The Futility of Civility (Particularly for Women of Color)

EZLN

Powerful image from the borderlands feminist blog of Risa Cantu C’DeBaca.

A CFP that Makes You Wonder “WTF?”

That nationwide “¿Qué chingados es esto?” that you heard last week? That was hundreds of Chicana/o Studies scholars expressing communal dismay as they read the newly-issued call for papers (CFP) from NACCS, aka the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. A CFP provides the theme for an academic conference, and scholars are encouraged to present their latest research in a way that contributes to and explores the chosen theme. Many eagerly awaited this year’s NACCS theme, as the conference will be held in San Francisco, and there are a lot of us who don’t need much of an excuse to visit that fun and beautiful city.

So why were many upset and angered by a little ol’ academic CFP? Well, the first problem was the title: “Exploring Civility within the Chicana & Chicano Studies Discipline.” This is not the typical NACCS conference theme, which usually is along the lines of community empowerment, social justice, transnational scholarship, etc. You know, the kinds of things that led us into Chicana/o Studies in the first place. “Exploring Civility” left many of us scratching our heads.

The head scratch quickly turned to feelings of full-blown asco as one read the description of this theme. It read in part:

The contours of global order are being impacted by the increase of lack of civility at a global and local scale. We are living in a society which is imploding and disintegrating into an uncivil and divisive relationship in our politics and discourse at the community, state and national level. The scarcity of civility spells disaster and stifles growth as we increasingly devolve into a total lack of empathy—a trait that makes human beings unique from animals. . . .

The term “ser educado” in Spanish means being well-behaved, cultured, refined, enlightened, polite, and developed. Unfortunately, our political leadership and public behavior promotes the opposite of civility. As a result, this country is in a deep crisis at a social and economic level that reverses democracy which only works when there is compromise and a balance of power shared by the legislative, the judicial, and the executive branches. Inability to compromise has deadlocked our political system in a way to make it impossible for passage of key pieces of legislation and disables our democratic process altogether. A study entitled Civility in America reiterates the fact “that incivility is ubiquitous; no area of American society is untouched. Eroding civility is harmful to our country’s future and takes a toll on how we interact with the people and institutions around us.” Secondly, disrespect for authority has decreased the ability of individuals to follow laws. Thirdly, an overgrown sense of self-importance and blurring between actions and consequences further inculcate lack of civility and the breakup of any social order. All these sentiments are applicable to a sense of individuality and social consciousness in Chicanos/Latinos. [emphasis added]

Read in the most charitable way, the CFP is a poorly worded attempt to draw attention to how US politicians—and xenophobic, illiterate locals—have engaged in despicable fear-mongering and spiteful, inhumane treatment of the Central American women and children who desperately have sought refuge at our southern borders in recent months. Have you seen the heartbreaking photos of the hundreds of caged children, huddled on the floor, trying to find warmth under those foil blankets? Or the wide-eyed eight-year-old boy showing his documents to a Border Patrol agent?

We should definitely keep the asylum seekers in the national spotlight and not let President Obama and the Democratic Party get away with betraying our communities on the issue of immigration yet again. Yet, as fierce feminist scholar Sandra Soto explains, in an open letter to NACCS leadership, “the CFP makes it clear that the theme is not only promoting civility, but that it is blaming human suffering, greed, union busting, and other forms of oppression on a general sense of incvility, rather than say…capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, genocide.” In other words, the issue is not that our conservative congressional representatives lack a civil tone in how they discuss immigration issues and scapegoat immigrants. Rather, the issue is that from their racist perspective, asylum seekers—innocent women and children fleeing violence that is in part a result of American dominance and foreign intervention—are not “refined” and “developed” enough to be worthy of shelter in the US.

 

Mal educados”: Ferguson and Salaita

So even if NACCS leadership meant well by this theme, they unfortunately went about it in an astoundingly bone-headed way that engages in the long, ugly history around the word educado: a term long used by the upper class folks of Latin America to distinguish themselves from people who are considered mal educado: badly behaved, unrefined, uneducated, impolite, less developed . . . to be, in fact, como un indio. Throughout Latin American history, to be Indian meant that you are dark-skinned, indigenous, “uncivilized,” and unfit for citizenship—in short, not human and capable of reasoning, i.e. an “animal.” These long-held racist beliefs have worked their way in to the language we use; for example, “naco” is Mexican slang equivalent for “white trash.” Not surprisingly, it derives from Totonac, indigenous peoples from central Mexico. [Random note: I distinctly recall showing up to church one Sunday, around the age of ten, only to have my mom yell at me for not changing into nicer clothes and running a comb through my hair. Embarrassed by my appearance, she muttered, “Ugh, you look like a wild Indian!” Between the tone of her voice and her scornful face, I knew that I was supposed to feel ashamed of myself. Lesson learned: to be Indian is to be “bad.”]

