One of the things about being a minority faculty member that is not discussed a great deal is the amount of isolation that one experiences. Most scholars are usually at the whim of the job market when it comes to deciding where to live in the U.S. (or even earlier when they are at the whim of which university admits them to graduate school).
Because universities, particularly those in small towns, are often segregated from communities of color, becoming a professor frequently involves leaving the community where one grows up. Moreover, one’s audience in the academic world is most often composed of a white majority.
As I mentioned previously, humanities departments tend to use minority-research positions as the only means to build diversity. It is not at all unusual, therefore, that a Latino/a Studies scholar will also be the only Latino/a in the department (likewise for Afro-Am). In some small liberal arts colleges, that might even be the only one in the whole college division – or even the only person of color. An implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectation of these scholars is that they will work to make the few minority students on these campuses feel less isolated by becoming a universal mentor.
It is small wonder that so many minority scholars often report feeling exhausted and over-extended. I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that I did quadruple the number of campus talks that my colleagues did at my former Texas institution. It was almost always Latino or queer student groups that asked me to be part of their programming. Part of the reason that I got roped into this was because I have hard time saying “no” to anybody (Just ask my last few dates). Another major part, though, was that I felt a personal and political commitment to work with students who were trying to change the atmosphere on the campus. In a non-white majority state, it was shocking that minority students represented less than ten percent of that Texas institution’s student body.
Being the “only” (or at least the only willing to work with students (more on that in another post)) puts faculty in difficult spots. They are doing a solid amount of work by being engaged with students, but it is work that will not be valued for tenure and promotion at most research universities. It also makes fuzzy the line between an individual’s identity and their scholarly research.
Yet, faculty of color are frequently expected to become the central reference for every issue facing people of their same identity. Most people, who are secure in their own sense of identity and politics, try to take advantage of that powerful position to create change or support others pursuing change. If one isn’t careful, though, it can also really twist you psychologically.
I have seen some Latino/a colleagues become warped as they try meet other people’s expectations about Latinos. In their efforts to conform to the identity that is projected onto them, they contort themselves into a “Super Latino.” They lose sight of their research and simply become the "campus Latino," a ready-made spokesperson who exists only to give "the Latino point of view" to anybody who asks. One problem with this is that they often lose track of the fact that no individual could ever fulfill that role. There has never been a singular "Latino point of view." The Latino/a community is filled with contradictions and wide ranging experiences. These "Super Latinos," however, discount their own experiences that shows this to be true and become a self-proclaimed embodiment of the community.
In many ways, they are the academic version of the singing mariachis in the Taco Bell commercial (God, why? Why?? Please, no more.). They serve Anglos what they expect to see and are rewarded by being to asked to perform for them (Though they haven't yet mastered the talent of making the sound of a cracking whip with their wink). One can always find these individuals at conferences, roaming about in their size-six huaraches, with beans almost literally falling out of their pockets. They are rarely presenting their research, but are ready to critique everybody else's.
These same individuals attempt to enforce those standards of “Latinoness” onto their colleagues and (especially) their grad students. Because their career has devolved to merely being a projection of Latinoness, it is in their best interest to ensure that their version of Latinoness is validated. Some time ago, one Latino grad student shared a story with me about meeting a Latina professor at another university. When he demurred from claiming to be a modern “Aztec warrior” (Who knew people were still pushing that?), she questioned whether he was really committed to social justice or even Latino scholarship.
In my own case, I have certainly encountered a few Latino/a scholars who expected me to be apologetic or embarrassed for not having been raised in a bilingual household. Since my mother was Irish American, there was no Spanish language for her to pass on to us. My father’s parents succumbed to institutional pressures in New Mexico that demanded that they not pass on Spanish to their children. The U.S. then, as now, wrongly imagined being bilingual as a hindrance. Indeed, Latino/a children of my father’s generation were punished in New Mexico’s public schools for speaking Spanish (N.B. to America: being monolingual does not keep the U.S. unified as a nation. It’s just leaving us isolated and backward). My father, as a result, had only marginal Spanish skills to pass along to his own children.
When faced with this critique about childhood, I am not sure what people expecting me to do. Am I supposed to build a time machine, travel back to the time before World War II, and convince my grandparents to make another decision in my father’s upbringing? If I had that power, why not simply stop the United States’ 1846 invasion of New Mexico in the first place?
Obviously, knowledge of Spanish is critically important for my research on Latino/as in the U.S. I have had to learn it, though, in the same ways that non-Latinos have to learn it. It is also a struggle at times as I seem to have no natural aptitude for languages (We won’t even discuss my disastrous flirtation with Russian). I think of not being raised bilingual in much the same way as I think about having been circumcised. It wasn't really my choice or preference, but you've got work with what you got. No use in crying over things that are impossible to undo.
I am not apologetic about things that were beyond my control. Nor am I willing to concede that it somehow lessens my own sense of Latino/a identity. Indeed, the loss of Spanish fluency has been part of many Latino/as’ experiences in this nation. To paraphrase an old joke from Cheech Marin (who grew up speaking mostly English himself), Chicanos are Mexicans who get “B’s” in Spanish class.
My grandparents, like many Latino families, were promised that if they adopted English-only their children would not face discrimination in the U.S. It turns out that was a lie. My father faced numerous incidents of racism and, alas, he had only one language with which to curse about it. My grandfather frequently expressed his regret about and mourned his children's lack of Spanish skills. All of that was a "Latino" experience (but not the only Latino experience).
Latino/a and other scholars are frequently forced to conform to the expectations of their white colleagues about their identity. It is therefore disheartening when we see Latino/as imposing their own definitions of their identity onto one another. This only serves to contain and reduce Latino/a experiences and ignores the greater diversity of own community. It lessens our ability to understand the complexity of Latino/a responses and strategies for finding a place in the U.S.