The Mac Weekly: Hispanic Heritage Month: Adelante!’s Spotlight of the Week
Alicia Muñoz '03, associate professor of Hispanic and Latin American studies and associate dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, also coordinates Macalester's Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program. "I was actually a Mellon Mays Fellow myself at Swarthmore, so that also really had a big impact on my career trajectory, being a part of that community of scholars."
Here, she discusses how her background affected her journey through college and continues to influence her work.
If you don’t mind me asking, what is your Hispanic background?
My family is Mexican. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but my parents are Mexican immigrants.
Did your location, the place where you grew up, have any influence on what it meant to you to be Mexican-American?
It definitely had an influence, because I grew up in a largely Mexican-American community, working class primarily. When you’re in that environment, you don’t really understand how different it is in other parts. And so it wasn’t until I went to college that then I really understood how vastly different my experience was from other peers.
As you were going on into higher education and becoming a professor, did that shape you in any way?
It definitely shaped me. I’m a Spanish professor and there is a very clear reason why that is. A big part is because going from a neighborhood like East LA that, just like I described before, is a predominantly Mexican, working class community, to then going to a place like Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and it being a largely white institution, the Spanish department is where I really felt at home. It was my opportunity to connect with my culture, to foster my language skills in Spanish, and so all of these things became very important to me.
I’ve always loved stories and narratives. Neither of my parents are educated; that was just not an option for them where they grew up. Both come from rural Mexico. They’re not readers but they always did encourage that for [me and my siblings] and we would go to the library a lot with my mom to go get books. Getting to college was my opportunity to learn more, to familiarize myself with Mexican literature and history… I was very interested in also just thinking about representations of women in particular and all those things were definitely linked to my own identity.
And could you talk about some struggles you faced in higher education, being both a Latina and a woman?
I think part of the struggles were definitely just being in an environment that was predominantly white that was new to me and that wasn’t necessarily created for people that look like me. In terms of just being a first-generation college student, I ended up having to figure out how do you talk to professors, what are office hours, what is a syllabus. And learning to become familiarized with those norms and expectations. Like how do you actually navigate this space and all of that was something that was new to me. So that did create some struggles. I was fortunate; I’m the oldest and so I do a lot for my family. I always have, but it also meant that I learned how to ask for help and that really made things a lot easier for me. To the point where when I was close to failing my calculus class first semester of my first year at Swarthmore, I was able to go and actually walk into the dean’s office and say “I need a tutor.” I had a chance to actually talk to one of the deans there and cried a bit in his office, and he told me about how it was okay because he also almost failed math too and he was the dean of the college. So just kind of knowing there was a space where people wanted to support me and also really being willing to seek out those resources and ask for that help became very crucial to me, so that was one struggle. I think another struggle is the isolation, often being the only one in the room because there’s not that many of us in higher education.
And did you have any professors that were from Latinx descent or anyone in the departments you worked in?
Yes, I had a really fabulous mentor who was my Spanish professor. She was someone who I could identify with, and I did. She’s Mexican and just a wonderful woman who was very knowledgeable in terms of her field of study. Also, just a very caring individual and someone who had done a lot of work with social justice, human rights, those kinds of issues. So all that richness and her experience really allowed me… she really gave me a space to talk about what I was going through, and she just took the time to listen and that became really important to me.
Alicia Muñoz '03 graduated from Swarthmore College with honors in Spanish and earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her research and teaching interests include contemporary Latin American narrative, popular culture, gender studies, border studies, and U.S. Latino/a literature.