In Memoriam: W. Michael Mathes, by Brian Dervin Dillon, Ph.D.

On November 6, 2014 Swann auctioned The Latin Americana Library of Dr. W. Michael Mathes. The catalogue for the auction begins with a biography of the sale’s namesake, written by Brian Dervin Dillon, Ph.D., an archaeologist and friend of Dr. Mathes. We’ve included it in full below, as it appears in the printed catalogue. 

In Memoriam: W. Michael MathesAugust 15, 1936 – August 13, 2012   Mike Mathes was a brilliant historian, a champion of both Californias, and a grán sabio of the Mexican borderlands. An incredibly productive writer in Spanish and English, Mike was also an inspiring teacher and spirited lecturer.  

William Michael Mathes was born in Los Angeles on April 15, 1936, to a family with deep roots in Texas. The name “William” had already been claimed within his family, so W. M. Mathes came to be known from a very early age as Michael, Mike to his friends. Mike grew up in the City of the Angels and at a comparatively young age developed an interest in Mexico. He learned Spanish in order to get around, and began exploring with his family the fascinating country just a few hours away to the south. By the time he was 13, Mike, now going by Miguelsouth of the border, was the proud owner of a war-surplus jeep, and was driving himself down to northern Baja California and beyond every chance he got.  

Mike entered Loyola Marymount University in 1954, and graduated as a history major in 1958. His specialization was, of course, Mexico, and his area of interest within Mexico was Baja California. During his undergraduate years, Mike would take off for Mexico and be gone for weeks at a time. He would usually return, flat broke, but happy and content from having explored yet another abandoned mission site, or an out-of-the way archive that had somehow escaped the anti-clerical flames of the Mexican Revolution.  

Mathes entered the University of Southern California, and enrolled in the Masters program. At the same time, 1960, Mike expanded his intellectual horizons by going to Spain to work in the civil and ecclesiastical archives most relevant to his ongoing research on Baja California, and Spanish Colonial Alta California. He received his Masters in History from USC in 1962, and took a job as a Librarian at the University of New Mexico shortly afterwards.  

In Albuquerque Mike finally was being paid to do what he liked best, archival research and archival organization and expansion, and when not in harness at the library, continued to take off to do fieldwork in Mexico. He also decided that what he really wanted to do was teach on the university level, so he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of New Mexico while still working there as its best-informed librarian on Spanish Colonial sources both in the New World and the Old. It was while back in Spain yet again that Mike was approached by one of the Jesuit deans of the University of San Francisco, and offered a teaching job in history at that institution provided he could complete his dissertation in time for the new semester. So, in 1966, Mike not only earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of New Mexico, but moved back to California, this time the Bay Area, so as to begin teaching that subject at USF.   

Mike was loved and celebrated by his fellow scholars in Mexico and in Spain, yet never really got the recognition or the appreciation he truly deserved in gringolandia. In the country of his birth, despite his remarkable publication record and solid career as a teacher, he was often the odd man out. Mathes’ intellectual honesty would not permit him to compromise with the academic fad of the moment, and he stuck to his guns no matter how the chips might fall both in historical research and in contemporary politics.  

The two honors that meant the most to Mike, and which still inspire awe amongst his friends and colleagues, were his award of the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1985, the highest honor Mexico can bestow. This is normally reserved for Mexico’s own poets and Presidents, and rarely extended to foreigners, especially norteamericanos. Twenty years later, in 2005, Mike was similarly honored by Spain, with the Order of Isabel la Catolica. This was, again, the highest award offered to Spanish writers, artists, and patriots, seldom if ever given to non-penisulares.  

Mike was the best kind of historian, not only completely enamored of his subject, but not confined nor constrained by it either. He knew more about the archaeology of Baja California than most archaeologists, and more about its ethnohistory than most anthropologists. Mathes was instrumental in persuading the Mexican government to establish an INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) office in Baja California, specifically so as to administer the historic archaeology associated with its missions. Baja California being, at the time, the only major portion of the Mexican Republic without INAH representation. Mike loved to talk to his historical counterparts wherever he found them, be they in La Paz, Mexicali, México D.F., or at the Real Academia Española. He also loved to talk to Indians, charros, and licenciados, it made no difference to him who you were provided that a mutual interest in the past was evinced.  

Mathes was very generous with his time. He was a conscientious editor and proofreader when he honored you by going over the draft of something you thought might interest him. Some errors, definitely within the category of pet peeves in both speech and writing were certain to set him off: using the term “baja” (an adjective) instead of Baja California would, for example, trigger an historico-political lecture guaranteeing that the compound term would exclusively be used henceforth. Similarly, misuse of the word “Spanish” for the people who came from the Iberian peninsula (“Spanish” is the language that the Spaniards spoke, Mike would invariably insist) would have him gritting his teeth just as much as the incautious use of “South America” to include Mexico by the geographically challenged.  

In the early 1990’s, Mike generously donated much of his own library, comprising 45,000 books, manuscripts, and historical documents, which became the core holding at the Colegio de Jalisco, in Zapopan, now accessible to scholarly charros from all over Mexico. The institution has named the library after Mike, the historian who was a librarian long before he became a teacher.  

Upon his retirement at the University of San Francisco in 1993, Mike left California for Plainview, Texas. Mike became, if anything, more active than ever in his Mexican research ventures. Besides writing and editing, he also began to lead tours up and down the mission chain of Baja California.  

We must be content with what he shared with all of us for so many years. Without his presence and his voice, we are left to treasure his memory, and his amazing contribution to scholarship that will outlive all of us.