Listen: Educator Jonathan Rosa '03 on Latinx Languages and Identities Beyond Borders
In this talk, Jonathan Rosa '03 draws on ethnographic research conducted in a Chicago public high school and its surrounding communities to examine borders delimiting Latinx and American identities on the one hand, and co-naturalizations of language and race on the other.
His analysis of these dynamics in relation to racialized anxieties regarding the implications of an increasing U.S. Latinx population attends to the construction of language as a sign of Americanness, and especially of its potential undoing.
Rosa is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. His research analyzes the interplay between racial marginalization, linguistic stigmatization, and educational inequity. He is the author of Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad (2018, Oxford University Press).
This lecture is part of the Searching for Sanctuary: Borders, Migration and Human Rights Lecture Series, supported by the President's Office through the Andrew W. Mellon Grant, the Departments of Educational Studies, English Literature, Linguistics, Political Science, and French and Francophone Studies, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and the Latin American and Latino Studies Program.
Elaine Allard '05: Good afternoon. I'm Elaine Allard, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies, and I'm excited to welcome you all this afternoon for the first talk in the Searching for Sanctuary lecture series. Thank you for rearranging your lives to come today. I hope you had a fun snow day yesterday.
Searching for Sanctuary: Borders, Migration, and Human Rights is a collaboration between faculty and students in four courses this semester: English 84, Human Rights and Literature with Gina Patnaik; Peace and Conflict Studies 94, Friends, Peace and Sanctuary with Katie Price and Peggy Seiden; Poli Sci 31, Borders and Migration with Osman Balkan; and Ed Studies 153, Latinos in Education with yours truly, Elaine Allard.
The scholars and intellectuals in this lecture series bring us critical, creative, and interdisciplinary perspectives on the experiences and contexts of immigrants, migrants, refugees, and others navigating borders, both physical and metaphorical, in today's trying and uncertain times. Tonight we'll hear from Dr. Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at Stanford's Graduate School of Education and a Swarthmore alum. We hope that you can join us for all of the upcoming lectures, which you see listed here, and the culminating one day symposium on May 5th, which will feature student work alongside that of scholars, activists, artists, and community members.
I'd like to thank Professor Patnaik, though I don't think she is here, for leading the charge on the symposium, Anna Weber and Ava Shafi, our student assistants over here, and Deb Sloman for catering the reception. This series is made possible through the generous support of a lot of different groups: the president's office Andrew Mellon Grant, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, the program in Latin American and Latino studies, and the departments of educational studies, linguistics, French, and political science. Finally, thank you to Dr. Rosa for your flexibility and willingness to reschedule and come back to campus. We're so happy to have you here. I'll now pass the mic to Professor Diane Anderson who is going to introduce Dr. Rosa.
Diane Anderson: There aren't many things that would bring me back to campus during my sabbatical, but Jon Rosa has done that, and I'm really pleased to be here. I'm going to go through a couple of the facts of Dr. Jonathan Rosa's academic career, and then I'll say something a little bit more personal.
Jonathan graduated from Swarthmore in 2003 with a B.A. in linguistics and educational studies with high honors, and then he earned a master's and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology. Can you hear me? Am I loud enough? I can [inaudible 00:03:06]. His work trajectory, 2011 to 2015, he was an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He was in the Department of Anthropology and a faculty affiliate with a language, literacy, and culture concentration of the College of Education and the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latina/Latino Studies. So understand from this that what you do in life is collect really long affiliations and titles, and so that's what you nailed on that job. Then in 2015, 2016, postdoctoral fellow, Latina and Latino Studies Program Northwestern. 2015 to the present, assistant professor, Graduate School of Education, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and by courtesy, linguistics at Stanford University.
We're really proud, but we knew him when. He's now working on his book, and he is a prolific publisher, and you can look all of that stuff up. But here's what I want to tell you that I think is really important about Jon Rosa. If you get to know him, and you'll start to get to know him when you listen to him this evening, you will find that he has a great sense of humor. This is very true, but as I was thinking about this over the past couple of days, I realized that although he laughs and smiles well in addition to his deep scholarly accomplishments, there's something more to this, and I hadn't seen Jonathan very recently, but just talking to him the last few minutes made me realize he hasn't changed.
The more of this is this. The critical theorist Paulo Freire captured this very well. He said that, "Reading is a loving event and an aesthetical event." Those were events that brought him great happiness. Remember Freire is the person that gave us the conception of reading the word and the world, and that, I think, is what Jonathan does extraordinary well, and in a loving way, in an aesthetical way, that gives him happiness, and also gives those who read him and listen to him great happiness.
What I remember most about Jonathan is that even at his most analytical and critical moments of insight, and you did have them as an undergraduate, regarding inequality based in language and structural oppression, like Freire, there is great love in what you do. There's love for your work, there's love for the word, and love for the world. When I knew you at Swarthmore and you were doing your critical analysis in your academic work, you were also watching Will and Grace and eating your first artichoke. I have photos of this loving and aesthetical event. It is not fake news. I think if all of you listen carefully, you will not only learn all those particular scholarly and academic things that we want you to learn, but you will also see a scholar who is engaged in reading the word, reading the world, as a loving event. I introduce you to Dr. Jonathan Rosa.
Jonathan Rosa: Thank you, Diane, for that introduction. Thank you, Elaine, for the invitation to be here. Thank you all for coming out and braving the wintry weather. I have to say a couple of things about Swarthmore first before I get into my actual talk, which I'll put that slide up there, because my credentials make me feel safe or something. Actually, not really.
First, I think I'm gonna get up in my feelings or something, so let me try to take a deep breath. I don't have a lot of institutional allegiance to many places, and Swarthmore is one of the exceptions to that. I find institutions often to be profoundly normative and reproductive and retrograde in so many situations. But Swarthmore was a space for me that was profoundly transformative, and it was a space where learning, not just from people like Diane and Lisa, and Donna Jo Napoli in linguistics, and K. David Harrison.
The work we were doing in our seminars and in the classrooms was incredible, but it was also a space where learning with our peers was really the centerpiece of what was happening. I think we all knew in that moment that the world that existed was not enough, that the categories, the binaries were not enough, that they had never worked for any of us, and that we needed to reimagine what they could be, and to do that collectively. It was a space where people like Diane, Lisa, and the others I've mentioned were open to us doing that work with them critically and bringing the conversations and the analyses that we were engaging in in the dorms, and I was an R.A. in Hallowell. I rep really hard for Hallowell. But so much of the learning was happening there, and not just in the seminar rooms. I think that this is partly why being here is so special for me, so I'll sort of reference some of those experiences probably throughout the talk without being too nostalgic.
Because of course, any institution, while for some people ... For me, Swarthmore was, again, profoundly transformative. I was a first generation college student. The idea of becoming a professor was unimaginable to me when I arrived on campus. I had no idea what that meant, so yeah, the fact that people saw that potential in me is a gift that I could never repay.
