On Being Latina/o in Academe

Latinas/os are racialized in ways that mark us as people of color, writes Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, yet our experience is trivialized as ethnic, not racial.

September 2, 2016

Although I may be one of the first Latina/o faculty members to contribute to “Conditionally Accepted,” I want to start by stating the obvious: I am not speaking for all Latinas/os in academe. As a light-skinned, nonheterosexual Puerto Rican man, I have a specific social location that not even other Puerto Ricans or other queer Latina/o academics will share. That includes, as a Puerto Rican, having been born with U.S. citizenship, and coming from one of the only countries that has not achieved independence from its colonizers. And as a nonheterosexual faculty member, it includes the perks of being a multiply minoritized scholar, to use José Muñoz’s Disidentifications phrase.

Yet while I am only writing from my own experience, I have met and interacted with countless other nonwhite faculty members experiencing a range of issues like those I have faced. In this essay, I write from the self in ways that demonstrate a singular-social voice in order to situate the self in the social. Work on the humanities, communications and increasingly, the social sciences is doing this nowadays -- my own work on autoethnography attests to that.

For me, the writing from the self does not divorce from social categories or political ones inside and outside of academe. As a Latino, it is crucial for me to discuss that in 2016, after 15 years of the so-called threat of Latinas/os numerically surpassing African-Americans, Latinas/os are read in a multiplicity of ways: adhering to their own communities (whereas by nationality, region and/or as Latinas/os) while being charged with an assimilationist racial discourse in a (still) polarized black-white racial landscape. Latinas/os are racialized -- a practice that occurs irrespective of skin color or census-based ethno-racial categories. We are racialized in ways that mark us as people of color. But we are placed between the black and white racial binary, often forced to operate with those compass-like categories, pointing to ways of how to talk about race but always within the binary. All the while, our experience is trivialized as ethnic, not racial.

As a queer Latino faculty member, I'm sometimes asked by colleagues at many colleges and universities (including my home institution, American University) to address questions of gender and sexuality in diversity sessions, classrooms and other academic settings. But when such conversations turn to race and racial inequality, or when I queer a plain conversation intended for the sake of discussing only gender and sexuality by introducing racialized content, questions of power and issues of racism, the ambience is like a first date gone awfully wrong. However, that is how one makes waves happen.

As noted before, the differences between Latinas/os are immense. Yet it is often assumed inside and outside academe that we speak in a particular way. (Many of us often hear the so very offensive “Gosh, your English is so good!”) Or that we think in a particular way about social and economic issues, or that we are significantly more Catholic (or religious, for that matter). Even in academic settings, it is often assumed that we cannot challenge machismo practices (which, oddly enough, are only attributed to Latino culture!). Being “conditionally accepted” means managing a constant negotiation of these assumptions -- and tapping into self-control and our artful skills to challenge the tenets of such assumptions, be it about dancing, food, religion, family ties, immigration -- you name it.

For instance, I have had my share of experiences with white feminist scholars who speak to me in Spanish. I let out a few seconds of generous doubt about what that means, only to respond in English. I assume this is read as a warning, a symbolic one, before calling them out verbally the second (or third) time around. When I hear a mention of machismo, I tend to sigh and redirect to issues of heterosexism. When I hear that Latinos have a harder time coming out, I loop back to Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, and Gayle Rubin, all gay and lesbian historians and anthropologists, to explain that most urban gay cities were formed by white gay men who left their families and formed new communities -- for it is quite easy to come out a thousand miles away from family and when you are self-sufficient, but not when you live in the same household.

I am casually touched in a hallway or at my office in ways that seem to read acceptance into some sort of a club (as a light-skinned Latino), in contrast to how my black colleagues are often not touched, nor their personal space invaded. I am asked to represent my ethno-racial group when discussing race, just like a student is tokenized by being brought into a committee to speak for their group. Indeed, paternalism comes in all colors. I turn around to challenge this, and then I lose -- too angry to be collegial, too volatile to collaborate with. But the energy and patience it takes to not talk back is precious, and the point there is that it takes a hold of one.

Of course, my experiences as a faculty member at AU have somewhat influenced my writing. I have had my share of great department chairs and students, as well as wonderful relationships with its many administrators in more than a decade at the university -- and a lot of challenges at many of those levels as well.

Yet my writing comes, as I noted before, from many other places, experiences and tales told to me by colleagues at public and private institutions. The point is really not about a faculty member at a single institution but rather about the echo produced once a story is told and how it resonates with others in academe. In that, it is not just my story. It is also not an ethnography of the institution where I have worked for over a decade nor an autoethnography of myself in a place. It is constitutive of larger experiences of managing one’s own set of lived realities as “diversity workers” by virtue of being on those spaces, as Sara Ahmed so eloquently notes in her 2012 book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

The point of this first post is that, while I am writing solo, I am not alone, but I am also not representing all Puerto Ricans, all queer people or all Latinas/os. That brings a lot of excitement to the writing, and I look forward to hearing, and reading, the echo of many other voices for which these stories resonate -- Latina/o and non-Latina/o alike.


Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is an associate professor in the sociology department at American University. He also teaches in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press.


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