El Paso author and University of Texas at El Paso professor Jonna Perrillo likes to say she has one foot in history and one in the present.
Her book, “Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands,” also has one foot in history and one in the present as it examines post-World War II public school policies that helped German students enrolled in El Paso’s schools while hurting Mexican American students. It is the second reading selection in the El Paso Matters Book Club.
“I hope (the book) will inspire El Paso readers to think about what we want to do with that legacy, both in terms of what we have inherited and what has changed,” Perrillo said.
The book gives a behind-the-scenes look at Operation Paperclip, a secret U.S. intelligence program that provided an education to the children of German Nazi scientists who were stationed at Fort Bliss.
Perrillo is an education historian and English professor at UTEP, where she has taught since 2005. She is also the co-director of a National Endowment of the Humanities summer program for teachers on the history of literature instruction in American high schools. This work, she said, allows her to understand what is, and what is not, unique about today’s schools in El Paso, while her writings as a historian allow her to look back.
“All in all, I very much have one foot in history and one in the present,” she said.
El Paso Matters recently talked with Perrillo about her book, her career and her ties to the Borderland. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
El Paso Matters: What are some key themes you would like readers, particularly El Pasoans, to take away from your book?
Perrillo: At its heart, the book is about what the Operation Paperclip children’s warm reception in El Paso schools revealed about the state of those schools and racial relations in this city. It’s a story of Anglo affinity and power, where schools served at the center of a network of segregationist civic institutions. But it is also a story of Mexican American aspiration and resistance in the face of unequal and often oppressive schools. I hope it will inspire El Paso readers to think about what we want to do with that legacy, both in terms of what we have inherited and what has changed.
El Paso Matters: What’s your favorite line in the book and why?
Perrillo: One of the most important lines in the books for me is the quote from Crockett Principal Alicia Swann, describing the Paperclip children: “In spirit and in thinking, they are American, for they have a happiness here they have never known before.” It helped me to piece together important concepts in mid-century American political thought; namely that American democracy produced children who were happy, secure, and sociable, even if those children were the children of Nazi servants. Children who didn’t fit this image – for example, children who were perceived to be anti-social because they spoke Spanish in school – weren’t just seen as unhappy but as un-American.
El Paso Matters: Some of your books and writings deal with El Paso, immigrants, Hispanic culture and growing up in a binational region. What is the key to keeping readers that are not from the area interested in these topics?
Perrillo: The larger themes of how racism and white privilege and power impact school design and students’ treatment in schools, including what they are taught, is really a national story. Some aspects might take on different inflections in different places and with the children of other marginalized groups, but public schools served simultaneously as sites of democratic training and of political exclusion everywhere. It’s such a fundamental flaw in light of our national ideals and one that I think a lot of people care about even if they don’t typically read education or borderlands history.
El Paso Matters: What is something unique about El Paso/Juarez/the border/Southwest region that inspired or is portrayed in your book?
Perrillo: The fact that El Paso was the staging ground for Operation Paperclip and for the attempted democratization or Americanization of the 118 Nazi scientists and their families. El Paso in many ways fit into narratives of the American West that Germans, including my subjects, were already very familiar with and that Nazi leaders had heralded. But the fact that this isn’t just any Western city but a border city in which ideas about immigration and national identity get worked out in such unique fashion was an especially compelling backdrop for a story of Nazi scientists who would be brought into the country without legal paperwork and then be offered citizenship en masse in less than a decade.
El Paso Matters: As an author, what do you make of the current national debate regarding the censorship of books at school libraries?
Perrillo: Book censorship campaigns are just one of a number of current attacks on schools and on our nation’s young people that threaten our nation’s future. Even when these campaigns recede, the damage they will have done to the teaching profession, to public schools as democratic institutions, and to young people who aren’t able to access books that might deepen or expand their knowledge of the world, will be hard to repair. Historically, school librarians have acted both as gatekeepers and as some of the most important school-based guardians of academic freedom, and I think most are trying to play the latter role right now. So I hope this all makes us differently aware of their importance.
El Paso Matters: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects or aspirations?
Perrillo: I am in the nascent stage of a new book that will be a history of young adult literature and their readers told through five books. I’m charting teen readers’ changing responses to them over time.
El Paso Matters: What other local authors do you recommend for our readers?
- Tim Hernandez’s “All They Will Call You” is a riveting and haunting history of some of the Mexican farmworkers who died in the Los Gatos plane crash.
- Rosa Alcalá’s “MyOTHER TONGUE” is one of my favorite poetry collections, its thinking about identity, language, and motherhood is deep and playful at the same time.
- C.J. Alvarez’s “Border Land, Border Water” looking at the history of water infrastructure and land boundaries in this region is important for our time (he’s from Las Cruces and now teaches in Austin, I hope that counts).