Anyways, again, I don't want to get up in my feelings. Let me get into the talk, which is based on my ongoing research in various communities and various cities, and the talk will look at the book project that Diane mentioned. The book comes out this summer. I'll do a cheap plug for it, probably at the end. It's called Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race. So I'll talk about a lot of my on the ground, ethnographic, community-based research in Chicago, but also look at some popular representations, and then some of my applied work in different places.
Yeah, Latinx languages and identities beyond borders. I put a couple of hashtags and my Twitter handle in case you get into that sort of stuff, so yeah. I'm working on a raciolinguistic perspective with my close colleague and fellow Swat alum, Nelson Flores, and hashtag #PRsyllabus, 'cause everyone should be reading and learning about Puerto Rico right now, especially in the aftermath of the colonial disaster, not natural disaster, that took place this past fall there. Puerto Rico will be mentioned throughout the talk.
In order to get into things, I first need to sort of represent or start to sketch out an approach to making sense of language ideologies. This is one of my favorite cartoons to open with, because it displays this image of sort of a stereotypical teacher, which is not entirely unrepresentative of the U.S. teaching force in K through 12 public schools, which is predominately by white women. The claim that ideas about language are simply objective facts about rule-governed, systematic things regarding language, they have nothing to do with identity, so that one is correcting someone's language or standardizing someone's language, that's not tied to gender. It's not tied to race or class.
But of course we know that this simply isn't the case, that particularly in a post-1965 moment in the United States when racism is no longer written into the laws, that language, ideas about language and culture are profound sites for the reproduction of racism, the reproduction of gender stereotypes, and a range of systems of power, so that it's no longer acceptable in most mainstream settings to claim that certain populations are biologically inferior, but often you'll hear claims about populations' language use. So that they suffer from a language gap, that they don't speak languages properly, or that they have a culture of poverty, this sort of thing. These claims are still circulating widely, so I want to think about how language is deeply tied to questions of identity, deeply tied to history and relations of power.
As Gloria Anzaldua, the Chicana lesbian feminist puts it, "So if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity. I am my language." So from Anzaldua's perspective, there's no discussion of language that isn't necessarily a discussion of identity. Perhaps an even more striking indictment of the effort to depoliticize language comes from the perspective of Toni Morrison, and I've been sitting with this quotation for some time, so I want you to hear what Toni Morrison has to say about some of these systems of power.
Toni Morrison: ... the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn't shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdom, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
Jonathan Rosa: So I think Toni Morrison provides us with a striking indictment of a politics of respectability, of an effort to prove that one is legitimate on existing terms, to demonstrate that one's language is good enough, that one's cultural practices are good enough, that one's history is rich enough. As Toni Morrison puts it, "There will always be one more thing." So if we stop investing and trying to prove that we're good enough enough based on existing terms of assessing what goodness is, then what else could we be up to? What other kinds of worlds could we be creating? From Morrison's perspective, the nature of the problem is much deeper. It's much more historically rooted, and by avoiding that problem, by simply trying to prove that we're good enough, we never get to address some of these deeper issues.
Perhaps James Baldwin puts it in an even more striking way, which I skipped ahead, but let me suggest that part of what's going on here in terms of these histories is a way in which, as the Martiniquan Caribbean philosopher Aime Cesaire puts it, "Colonialism terms certain problems into things, turns certain categories into things, objectifies particular sorts of populations," and so for Cesaire, "My turn to state an equation, colonization equals thingification," is also a striking way of thinking about how problems get defined and how categories get defined, and how that prevents us from seeing them or from reorienting to them.
We might ask ourselves how particular sorts of categories, and in my research I'm thinking especially about race, inequality, language, and education get defined in specific ways. To get to the Baldwin sort of indictment of this, the Baldwin sort of analysis of the ways that we continually avoid the fundamental nature of the problem, we could look here. Baldwin says, "Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice or any concept of it." So for Baldwin, there are certain sorts of political entities, especially normative nation-states such as the U.S., which are ill-equipped to even imagine the world that we need to live in, and that in some ways we've always been living in, even if it hasn't been codified legally.
Baldwin invokes some categories here, Mexican, Puerto Rican, black, in ways that might separate those categories from one another, but I want to look at popular representations of Latinidad especially, which is sort of the focus of my research, and debates surrounding the fundamental nature of Latinidad as a category. People are wondering whether Latino, Latinx, Latina, these sorts of labels, is this a reference to race? Is it a reference to ethnicity? What's the fundamental nature of this? Some suggest that Hispanic is ethnic, not racial. Some suggest that it's not just about skin color. Some people are claiming that there are all sorts of ways to make sense of this sort of a category. Which label should you use? Is Latinx? What is this thing? Some people are just annoyed by the conversation altogether.
I'm deeply concerned by some of the claims that Latinx is an ethnicity, not a race, which I hear people say a lot. I think essentially what people are trying to argue there is that Latinx bodies present in a range of ways, so that people can look phenotypically any number of ways and still be associated with that category, but I worry about the ways that it positions other categories objectively as races. If Latinx is an ethnicity, not a race, then which other categories are really a racial category? Is Asian a racial category, and do all Asians look exactly the same? Is black a racial category? Do all black people look exactly the same? How is it that Latinx is divorced from those categories in some ways? Is whiteness a single category? Indigeneity, how is that constructed?
I want to think about the ways that we still end up referring to or relying on a body-based analysis of race at the same time that we've tried to move away from biological analyses of race. Our notion of what makes Latinx an ethnicity, not a race, uses a body-based referent, particularly a phenotypic referent, the most troublesome sort of definition of what race is, as though it lived in skin color and not in history, not in colonialism. We continually avoid colonial histories by focusing on bodies.
Often, these representations of Latinidad and efforts to define Latinx identities in the United States invoke discourses of the future, the idea that Latinxs are a rising population of the future. Sometimes these sorts of demographic projections are invoked in somewhat hopeful or optimistic terms, but I worry about this idea that Latinxs are a people of the future, because if you're only ever a people of the future then how do you stake claims to rights and resources in the present? I worry about the ways, again, that even some of the efforts toward mobilizing in response to, say, immigration frame the effort in relation to these ideas about the future, so we hear this notion of a pathway to citizenship. Why are we seeking to create a pathway to citizenship, and how does that become a way of perpetually deferring rights, to perpetually deferring access? If you're only ever on a pathway, then when do you arrive?
Also this notion that citizenship is the answer, I think, is deeply troublesome as well. To promote citizenship as the primary effort in any rights struggles, not to say that citizenship is not an important struggle, but by itself is not the answer. Remember, there are millions of Latinxs who are U.S. citizens and yet still face profound institutional inequities in education, political representation, access to healthy food, access to stable housing and living wage. Citizenship has never been the answer for African Americans, for Native Americans, for millions and millions of people, and I worry about the ways that these migrant narratives that frame citizenship as the answer ignore the experiences of so many racialized populations in the United States, similar to the way in which the English language is framed as the answer, so if you would just learn English. But again, this ignores the experiences of many people who might identify as monolingual English users and yet face profound inequities.
