You Must Have Been Talking To My Mother

Mar 3, 2012

In answer to our question about his “landmark” textbook, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, William Deverell responded, “Landmark? You must have been talking to my mother.”

Actually, we were researching our subject, and we stumbled upon The site discusses Deverell’s book and the four one-hour documentary episodes that were based upon it.

H-P: What is the idea behind Whitewashed Adobe?

WD: It is a story about the rise of L.A. and the ways in which that rise to prominence is intricately related to the presence of the Mexican population, Mexican history, and the proximity to Mexico. It’s a woven story of the cultural history within the changing political economy of Southern California, and the distance created between the Anglo population and the Mexican population—and the area’s Mexican past.

The documentary was a great project to be on, and I had the privilege to meet fascinating people. My book is only the tip of the iceberg of an extraordinarily complex story.

H-P: We have heard you described as an “exceptionally creative history professor.” Is there a particular approach you have as a teacher? A certain philosophy or practical method?

WD: I love teaching. I’ve done it a long time. My first collegiate teaching was when I was 23 years old in graduate school, and that was twenty-five years ago. I don’t have a particular or singular approach. I want students to be both familiar with the past and struck by how different it is from our time. And I want them to have a a kind of reverence for those materials—time traveling materials—that have made it from “then” to “now.” I want students to have empathy for figures in the past, and I want them to understand how close we are to the past, how much it is yet with us, shaping our lives in always powerful ways.

La Plaza de Los Angeles, 1869. Now, North Main and Olvera Streets

H-P: You also work with K-12th grade teachers. In what capacity?

WD: We work with school district partners on Teaching American History grants, which place academic scholars in conversation with K-12 teachers on a variety of issues in American historical scholarship and understanding.

We are also staring a new project, the Los Angeles Service Academy. LASA is a program designed to serve high school students from across the entire Los Angeles basin, especially those interested in public or civic service. Working first with a population of twenty high school juniors, LASA will teach students how the political, social, and environmental infrastructure of metropolitan Los Angeles works, and it will do so in ways that enhance each student’s scholarly, social, and civic skills and awareness. It will prepare them for an unfamiliar work environment and will suggest possible career paths and career bridges to non-profits, civic service, community service, governance, and infrastructural management.

H-P: You also head a “think tank,” the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

WD: We are a research and teaching entity established between USC and The Huntington Library. We explore history and culture of the American West through teaching at the undergraduate and graduate school levels, through academic events and programs, collecting initiatives with The Huntington Library, publication, and outreach projects to wider and non-academic communities. At heart, the Institute ( is all about pulling USC and The Huntington together in dynamic and lasting ways.

H-P: Are you a native of Pasadena or have you migrated here?

WD: I am from Colorado, but I’ve been in and around Pasadena for decades. My first academic job was a jointly appointed postdoctoral position at Caltech and The Huntington. I later taught at Caltech for eight years. My wife and I, and our two kids (Helen, 11, and John, 7) love living in Pasadena. We walk through Caltech, PCC, and walk South Lake Avenue. My wife and I have “date night” on Friday evenings and usually eat at one of many favorite Pasadena restaurants, like Celestino, Gale’s Restaurant, and (thank you, Helen) In ‘n Out Burger.

Editor’s Note: William Deverell can be heard as a panelist on Saturday, March 17th, at the inaugural LitFest Pasadena, the area’s first community-wide book festival. It will be held in Central Park, from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thirty exhibitors, including Vroman’s, Distant Lands, BOOK’em Mysteries, as well as our own Prospect Park Media will be selling their wares.

For more information on the LitFest schedule and panels, visit



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