Even worse, the NACCS’ CFP is woefully ill-timed and inexcusably oblivious to two major events that took place last month. First was the senseless execution of college-bound African American teen Michael Brown by the white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri—an event that has sparked weeks of outraged protests by community members and their allies around the nation against this horrible injustice (catch up on helpful reads at the Atlantic). Another young, unarmed, innocent black man killed for no reason other than his race and the increasingly militarization of police officers who are all too eager to show off their power and use weapons meant not to protect communities, but instead to wage international wars. Ferguson protestors faced scathing criticism in the mainstream news outlets for their supposed lack of respect for authority during the initial days of protests . . . but how civil towards authority figures can one be while you are running away from tear gas, rubber bullets, and officers who look and act like the Terminator? Nevertheless, for news pundits, protestors clearly were not “well behaved” enough for to have their outrage taken seriously.

Second, the CFP is alarming tone-deaf to the unlawful firing of Professor Steven Salaita, a prolific scholar and respected educator actively recruited to the University of Illinois for a tenured appointment in the Native American Studies Department. Salaita’s innovative research compares the disenfranchisement and genocide of native peoples in the US with the treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel. During Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, which killed 1500 Palestinian adults and 500 children, Salaita shared impassioned posts to his private (i.e. not university- or teaching-affiliated) Twitter account, calling out Israel’s barbarism and hypocrisy. Cowardly caving into pressure from outside groups, Chancellor Phyllis Wise terminated Salaita’s contract, citing concern about his “uncivil” tone. So much for the free speech promised in the First Amendment and the academic protections offered by tenure.

In light of these (and many similar events), one feels the urge to grab the NACCS board members by their collective lapels and shout, “What the f*ck are you thinking?!” Civility is an increasingly dangerous concept that is a weapon used to silence and discredit voices of dissent. Ideas that challenge the mainstream, that purposely unsettle our students so that they question the status quo, can now be dismissed as being “uncivil,” antithetical to “polite” conversation–and therefore not worthy of consideration. “Civility” is a term none too useful for Chicana/o Studies scholars who labor in a field that was established only when civil rights activists took it upon themselves to impolitely demand recognition and legitimacy as a field of scholarship. And Chicana/o Studies has only grown stronger and better thanks to those within our ranks who refuse to conform and behave “civilly.” Again, to draw from the powerful words of Soto,

Two years after my first NACCS conference, I worked alongside Deb Vargas, Emma Pérez, Deena González, and Rosalia Solorzano to co-found the Lesbian Caucus (now the Lesbian, Transgender and Bisexual Mujeres Caucus) at the Albuquerque meetings. If Deb, Emma, Deena, Rosalia and I had given in to the cult of true womanhood (a highly gendered and colonialist ideology promoting civility), then we would have never found the determination and strength to go up against the incredible machista homphobia and pushback we faced in Albuquerque. If we had been good girls, or—to use the language of the NACCS CFP—if we had been “well-behaved, cultured, refined, enlightened, polite, and developed” (ser educado)—we probably wouldn’t even have had the audacity to be out lesbians much less angry Chicana dykes demanding of space. Thankfully we didn’t give into that ideology then. And I certainly don’t want to now.

I read this and want to chant, Chicano style, “Soto sí, CFP no!” For like Professor Soto, I don’t care to abide by notions of “ser educado” and “civility” that were not meant to be attained by someone of my skin color, body type, and gender. By the very definition of mainstream “civility,” some of us will forever be perceived as uncivil, no matter how we conduct ourselves.

 

The Inherent “Incivility” of Women of Color

Case in point: Professor Ursula Ore, another professor, besides Salaita, who was treated unjustly this summer and who had her rights trampled. Ore is an African American tenure-track faculty member of the English department at Arizona State. Heading home after teaching an evening course, Ore was walking on a street just outside of campus, when she was stopped by a police officer on the pretext of jaywalking. The interesting thing is that not only was the street closed to through-traffic due to construction (so the cop car was the only one headed towards her), but there were many other pedestrians crossing, just as she was. The only difference? They were all white.

Ore gently—civilly—questioned the officer why she was the only person to be stopped. He didn’t like being questioned, and, raising his voice, impatiently demanded to see her ID. Ore calmly—politely—asked why he was using such a harsh tone with her. In response, the copy only grew increasingly abusive, and began threatening her with arrest. Over her plaintive protests, he slammed Ore against the hood of the police car and even threw her to the ground, causing her skirt to fly up. Agonizingly, she cried for help from the bystanders. As the cop and his partner lifted her back to her feet, she instinctively kicked away the hand she felt reaching for her skirt. For that, she was charged with resisting arrest, assaulting an officer and taken into custody. The audio and video of the incident was recorded on camera; Ore’s “civil” voice stands in stark contrast to the brusque voice of the cop. Adding further insult, Arizona State officials issued a knee-jerk statement saying that as far as they were concerned, the officer hadn’t done anything wrong.

But it wasn’t Ore’s fault. No matter how soft her voice, no matter her profession and level of education, the officer could not see a black woman as someone “well-behaved, polite, developed,” etc. Some of us will always be uncivil, no matter how politely we respond.