Often, language centers into these sorts of demographic representations. I love the quotation at the bottom especially. "U.S. will be biggest Spanish-speaking country by 2050, says scholar." You just get to be an ambiguous scholar and make these sorts of claims. But these sorts of projections circulate in all kinds of arenas. We see them in popular cultural representations like the 2012 summer blockbuster film Elysium, starring Matt Damon, which pictures a figured 22nd century post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where the destitute masses, who are stuck on planet Earth and exposed to nuclear fallout, speak Spanish and English and Spanglish, and are mostly brown. Matt Damon speaks Spanglish in the film. Then you have the wealthy people who have left planet Earth, and they live in a space station that's sort of like a luxury resort in the sky, and they speak English and French in the sky. Imagined standardized varieties of English and French.
In the media that was released in conjunction with the rollout of this film, some of the actors who starred in it had a range of things to say. This is an interview with Diego Luna, a Mexican actor, and Conan O'Brien.
Conan O'Brien: Okay. In the future, they're prophesizing in this movie, that everybody speaks Spanish.
Diego Luna: Well, yeah.
Conan O'Brien: 'Cause that's sort of the way it's going.
Diego Luna: Yeah, I mean, it's not gonna take so long. Do you speak Spanish? That's what I asked your producer.
Conan O'Brien: Yes. [foreign language 00:21:39] But anyway, I could go on and on, but I don't.
Diego Luna: The thing is, if you want to keep your job in this network, you're gonna have to learn Spanish. There's-
Conan O'Brien: Yes, 'cause the country, it's all changing over. Yes.
Diego Luna: 47 million people speak Spanish today, and we like having sex, so multiply that for eight in 10 years, another eight in another 10 years.
Conan O'Brien: [foreign language 00:22:10]
Diego Luna: And then you won't be sitting there right now.
Female: If only the rest of us liked having sex.
Male: I know.
Female: We'd have a fighting chance.
Conan O'Brien: It's just so much work.
Jonathan Rosa: So there's a lot going on here. A lot of stereotypes about sexuality and language and identity and the future, but I was really fascinated by Diego Luna's claim that in order to be viable for employment in the future, Conan O'Brien would need to learn Spanish. Remember that the film depicts the future of the Spanish language in terms of nuclear fallout and being stuck in the post-apocalypse.
This notion that Spanish is the language of future prosperity is contradicted by the representation in the film, and I'm interested in ways in which certain language practices are framed as the practices of the future or of the past. So in some situations, English is the language of the future. Here's one example of that.
Child: Papa, why do you have a hybrid?
Male: For the future.
Male: It's better for the air, and we spend less because it runs on gas and electrical power. [inaudible 00:23:14] use them both.
Child: Why do [inaudible 00:23:18]?
Child: So why did you learn English?
Male: For the future.
Announcer: Coming soon, the all new 2007 Camry. Also available with high-boost energy drive. From Toyota. The power to move forward.
Jonathan Rosa: It's just a really creepy commercial. The father's backward glance at the child creeps me out every time I see it, but part of what's fascinating here is the way in which the father's English Spanish bilingualism is made analogous to a hybrid fuel technology, that is, renewable fuel and hydrogen-based fuels, this sort of thing. Or fossil fuels, sorry. The son is pictured as the person of the future, so the idea is you're English dominant in the future, and that's akin to a fully renewable fuel, which then invokes the idea or suggests the idea that a linguistic gas guzzler, so the language of the past, would be someone who were Spanish-dominant. It frames this narrative of progress from Spanish dominance to bilingualism to English dominance and makes it akin to fuel technology. But this is an optimistic portrayal in some ways, or intended to be a hopeful, commodified portrayal of Latinad and language.
Some representations of English as the future are not as optimistic. This is our former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who in the run up to the 2008 presidential election when he was seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, has this to say:
Newt Gingrich: We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people with learn the common language of the country, and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.
Jonathan Rosa: You should know Gingrich apologized shortly after making these comments and then hired a Spanish language tutor, and then everything was okay, I guess. He intertwines a set of ideologies surrounding race, language, American identity, space, class, these kinds of things, and suggests that English is the language of the future. Again, advancing a particular sort of class analysis as well, suggesting that English is the language of prosperity.
We might think that the knee-jerk reaction to this would be to just promote bilingualism in opposition to promoting the idea of English monolingualism as the future, but we have to be very careful about the specific way in which we advocate for bilingualism, because if we're not careful, we might be contributing to the effort towards reproducing a set of class dynamics that are really troublesome.
For example, this principal of an elite charter school in Brooklyn was overheard telling parents of prospective students, these are wealthy, mostly white students, that, "If you don't speak Spanish, you're going to clean your own house." In this case, she makes a strange kind of argument around learning languages other than English, in this case Spanish, in order to maintain one's class superiority. So here the effort is language learning or bilingualism in service of reproducing a set of socioeconomic hierarchies.
We can see this in a range of situations, like this advertisement that on the left side is promoting Spanish language learning. It says, "Can't speak Spanish?" Yeah, [inaudible 00:26:33]. Spanish language learner, can't speak Spanish, you need this book. The man is lighter-skinned. He's pictured as a boss of sorts potentially. He has a shirt and tie on. On the right, it's a darker skinned man who's dressed less formally, potentially positioned as a laborer of some sort. It says, "[foreign language 00:26:48]. You don't speak English. [foreign language 00:26:51]. You need this book." Each of sides of this advertisement, to be clear, is advocating for bilingualism. It's advocating language learning, but language learning in the service of reproducing class hierarchies.
We have to be very careful about maintaining an effort towards connecting language learning to broader political struggles. Much less, we reproduce these sorts of existing systems. But I frame this kind of dynamic where embodiment is tied to language, in this case it's racialized, it's gendered and classed in particular ways as a phenomenon in which populations come to look like a language and sound like a race. I'm interested in the historical conditions of possibility for this phenomenon, the ways in which histories of colonialism, nation-states have naturalized borders such that when we encounter someone's voice, we expect it to correspond to a particular kind of racialized embodiment, and when we encounter a body, we expect a voice to come out of it. This is why Idris Elba couldn't be imagined as James bond, for example, this kind of thing.
How is it that in relation to a range of populations these sorts of stereotypes and this co-naturalized relationship between language and race coheres? We see it across all sorts of situations. In a study that was conducted many years ago by Donald Hooven, a lecture hall full of undergraduate students like this one is shown the image on the left, which is a stereotypical white woman, and then they hear an audio track while they're looking at that image. The students are asked to describe the voice they hear, and then they're given a short quiz based on the information that they hear in the audio track. They describe the voice as normal, regular, unremarkable, and they fare perfectly well on the quiz. You show a comparable but different group of undergraduate students only the image on the right, which is a stereotypical Asian woman, you play the same exact audio track that the other group of students heard, and then they say that the voice is weird, hard to understand, accented, and they fare less well on the exam or on the short quiz.
