. Before Gustavus, you’ve taught at other liberal arts colleges and also [inaudible 00:51:09]. What is it you enjoy about teaching generally and teaching history, specifically?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

That is a very important question and as always, it has to do with something that touched me strongly. As most people that actually decide to study a PhD, the concentration is on becoming a researcher. That’s what they teach you to do. But in order to compensate especially because the scholarship that they give you, they want you also to become a teaching assistant, maybe take over some classes later.

So, I was not expecting to be a teacher. Although there are teachers in my family, of course, I didn’t think about that as a career, until the first time I taught. The first time I was put in charge of a class, I felt this energy coming from the students. I felt the connection. I felt the possibility of promoting change. Or not change, but producing, making the students think, and therefore, by thinking, producing change. Right?

That was fascinating and I still feel it. Every time I go to class, I start to talk a student and these vibes come in again. It’s hard. It takes a lot of my energy, I have to say but it’s also so rewarding that it’s kind of addictive, I have to say.

Greg Kaster:

Boy. Again, I couldn’t agree more and that feeling, I always tell myself…That’s the feeling, exactly, that you described what I have. I think all of us who love teaching have. And I know for me when that feeling ceases, then I know it’s time to stop because for all the tedium that’s associated with teaching, professor meetings, and sometimes grading too, man, that’s such a good feeling. I know exactly. It’s that feeling of you feel students are learning and you’re learning at the same time.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed.

Greg Kaster:

There’s just nothing better. Well, there are probably some things better like baguettes, for example, maybe that before we conclude. I know you play the guitar and you’ve taken up baking, but you were doing baking before, at least baguette baking. You were doing that before COVID, right? That’s not a COVID…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Actually, it is a COVID thing. What happened with COVID is that… Well, I live by myself in Minnesota and once COVID started, I was basically disconnected from anybody else, my students, my colleagues. The only people I saw was the people at supermarket and that was everybody masked and keeping their distance and all that. So, I lost any kind of social connection. Therefore, I had to kind of not necessarily invent myself, but do something about it.

One thing I discovered is I wanted to try to avoid to go to the supermarket as much as I could. And because of my German background, I really appreciate a very good bread. So, I decided to take my own crusade and make my own bread. It took me actually several attempts, until I finally find this amazing recipe that I have been able to twist a little bit. Now, I’m actually even teaching my mom how to make bread, and she loves it.

Greg Kaster:

You show on your Facebook page that you were.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yeah. So, it’s funny… Yeah, go ahead.

Greg Kaster:

You’re self-taught. You found, you were working with recipes online, I suppose or…

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed. I mean, YouTube, it’s a marvel in that sense because everybody records everything they do and it’s a great way to actually learn things, but one you become more confident, once I spoiled a lot of dough making very bad bread, little by little, I started to get the idea and was able to create my own bread, which I don’t know. Again, I’m biased. I love it, but I think that most people that have tried it, they love it too.

And that’s not the only thing. You mentioned earlier my guitar. I started to play, I haven’t played for like two or three years. I started to play again. I started to take care of my collections. I collect coins from all around the world as well. So, I tried to put them in order, organized them, and some other things that I started to do again to keep myself busy but also, to bring those moments of a Zen as well, those moments of peace, of meditation. All this has to do with that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s going to be fascinating to think about or to see how much of this continues and the impact socially and culturally of this pandemic on what we’re all doing as we’re inside, quarantine or whatever. I sometimes wonder was there an equivalent of sourdough bread-making in 1918, what the role of… One thing we know is there wasn’t the internet. We had no access into YouTube, and how different that was in 1918 and how different that is from 1918.

So, all I know, Marco, is they look good. I have not tasted them yet, but I look forward to that. Hopefully, your baguette baking will continue. I had mentioned to you that I tried it once. Some years ago, someone gave me, I think, what it’s called a baguette pan, the baking pan and I can try. I could have sold them as baseball bats, I suppose maybe but I need to try again and maybe it will be [crosstalk 00:56:56].

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

You should do it. You should do it. I can give you a recipe or I don’t know. Maybe once all this over and I’ll come home, so I can make some for you and maybe you can see the processing.

Greg Kaster:

Actually, that would be great. Yeah, another thing I wanted to do, of course, is head to Costa Rica where I’ve never been. I was in Mexico as an undergraduate and fell in love with it.  I think I had mentioned to you when I was hired at Gustavus, I was hired to teach 19th century US history and Latin America history which had been my minor field in graduate school. I never taught a course, mostly because I tried not to. I just thought I would feel like a fraud. [inaudible 00:57:30] to have been able to create a lot of American history position that you now fill so ably for us.

So, final question and this relates to Costa Rica. I’ve never been. I have some family members who’ve gone and when I think of Costa Rica now, partly because of them, one of the things I think of is eco-tourism, but what are some of the things you want people to associate with Costa Rica when we think about that place [crosstalk 00:58:00]?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Costa Rica is a very unique country. You can say that for all countries, I know and everybody who was born and raised in one country is going to say the same, but it’s a very strange place, a country in which being especially located in Central America, a country that is very stable politically, extremely stable. It has a very, very healthy democracy, very stable economically.

So, it’s a really good place to live in but also, it’s a social country in which the state most of the time, of course, there are problems. There is no paradise, but it’s also able to intervene in areas in which people really need it, universal healthcare, free education including university education. And just with that, how much that can help people to improve their lives.

That is also the attitude of the Costa Rican. There is a saying that we use a lot even to Greek people, which is the “Pura vida” and pura vida… For example, if I found you on the street and we see each other, instead of saying, “Hi or how are you doing?” I’m going to ask you, “Pura vida?” And you’re going to answer, “Pura vida,” which translates as pure life.

And it’s a very interesting phrase because it reflects a little bit what the Costa Rican is. That everything that they do is to enjoy life. If they work hard because they do, it’s precisely because they know that they’re creating a better life for themselves and for everybody else. But at same time, there’s an attitude of not stressing for things that are not that relevant. So, the people here don’t like to live to work. They like to work to live. Maybe the weather here has something to do with that as well.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

That you can be 365 days out on your patio just enjoying the day.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that sounds pretty… And you’re right, there’s no paradise, but that sounds pretty nice. So, I hope to get there one day and maybe meet with you as well.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Let me know. Let me know and I will help you to figure out the trip.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, thank you. This has been super interesting. Again, congratulations on the book. I think it’s terrific, the great reviews. And enjoy the rest of your stay there. Are you going to be there… Are you staying there in the spring as well, teaching from there? Or what are you up to?

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

No. I’m going to go back to Minnesota. I think that’s very important that… I have all my equipment there, but also my books and I think that at least for most of the spring, I’m going to back to Minnesota. I may be back here in Costa Rica at the end of spring, but I’m still debating that.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Well, I know I’ll see you online either way for our coffees, department coffees in the evenings.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Indeed.

Greg Kaster:

I always say the pandemic has not stopped faculty meetings. Those will continue no matter what [crosstalk 01:00:57].

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yeah, we need those, and I really love the time that we have as colleagues [crosstalk 01:01:02].

Greg Kaster:

We do. I mean, the coffees we have as a department, those are important. I agree with you.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Yes, they are.

Greg Kaster:

Well, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much. Take good care. Stay well and we’ll see you in 21.

Marco Cabrera Geserick:

Thank you very much for having me.

Greg Kaster:

You’re welcome.

 

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing; Gustavus graduate Will Clark, Class of ’20 who also provides technical expertise to the podcast; and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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