Saturday, February 22, 2014

Remembering Ricardo Aldape Guerra: interviewer Gabriel Solis on interviewing Scott Atlas

Scott J. Atlas during his oral history interview with Gabriel Solis.

In 2011, former TAVP staff member Gabriel Solis was enrolled in a master's program in Mexican American studies at UT-Austin. It was during this time that he decided to pursue the capital case of Ricardo Aldape Guerra as the topic for his master's thesis. Aldape Guerra was a Mexican national living in Texas who was wrongfully convicted and given a death sentence for the murder of a white Houston police officer in 1982. He spent 15 years on death row in the 1980s and 90s before his release in 1997. The case garnered international attention and the intervention of the Mexican government. After his release, a telenovela was produced by Television Azteca in Mexico, and several books, articles, poems and other cultural products were produced. Aldape Guerra died shortly following his release in a car accident in Mexico. 

As part of his research, Gabriel Solis interviewed Scott J. Atlas who served as one of Aldape Guerra's appellate attorneys. The interview was done for Solis' master's thesis and simultaneously donated to the Texas After Violence Project. Solis' thesis, titled The trial of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, won the L. Tuffly Ellis Best Thesis Prize for Excellence in Texas History in 2011. A further outcome of Solis' research was Scott Atlas' donation of his personal collection of legal materials related to the Aldape Guerra case to the UT Libraries' Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI). 

We recently had the chance to sit down with Gabriel to find out more about the story behind the interview. The conversation is part of our new "Interview Reflections" feature on the TAVP blog.

Atlas' oral history interview is TAVP's latest release: You can listen to the full interview now at the TAVP archive at HRDI.

Remembering Ricardo Aldape Guerra: interviewer Gabriel Solis on interviewing Scott Atlas

Rebecca Lorins:  How did you come to hear about the Ricardo Aldape Guerra case?

Gabriel Solis:  I first heard about Aldape Guerra when I was reviewing an oral history interview with Gloria Rubac as a TAVP staff member. You hear a lot of interesting things in the interviews in the TAVP collection, and this was one of those things that caught my attention.  I remember going home that night or the next day after hearing Gloria talking about Aldape Guerra and googling him. Gloria knew Aldape Guerra personally; she would go to visit him pretty frequently, and the way she put it in her interview, it wasn’t even a question that the police and the prosecutors had framed him. It was like, “ 'Oh, you know, this guy got framed,' moving on to the next topic," you know. So, I remember this struck me and I started looking into it.

And I remember that the first thing that I saw that was published about him and this case was something Gloria had written in this leftist publication, Worker’s World News Service.

It wasn’t an exhaustive treatment of the case; it was a small blurb, but it peaked my interest in the case.

It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized this might make a good subject for my thesis.

I was in a Mexican American studies program at the time and Aldape Guerra was not Mexican American: he was Mexican and proud of it. But, I felt that this story coincided with what I was studying because at the time I was taking a lot of coursework about power and race and how the criminal justice system has been used in many ways to preserve certain hierarchies of race and power throughout history and all of those elements, whether social, cultural or economic, emerged in this case.

All of the elements that I was interested in historically, such as the development of neoliberal capitalism in the United States; critical histories of the relationship between the US and Mexico; the treatment of undocumented immigrants by the public but also by police; the criminalization of undocumented immigrants; the critical analysis of the relationship between law, racialized discourses on Mexican immigration, and the US neoliberal capitalist political economy: all of those elements collided together in his case, and I came to realize that early on and that’s what made me pursue it as the subject of my master’s thesis.

At that time, I never could have imagined that the thesis would have turned out to be such a huge project.

RL:  As you know, there are many steps to an oral history interview. First, of course, is identifying narrators and contacting them. Can you describe your process around identifying and contacting Scott Atlas?

GS:  I was doing some of my research in the Texas State Archives, looking at the case files, and came across Scott Atlas' name a lot. I realized he was one of Aldape Guerra's appellate attorneys but didn't know much beyond that. 