Ostensibly, the same linguistic materials are perceived in completely different ways based on the form of embodiment with which they come to be associated. Now, in a experiment like this, this is somewhat low stakes, although when we talk about faculty of color and T.A.s of color, they're facing these sorts of stereotypes all the time when they're teaching. There are other situations in which these perceived linguistic differences are very much high stakes, so we see a whole range of cases in which someone is speaking a language other than English, or perceived as speaking a language other than English, and then faces, in some cases, profound forms of violence like a Puerto Rican man a couple of years ago who was killed by his neighbor for speaking Spanish in his apartment building. Note that the Puerto Rican man was speaking English and Spanish with his son, but his English was perceived as Spanish, was heard as Spanish.
For certain populations, their practices are transformed and always perceived as criminalized in certain ways. You can see this take place in relation to some Middle Eastern populations, Muslim populations, though Islamophobic dynamics, like the case of Ahmed Mohamed a few years ago, the young boy in Texas who brought a homemade clock to school and his teacher thought it was a bomb. What's interesting about this cartoon that is parodying the situation is it displays this young boy holding up the Constitution, but it says, "Incomprehensible propaganda. What is that? Arabic?" In this way, what the very sorts of language and literacy practices that might be seen as standardized English from some perspectives, from other viewpoints are seen as foreign, seen as criminal, seen as a threat, so that the fundamental materiality, the fundamental nature of these practices is transformed through ideas about, in this case, race and religion.
We also saw this in the case of Trayvon Martin, the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, which this cartoon represents in some ways, how this young man, this unarmed African American boy was seen through white vision glasses, interestingly by a person of color who is still using white vision glasses, George Zimmerman, and sees Trayvon Martin. The cartoon demonstrates how skin is darkened, how soda becomes seen as liquor, how a phone is seen as a gun, this sort of thing. Note that Trayvon Martin's Skittles and his iced tea were seen as potential weapons and drug paraphernalia.
I was also so struck by the closing argument in this case where the defense attorney for George Zimmerman brings a slab of concrete into the courtroom and displays it before the jury, and he disputes the claim that Trayvon Martin was an unarmed young man by suggesting that Trayvon Martin was armed with the sidewalk that he used to beat up George Zimmerman. In this case, the sidewalk is transformed. A sidewalk is only an inanimate object when it's inhabited by, oriented in relation to, normative whiteness. Skittles are only Skittles in relation to normative whiteness. Iced tea is only iced tea in relation to normative whiteness. These materialities are weaponized and criminalized when they become interpreted in relation to race.
I'm interested in how this maps on to language and maps on to identity in very powerful ways. We also saw this in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when police officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as a giant and as a monster, despite the fact that the two of them are both 6'4", the same exact height. In their altercation, Darren Wilson was the one who was armed with a gun, and Michael Brown was unarmed, and yet seen as this terrifying monster, which again, another cartoon sort of calls into question.
This is why when we think about social movements that are speaking back to stereotypes about language and the body and various identities, I interpret them not simply as staking a claim to the fundamental value of, in this case, black lives, but really a claim about the materiality of black life, and the ways in which it's been normatively constructed and criminalized and illegalized and dehumanized. So this is an effort to call into question how those materialities are constructed historically.
We can also see how social media become powerful sites for contesting those sorts of normative forms of boundary making around identities, such as the students at Howard who utilized the hashtag #handsupdontshoot in order to call into question whether their bodies could ever be seen as innocent in the eyes of the law, or the hashtag movement #iftheygunnedmedown which questions if someone were the victim of extrajudicial violence, which kind of a picture would be used in relation to that sort of a news story? Would someone be displayed in a informal or criminalized way, or would someone be viewed respectively?
All of these sorts of efforts are calling into question how the body is perceived, how identity is perceived, how identities are bounded and constructed and overdetermined from some perspectives. In my ethnographic research, I think about this particularly in relation to boundaries that demarcate languages, that demarcate ethnoracial categories and geopolitical borders. I'm interested in trying to figure out how people are constructing and contesting those borders, and I've largely worked on this on the ground in the context of Chicago. In order to do that work, I had to engage in a lot of preliminary research where I was building relationships with communities throughout Chicago, so I worked with an organization called the National Puerto Rican Forum tutoring in multiple high schools throughout Chicago, predominately African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Polish schools in Chicago. I also worked in the South Side of Chicago in Kenwood Academy, predominately African American, with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry as part of her Feminism in Hip Hop program, and with Dr. Cathy Cohen as part of the Black Youth Project.
What I was doing in this preliminary work was trying to develop an interracial perspective on identity formations and the construction and definition of racial identities in Chicago, so that I didn't just view Latinidad in isolation, or that I didn't view Latinidad as separate from blackness, as separate from other racial categories in straightforward ways. I was also working really closely with an organization called The Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, which is a radical nationalist organization. I taught at its high school. I worked on its anti-gentrification campaign, Humboldt Park No Se Vende, so Humboldt Park is not for sale. This is the high school where I taught, Dr. Pedro Albizo Campos Puerto Rican High School. This is a school where you pledge allegiance to the Puerto Rican flag in the morning, where the only flags that are displayed are Puerto Rican and Mexican and the pan-African flag. There was also a queer movement that I was participating in, addressing HIV, addressing homelessness in the LGBT community, and trying to create ... We created a transitional housing facility for homeless LGBT youth that provides job training and other opportunities.
The idea was to figure out communities, to approach communities, not simply as experiment sites or sites that academics can enter and take from, but rather as spaces of knowledge production, spaces where people are analyzing the world and theorizing the world, and trying to make sense of it, and speak back to it. That preliminary work laid sort of the foundation for my long-term ethnographic study within a high school that I call New Northwest High School in Chicago, which is a predominately Mexican and Puerto, which is a predominately Mexican and Puerto Rican school that's right adjacent to the community where the Puerto Rican Cultural Center is located.
It's about 95% Mexican and Puerto Rican, about four and a half percent African American based on its proximity to the predominately African American West Side of Chicago. Allegedly there was one white student in the school, but I never met them, and I wanted to meet them desperately, to understand what their experience was, but no one could find them for me, which is a reflection of the patterns of segregation, the profound segregation that characterizes growing up in Chicago for youth of color, who often don't know a single white peer by name. Whiteness is embodied in teachers, in administrators, in police officers, and in popular culture. That's just the normative order of things in a city like Chicago, and really, in urban contexts throughout the United States.
