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In memoriam: María Elena Martínez-López, 47

A pioneer in the field of Latin American history, the associate professor's scholarship transformed the study of Mexico

Maria Martinez in office
María Elena Martínez-López will be remembered for her scholarship, devotion to students, family and friends, and her wisdom and warmth. (USC Photo/Pamela J. Johnson)

María Elena Martínez-López, associate professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a leading scholar of colonial Latin America has died. She was 47.

Martínez-López died at home in Los Angeles, surrounded by family and close friends on Nov. 16 after being diagnosed with cancer in late May.

A public funeral service will be held at 9 a.m. on Nov. 21 at the Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Cemetery, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale. A USC memorial will follow at a later date.

Professor Martínez-López was a brilliant scholar of Spanish American and colonial Mexican history.

William Deverell

“Professor Martínez-López was a brilliant scholar of Spanish American and colonial Mexican history,” said William Deverell, professor and chair of history, and director of the USC-Huntington Institute on California and the West at USC Dornsife. “Her historical insights on race, conquest and religion garnered richly deserved awards and praise, and her dedication to scholarship and her students was exemplary. We will miss her terribly.”

Cultural connections

Martínez-López joined USC Dornsife in 2001. Her work focused on colonial Mexico, the cultural connections between Spain and the Americas, and more generally the formation of the Iberian Atlantic world. She taught courses on Latin American history, slavery in the Atlantic world, early modern religion and race, and gender and sexuality in Spanish America.

She served as director of Chicano and Latino American studies from 2009-11 and as co-director from 2006-08. In 2013, she was awarded a USC Mellon Mentoring Award for her work with graduate students. She was scheduled to be a 2015 Stanford University Humanities Fellow.

María Elena Martínez-López leaves us with a legacy of unparalleled scholarship of excellence.

George Sanchez

“María Elena Martínez-López leaves us with a legacy of unparalleled scholarship of excellence, a significant cadre of undergraduate and graduate students who have benefitted from her mentorship and a wide set of colleagues who valued her wise counsel and unflagging humor,” said George Sanchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, and vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives at USC Dornsife.

“Nationally, she was a leader and co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas,” Sanchez said. “The institute launched and sustained many academic careers of young scholars on both sides of the United States-Mexico border with their annual retreats of scholarship and renewal each summer in Mexico.

“María Elena will be deeply missed by her colleagues and students in the Department of History, the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity and the Latin American studies program at USC Dornsife.”

Family ties

Born Dec. 2, 1966 in Pascuales, Durango, Mexico, Martínez-López moved with her family to Chicago in the 1970s. She returned regularly with her family to their home in Durango, where she excelled at horseback riding.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies at Northwestern University in 1988, a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago in 1992 and her doctorate in Latin American History from the University of Chicago in 2001.

While at USC Dornsife, she published a number of articles on space, religion, gender and race in New Spain. Her groundbreaking book, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico (Stanford University Press, 2008) reinterpreted the historical foundations of race. It received the American Historical Association’s 2009 James A. Rawley Prize in Atlantic History and the American Historical Association’s Conference on Latin American History’s prize for the best book on Mexican history.

Most recently she was working on the relationship of Spanish colonial law and indigenous “genealogical histories” in central Mexico as well as on science and theories of race and sex in the 18th-century Spanish Atlantic world.

She had been conducting extensive research in Mexican, Spanish and U.S. archives for her new book, The Enlightened Creole Science of Race and Sex: Naturalizing the Body in the Eighteenth-Century Spanish Atlantic World.

This was intended to be an extension of her first book about ideas of blood purity and race in the early-modern Spanish Atlantic world, examining how religion provided the epistemological foundations for racial discourses in Spain and colonial Mexico.

Devoted to friends

David Román, professor of English and American studies at USC Dornsife, said Martínez-López was also devoted to her many friends.

I will always remember her first as a great friend.

David Román

“We loved María Elena dearly and will treasure our memories of her for the rest of our lives,” Román said. “She was a great scholar, no doubt, but I will also always remember her first as a great friend.”

Her nephew, Jésus Martínez, said his aunt was a trailblazer and an inspiration.

“She was a wonderful soul who encouraged and challenged us to achieve all that she knew we could achieve,” Martínez said. “This is an enormous loss for our family, but we will always remember her generosity, her wit and her warm presence.”

Martínez-López is survived by her mother; her brothers Manuel de Jésus and his wife, Felicidad; Arturo, Nicolás and Enrique and his wife Hortencia, and their children.

 She is also survived by her beloved friend Sarah Gualtieri, associate professor of history, and American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife.

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In memoriam: María Elena Martínez-López, 47

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