identities

One of the few things I didn’t problematize in my fieldwork was the concept of Hispanic and Latino. As a Puerto Rican born and raised in the island, I have always been more comfortable with the noun/adjective of Latin American (if needed) after Puerto Rican.

I guess I could consider myself Latino, now that I have been living here in the US for almost 8 years. In contrast to queer, gay, or bisexual (labels which I don’t dwell too much on), I do think often of what it means to be Latino. Is it growing up here? Is it that I am originally from a Latin American country? I still don’t know. I know for certain that I am not Hispanic, since I don’t feel comfortable with that label.

I did notice that while we as researchers sometimes worry about labels like this (and we should when power laden language has real life repercussions) people are using them interchangeably for multiple purposes. Sometime in 2012 I found myself at this festival called Langley Park Day. Among the health fairs and the food, there were dances like this picture shows.  

Langley Park Day 2012

The Panamanians in this picture are dancing a traditional (folk?) dance from Panamá. Aside from noting similarities in their clothing with Puerto Rican folk dances, I concluded that all of these people were there for fun and were likely not inclined to be bothered by my thoughts on pan-american blanket identities that seem to erase individual and indigenous heritages.

So I kept enjoying the dances. Just me, a regular neighbor for now, eating my pupusa, and taking pictures of the cool dances and posting them on Instagram. I don’t think that anyone that day cared about the problems of these identities, since everyone was showing off a little bit of their own heritage. They get it. I guess I (eventually) got it too.

Just some thoughts…

[Originally presented at Anthroplus 2015]

Fieldwork and Privilege Part 1

P.S. I realized that I haven’t talked much about my research, so I will do so in a future post. In the meantime here is a link to my profile in the University of Maryland, College Park Anthropology department website which has some info about my research.

Time to travel to the near past…

I remember a particular conversation I had in a bar with a friend (intemperate indian) who’s a fellow anthropologist. We were chatting after some sort of department event we attended, and our conversation shifted to privilege and its discomfort.

We had a moment (as we often do, since we don’t think very differently )in which we talked about how if you don’t feel discomfort as an anthropologist in the field, then there is something wrong. And it’s probably you, and probably there might be some privilege that needs to be checked. Mainly because when I go to the field I’m going to study a lot of things that are outside my experience—because I’m educated, because I’m not one of the people under study, because I’m not a woman, because I’m a US citizen, because I’m studying reproductive health, because it’s just awkward to ask these women questions that they weren’t even thinking of answering when they came to the clinic…etc

Within this fieldwork, there is a level of advocacy that is implicit. Yet, when trying to carry out the advocacy efforts through research, I encountered problems in the field, with the topics of my questions. When I was carrying out interviews in the clinic, I was trying to do so as to get their perspective on the topic of male circumcision and decision making; at no point I was trying to make the clinic look bad by pointing out that they rarely discuss male circumcision. This was in fact a rich point of the research itself! Without going too much into what I found in these interviews (which is what I’m currently working on now) I quickly noticed that the perception was that circumcision was not talked about much. But more telling is that before beginning my interview process, those troublesome encounters have been brought to my attention by white people who to their defense said they were trying to defend their clients. I actually believe this to be true, since they were worried how my questions will bias the women in the clinics and then perceive that the information they are not receiving can be harmful to their children. Put another way, they wanted me to reframe my questions as to not frame the clinic as the sole responsible entity for giving the patients’ information about circumcision, so that the women seeking services did not feel they were missing out on something. I’m not trying to jump to conclusions about what this actually means for my research, yet I found it very interesting. The fact that the rest of the Latino staff apparently feel comfortable enough with my presence and trusted my intentions and the goals of representing a particular perspective with this research. The fact that some of the staff actually mentioned how happy they were about my visits—and mentioned how glad they are that a Latino student is doing a PhD—is a stark contrast to the comments and criticism-not necessarily negative, but still criticism- I received from the white staff.

Discomfort and fieldwork are evidently related in my experience, especially when I am an anthropologist whose background has been impacted by colonialism. Yet I’ve never made the connection before as to what that meant in terms of my own privilege. It’s an interesting position within the us/them dialectic, since my entrance to the field has definitely been helped by the fact that I somewhat look (and to some extent talk) like the majority of the staff in the clinics. But I still need to be vigilant and to not take for granted in the ways that I pass, and the times I need to get checked.

Fieldwork and work…

As I sit here, with a cough and talking to my friend, I realize that at some point after I finish my degree, I need a break.

I need a break because things have been really hectic lately and I feel like, in small ways, my physical and mental health have not been where they should be. I don’t think I’m in a position to complain, because I’m still pretty healthy (overall) but I am worried about where this might take me.

In our conversation, my friend reminded me that what I’m doing is not what we are taught to do. Traditionally, anthropologists went alone and did research; away from their “home”. In my case, I’m doing research at “home” while also working as a graduate assistant. While this might be normal in a lot of disciplines, I don’t think my discipline prepared me to cope with it; anthropology pushed me to find funding and not do anything (work)  at “home” while conducting it.