When I first met with the principal of this high school who's a brilliant Puerto Rican woman who, first of all, called me out for being an anthropologist and coming to her school and trying to study her. She said, "So you're an anthropologist from the University of Chicago. I assume that means you think that you're gonna come here, look at us, and tell us what we're doing, even though we think we're doing something different," and I said, "No." She said, "Just remember, if the natives don't trust you, they'll lie to you, and we'll lie to you if we don't trust you." She said, "The natives lied to Margaret Mead," who's a famous anthropologist, "and we'll do that to you, too." But then she said, "[foreign language 00:37:35], You're Puerto Rican?" I said, "Yeah," and she said, "Okay, come with me." So it's a funny sort of back and forth around figuring out what my role in the school would be.
But she was very unfiltered in terms of describing her vision of transformation in the school and her institutional project. She said, "When people look at my students, they see them as stereotypes. They see them as gang bangers and hos. I want them to be seen as young Latino professionals." I was really struck by this kind of a statement. First of all, I said, "She just said ho to me," which was a lot. I'm sort of figuring out, okay, what's gender, sexuality, class, and race doing in relation to this project of transformation? Is it the students who need to be transformed or is it other people's ways of viewing the students? Is it ways that the students are being seen that you're trying to transform? What's a young Latino professional? That sounds like a neoliberal kind of cog in a machine. What is that? What's a young Latino professional look like, sound like, act like? What is this? What's going on with this kind of a project?
But it was also interesting that her notion of Latino strongly contrasted with how the students identified themselves, which is first and foremost as Mexican and Puerto Rican. These are just images of Mexican and Puerto Rican celebrations that happen throughout the city of Chicago. Every single school year is book ended by a celebration of Mexican Independence in September and the Puerto Rican Parade in June. Students identify with these sorts of identities very, very strongly, or students affiliate with these identities very strongly. Latino is something that they were playing with. Latinx wasn't happening at this moment yet, but they were trying to figure out what Hispanic and Latino meant to them in their everyday lives as categories when they identified first and foremost as Mexican or Puerto Rican specifically.
To show you what this sounds like, this in an interview with two boys who are juniors. They're Puerto Rican. I'm in the interview. You'll notice that the equal signs are overlapping speech and the brackets are ... The equal signs are interruption. The brackets are overlapping speech.
Jonathan: What about Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are a separate race?
Student 1: Yes.
Jonathan: What's that mean?
Student 1: They're different [crosstalk 00:39:47]-
Student 2: They're different-
Student 1: [inaudible 00:39:49] Both of [inaudible 00:39:49] Spanish is different.
Student 2: No, they're Hispanic. We're Latino.
Jonathan: How does that work?
Student 2: Don't know. They're Latina.
Jonathan: What about [inaudible 00:39:57]?
Student 1: [inaudible 00:39:59]
Student 2: [inaudible 00:40:02]
Student 1: [inaudible 00:40:03] from island.
Student 2: I think I'm from island, and-
Student 1: They're from-
Student 2: They're from a fake state.
Student 1: Whatever we [inaudible 00:40:09].
Jonathan Rosa: Okay. First you should know that these two boys were both born and raised in Chicago and had never been to the island of Puerto Rico when they said we're from an island and they're from a fake state. Second, you should know that Mexico is a sovereign nation-state and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, some would say a colony of the United States, so the claim that Mexico is a fake state vis-a-vis Puerto Rico is a fascinating suggestion. Puerto Rico would be much more susceptible to an accusation of being a fake state.
But what's also noteworthy here is the way in which, and you also hear they're identifying as Latino when they call themselves [foreign language 00:40:49], so they're saying, "We're cute," basically. But they're invoking these tropicalized sorts of stereotypes about Latinad, and they say "we." Sometimes that we refers to Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricanness. Sometimes that we is a claim to a particular kind of Americanness, because they're not suggesting that Puerto Rico took over or Puerto Rico ... whatever Puerto Rico let Mexico have. They're saying America took over, America let Mexico have. They're invoking simultaneously Puerto Ricanness and Americanness in complex ways, and I want to think about how Americanness gets imbricated with and juxtaposed with Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness.
But if you just looked at these sorts of discourses, these statements at face value, you might think, "Wow, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans hate each other." But there are also so many situations where Puerto Rican, Mexican solidarity was displayed publicly throughout the school and the surrounding community. You see this chant which was used in a lot of popular pro-immigration demonstrations, [foreign language 00:41:45], so Puerto Rican and Mexican fighting hand in hand. Note that Puerto Ricans have been strong advocates for immigration reform, even though Puerto Ricans are born citizens of the United States since 1917. Note that U.S. citizenship was imposed on Puerto Ricans nonconsensually, so that's not something that Puerto Ricans asked for. That allowed Puerto Ricans to serve in World War One, and then disproportionately in every subsequent U.S. military incursion.
Some of the strongest Congressional voices advocating for immigration reform are people like Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican, U.S. citizen by birth, a Puerto Rican who is from this neighborhood in Chicago, and whose efforts towards advocating for immigration reform are informed by a long-standing history of Mexican-Puerto Rican solidarity. You see this, the Mexican and Puerto Rican flags juxtaposed in political demonstrations, artwork that hung on classroom walls, students' social media pages where some would identify as Mexorican, Mexican and Puerto Rican simultaneously. Interestingly, this is a church that's located in a predominately Puerto Rican community in Chicago, but it's understood as a Mexican church that displays the Mexican and Puerto Rican flags. This is also the church where an undocumented Mexican woman, Elvira Arellano, took sanctuary for a year and a half. The Puerto Rican Parade was dedicated to this undocumented Mexican woman in the year 2008.
There are these histories of solidarity, frictive intimacies that emerge in relation to Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness. It's interesting to look at how pan-ethnic identities are created, also how Americanness, Puerto Ricanness, and Mexicanness are juxtaposed. The students are making sense of their ethnic and racial identities, and in some cases, reproducing normative ideas about race and ethnicity, and sometimes challenging those sorts of ideas. But the students aren't just invested in being Puerto Rican or Mexican in general, but also being Puerto Rican and Mexican from Chicago.
This is a picture of a Nike Air Force One shoe. In New York, they call that an uptown. In Chicago, it's called a one. It has the Mexican flag on it, and then you'll note it also has the Chicago skyline, so the students are claiming simultaneously a very distinctive, diasporic identity that locates Mexico in Chicago, and sort of calls into question some normative boundaries.
Another representation of this is this tattoo that one student had that's a map of the state of Illinois with a Mexican flag in it, and then it refers to a predominately Mexican neighborhood, Little Village. In this case, Illinois is made into a state of Mexico.
Similarly, this one of two giant steel Puerto Rican flags that are profound sorts of displays of efforts towards anti-gentrification, staking a claim to a community's identity in Chicago in Humboldt Park. These are the largest monuments to any flag in the world. Some people say, "What is wrong with Puerto Ricans? Why are you obsessed with flags?" But you have to remember that the Puerto Rican flag, the public display of the flag was outlawed by the U.S. colonial government from 1898 till 1952, so display of the Puerto Rican flag is a sign of anti-colonial pride from many perspectives.