Ore’s case brought back vivid memories of the first time I was arrested, at the age of seventeen. I was a senior in high school, working on a research paper for my AP English class. The topic: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. My dilemma was that neither my school nor town’s public library had the high-quality literary criticism I was looking for (I was already a highfalutin literature nerd, but my scholarly pretensions didn’t stop me from citing Cliff’s Notes as a source in the final draft). My friend Kathy and I decided to go to the library at a local community college, renowned for its wealth and quality resources. We each found two books we needed and talked a college student into checking them out on our behalf.

We returned to class, bragging to two other friends, Megan and Nicole, about how awesome our final essays were going to be. Intrigued, they begged us to take them to the library so they could access to better resources, too. During this second trip, Megan and Nicole selected some books, and I found another helpful Madame Bovary book, so again we found a college student who was willing to check them out for us.

As we left the library, one of the detectors went off. The man at the checkout desk asked us to go through one-by-one. Kathy, Megan, and Nicole each walked through with no problem. But when it was my turn, the alarm sounded again.

The man asked to see my books and student ID. I stammered, “I don’t have it with me.”

He told me he could look me up in the system via my social security number, and I truthfully replied, “I don’t know it.”

The man immediately narrowed his eyes. “Something’s going on here. I’m going to call the cops!” I broke into a sweat and asked, “How about if I just leave the books here and you never see me again?”

“You better stay right there!” he warned, picking up the phone. The knot in my stomach grew larger when, moments later, two white police officers came running into the library, demanding, “What’s going on here?”

The librarian dramatically pointed to me with one hand and held aloft three volumes of Madame Bovary literary criticism in the other. “She’s trying to steal these books!”

The cops grabbed my arms and led me to their station, located on another floor of the building, for questioning. My friends, stunned and assuming they were also in trouble, tagged along and were told to wait in the hallway. The female officer sat me down and said, “Okay, tell me everything.”

I calmly—and as politely as possible—told her “everything,” starting way back on the day my teacher distributed the essay assignment. I explained that two college students had checked out books for all of us. The cop remained expressionless as she listened, but when I concluded my story, she scornfully huffed, “Why are you lying to me?”

“I’m not lying to you,” I protested. “I have no reason to lie to you.”

“Well your story doesn’t make sense. We’re going to charge you with possession of stolen books.” And with that, she handcuffed me and led me into another room, where I had my mug shots and fingerprints taken.

As she rolled my index finger on the black ink pad, the officer looked me up and down, then spat, “Where are you from, anyway?” Clearly, she expected the reply to be a Speedy Gonzalez-accented, “Make-sick-oh.” I received her message loud and clear: You could not possibly be from here.

The ordeal finally ended when I was released with papers stating that I had stolen $1700 worth of books from the college library, as well as a bond stating that if I didn’t show up on my court date, I would be sent to prison. I assumed that, if my crime were having library books that I technically was not supposed to have, surely my three friends would be arrested next. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the two officers didn’t ask them a single question (i.e. “investigate” my story) or check whether they also were in possession of library books.

I’m sure that you don’t need me to tell you that Kathy, Megan, and Nicole were all white.

I never had felt so powerless in my life. Hadn’t I done everything right? Hadn’t I told the truth? Hadn’t I been respectful and polite towards the officers? Until that point, I had never been in trouble for anything in my life except for that one time in seventh grade when I was put in detention for chewing gum in gym class. I was a stellar student, beloved by teachers, in the top ten percent of my graduating class, enrolled in the honors program and AP classes, involved in many extracurricular activities, still celebrating my recent news that I’d been awarded a full ride scholarship to an elite university. I was preppy and never even had a sip of alcohol. I was an aspiring novelist and–based on the “A” I assumed I would earn on my English assignment–clearly an emerging expert on Madame Bovary.

I was all those things . . . but I was also a brown-skinned, black-haired Mexican American girl trying to navigate a predominantly white suburban context. Which sometimes, inevitably, automatically marked—and continues to mark—me as suspicious. Poorly behaved. Uncultured. Unrefined. Unenlightened. Impolite. Undeveloped.

Mal educada. “Where are you from, anyway?”

 

It Hurts When Your Own People Don’t Get It

Clearly, my experience is not unique. Many shared the same concerns, and the outcry against the NACCS CFP was swift. The organization’s leadership took down the description and promised to rethink the approach. Cries of “¡Órale!” we heard around the world (well, okay, around facebook).

However, something tells me that they just don’t get it. Here is what they have stated in the meantime:

The Board thanks the membership for the feedback of the recent CFP. After deliberation and feedback from Board Members, a CFP revision will be released on September 12, 2015. The Board feels that the idea of “civility” is important to engage in its different forms, in its various meanings, and in its numerous consequences. We look forward to the continued discussion of these ideas in our forthcoming conference.

So we come back to this question: What use is “civility” to people of color in general, and to Chicana/o Studies in particular? Just look at our long history of being marked with the label mal educados, of being placed outside eligibility for citizenship, of our struggles to find a place in academia for who we are and what and how we want to educate our youth.