I didn’t notice this issue earlier, because I’ve just been used to it for a while now. Also, funding has been scarce and I’ve simply been doing what I can to avoid paying the high cost of tuition and, most importantly, graduate. So far, my strategy of working as a GA on campus while also doing research is paying off; honestly, it was the best case scenario after continuously getting rejection emails for funding.

I also know that I’m not the only one in this situation. Other classmates are doing what they can to do their research and survive. I know some of us have more advantages than others, and somehow that’s ok. I’ve been working hard, and gone through a lot of challenges that have delayed my “dream graduation date”, but at least I have found funding through a graduate assistantship. But when will I get to enjoy one of those coveted grants?

I’m still engaged in discussions as to what resources are necessary for students like me: English as a second language, student of color, queer, etc. But I would also like to engage in discussions as to how the anthropology degree should adapt to the realities of funding nowadays.

Now, let me return to nursing myself back to health, ’cause my health needs me of late.

Passing, and my presence in the field…

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the laundromat. I’ve been going to this particular place to do my laundry, because it is in the community where I’m doing research, and is very close to where I live. This particular laundromat is frequented by Latinos in the area, among people of different ethnicities. Kids running around, TV’s blasting, and two barbershops/hair cuttery place add to the picture. Two very interesting things happened while I was there: I found a novel way to learn about my research, and learned that I pass as Latino.

First thing was that one of the TVs was showing a rerun of a case from the court show Caso Cerrado. The case presented was about a man suing his pregnant wife, because she did not want to get vaccinated against Influenza H1N1. The man brought his wife’s brother in law to back up his ‘suit’, against his wife and his sister in law. The outcome of the show is a bit irrelevant, insofar as it is not what I’m trying to focus on here. I thought that this particular episode was very interesting given that it involved a pregnant Latina woman, her husband, and her family; all vying to influence some sort of decision making in what can be regarded as prenatal care as it pertains to the wellbeing of this pregnant woman. Before today, I didn’t give much thought to see how media, like TV, can influence a particular group of people in an important topic such as prenatal care.

I say this because it is a show on a major Spanish speaking network, and watched by many (including my own abuela back home). I disagree with how the show talked about the topic, but the judge (host of the show) did a good job in bringing in different doctors, as well as experiences from different people on which to draw an opinion for her ruling.

The second major thing that happened, was that once again, I was spoken to in Spanish while I was there. In my head I was happy, because somehow, something about me was reflecting this internalized experience of being racialized as Latino; as someone who came from Puerto Rico; and speaks Spanish. I was glad that others saw how my outward identity very closely reflects my self identification. This is great news for my research in a sense, because it makes me less of a stranger.

But later on, I felt bad. I felt sick to my stomach, because I was celebrating the fact that I was Passing – “I’m passing! People talk to me in Spanish!!”…

The fact is that I am trigueño, have curly hair, and have some some sort of passing privilege because of it. I also have academic privilege, Puerto Rican privilege, and light skin privilege. I am trying to be always aware of my positions in the field and how I am perceived. So it’s bittersweet because I feel bad about the idea of me using the concept of passing to further the needs of my research. This will definitely be part of my dissertation.

What does Latin@ mean?

I got my reviews back from my grant proposal to the NSF, and this is what I think about a specific piece of feedback that I received. Overall, the feedback was good, yet I felt uneasy about something. I don’t think I’ll be able to flesh this out in the most coherent way possible, but here it goes anyway.

Two of my NSF reviewers criticized my ‘monolithic’ use of the word Latino in regards to my study population. They mentioned that defining it in such narrow terms was appropriate for a grant to the NIH, but not for NSF. Finally, they mentioned that by defining it the way I did, I erased and minimized individual differences from people that come from different backgrounds, countries, and ethnicities from Latin America and the Caribbean. They actually were not that eloquent when saying all of that, but I translated it as such from my own reading of their feedback.

As an anthropologist, I understand this concern; as a Latin American queer person of color, I LIVE THIS! One of the things that we often do in anthropology is unpack and deconstruct terms such as Latin@. Yet, lately I’ve been thinking about what does that mean for the participants and others who identify as such. I agree that not everyone means (and internalizes) the same thing when they say Latin@, but such a social construct exists. We might not agree with it, but as anthropologists we can’t will it out of existence just because it seems to simple for our messy and complex theories.

How do we expect to engage the public, and the people that we collaborate with in our studies, if we believe ourselves to be so above their colloquial use of a term. I am aware of the political implications of the word Latin@, yet, what do we make of the people in my research community that actually use that word to describe themselves as a dyasporic community in the US? What do we make of the use of media like Univisión and Telemundo, trying to craft pan-Latin American identities in their shows and telenovelas? Is that not part of the world that we study?

So thanks, but no thanks NSF reviewers and your high horse definition of Latin@. I prefer to engage with the community; my community. I prefer to do research that actually helps. it would’ve been nice to get a bit of money, but I learned a lesson here.