But the flag also commemorates the unique Puerto Rican migration to Chicago. It's made out of steel, it's welded, and it's piped, because those are the three industries that Puerto Ricans participated in as they built the city of Chicago, so it's a distinctively Chicago Puerto Rican flag. It's not just a Puerto Rican flag in general.
I love this tattoo that one student had. It displays this flag and the Chicago skyline. The tattoo artist was Spanish-dominant, so he took the phrase windy city, translated it into Spanish as [foreign language 00:45:22] and then back into English as city of wind, so this is beautiful Spanglish. It's Spanish syntax and English words or lexical items, so Spanish and English live together, and I'll show you what that looks like in a minute. It says at the bottom of the tattoo, "[foreign language 00:45:36]. I am from here." But is here Chicago? Is here Puerto Rico? Or is Puerto Rico in Chicago and vice versa?
For the students, these sorts of boundaries can't be clearly demarcated. Chicago exists in Puerto Rico and Mexico, and Puerto Rico and Mexico exist in Chicago. Here's two more examples of this quickly. You can't just be a Bulls fan in Chicago. You have to be a Puerto Rican or a Mexican Bulls fan specifically. Perhaps my favorite diasporic image, so this reimagination of a homeland and this reterritorialization of boundaries, is this flag, which is a flag for that community in Humboldt Park in Chicago. It says, "[foreign language 00:46:13]." That's the familiar name, the vernacular name of the neighborhood, Puerto Rican Promenade. It displays that Chicago Puerto Rican flag, the Chicago skyline. Colonial imagery invoking indigeneity and Africanness and Europeanness, and then it says Humboldt Park. The flag is known as 79th, because there are 78 official municipalities on the island of Puerto Rico, and this neighborhood in Chicago has been official adopted by the Puerto Rican government as the 79th municipality of Puerto Rico. So Puerto Rico lives in Chicago, and vice versa.
The students are constructing and contesting ethnoracial borders, constructing and contesting geopolitical borders. Now let's look at what they do with language. Let me show you how linguistic borders get constructed, first of all. This is an interview with the principal where I'm asking her about the experiences of students designated as English language learners and the forms of marginalization that they face.
Jonathan: ... are Spanish dominant and are merged into an English-dominant classroom. A lot of times when I'm in the classrooms, they'll sit in the corners of the room. The front corners or back corners.
Principal: But that's up to the teacher.
Principal: 'Cause that wouldn't happen if that were with me.
Principal: I would make sure I pair them off. That's-
Jonathan: This is the point. There are so many kids in the classroom who are fully bilingual, so I wonder if [inaudible 00:47:26] some way-
Principal: [inaudible 00:47:27] in our school that they are bilingual here. It's very deceiving.
Jonathan: What do you mean?
Principal: We have 900 something but only 89 are bilingual.
Jonathan: Come on.
Jonathan: But what does that mean?
Principal: That mean that those actually are ... do not know the language long enough. The other ones just don't want to speak it.
Jonathan: No ...
Jonathan Rosa: It continues.
Jonathan: No, when I say bilingual ... Oh, so you say there are only 89 who speak English and Spanish.
Principal: No. There's 89 [crosstalk 00:47:51]-
Jonathan: English language learners.
Jonathan: Okay, okay. I'm talking about two different things.
Principal: Only 89. Right.
Jonathan: So 89 English language learners, right?
Principal: Right. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Jonathan: I'm saying that when those kids are in classrooms, a lot of times-
Principal: The English [inaudible 00:48:01] learners?
Principal: The 89 of them?
Jonathan: The 89 of them, a lot of times, they'll sit in the corners together, and it's almost like they're separate. My concern is that-
Principal: Because those 89 are sheltered classes [inaudible 00:48:12]. Those are all bilingual.
Jonathan Rosa: Okay, so first of all, you hear she was not intimidated by me as a researcher at all. She ran me over in every interview that I had with her, but she was ... There are about 1,000 students in the school. From my perspective, two thirds of the students used English and Spanish all day long in school, so I thought that the vast majority of students were bilingual. When I was talking about students who are bilingual, I was referring to students who use English and Spanish regularly in the school. She says, "No, there are only 89 of them."
I couldn't understand what she was saying, but it became clear over the course of the interview that she was using bilingual as shorthand for students who are participating in the transitional bilingual education program, so these are students who are designated as English language learners. To be bilingual in this context is not to use two languages. It's to use one language, or to not use one language well enough, so bilingualism is not defined in relation to using multiple languages. It's defined in relation to not using English, or not knowing English proficiently, from a normative mainstream institutional viewpoint.
To be clear, she is bilingual. She uses Spanish and English all day long. She knows the dictionary definition of bilingualism. It's not lost on her, so it's not that she's just making something up. In fact, the claims that she's making correspond to institutional policy, and so those policies have constructed linguistic identities in really narrow kinds of ways. The students receive the message that English is the only language that is valued in the school in a mainstream institutional sense, and in fact, particular varieties of English, so they're invested in an imagined, unaccented English. Just to give you a sense of how they are making sense of this, this is one of the boys you heard a minute ago who answers one of my favorite questions like this:
Jonathan: Do you think you have an accent?
Student 1: No, [inaudible 00:50:00].
Student 1: I think I'm right, though.
Student 1: [inaudible 00:50:04] are you saying that video games on Xbox Live, as you can talk like this, like, "Shut the fuck up, Mexican," and they're like, "Whoa, you came real hard in here. Why'd you say I'm Mexican? I'm just talking English."
Student 1: They come and say I'm Mexican out of nowhere.
Jonathan: So you think you might have an accent?
Student 1: Yeah, I think I might, but I don't know it.
Jonathan Rosa: He's referring to a digital kind of video game console where your virtual opponent can hear your voice but not see you, and he's developed this kind of linguistic anxiety where he's not sure whether he has an accent. He says, "I was just talking English and they came and said I'm Mexican." He imagines Mexicanness in relation to the Spanish language, but he's bumping up against the ways in which his English language use is racialized as Mexican. In this case, Mexicanness is used as a sort of proxy for Latinidad broadly, as stereotypically for Latinidad broadly, so that to be perceived as Latinx is to be imagined as having an accent on some level, and to be imagined as being Mexican. He's grappling with what this means for him, but he's deeply invested in signaling his English language abilities, hence the anxiety that he sort of articulates here.
But the students are also invested in the Spanish language, but not the Spanish language in general. They're interested and invested in particular varieties of Spanish. This young woman is Mexican. She came to Chicago from Mexico City at the age of 10.
Jonathan: Where in the world would you go to hear the best Spanish?
Student 3: The best Spanish?
