Saturday, August 6, 2011

On the Importance of Mentors and Friends

For years now I have been reflecting on the importance of mentors, those who are both formally and informally matched with us. In the past I have written about the topic, particularly in my essay, "Mentoring and Love: An Open Letter." But most recently, I have revisited the topic because of the loss of three colleagues in the field: John Warren, Ray Puchot, and Nacho Cordova. I had the privilege of knowing all of these men to varying degrees, but they were all folks I looked forward to running into every year at our national convention, NCA. I have already written a bit about these losses on my own blog, but in the context of this space reflecting on critical pedagogy I think of them again. Each was a mentor. John Warren spend his career writing and mentoring in the field, particularly in Critical Communication Pedagogy, an area he helped pioneer. Ray and Nacho were pioneers and advocates in the field of Latina/o Communication Studies, but also in the formation of the discipline organizationally. Both were active in creating a space for our voices as Latinos in structure of NCA; something we might remember was not always there and we still fight for.  Ray was the Parliamentarian of the group and could always be counted on to be at meetings to inform the structure and hope his usual, "Hola amigo!" followed by a big hug. He was always professional and always wanting to make connections across caucuses. I do not remember an NCA without him. Likewise, Nacho was one of the central members of the LCSD and La Raza Caucus who had also served as Vice-Chair and Chair, which included program planning (a thankless job indeed). Nacho's work in rhetoric was central in creating a space for Latina/o Communication Studies. Nacho was also one of the few Puerto Rican scholars in the field I have met. Though he and I did not always agree theoretically, I always respected him and his work. I was intrigued by the photography he had been doing. From what I hear he was a much loved teacher and mentor at Williamette.

I reflect on these men because they have reminded me of the ways people come into our lives, impact us, and in some ways serve as mentors whether we know it or not. I was inspired by Ray's pride in La Raza and his determination to fight for us at the national organization. John's work ethic and work inspired me and continues to do as. The same with Nacho. Nacho was also a bit of a veterano in the area and he was someone that I looked to as a leader in the area both in regards to research and professional service. He was committed to mentoring a new generation of scholars in Latina/o Communication Studies as he had been organizing a panel for them this past year at NCA. He wanted to remind us all of the importance of being mentors. We will honor each of these men at NCA, but I wonder if we as critical educators might continue to honor them by embodying the spirit of reciprocity each one lived.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

To Be or Not to Be Latina

The following essay was written in a moment of crisis, in a moment of painful identity struggle, from when I first moved to the United States. That is how I felt back then. Thanks to a lot of great readings and the support of amazing people, I am slowly finding my own place in this country.

To Be or Not to Be Latina
When I moved to the US three months ago, I was not sure how people here would read me in terms of race/ethnicity. Having lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for my whole life, race/ethnicity was not one of my biggest concerns while living there. In fact, I have always seen myself as a privileged person in a lot of ways. In Brazil, social class is still seen as the hardest struggle to overcome: “If you are poor”, people say, “It does not matter if you are White, Brown, or Black. It will be just as hard”.  Even though I have serious doubts regarding this type of statement (I do think it can become harder if you are poor, African descendent, and a woman). I believe I embraced this idea, considering my traditional leftist political and ideological perspectives. Therefore, race, color, or cultural background were elements which I rarely thought about while living in Brazil.
            Now, living in the US, I am facing issues such as being read as a woman of color. I first realized that was my reality here when I received, weeks ago, an invitation to a student of color meeting at the university. I still do not know exactly what that means. The consequences of being framed in this category remain obscure to me so far. Do I have to fight for something? Do I have to work harder than Whites? Am I going to suffer any type of prejudice for looking darker than Whites? Am I going to be more likely to be subjugated for being a woman of color? Am I ready to fight back?
I come from Latin America,I also a woman of color. Notice I did not say “I am a Latina.” I am still negotiating whether I want to be identified as such, or “Brazilian” will be how I will categorize myself. Do I control these things? Can I choose to be a Latina, or a Brazilian? I did not choose to be a woman of color; this is just the way people read me. What makes me think I will be the one deciding this matter?
Reading “La conciencia de la Mestiza,” from Glória Anzaldúa, I identified with her writings. But at the same time, I had the impression Anzaldúa was not including Portuguese-speaking people in the category “Mestiza,” or to state “somos de una gente.” Some people do not include Brazilians in the Latina/o category, including Brazilians. Where do I fit, then?
The fact that people know nothing about where I come from or what language I speak is sometimes frustrating, but also gives me the chance to reinvent myself, at least to a limited extent. Sometimes I refuse to be categorized as a Latina. Sometimes I identify myself as a Latina. Does that mean I am reinventing myself or is it just a demonstration of my identity struggle? Or perhaps both? What are the implications of being a Latina that speaks Portuguese? Does that make any difference? Am I going to be considered a fraud? Am I Latina enough?
The truth is that no matter what I state, to be or not to be Latina is definitely my biggest struggle right now. Being a Latina encompasses a lot of oppressive elements. Am I oppressed enough to claim this identity? Am I having a diasporic crisis? Is living in “la frontera” the best choice to heal my internal conflicts? Right now, I see myself as my own worst enemy. I cannot decide what I want or where I belong. On the other hand, I do not know how much choice I have in this struggle of identity. I am still fighting to transform my small “I” into my total Self.

Raquel Portilho

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The margin as central

Welcome to AcademicZ!

