Being historical advisor to Bisbee’17 was an unusual task because it is an unusual kind of film. It might be useful to explain the work I did for the field, as well as my background and interest in the topic. I am an “academic historian,” that is, a history professor who teaches in a university. My first book, published in 2009, examined the history of race in Cochise County, with close attention to the Bisbee deportation. This makes me a “subject expert,” but that only tells part of the story. Everyone has a point of view. Many residents of Bisbee know a great deal more about the place than I do, and some—several of whom are in the film—have done outstanding research of their own. Most locals see me appropriately as an “outsider,” but my relationship to Bisbee is more complicated than that. I lived there for almost a year, and have spent a great deal of additional time there. I am an Arizona native, and both my mother and my grandfather grew up on the border with Mexico. In fact, my grandfather was born in Cochise County, although his family—who were eastern European Jewish immigrants—moved to Nogales and El Paso. In other words, I have a different perspective than locals do and I have a PhD in history, but that does not make me “objective.”
Unlike my book, in which I do my very best to examine evidence to decide “what happened,” it is not the intent of Bisbee’17 to “stick to the facts.” Director Robert Greene wanted to know what had happened to the community’s memory in the century that followed the Bisbee deportation, after the mines closed in 1975 and the town had to reinvent itself and deny a painful past. When Robert and I first talked by phone about the project, the first question I asked was, “Do you know Bisbee?” because it is an unusual place. I wanted him to get Bisbee right, and I was tired of traditional documentary with talking heads and authoritative voice-overs. Historical evidence has messiness, absences, overlaps, and contradictions. Perspective and context change perceptions.
For as long as I’ve known about it, I’ve wanted someone to make a film about the deportation, but I lacked both the connections and the time to pursue it. In December 2016, I discovered Robert was working on the film and we began our collaboration. My collaboration with the film team had three parts. I had already developed an assignment for an introductory methods course, in which students read several short primary sources on the Bisbee deportation, identify their own biases, and then try to view each point of view with empathy. Robert liked the format, and so he asked me to draft ten to twelve possible scenes and character sketches (both individual and composite) from historical sources with competing perspectives. Second, I culled two boxes of primary documents from my old dissertation files, which I sent to the film team and a working committee of local historians in Bisbee. Two student interns and I compiled brief packets of material about each potential scene and character to distribute to the film team and the local residents appearing in the film. I tried to emphasize the prominent role of women in the event, the ethnic diversity of Bisbee, and the central roles Mexican miners played in the strike. I also gave them copies of important secondary work by other historians. In one notable scene, when Fernando asks for help pronouncing the word “solidarity,” he’s reading from one of our packets.
My historical contributions took place relatively early in the film process, which was fluid and participatory. I had no say in the interpretation of the past as conjured by Robert and the local re-enactors themselves, who relied on the facts I gave them but mostly on their own historical memory and interpretations. That makes sense, because the film is not about “what happened,” but rather about how people think about the past in their present.
Finally, in July 2017, the week of the centennial events, I spent eight days in Bisbee as an observer, extra, and “expert” in a couple scenes that were cut from the film. I appear in several scenes as an extra but I am identifiable in the film only once, as an audience member at a church ceremony commemorating the deportees.
The process was emotional for me and it made me think more about what professional historians, especially those with significant privilege, owe to the people and places we study. I have taught thousands of students, written many articles and two books. I’ve been on TV and radio a few times. But seeing this film come to life has been by far my most satisfying professional experience. I shared my research with the film and the committee, including the database of names artist Laurie McKenna used for her art installment and Mike Anderson used for his research on deportees. But are those gestures enough, especially as the county has been caught up in the border debates and deportations of the last two decades? I am not sure I know the answer, but I am so grateful to the film crew and the people of Bisbee for letting me be a part of the film.
— Katherine Benton-Cohen, Historical Advisor, Bisbee ‘17