If civility is going to be the principle for engagement, then I want out. It’s kind of a moot point, anyway. My brown-woman’s body and existence are uncivil enough as it is.

 

P.S. In case you were wondering, that stupid librarian looked up the history of the books I’d “stolen” and discovered that one simply had not been demagnetized. Also, the police discovered that they’re not supposed to arrest a minor without notifying the parents. The officers called my home later that day and said we could tear up the arrest papers and “all would be forgotten.” Instead, we showed up to their office with a lawyer (my cousin’s husband, who handles tax appeals . . . but a lawyer nonetheless). And that’s the only reason why I went on to college with a clean record. The whole incident was a buncha bullsh*t!

Tenured . . . ¿y qué?

Carmen Miranda

Now that I’m tenured, the power and the glory are mine. Also, this is what I wear to teach.

Readers,

I have some exciting news: I’ve been TENURED and PROMOTED. Yes, not only did I reach for the brass ring, I pulled that sh*t down and turned it into a pair of fabulous JLo-style hoop earrings. The words on this screen are emanating from the mind of newly-minted Associate Professor Daily Chicana.

This moment came as a huge yet anticlimactic relief. I had to submit my tenure dossier in early September 2013, so it was a long nine-month wait just for my materials to work their way through the various committees and to finally receive the official letter. [Of course, this journey really began six years ago, when I started my tenure-track appointment at my university.] The committees took such a long time because just my dossier alone consisted of two humongous binders, stacking seven inches tall and weighing fourteen pounds (amazingly, this process has not gone digital yet at my school!), and each committee level (department, college, university) had to look through the materials of many more applicants.

It was an effin long, stressful wait . . . because no matter how many times my mentors and senior colleagues reassured me that all would be fine, I couldn’t truly believe and feel it until it was truly official:

TenureLetter

Excerpt from the actual letter.

Probably no one was more relieved than my loving and patient fiancé, because between submitting my dossier  and getting the actual letter, I was stressed, emotional, and liable to cry at the drop of a hat. I hate to admit it, but there may have been a day or two when I went into full-on telenovela mode if, say, I forgot to set the DVR to record Project Runway:

I try never to confirm fly-off-the-handle Latina stereotypes, but hey, sometimes I can’t help it. I need me some Tim Gunn every week.

A few weeks ago, we hosted a grad school friend and her partner for dinner, and it was the first time I’d seen her since The News. She told me, “It’s so weird that you’re tenured! I mean, I didn’t have any doubts that you could do it, but, like . . . you’re tenured. Do you know what I mean?” I think/hope what she was getting at is that it feels strange that suddenly–and somewhat arbitrarily– I’m no longer “junior” faculty. I have some measure of status and authority (a small measure because, let’s be honest, professors and academic politics do not matter much in the face of all the problems in the world). You work so long towards this goal and now it’s like, “Me? I actually made it?!” Especially in light of all the recent, awful statistics about the decline of tenure-track jobs; by some estimates, adjunct, temporary faculty (who have few work protections) make up 75% of instructors at American universities. Then, on top of that, the odds are even tougher for those of us who are scholar of color and the first in our families to embark upon this career path.

Academia is one long journey of constantly feeling like, “When am I going to measure up?” You are forever in the process of submitting your work to others for judgment, whether you are grad student working on a dissertation chapter and seeking your advisor’s feedback; a scholar submitting an abstract to present your work at a conference or sending off a journal article to see if anyone is interested in publishing it; or working a lowly assistant professor, having to check in with senior colleagues and “prove” that your teaching is strong enough, you are publishing enough, and you’re doing enough service for the university. And so to finally get the tenure letter, you want to shout from the rooftops:

I come from a long line of amazing women who often had no opportunities to receive a formal education. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school. So for me to have earned a Ph.D. and made timely progress from assistant to associate professor . . . it’s overwhelming, and I can say it’s an honor even while recognizing that the academy has its host of issues and ugly racial and gender politics.

So how is post-tenure life different so far? The following observations are based on my three months of having the letter in my hands; the eleven days since my associate status actually began; and the seven days since classes started. In other words, let’s see if I agree six months from now on what I am saying in typical know-it-all fashion here.

