What do 17th Century Indigenous Mexican Surnames Have to Do With Journalism?

24 Sep 2018 7:57 PM | Dane Claussen

By Joel Thurtell

I discovered the AJHA in Alumni Updates in the University of Michigan History Department newsletter, History Matters. I did not know there was such an organization. I googled and just joined. I learned of the existence of AJHA while reading a UM History Matters item about me:

"Joel Thurtell (MA 1968) and Emily Merchant (PhD 2015) published the article 'Gender-differentiated Tarascan Surnames in Michoacán' in the spring 2018 issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Thurtell writes: The idea for using Mexican parish registers came out a History class I took from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in fall of 1969. Almost fifty years ago!"

You well may be wondering, "What do seventeenth-century indigenous Mexican surnames have to do with journalism?" To help explain, see a 2011 article I wrote for the UM History Department: "Why Historians Make Good Journalists." [available upon request to Intelligencer Editor Dane Claussen] 

I earned a B.A. in history from Kalamazoo College in 1967. I was awarded a fellowship in Comparative Colonization in the New World at the University of Michigan. I was required to attend weekly discussions at the Institute of Social Research. These sessions promoted scientific history -- a history whose generalizations were based on data analysis rather than the historian's impressions. Prof. Le Roy Ladurie gave me an A+ in his studies course on quantitative methods. I proposed to go to Mexico, find church registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials, and analyze family relations through time. First, I would have to lean to speak Spanish. I went to Mexico, found parish registers, lived with a Catholic priest in a Tarascan village and discovered a secret unknown to historians, anthropologists, priests or anyone: post-Conquest Tarascans preserved their ancient system for tracking genealogy and transmitting everything from personal property to personal identity through a bifurcated structure of name-giving. I saw a means of measuring change over time. A practice like gender-differentiated surnames will evolve over time. One group may retain it. Another may abandon it. By comparing rates of erosion, I can track the retention or loss of indigenous culture in different communities. In other words, I can measure the rate of change -- of assimilation, or lack of it. I am scheduled to read my paper, "Advantage and Disadvantage in Two Tarascan Villages" on November 9 at the conference of the Social Science History Association.

On returning to Ann Arbor in summer 1971, I found that I had no fellowship. I supported my research by working in the law library and driving taxicabs. My girlfriend joined the Peace Corps and went to Togo, West Africa. I visited her in Togo in fall 1972 and wound up joining the Peace Corps, learning French and supervising school and well projects in northern Togo. On returning from Africa, we were married. We lived and worked on a friend's fruit farm in western Michigan. I did radio reporting for WMUK-FM, the NPR station at Western Michigan University.

If you want to know more about how I became a reporter, you might read my book, Shoestring Reporter, subtitled: How I Got to Be a Big City Reporter Without Going to J School, and How You Can Do It Too! (I just noticed that Amazon has jacked the price way up. I will have to correct that.)

In 1978, we lived in Berrien Springs, Mich. My wife was a teacher at the county juvenile home. I was hired over the phone to cover local government meetings in Berrien Springs. I also did features and investigative reporting. My wife wanted to become a doctor. I got a job on the Detroit Free Press in 1984. I retired from the Free Press in 2007. My wife's name was Karen R. Fonde, M.D. She did pre-med, med school and residency at UM and was a professor there until her death in 2015 of Alzheimer's Disease and Lewy Body Dementia.

In 2009, Wayne State University Press published Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit's Hidden River. Originally, this was a Free Press report on Michigan's dirtiest river. In the midst of production, Knight-Ridder sold the Free Press to Gannett, and the new editor scuttled our Rouge story. What eventually appeared was timid and insipid. I convinced WSUP that we had a book with my writing and photographer Patricia Beck's photos. The book was named a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan in 2011. That was the year that the faculty of Wayne State University named me Journalist of the Year (I think) because of my blogging (joelontheroad.com) about the trucking magnate who owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

I also broke the story of how California public schools were being bilked by purveyors of a very expensive form of municipal debt known as Capital Appreciation Bonds. I did not receive an award for that work. I was retired. But the California League of Bond Oversight Committees paid my air fare and hotel costs so I could be the featured speaker at its 2013 annual meeting in Sacramento. That work was based on my previous articles for the Free Press in 1993 that described how bond underwriters, bond attorneys and financial advisers were a cartel sucking huge amounts of interest money away from Michigan public schools. As a result of my articles, the Michigan Legislature banned CAB's in 1994. That ban is still in effect. California's Legislature enacted a milder ban in 2012 as a result of my blog posts. Still, Michigan and California are the only states that have taken action to regulate this pernicious form of public debt. Thanks to the Free Press in 1993 and thanks to joelontheroad.con in 2012.

I also wrote a satire on the news industry: Cross Purposes, or, If Newspapers Had Covered the Crucifixion. I've gotten flak about his book from some J-school profs, one of whom wrote that she would not assign my book in her class because I'm telling her students they don't need her. Indeed, marketing of Cross Purposes has not gone well. Sales are stuck in the high two digits.

I am looking forward to receiving AJHA journals. I want to see what kind of articles you are publishing. I believe that I could contribute.

I have taught News Reporting and Writing and Investigative Reporting at Wayne State University. I taught Mexican History at Eastern Michigan University.

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