Student 3: I've said that it was gonna be Spain, but I've now heard that it's not. It's in Mexico.
Student 3: That's what I heard.
Jonathan: Could you go Puerto Rico to hear good Spanish? [inaudible 00:51:46]
Student 3: No, 'cause they-
Jonathan: Why not?
Student 3: They spoke [inaudible 00:51:54] ... They don't say the words right.
Jonathan: [crosstalk 00:51:56]
Student 3: They miss some words.
Jonathan: What do they [inaudible 00:51:58]?
Student 3: Sometimes they lose R. Sometimes they lose that, and they [inaudible 00:52:06] really weird.
Student 3: With Mexicans, obviously, I'm Mexican. They know how to talk.
Jonathan Rosa: First of all, much less you think that it's only Puerto Ricans who invoke stigmatizing stereotypes about Mexicans, it goes in both directions. This student said to me, a lot of these students would say, "Puerto Ricans are so hungry they even eat all the Ses off the ends of their words." One Mexican student really earnestly asked me, I'm Puerto Rican and she said, "Teacher Jonathan, can they have the news in Puerto Rico on TV?" I said, "Of course. Why would you ask that?" She said, "They let people talk like that on TV?" I had to sort of have ... She was sort of invoking a set of stereotypes where she didn't understand that there are registers or different varieties of Puerto Rican Spanish, some which are imagined as appropriate for television, some that are not.
She's also articulating a historical transition in mainstream U.S. schools where the variety of Spanish that used to be taught was Castilian Spanish, and Mexico City standard has taken its place. So she says Mexico City or Mexican Spanish, Mexicans know how to talk, and this has to do with the ways in which in mainstream Spanish language media, Mexican Spanish is imagined as being a more standardized variety than Puerto Rican Spanish.
Other students had different viewpoints, though. They were invested in Puerto Rican Spanish. This young man is Puerto Rican and Mexican. His birth mother is Mexican. His birth father is Puerto Rican, but he was raised primarily by a Puerto Rican adopted family.
Jonathan: Do you think that Mexican Spanish or Puerto Rican Spanish is better?
Student 4: Puerto Rican Spanish.
Jonathan: [inaudible 00:53:43]?
Student 4: Because that's what up, man.
Jonathan: Okay. I mean, what's smarter?
Student 4: Smarter? Puerto Rican Spanish.
Student 4: They're very smart.
Jonathan: Okay. [inaudible 00:53:53]-
Student 4: Mexicans [inaudible 00:53:55].
Jonathan: What's the more correct?
Student 4: What's more correct? I think Mexican.
Student 4: Because they be like, "[foreign language 00:54:03]?"
Jonathan: [crosstalk 00:54:08]
Student 4: That's not as [inaudible 00:54:09] as, "[foreign language 00:54:10]," but it don't sound right.
Jonathan: So can you do an impression of a Puerto Rican and a Mexican saying something?
Student 4: Like, "[foreign language 00:54:21]," and on Puerto Rico, they're like, "[foreign language 00:54:27]." Like that.
Jonathan: Okay. [inaudible 00:54:29]
Student 4: [foreign language 00:54:30]
Student 4: But like [inaudible 00:54:33]. Puerto Rican be like, "That shit is [inaudible 00:54:35]."
Jonathan: That language, what's [inaudible 00:54:39]? What's [inaudible 00:54:42]?
Student 4: [inaudible 00:54:43]. They can [inaudible 00:54:43].
Jonathan: What does that mean, though?
Student 4: Like our first language is Spanish, [inaudible 00:54:51].
Jonathan: What would be [inaudible 00:54:55]?
Student 4: Oh, it sounds like so [inaudible 00:54:57] better.
Student 4: Because of the way he put it, the way it flows.
Jonathan Rosa: Listen to how he pronounces this word.
Student 4: [inaudible 00:55:03] right now using, you hear that, the way that flow?
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Student 4: Like that.
Jonathan: Oh, okay.
Jonathan Rosa: His Puerto Rican and Mexican impressions are terrible. They both sound very Puerto Rican. He tries to invoke standardized Spanish and then produces forms that many people perceive as grammatically incorrect, so there's a lot happening here. But he's also playing off of a set of stereotypes about Puerto Rican Spanish and Mexican Spanish vis-a-vis varieties of English. You see this racial, raciolinguistic kind of remapping from English to Spanish where stereotypical white English is imagined as correct and uncool. Stereotypical African American English is imagined as cool and incorrect. Stereotypical Mexican Spanish in this context is imagined as correct and uncool, and stereotypical Puerto Rican Spanish is imagined as cool and incorrect. You see this analogy that gets drawn from varieties of English and Spanish, and from different ethnoracial groups.
He's invested in the Spanish language, in this case Puerto Rican Spanish and the dexterity of Puerto Rican Spanish, at the same time that he's sort of making sense of Puerto Rican Spanish vis-a-vis Mexican Spanish as well. But you also heard him pronounce [foreign language 00:56:21] with his R trilled really hard, which will become relevant in a moment.
The students are ... They want to demonstrate their capacity to produce what's perceived as unaccented English, so stereotypical unaccented English, while also signaling their intimate knowledge of the Spanish language. So how can you speak Spanish in English, or how can you speak Spanish and English simultaneously without being perceived as having an accent in English? Well, they engage in practices that I call inverted Spanglish in order to manage these competing demands. This is the same young man. You heard him trill his R a second ago. Listen to his R here.
Jonathan: And so does your birth mom speak Spanish?
Student 4: Yeah.
Jonathan: What kind of Spanish does she speak?
Student 4: Regular Spanish, like she just learned it from [foreign language 00:57:05].
Jonathan: How do you [crosstalk 00:57:11]?
Student 4: [inaudible 00:57:10].
Jonathan: How does that rate in this [inaudible 00:57:13]?
Student 4: [inaudible 00:57:13] great thing right there.
Student 4: But my momma talks Spanish, it sounds like [inaudible 00:57:18].
Student 4: [inaudible 00:57:21] my stepdad sounds like Puerto Rican when you hear him talk.
Jonathan Rosa: He says that his mother, ironically, she speaks Spanish like [foreign language 00:57:28], which is a English language learning platform that's advertised in Spanish language media, so he says her Spanish sounds like this English language learning platform, which I think is his way of saying that she speaks an imagined normative Spanish that you hear in Spanish language media. But he could trill his R in [foreign language 00:57:46], so he could trill his R when pronounces [foreign language 00:57:50], but he says regular Spanish like she just learned it from [foreign language 00:57:54].
Part of what he's doing is combining his English language pronunciation patterns with his intimate knowledge of Spanish language media and Spanish language words and other linguistic forms. This imbrication or combination of systems is inverted Spanglish, but inverted Spanglish takes a range of forms. It's not just in spoken language. It's in written language as well.
