Errol Jones gravitated towards history early on and his innate interest developed into a passion and his life’s work. After narrowly dodging the draft for the Vietnam War, Errol worked many odd jobs before earning his master’s degree. He ended up teaching during tense times in Mexico, when the entire faculty went on strike and was then forced out by the military. After that harrowing experience, Errol returned to the states and earned a doctorate and a fellowship from Tufts University. He next landed in Brazil where he developed a graduate curriculum – and taught in the company of spies working for the then ruling military regime. He ultimately returned home to Utah, founded Utah’s History Day, and then came to Boise where he taught history at Boise State University starting in 1982.
Errol will be receiving the Mayor’s Award for Individual Excellence in the Field of History for his dedication to research and building awareness about the historical and contemporary significance of Mexicans and Latinos in Idaho.
What do you do here in the community?
My name is Errol Jones and I am a professor emeritus of history at Boise State University. My major field of interest has been Latin America. I came here in 1982 and I’ve taught Latin American History ever since. However, in 1998 a young man who was the executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs came to me and was concerned about the fact that there was very little history done about Latinos in the State of Idaho. He thought it was really lacking. I surmised that there were certain periods of time that he was interested in having historians cover that he had questions about. One of those was the period of the 1960’s and 1970’s when the Idaho migrant council was formed back in 1971. He wanted to know if I would do that, but at the time I was really focused on Latin America dealing with Latinos before they ever come to the United States.
From that point on, I placed less interest on my Latin American interest and more emphasis on what happens to Latinos when they come to the U.S. and to Idaho. I went on to offer a seminar in that topic and had students write papers about questions regarding the topic. They had to do research which involved going through the newspapers, interviewing people that were involved, find any relating government documents in order to build a complete picture of the folks here in Idaho. We opened up a lot of interesting stuff which led me to join forces with another person in the State Archive, a woman by the name of Kathy Hodges, who was also interested in the topic and who had worked in the very beginning of her residency in Idaho, with the Idaho Migrant Council. She knew some of the people there and was able to talk to them, and together we did a number of things. The first thing that we did was in the seminar, we gathered all of the really good papers and we put them into a small book called, “Hispanics in Idaho.” From there we continued to do other kinds of things. That is how I got into this kind of historical research when I put aside the research I had been doing on Mexico and instead focused more on what happened to Mexicans once they arrived in Idaho.
Why did you choose to go into History?
Well, that happened pretty early. I have wondered if I were to do it all over it again, if I would be a historian or would I have gone into another field. I have become interested in a lot of other things since then and it might very well have, had I been aware, gone into those fields, but you get people that nudge you. I had a high school teacher who taught world history. She had a way of teaching and she also taught Latin. I just kind of got bit by that bug, I just wanted to know more and I wanted to study the past.
I went to the University of Utah and I just gravitated to History. It was easy to me because I loved to read and I got really high marks in my history courses, whereas in my other general education courses, I struggled with some of them. I never failed or got a D in anything, but I felt like my performance was unacceptable in the other areas. So, because of the good grades and the interest I had, I stayed with history. I graduated and then I ran into the quandary, like everyone in the social sciences and humanities, of “What am I supposed to do with my degree?”
Throughout your career were you more passionate for teaching or for your personal research?
I think research and teaching goes hand in glove in the fact that if you are not doing research then you are not keeping your enthusiasm for your field up. I was always eager to find something different and new that I wanted to explain to the students and try to get them as involved and interested as I was. At a time, I was passionate about teaching. I taught at a lot of universities. When you are teaching you really get to know the students, where they come from, what makes them tick, but all along you are trying to get your point across and trying to get the things that you study and excite you communicated to the students. I guess I am motivated primarily by the research that I have done. That is what I wanted to carry over to my students and have them be interested in as well. I miss that because I don’t do it anymore.
Today, I am still in a situation where I do research and I want other people to benefit from my research. That is one of the things that I found most enriching in my later career is that I became the chair of the History Department and then I became the internship coordinator. As the internship coordinator, that put me in touch with the community. I had to go out and foster relationships with government agencies, with NGO’s, with corporations that could use our students and I realized right away that just like me when I got out of college with a degree in History, I had to figure out where I was going to work. What I was doing as an internship coordinator, was trying to sell to these companies and organizations, a historian, because a historian knows how to research, think analytically, and ask good questions. They can make a good employee. As a result of that, I placed a lot of interns in places that were not traditional. I didn’t stick them in a museum or the historical society because you have to prepare people to get jobs and there were no jobs in those fields here in Idaho.
What do you consider your greatest success in your career?
There is not any one thing that really stands out. In terms of publications, I am not an individual who made a name publishing works. I do think that more than anything is the fact that I taught at several universities and here at BSU for the longest period of time, and I think I reached some people and helped them grow and mature intellectually. I am pretty proud of that. I think that moving in a direction, after 1998, towards teaching and researching about the Mexican people in our population, I was able to open up a window and make considerable progress on the topic. That is the most enduring achievement that I have had and I am still not through with that work. In fact, I am still working on a book on that topic right now.
Can you elaborate more on your research of the Mexicans’ involvement in Idaho?
If you go to the state historical society, the history museum, or the archive you will find that there are not any Mexicans there. It hasn’t been until just recently that they are present because there are a number of people who have badgered the state historical society and the archive to start accepting stuff from the Mexican community and putting the Mexicans’ story together. In order to do that, first you have to find out how many Mexicans were here. I found that out by going back to the first census for Idaho, in 1870. In fact, there were a lot of Mexicans here.
So, Kathy Hodges and I teamed up. She was working in the oral history program at the state historical society. We put together a presentation and took it all over the state to encourage anyone who was of Mexican or Latin American descent to make sure that they got their stuff in the archives. If you go to the archive now, you will find a whole bunch of stuff from old dead white men and women, but very few things from the Mexicans. That is a problem because as long as the researchers are going in there to research things and they are not finding anything on Mexicans, then they will never be able to tell that story. I am just one person and there aren’t very many of us who are doing that, but we have been able to do two things. We got the city to put together a committee that put together a commemoration of Jesus Urquides and Spanish Village. We did that a few years ago and put up a monument so that if anyone ever stops they will see that the area was at one point Spanish Village. Also, the state history museum is doing a renovation right now and they have asked members of the Mexican community to come forth with some oral interviews and to help them design an exhibition of the Mexican culture here. That is now in process and it was never there before.
Why is it important to educate others in History?
There is a very trite and off the top of my head response to that. History is the prelude to the future and helps you understand the present. History is useful to understand what is happening in society and think about how that may impact what the future may look like. It may not be entirely accurate, but it gives us some ideas and patterns. I think it is essential.
One of the big problems that I always find is that we elect officials, appoint government folk, and go through our lives without having any understanding of what went before and where we fit in the larger picture. I think that is important. Whether or not you get a job in the field or not, everybody ought to take some history to give them an understanding of how we got to be where we are. If you don’t have those kinds of tools, then I think that half of your live is in the dark. We don’t expect everybody to know everything, but everybody should have the tools to realize that with a little bit of effort they can find out.