  • The publication pressure is reduced. Gone are the days of struggling to write while that little voice in my head ominously warns, “OMG the quality of the current sentence you are typing will determine whether or not you earn TENURE, so it must be PERFECT!” However, I have been told by my department chair that I should go up for full professor in ~five years, so I still have to keep up my publication record. But now the awful psychological weight is off my shoulders as I write.
  • My teaching load has increased. While I was a junior faculty member, my senior colleagues did a lot to help me protect my time, so I had, through various means, a reduced number of courses to teach. Now that consideration is (rightly) going to the new junior faculty who just joined the department. Which means from now on, it’s full on teaching, teaching, teaching (four courses per semester).
  • My service load has increased. Now that I’m associate, I will be expected have significantly more opportunities to lead committees and play a more active, outspoken role on them. As with my previous point, when you’re an assistant, you can get away with playing the “no” card more often.
  • I have more student advisees. Again, now that I’m a more experienced faculty member in the department, I can’t use the “I need tenure first” reasoning to turn down students who ask me to direct their master’s thesis or undergrad research projects. The result is that I spend more time wondering, “What kind of advisor am I?” The micromanager? The hands-off type? Also, “Oh my god, what do my advisees really  think about me and is it my imagination or are they actually running quickly around the corner when they see me approaching?”
  • I have more of a “It will be fine, I’ll just wing it” approach to teaching. I care about my teaching–a lot. I am always looking for new pedagogical techniques to share with my students. But after six years of teaching (not counting the other years I spent in a teaching post-doc), I have a much stronger sense of the rhythm of a 75-minute class, how much material I can cover in that time, reliable ways to get discussion started. So I don’t freak out when my lesson plan isn’t fully figured out.
  • I simply know more now about how the university works. After six years, I finally know all the acronyms used at my school, who the key players are and which committees do what, who I can turn to for help for particular projects, who are my allies and who are the people to avoid, etc. All of which makes the job far easier and increases the realism with which I approach certain tasks. Instead of being bright-eyed, I am steely-eyed.

Reflecting on the increase of work from assistant to associate, I am reminded of a childhood memory. When I was in first grade, my mom had to drop me off at school early in order to get to work on time. School administrators would take all us early drop-offs (about fifty kids) and usher us into the small auditorium in the building to play a game. This game consisted of one child, specially selected to be “it,” being brought onto the stage to sit in a chair, facing the rest of us, seated in the audience.  The “it” kid had two minutes to observe us before selecting the student who had sat the stillest and quietest to be the new “it” for another round of the game. Yes, you “won” the game by sitting as still and silent as possible, just to take a brief, glorious turn on stage and pick someone else, returning to your seat in order to compete again.

I was (and still am) highly competitive; I wanted to win the game so badly that I would turn myself into stone. Have you ever stared at something so hard that your eyes played tricks on you, and you saw weird shadows behind whatever you are staring at? That is how hard I stared at the “it” kid and tried to telepathically convince him or her to pick me next.

Now, thirtysomething years later, I look back and realize that I hadn’t been playing a game at all. We simply had been hoodwinked into behaving quietly until school started and administrators could release us into the hallways. What a buncha bullsh*t! To some extent, that is how the transition from assistant to associate feels: Congratulations, you worked so hard! Now here’s more work!” I have been socialized into the academy and somehow measured up to its definition of success–as always, against the odds as a young woman of color.

Nevertheless, I am happy. This is, after all, my career of choice. I love working with the students in my classes, most of whom are hard-working, first-generation students of color. And I have great, inspiring colleagues who share my commitment to making positive change at our university and advocating for students however we can. I have managed to get my ideas into print, even if few people outside academia ever encounter my words. I may never be a public intellectual like Michael Eric Dyson or Melissa Harris-Perry, but that’s okay because I don’t aspire to that level of recognition. I’m just another mid-career academic, working hard to educate young minds from working-class communities, and there is tremendous personal meaning in that work for me.

Oscars 2014: The “Latino” Roundup

oscars-0124111

So the big news in the entertainment world last weekend was the Oscars. I inherited my mother’s passion for movies, but over the past several months, I hardly saw any new releases in the theater. My fiance isn’t a big fan of going to the movies (or watching a lot of TV), and so in the past two years of being with him, I’ve spent much less time going to the movies…which is a good thing overall, because I haven’t missed out on much. The only Oscar-nominated film I wanted to see but didn’t was Inside Llewyn Davis because (1) I love the Coen brothers’ films; (2) the soundtrack was great; and (3) I can look at Oscar Isaac all day long. I did see the two most talked-about “big” films: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.

What has irked me in recent days is how people have been talking about the “Latina/o” moviemakers and celebrities who were part of this year’s show. For example, there’s Alfonso Cuaron, who is being hailed by multiple media outlets “the first Latino to win best director.”

movies-oscars-2014-press-room-alfonso-cuaron

Alfonso Cuaron

And then there’s Penelope Cruz, whom the Academy’s Instagram feed mistakenly identified as Salma Hayek…because, you know, we beautiful spicy “Latinas” all look the same, right?

The Los Angeles Premiere of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" - Red Carpet

(Left to right) Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek (or is it the other way around?)

Huffington Post caught the mixup and explains that “some are still upset that the Academy mixed up the two Hispanic actresses.”

So what’s the problem here? Well, none of these folks are actually Latina/o (or “Hispanic”). Cuaron and Hayek are Mexican nationals, i.e. Latin Americans who happen to make movies in the US. And Cruz is Spanish, i.e. European.  Pointing this out doesn’t mean that as Latina/os, we shouldn’t be proud of their accomplishments or excited to see “brown” faces featured on screen or taking control behind the camera. Just don’t call them “Latina/o.”

