While Kelly Lytle Hernández was growing up in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border in the late 1980s and early ’90s, she watched as people from her community, friends and neighbors, disappeared: Black youths disappeared into the prison system; Mexican immigrants disappeared through deportations. These experiences affected her deeply.

By Audie Cornish

“It was growing up in that environment that forced me to want to understand what was happening to us and why it seemed legitimate,” Lytle Hernández tells All Things Considered. “And I wanted to disrupt that legitimacy.”

For answers to those questions, Lytle Hernández turned to the past. A historian and expert on immigration, race and mass incarceration, she is now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is one of this year’s 26 MacArthur Fellows.

“History is a narrative of the past. It is based upon the sources that we regard as relevant or that we can find,” she says.

And so her work includes tracking down records that reflect marginalized populations and finding new, rigorous ways to understand those records.

“Where we come from matters deeply, and it shapes the present,” Lytle Hernández says. “And how we understand that past, can shape our future.”

Interview Highlights

On how and why she created a ‘rebel archive’

With my most recent book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, which is about the rise of mass incarceration in Los Angeles, I developed something called the “rebel archive.”

The rebel archive is … the records that have been authored by the people who have fought policing and incarceration across centuries [including court records]. … Even cases that make it all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

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