Nicole Guidotti-Hernández

What motivates people to flee their homelands without their families? Why do so many flock to the United States?

Those questions arose this summer, when Central American children seeking asylum flooded the Texas-Mexico border. The past may provide some answers.

Associate Professor Nicole Guidotti-Hernández used funds from the Alma Cowden Madden Centennial Professorship, which she holds, to travel to Mexico City and study correspondence between Mexican revolutionary Enrique Flores-Magón and his family. The early-1900s letters, written while Flores-Magón was in exile in the United States, gave Guidotti-Hernández insight not only into the Mexican Revolution but also into the tens of thousands of children who came — alone — to the U.S. in 2014 to escape narco-violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“People are willing to risk their lives to come here,” Guidotti-Hernández said. “How does a child get to the point of thinking that this is the only option?”

The answer lies in the way others view the U.S.

“There is a public international perception that we have something special here,” she said. “It may not be perfect, but I think people hold on to that idea and they use it to dream and think about better economic and social possibilities.”

Guidotti-Hernández is chair of UT’s newly created Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies, the first academic department in the U.S. to take a comprehensive look at the lives, cultures and histories of Mexican American and Latino populations.