You are welcome to disagree with me on this, but I understand “Latina/o” to be someone born and/or raised from a young age in the US who can trace his or her ancestry to any number of Latin American countries. Latin Americans who come to the US as adults frequently share close political, social, and cultural commonalities with Latina/os, but in general, their outlook on many things is very different from ours precisely because they didn’t grow up here. The US-context in which we navigate our racial and ethnic identities as Latina/os inevitably marks us. I have found that many Latin Americans just don’t “get” it. They often judge us for being sell-outs, speaking less Spanish, and knowing less about the politics and cultures of our “home” countries. I’m incredibly proud of my Mexican heritage, but I’m not Mexican. I’m Mexican American. There’s a difference.

And this definition matters when we misidentify Latin American and Spanish actors and celebrities as “Latina/o” because it further obscures our already minuscule representation in Hollywood. Check out this infographic, by Lee and Low Books, about race in the Academy, which was recently featured in Colorlines:

Academy Awards Infographic 18 24 - FINAL - REVISED 2-24-2014

Notice any trends? As Colorlines writer Jamilah King explains,

Academy of Motion Picture Arts the Sciences, the group that votes for the Oscars, is nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male. Oscars voters have a median age of 62 and people younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the Academy’s membership. Black voters make up just 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos make up an even smaller percentage.

Latin American wins at the Academy Awards are great. Anything that widens the diversity of people and stories represented in Hollywood is something to celebrate. Yet, just be aware that our list of Latina/o Academy Award winners did not, in fact, grow at all this year. We still have a lot of work to do.

Where are Chicanos in the Humanities?

House

Cover of the 1989 Vintage edition.

I am excited to head into my Chicana/o Literature class this week because we’ll be discussing Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street. I love using this book because the stories are so short, it’s a useful way to introduce students to the techniques of literary criticism. Seriously, when a story like “Hairs”–in which the main character, Esperanza, describes her family member’s hair–is all of ten sentences long, we can read it aloud, pick it apart, discuss the meaning of the details, and create a model thesis statement about it all in the space of one class time. Aside from being beautifully written, Cisneros’ work is a pedagogical treasure.

I love House on Mango Street for very personal reasons, too. It was the first work of Chicana/o literature that I ever encountered. Nowadays, of course, it’s a common reading in middle and high schools across the nation. Not so when I was in high school. I picked it up during my senior year. I don’t recall how it came into my hands, but it wasn’t through any of my teachers or friends. I might have stumbled upon it at the bookstore. Or maybe my mom read about it in the newspaper and picked up a copy for me. (She once showed me a newspaper interview with the writer Victor Villaseñor, but in my know-it-all teenage stubbornness, I took a look at his photo and thought, “Who’s this old guy? Whatevs.” And so the novel Rain of Gold narrowly missed out on the chance to be my first ever Chicana/o literature reading.)

I had always been an avid reader, from a young age. The best day of the month would be when our Scholastic or Troll Book Club orders arrived at school and I got a new set of paperbacks to call my own. My parents did not have a lot of money, but my mom always found a little extra to put towards the little library burgeoning in my bedroom. Yet, in all my literary explorations, I never had encountered a character who was Mexican, like me. Or hated her long name, like me. Or was living in the Midwest, like me. House changed all this . . . and changed me forever. I already had dreams of becoming a fiction writer, and now, in Sandra Cisneros, I had an actual role model. If she could do it, then maybe I can, too. What a comfort the thought was to a young Chicana who felt all alone in her ethnic experience.

I arrived at college ready to declare an English major. I was the only one of my circle of friends who was interested in the field. Most of my friends were pre-med and, as luck would have it, the TV show ER premiered during our freshman year. All those pre-meds would gather around the television set in the common room of the dorm and watch the show religiously, convinced they were getting a preview of what their professional lives would look like. Most of them did go on to become doctors, and who knows? Maybe they really are living out primetime-worthy dramas and having lusty affairs with their coworkers.

As far as I knew, there were no TV shows about English majors or the lives of literature professors or literary scholars or writers. And the pre-meds never let me forget it. They loved to tell me, “All you’re gonna need to know after graduation is how to say, ‘Would you like some fries with that?'” I heard that “joke” quite often. If I could track them down today, I still would be tempted to slap them in the face with a photocopy of my Ph.D., and say, “Guess what? I’m a DOCTOR now, too! So suck it!”

I hear echoes of their question (“What on earth will you do with that degree?”) today when students come into my office, seeking advice on choosing a major. Many who come my way are inspired by the issues of social justice we discuss in class and a desire to “help” their communities of origin. Their heart calls them towards a degree in Sociology, Criminal Justice, Political Science, History. Yet, time and again, they sign up for a bachelor’s degree in Business, concentrating in Marketing, Accounting, or Human Resources. (No offense, but who in their right minds chooses to major in Human Resources? What exactly is there to study?)

“Why are you a Business major?” I ask. “You don’t even sound excited about it.”

The usual answer:  “Because I know I’ll get a job. If I major in Sociology, what kind of job would I ever get?”

