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Pagan to appear as guest co-host for 'History Detectives'

October 23, 2008

Eduardo Obregón Pagán, a professor of history and American Studies in Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, is moving from the written page to the small screen, signing on as a guest co-host for the popular PBS series History Detectives.

Pagán, who just two months ago claimed an Arizona Book Publishing Association Glyph Award for his coffee table-format book, “Historic Photos of Phoenix,” will appear during the series’ seventh season that begins in June 2009 and runs throughout the summer of 2009. For his first story, Pagán will trace the murky history of an unusual watch fob that is thought to commemorate Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s reputed raid across the Mexican border into the town of Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916.

The assignment has a touch of irony – Pagán’s great-grandfather and grand-uncle rode with the Mexican revolutionary leader who is viewed by some to be a killer and a bandit, and by others as a folk hero, a latter-day Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

“What I know about my great-grandfather and grand-uncle riding with Villa is not much, unfortunately,” says Pagán, who received his master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Princeton University after growing up, as he puts it, “in the shadows of Sun Devil Stadium,” home to ASU’s football team. “We do know that they were from Durango, where Villa was from, and we know that their home and property were destroyed by Zapatistas, which left them homeless for a while. At that point my great-grandfather and grand-uncle joined with Villa’s forces. My great-grandfather died in 1918, and I can only guess that it was from war-related injuries since the Revolution continued for two more years after that.”

Pagán has yet to see the watch fob in question and will not reveal the character of the story. He joins regular History Detectives sleuths Wes Cowan, Gwendolyn Wright, Elyse Luray and Tukufu Zuberi, who have crisscrossed the country during the show’s six-year history, delving into legends, folklore and personal histories to discover potentially extraordinary objects in everyday American homes, cities and small towns.

Pagán’s road to History Detectives began several years ago while working closely with Joseph Tovares at PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston. Tovares produced and directed the episode of “Zoot Suit Riots” that first aired on American Experience in 2002. Much of the information from the episode came from the research Pagán was conducting for his 2004 book, “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon.” Tovares recommended Pagán to David Davis, vice president of national production for Oregon Public Television, when History Detectives began looking for a guest co-host. A test shoot was scheduled through the Phoenix Museum of History, and Pagán provided details on some of the historical artifacts in the museum’s collection.

“To be sharing the love and fascination of history with a larger American audience is a tremendous privilege,” says Pagán, who is an avid fan of History Detectives who often references the show in his classes. “The show is all about history methods. How do historians know what is accurate? One of the things that I enjoy about doing history is the process of discovery, and I think that’s what comes across in History Detectives.”

Pagán, who is the Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History at ASU’s West campus, says Villa is a fascinating subject and one he became familiar with while completing his master’s studies in Latin American history, with an emphasis on Mexico of the 20th century.

“Pancho Villa was a very complicated figure, and complicated figures are always fascinating to me. Although he was well known and there is much documentation about his life almost as it happened, there is still so much about him that we do not know. And he was the kind of figure that inspired great passion either for or against him. To some, he is a romantic hero of the people, and to others he was nothing more than a vicious bandit.

“I think a lot of people would be very surprised to find out that he had a pretty diverse inner-circle. He had Japanese servants and several Americans served in his command structure.”

Davis, who contacted Pagán for the Phoenix audition, says the professor’s enthusiasm is contagious and his expertise a great addition to the series. “Professor Pagán is a great complement to our on-camera team. He brings a wealth of knowledge about the history of American West and the Southwest in particular.”

“History Detectives gets better with every season,” says John F. Wilson, senior vice president and chief TV programming executive for PBS. “I’m sure it will continue in season seven with the addition of new detective Dr. Pagán, whose passion for history will open up new explorations for our viewers.”

Pagán received his bachelor’s degree from ASU and a master’s from the University of Arizona before earning his M.A and Ph.D. from Princeton in U.S. history. Before returning to ASU, Pagán served as an assistant dean of students at Princeton, a faculty member at Williams College, and as a senior program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. He has held an NEH Fellowship and was a postdoctoral fellow at Wesleyan University and at the University of California, San Diego. Nationally, he has served as a funding review panelist for the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and as a committee member for the Organization of American Historians. Locally, he serves on the Rosson House Board of Directors and as an Arizona Humanities Council Guest Scholar.