Kelly Lytle Hernández was in between meetings at UCLA when she got the call that she had received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
Her head was spinning. She was speechless. It had never crossed her mind that she would ever qualify, but here was the call that she was one of 26 fellows named by the MacArthur Foundation.
MacArthur fellows receive a $625,000 stipend distributed quarterly over five years, and are chosen based on their exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and the potential for the fellowship to spur future creative work.
Individuals cannot apply for the fellowship, and award nominators, evaluators, and selectors all serve anonymously and their correspondence is kept confidential.
As a teenager growing up in the Clairemont neighborhood, Lytle Hernández was surrounded by the issues she works with today. During the late 1980s, she watched U.S. Border Patrol agents walk the streets and monitor the transit stations in her community. It sparked a curiosity in her and shaped her career.
The way in which the government handled immigration issues wasn’t the sole reason she was interested — it was the striking parallels she saw to her own people.
“I saw it as being hauntingly similar to what many of what us African American kids and teens were experiencing in terms of the rise of the war on drugs at the same time,” Lytle Hernández said. “And so I was witnessing these two phenomena I was growing up amid; the war on drugs and a war on immigrants, that made me want to go on and study these systems.”
To understand what was happening in her present, Lytle Hernández decided to look to the past.
After completing a bachelor of arts degree in ethnic studies at UC San Diego, she went on to receive a doctorate in history from UCLA, where she is a professor of history, African American studies and urban planning. Today, she researches the intersection between mass incarceration and mass deportation.
Her award-winning book “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol” explored the history and evolution of the Border Patrol, from its beginnings as a small group helping ranchers and farmers manage seasonal workers to the giant federal police force it is today.
Her second book, “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965,” analyzed how Los Angeles led the nation in incarceration. Historical records from the L.A. County jail and Sheriff’s Department had been destroyed, so she was forced to look to local agencies to find materials and documents for her work.
Lytle Hernández is also known for leading the Million Dollar Hoods research project, which maps how much the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department spent on incarceration from 2010 to 2015.
Lytle Hernández has been studying this relationship for 20 years but says others didn’t understand her work until recently. To many, they were two separate and distinct topics.
“A lot of my work was about unmasking and unraveling how, in fact, these two regimes coexist,” she said. “And they reinforce one another and they were co-created. Within the last couple of years, and I have participated in this, we’re developing new ways of thinking about how the two regimes worked together.”
Her research also focuses on the Western roots of slavery, which has traditionally been told as a story of the South, but as with much of Lytle Hernández’s work, she hopes to challenge that narrative. The history of indigenous removal, colonization and relations along the U.S.-Mexican border has added uniquely Western dimensions to the story of slavery.
Much of Lytle Hernández’s research has focused on the history of immigrant and mass incarceration spanning a century or more, and although she has seen more open conversation about her topics of research, she has also found disturbing parallels between the early 20th century and today.
“Unfortunately, I do think we’re living in a time in which the ghosts of the 1920s have been stirred,” she said. “We can see it in terms of the level of police violence in terms of how deeply racial it is. We can see it in the narrative, the language, the actual policies and practices of exclusion and deportation at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Lytle Hernández plans to use the financial boost from the fellowship to create the time and space for her and her team to be able to write, reflect on their work and document it. She will continue to challenge the traditional narratives of the roots and evolution of incarceration and immigration that she used to watch on the streets of Clairemont years ago.
Tebor writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.