If they view social science degrees with skepticism, what chance do degrees in the humanities have? In all my years at this school, I have never, not even once, met a Latina/o English major. Every once in a great while, I will meet a Spanish major. But at my school, where students of color outnumber white students, the Chicana/os in literary studies (or philosophy, dance, music, etc.) are rare.

Part of the reasons boils down to the fact that most of the students at our institution are the first in their families to attend college. And times are tough: They struggle to pay for their education; they work part or even full time to support themselves. As classes are constantly being cut by the administration, students have a harder time making timely progress towards their degrees and getting into the courses they need. Currently, our Chicana/o Literature class does not “count” towards any General Education requirements, so for many students, there is little incentive to enroll. They are under tremendous pressure to finish college and start working to help support their families. There is no time or money to waste on something as “frivolous” as literature. I need a job–now!

I encourage students to major in what they love, since they have to spend 4+ years doing the work. To some extent, it doesn’t matter what field that happens to be. Having a bachelor’s degree is a requirement for any entry-level position. Whether you major in business, history, sociology, or art history, employers will assume that because you completed your degree, then you must have decent writing abilities and have a general education about the world. You can write a memo, create a PowerPoint presentation for your team, and greet clients without embarrassing the higher-ups. Before I applied to my doctoral program, I had a job for a company that designed parts for railcars. Was I putting my literary training to use each day? Not exactly. But did I have a steady paycheck? Yes.

And here’s where I come back to Cisneros and House on Mango Street. Most of the students enrolled in the Chicana/o literature class come from non-literary majors. I then spend a lot of class time introducing them to the basics of analyzing poems, short stories, and novels. It takes a lot of work to draw them into discussion and to help them feel comfortable sharing an interpretation of a text, which is always accompanied with, “Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but…” I constantly assure them, “No! There is no such thing as ‘reading too much into’ literature. That’s the point–just think out loud, let’s reflect on what this detail might mean.”

I’m just happy that the class had enough enrollment to happen this semester. On the first day, I announced: “Many of you are interested in heading back into our communities and making a difference. Maybe literature seems like ‘just’ entertainment. But let me tell you: There is nothing more political than literature and the arts. And there has never been a political movement that survived without literature, art, and music.” I saw their heads nodding. Okay, class was underway!

Literature matters. It matters to me. It matters to Chicana/o communities. It is how our people have expressed their deepest pain and most beautiful dreams when no other outlet was available to them. We have always sung our songs and shared our stories. It’s in our blood. We can’t exist without our stories–and we can’t afford not to study the humanities.

I Am Alive!

chicanapower

Chicana activist at the University of Iowa (1970s).

Hello everyone! Yes, I am alive! And I’ve been ignoring my blogüita for way too long. That’s what happens when you return to campus from a research sabbatical: Teaching, service, and just getting through another semester become the primary forms of procrastination on your writing. Who’s got time to blog?!

I wanted to say thanks to the many readers who left me notes of encouragement and asked me where I was and to please come back.  One of the highlights  is this note from llasa001:

Don’t leave me alone out here like La Llorona’s ghost children, haunting the internet with late-night Google searches: “chicana phd,””chicana dissertationnnnnn??”. Come back, come back, and we will wreath you in roses or marigolds, whatever’s your thing. I know how to do Frida braids, even!

llasa001, you had me at “La Llorona”! Truly, thank you to everyone who wrote to me; each of these comments were much-needed, gentle pokes in the shoulder that said, “Hey, quit ignoring your blog.” Believe it or not, I was always listening, and now I’m back and recommitted to Daily Weekly [ahem] Yearly Chicana.

Life has been good. Teaching, my passion in life, keeps me very busy, especially since we teach more courses at my university than faculty do at other places. Recently, a grad school friend who just changed schools was complaining to me about his busy first semester teaching two classes. Two classes? See this? I am playing the world’s tiniest violin for him. I absolutely love my students, though, and find so much meaning in my line of work. Maybe it sounds corny, but the students teach me as much as I teach them, and it’s a privilege to work with them. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when they drive me crazy because of the in-class texting or on days when I’m trying to get them really excited about something and all they give me is deadpan faces and the sound of crickets. More often than not, though, most teaching days are absolutely great.

I am currently up for tenure and promotion, so much of this past summer and early part of fall was spent assembling all the required documentation for that process. The result was two fat binders filled with seven inches (fourteen pounds) of paper. Why so much? A large portion of the file was comprised of student evaluations, and because I often teach a large lecture course and my university only recently transitioned to electronic evaluations, I had to include each and every student comment page. For the record, I sincerely apologize to the many trees that sacrificed their lives for my tenure quest. In any case, so far it’s all good news on the tenure front, but I won’t have official word for a few more months.

My other exciting development is that I am engaged! Thus, wedding planning has recently moved to the front burner of the Stove of Procrastination. Just a couple of years ago, in the aftermath of my divorce, I publicly swore that I never would get married again. Forever. For reals. I was over it. Then I met the most amazing, generous, smart, funny, tall and handsome man…and what’s that saying about the word “never”? Something like, “Never say ____”? Hmm, I can’t seem to remember. Anyhoo,when he proposed, there was only one answer: Hellz, yeah! (Btw I may never live down my actual first response to the proposal: “Are you serious?!” which was uttered not sarcastically, but with happy incredulity.) We are getting married at the end of the year in his hometown, which is halfway across the world from where we currently reside. I never imagined I would be traveling to this country, let alone getting married there! But you never know what wonderful surprises life has in store for you.