Like many people who come to realize their membership in minority groups, I have found myself at various points in life with an intense desire to learn more. Of course I’m sure all academics share a love of knowledge, literature, enlightening conversations, and good debates. However, being in a marginalized position, my identity plays a role in guiding interactions, particularly in the classroom as I assume a position of power to teach content. First, I would like to situate my perspective by sharing some personal instances in which I felt particularly driven to pursue an academic profession. I think this will be a good starting point to consider how and why people enter and/or metaphorically *fight* to be in academia and contribute to what are all too often considered “alternative” voices. Then, I pose some pedagogical questions.

My interest in minority identity issues stems from two influences: my love for history, and my consciousness as a Latina feminist.

I enjoy history because it stirs up thoughts, challenges assumptions, and angers me at times. As I tell my intercultural communication students, people who write history for the textbooks we read are highly privileged because they tell the stories about past events that are overwhelmingly accepted as hard facts. There rests inherent privilege in storytelling. For example, as a young person, I started to question why Native American extermination and land occupation by colonizers were so often sanitized in presentation. Why not call it what it was? Dehumanization, genocide, and stealing. I was even more baffled as to why everyone of Latin descent could be reasonably lumped into one large (but largely heterogeneous!) group as Hispanics - this really short changes the complexity of identities included.

Considering my own regional identity with family from northern New Mexico, it is perfectly normal for me that we proudly hold our own traditions, customs, food, and ways of thinking that constitute a blend of cultures ---> Chican@ = being Latin@/Hispanic (more specifically, of Mexican descent) AND U.S.-born. American but not white, American and culturally diverse. These identities co-exist. Reality is often sanitized.

Much of the history I learned excluded my group identities and it wasn't until much later that I acquired a more well-rounded view. This made me mad. I felt robbed. Like someone was keeping my own history from me. So I asked questions. I asked my history teacher in high school why some things were hardly mentioned, while others were elaborated upon for many pages. I asked my parents about their upbringing. I asked my grandparents about their life experiences. I searched for literature to provide me access to this information from those voices on the margins that I was so sure existed. Surely I wasn’t the first and I wouldn’t be the last to note this exclusion and identity tensions and become curious. Sure enough I was right and I have since expanded my personal library to include these histories considered “on the margin” but that are so central in understanding my societal position(s). I have also had many conversations with friends and colleagues who share these sentiments and similar pivotal life moments. I am satisfied to know this knowledge exists; but I am saddened more often than not that when I’m teaching I find I have to integrate mini-history lessons to catch students up on different ways of thinking that are perhaps unconventional. I love teaching mini-history lessons within my communication courses; I hate that my history (and that of many “others”) is marginal in the first place.

Another pivotal life moment occurred shortly after my confrontation with history. I was automatically drawn to a Chicana feminist class to count towards my Women’s Studies Certificate. I enrolled and it blew my mind. I already knew I was a feminist, especially once I realized the man-hating bra-burners were only a sensational media stereotype and NOT representative of the majority of feminists. Again, I recognized diversity within a broad umbrella term on its face, much like the diversity the Hispanic/Latino category encompasses. I first heard of the “double jeopardy” concept when I was in junior high – a woman AND a minority group member.

Well, it was at this point in my graduate education that I was finishing up my thesis and getting ready to graduate. I was also being strongly persuaded by my advisor to consider pursuing a Ph.D. It was this Chicana feminist class that gave me that final push I needed. It disturbed me to learn of the meager percentages of higher education degrees awarded annually to Hispanic females. I couldn’t believe how groups are differentially affected by poverty and systematically disadvantaged, or have experiences hitting glass walls and ceilings within organizations, though perhaps some would never admit to experience with institutional discrimination. I felt like I owed it to myself and my entire cultural and gender group to obtain a Ph.D. Of course, my collectivist-oriented family members are extremely proud of my accomplishments and my working towards a Ph.D. is a group credit.

“Dr. Martinez (one day soon), wow!”

But for me, my teaching and research can be pretty personal, exciting, fun, yet sometimes conflicting and difficult. The more I teach, the more I learn. The more I research, the more questions I come up with.

So, these two pivotal life experiences inform questions I have that are not easily answered:

1) How can we navigate multiple cultures at once as uniquely layered individuals and teach effectively to groups of students who are not similar? Where is the fine balance between living marginalization and teaching to the majority?

2) Is it possible to divorce ourselves from our personal identities and perspectives to teach and conduct research neutrally? Should this be something that is desirable? Is it fair to be asked to keep personal perspective out of our academic lives?

My colleague Kevin and I have pondered and discussed such questions and have come together on some shared experiences. On the one hand, it is a relief to know our experiences are not easily chalked up to personality. Kevin and I are effective teachers. We enjoy teaching greatly, take our responsibilities to students seriously, and strive to become better constantly. On the other hand, it is perplexing to teach as the “other” to the in-group.

We are both eager to engage discussions surrounding these identity tensions as Latin@ communication scholars.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Welcome to AcademicZ

A couple of years ago fellow graduate student, Amanda Martinez, and I found ourselves talking a lot about our experiences in academia. In reflecting upon our conversations we noticed that many of our experiences stemmed from a shared experience- our identity as Latino/a. The more we talked with one another about research, teaching and service, the more we realized that we had much to learn from one another through a dialogue about our experiences. Along the way, we engaged other Latino/a scholars at conferences related to our discipline in communication and wondered how we could better sustain this dialogue.

AcademicZ is a space where we can share our experiences and reach out to one another. Our hope is that this serves at least three purposes for Latino/a scholars in higher education: 1) a forum where we can connect with one another and build a network of understanding, 2) exercise our voice, and 3) hopefully identify patterns of challenges and opportunities so that we can be more effective as scholars, teachers, and mentors.

So please join us, hear what we have to share, reach out to one another, and be the change we seek.

kch & am