Then one night I was at a party and was talking to a friend of mine, Kean Tonetti, who was working on Bill White's gubernatorial campaign. I was talking about my research and mentioned Scott Atlas, and she said, "I know Scott Atlas!" I was really surprised! It turned out that Atlas was working as the finance chair for the Bill White for Texas campaign, so they were working together. I asked her if she would contact him, and then he called me the next day! The whole thing happened really quickly.

He said yes to the interview and I could tell he was ready to talk about the experiences he had with this case. Not only was he ready to talk, but he then informed me that he had boxes of materials on the Aldape Guerra case that he had collected over the years. Old newspaper articles, journal articles, memos, letters, videotapes of news programs and other media, from both the United States and Mexico. It was a researcher's dream!

After some exchanges and collaboration with T-Kay Sangwand, the human rights archivist at the University of Texas at Austin, Scott agreed to donate his personal collection to UT Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative (known as the Scott J. Atlas Collection of Legal Materials on the Ricardo Aldape Guerra Case, 1982 - 2005).

Eventually, I interviewed Atlas at his office in Houston. [Former TAVP staff member] Kim Ambrosini-Bacon accompanied me as the videographer.

RL: You were interviewing Atlas for your master's thesis as well as the TAVP archive. Where does Atlas' story fit into the larger arguments in your thesis?

GS: Scott Atlas' story foregrounds the important role of the defense attorney in "saving" Ricardo Aldape Guerra. Scott Atlas' oral history interview attests to the time, effort, dedication and money he, his colleagues and his firm put into the case. From the way he was recruited by the Mexican government to work on the Aldape Guerra case, to his own recruitment of a team of lawyers to work on the case; from his initial outrage at what he read in the trial transcript (racist and inflammatory language defining Aldape Guerra as an "illegal alien"), to his interactions with the Spanish-language press, and his later investigations into prosecutorial misconduct----the story Atlas shares in his interview is an incredible one that needs to be part of the public record on the death penalty.

Listen to Scott Atlas discuss his cross-examination of one of the prosecutors from the Aldape Guerra trial in Tape 2 of TAVP's interview with Scott Atlas. 

But any story has multiple perspectives, and in a complex legal case, like that of Aldape Guerra, there are many different stakeholders who may emphasize different things or leave out different portions of the story.

Some of what I came to understand resonates with broader questions that come up in oral history theory and practice. Scott Atlas' interview is Scott Atlas' story: when we interview people in an oral history setting, we are listening to and documenting the first-person experiences of that person, so naturally they are sharing their perspective. The questions we ask in an oral history interview are meant to tease out the historical context and relevance where appropriate, but as many oral historians have pointed out, the oral history interview highlights the narrator's subjective understanding of events. Oral history interviews tend to emphasize the individual.

In the introduction to my thesis, I make note of the "cost" of singling out the perspective of lawyers: "When Atlas and his team of attorneys are the chief protagonists in the story, the important contributions of other heroes--Aldape Guerra, his family, the people that mobilized in his defense--are left out" (6).

This is not to minimize the work Atlas and his team performed on the Aldape Guerra case. 

But my thesis seeks to weave his perspective with other perspectives, and to centralize the perspectives of Aldape Guerra's family and the political agency of the community activists and organizers who mobilized in Aldape Guerra's defense. One of these perspectives, for example, is that of Alvaro Luna Hernández, one of the national leaders of the Ricardo Aldape Guerra Comite Nacional Pro-Defensa, who is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence in Gainesville, Texas. Atlas mentions Alvaro Luna when describing the climate in the courtroom during one of the hearings, and it is clear that their tactics are very different, but I felt that all of these perspectives were essential to remembering Ricardo Aldape Guerra.

Listen to Scott Atlas talk about encountering activist Alvaro Luna in the courtroom.

We need all these stories and these perspectives to truly remember Aldape Guerra's encounter with the Texas legal system and to appreciate not only its effects then, but the continuation of these systems today and the voices these systems elide. 

Read about what Gabriel Solis is doing today in our post profiling him in our First person series on the TAVP blog.