One group of Mexican students loved to play a joke on their self-identified monolingual English speaking white teachers, but only teachers who they really loved would they play this joke on, where they would say, "Teacher, I don't know how to pronounce these words. Can you help me with them?" The teacher would say, "Pink cheese, green ghost, cool arrows," which is inadvertently saying, "[foreign language 00:58:41]," fucking white or American assholes, and then the students would laugh and let the teacher in on the joke, and then the teacher would laugh and they would have a good time with it. There's an antagonism that underlies this in a highly segregated school, but there's also a sense of some care and solidarity there.
These forms of inverted Spanglish reject the idea that the English and Spanish languages are separate from one another, so what on the surface looks like just the English language in fact involves the English and Spanish languages simultaneously. Spanish lives in English. English lives in Spanish. Mexico and Puerto Rico live in Chicago and vice versa. Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness live within Americanness and vice versa. This is how the students are rethinking these borders.
In my closing few minutes, I want to show you how I've taken some of these insights and tried to draw on them to inform my more applied work on the ground responding to some of these inequalities in different communities. When I was working at the University of Massachusetts, I was living and working in a community called Holyoke, Massachusetts, which has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans anywhere outside of the island of Puerto Rico, so it's a city of about 40,000. It's half Puerto Rican. It's a very Puerto Rican space. Its high percentage of Puerto Ricans is often associated with a range of forms of stigmatization, especially educational underachievement, so Holyoke scores the highest in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in terms of the number of students who are below proficient. The percentage of students who are below proficient on a state wide assessment.
Its number of Puerto Ricans is often associated with educational underachievement, and you see this in all kinds of media representations like this one. "Holyoke again was among the lowest in the state, despite a high school graduation rate that improved slightly to 53.8% from the previous year's 52.8%. The city of 40,000 is roughly half Hispanic. Among challenges, officials have said, is that English is not the first language for more than 70% of public school students." In this kind of a representation, Puerto Ricanness or Hispanic identity, educational underachievement, and languages other than English are intertwined. The idea is that languages other than English and Hispanic identity somehow lead to underachievement.
Folks with Holyoke understand this form of stigmatization. In fact, as one poet put it, "This city is allergic to Spanish." But in fact, the city is not allergic to Spanish. The Irish mayor of the city is one of the youngest mayors who was ever elected in the United States. He was elected in his early 20s. He ran a bilingual campaign where his English and Spanish language skills were framed as a crucial skill, and his bilingualism was celebrated in many ways.
I was curious in terms of working with students and community members in Holyoke what it would look like for Puerto Rican bilingualism to be seen as just as much of a skill as this young white man's bilingualism was seen. I created a course that, again, this is pre-Latinx moment. I created a course that was titled Latinas, Latinos and Languages that brought together university students with high school students as co-learners, and I collaborated with a high school teacher as a co-facilitator of this project. The idea was to question some normative ways in which students often enter schools as tutors or as philanthropists where they give something to the community, and suggesting, in fact, what if we called into question those sorts of asymmetries and said what would it look like to learn in the community, to learn from the community, rather than just giving to the community in some ways?
In this program, we trained the students in a range of linguistic anthropological methodologies. One group of students, and these are, again, university students and high school students, were working on oral histories where they were interviewing community members and family members. Another group was documenting vernacular language use within the school. Another group was looking at digital language use in social media. Another group looked at linguistic landscapes, so that's how language is etched into the community on signs, posters, billboards, this kind of thing. One group looked at language policy. Remember, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, like Arizona and California, is one of the states in the U.S. that had outlawed bilingual education, so they wanted to track that policy and how it was created. Lastly, a group was trained in ethnography as a communication, so community-based language studies where they were studying language use in barber shops and churches and commercial spaces, this kind of thing.
I'll just show you two quick examples and then wrap up. A lot of the findings that came out of this research challenge conventional notions about conceptions of language and identity. For example, the oral histories, almost all of them came back asymmetrically bilingual, where the students would speak English and the parents would speak Spanish, and this interview is a particularly striking example of this. This is a freshman, Darian, interviewing his mother.
Darian: What's your primary language?
Mother: [foreign language 01:03:41].
Darian: Can you elaborate on that?
Mother: [foreign language 01:03:48].
Darian: Oh, [crosstalk 01:03:55].
Darian: That's very [inaudible 01:04:02].
Jonathan Rosa: What I love about this besides his effort to sound like an anthropologist when he says, "Could you elaborate on that? What's your primary language?" is he asks her what her primary language is in English. She answers in Spanish and says her primary language is English, and then she goes on to explain when she uses English and Spanish. We might expect if someone asks someone what their primary language is in a given language, we might expect that person to use the language they would say their primary language is if they're being addressed in that language, to respond. So this contradicts some conceptions about language and identity here, so using Spanish doesn't mean you know English or identify with it intimately. In fact, language and identity have been reimagined and reconstituted in this community. What would it look like if schools were oriented toward Spanish as though it weren't a problem? What if Spanish is a way of knowing English? This is part of what we were thinking through in this collaboration.
The group that worked on linguistic landscapes found that functional signage in the school like welcome signs and directions to the office were provided in English and Spanish. Privileged information about applying for scholarships, taking the SATs, going to college, was exclusively in English. Punitive information, like these no loitering signs that stood in front of the high school, remember high school is 80% Puerto Rican, were exclusively in Spanish, and in non-standardized Spanish at that, so these signs say [foreign language 01:05:33] or no loitering, which is a play on the vernacular verb [foreign language 01:05:38].
The point of this collaborative project was not just to discover and document inequities or power asymmetries, but to speak back to them, so we worked with the superintendent of schools. We worked with teachers in the community and elected officials to have these signs taken down, to institute ethnic studies courses within the school, to reorient the school's relationship to the local community college and to the university, to create a Latino studies program at the community college.
All of this was part of a bigger project that I've been working on with a range of communities that we're thinking of as community as a campus, and community as an intellectual space, so that learning doesn't just happen inside of a school's walls or inside of a university. It happens in everyday practices among community members through a range of collaborative efforts, so this was our effort towards kind of respecting that, and really not just rethinking borders around race, ethnicity, language, and nation-states, but educational borders as well. To think about where learning happens, who participates in learning, think about what pedagogies can be used to create learning. Do you learn by doing? Do you learn from families? Do families have a role to play in schools? Do you learn through projects that allow you to see yourself as an analyst and a theorist of sorts? Do you learn in ways that challenge conventional disciplinary paradigms, boundaries around disciplines that suggest that the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences are separate from another, which they never have been, nor could they ever be.
The bigger vision with all of this work is to rethink borders all together, to reimagine new possibilities, to question why, if there is a supernational citizenship, why isn't there a citizenship of the Americas? Why do commodities have more migration rights than human beings? How is it that we've created a world that is unsustainable educationally, that's unsustainable in terms of environments and ecologies, that's unsustainable in terms of identities, and what would a better otherwise world look like? Thank you.