What’s missing from this update? Oh yeah, my research and publications. They are happening, very slowly. S U P E R . . . S L O W . . . L Y. Right now I’m working my way back to a daily writing practice. I’ve just started reading Patricia Goodson’s Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing. Her book is based on the principle of “writing with POWER,” by which she means (1) writing that moves and inspires readers, and (2) taking control over your writing process. The central idea is that when you practice writing more deliberately and slowly, your brain creates more myelin (protection around the nerves), which then leads to stronger writing skills. She also addresses the importance of conceiving of yourself as a writer, for that’s what professors are, first and foremost: Writers.

When I say that I just started reading Becoming an Academic Writer, I mean very recently: I’m still on Exercise #1 of 50. Nevertheless, it’s working so far: The first exercise has given me a structure for finding time to write and–just as importantly–actually showing up for said writing time. Woo-hoo!

Which leads us back to this blog. I am working my way back to regular postings here. Again, the topics for the most part will center the following:

  • the rewards and challenges of writing and teaching in general field of Chicana/o Studies;
  • representations of Latina/os in the media; and
  • the trials and tribulations of being a Latina academic.

If there’s a particular topic you’d like to see addressed on the Daily Chicana, please leave a comment at any time. I’m listening, I promise.

 

Latinos seen as super-sexual the world over

Rudolph Valentino, “Latin Lover” of yore

Woo-hoo, I’m back, folks! I’m all moved into the new digs and am 95% unpacked. And being unpacked means I can refocus on work (teaching/research) . . . which in turn means that I can procrastinate in earnest and get back to blogging. Yay!

As ever before, I’m riled up about representations of Latin@s in the media–in this case, the international media. For this just in: 18 Again, a “vaginal tightening” gel from India promises to make you feel “like a virgin” at any age. Which, of course, is just what every woman wants because the first time is always so pleasurable and all. (Fun fact that I must mention here: my first time was with a guy who had the surname of “Laycock.” Yes, Laycock. I’m serious–you can’t make this sh*t up!) I found out about this lovely product from this post over at Jezebel.

So what does this have to do with Latin@s? Well, check out the video for 18 Again:

Surely you will notice that the couple at the center of the video performs salsa- and tango-inspired moves to a hodgepodge of “Latin” sounds, including strumming, flamenco-style guitars; bongo drums; conga rhythms; and even a shrill samba whistle, thrown in for good measure. Why is this music playing instead of something more specific to the culture that produced the product?

The answer seems obvious to me: In the minds of many people–in the US and clearly well beyond–Latin@s have a lock-down on all things sexual. Because we are by nature hot-blooded, passionate, sensuous, ready to bust out salsa moves at the drop of a hat…ugh. I find this stereotype so exasperating.

It reminds me of a feature article I read in Glamour back in the late 1990s. The title was something like, “10 Reasons to Try a Latin Lover.” The piece began by saying, “Fortunately, you don’t have to be Columbian, Brazilian or Puerto Rican to experience the prowess of Latin men!” It also included several testimonies from white women whose world had been rocked when they slept with said “Latin” men. One of the women dreamily observed, “I loved dating Ramon. He was literally HOT to the touch!”

Just thinking about this article makes me want to vomit. At the time, I was so irate I had to pen an angry letter to the editor explaining why the article was so offensive. I clearly recall that my letter began, “Fortunately, ‘you don’t have to be Columbian, Brazilian or Puerto Rican’ to realize how stupid this article is.”

So here’s a special announcement for the makers of 18 Again and anyone else who cares to perpetuate this pernicious ethnic stereotype: Latin@s do not have any special sexual secrets, techniques or powers. Although our skin may come in various shades of brown and our families sometimes come from tropical regions, we are just like any other group of people when it comes to sex. And not every “Latin lover” is worthy of the title. Trust me, I know, I’ve been with some of them. They’re not always worth writing home about!

The open road

The Daily Chicana aspires to be the next Ansel Adams.

Just a reminder, folks: the Daily Chicana is on a brief hiatus. I’m in the midst of a cross-country move back to my university town. As soon as my home internet service is up and running, I’ll resume this blog. Until then, my boyfriend and I are in full trucker mode as we haul all of my belongings in a van and tow my car behind us.

The pros: It’s been fun and scenic. And if I have to be in a small space with two other souls, there’s no one better than my boyfriend and our dog.

The cons: I’ve eaten more fast food in the past three days than I have in the past ten years, and it’s slow-going at times, especially navigating curvy mountain roads.

In the meantime, I hope you’re staying cool as we head into August, one of the hottest summer months around and the birth month of yours truly. And please stay tuned for the return of Daily Chicana!