Defying the Borders of Latinidad, A conversation with Dr. Lorgia García Peña on the rise of Ethnic Studies
Dr. Lorgia Garcia Peña is a rara avis at Harvard, where only 80 of the more than 2000 professors are Hispanic, and only two are black and migrant Latinas.
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Since the civil and student rights struggles of the 60s and 70s brought the inclusion of issues like race, gender and religion on college campuses, the discussions have grown to what we know today as Ethnic Studies. It’s an open door to diversity and respect, and an antidote to, some would say, the white canon that still prevails in academia, especially as far as elite universities like Yale, Harvard or Stanford are concerned. Those institutions still do not give the field its due recognition, and nor do their professors...
Afro-Caribbean born in the Dominican Republic, Dr. Lorgia Garcia Peña is a rara avis at Harvard, where only 81 of its more than 2,000 professors are Hispanic, but only two of them are migrant Latinas of African descent.
Just a few months ago, faculty and students came to her defense when she was denied tenure that many described as "well-deserved", was held by only 12% of minority professors at the university. The controversy showed that elite universities are not the social vanguard, but a reflection of their inequalities, and placed García Peña as the icon of a necessary revolution in Ethnic Studies.
AL DÍA recently spoke with Dr. García Peña, a professor of Latin Studies, who defends that borders are often embodied and the only way to fight against an official narrative that excludes is to propose other possibilities. Other possibilities to race, to the colony, to the state and above all, to the university.
I grew up between two worlds, let's say half my childhood in Santo Domingo and the other half and my adolescence in a poor city, Trenton, New Jersey. My parents and siblings had settled there because the political and economic situation in the Dominican Republic was not good, and they were looking for opportunities and a better future for us. What all migrants do... I left the country when I was 12 and settled with them, like many children, when there was stability.
There were challenges, we learned a lot. We also lost a lot. But there was not a key moment that marked my academic journey. Rather, it was the journey itself — a journey halfway through migration, adolescence in Trenton, attending a public school in a poor city, and of course, the educational experiences of the university, which gradually awakened in me the discomfort with the systems of power that reproduce so much exclusion.
When I was doing my Master's studies, those questions I had asked myself became an academic program.
I was referring to the original structures, that is, colonial and still prevailing. Academic institutions, especially those of the elites, were created for rich, white men so that their children could continue the process of colonization. The universities were being built by enslaved people: my ancestors. That is a reality in the United States, the Dominican Republic and in many other places in the Americas.
On the other hand, this model still continues. I also mean that as an academic who specializes in Latino/a/x Studies, I do not belong in a space where my area of study simply does not exist institutionally because the people in power refuse to see it.
My mere presence in these spaces is already enough to cause disruptions to the structures and status quo.
Of course, the student struggles of the 60s and 70s, especially in 68, won incredibly important spaces in public universities. It happened not only in the United States, where there were acts of social change like the protests against the Vietnam War and the decolonial and anti-racist movements but also at UNAM in Mexico and at the UASD in Santo Domingo. Both occurred despite the fact that the government and military reprimanded the students in a bloody way.
From that anti-colonial and liberating energy, Ethnic Studies were born, including Latino Studies and Black Studies; but I would not speak of radical changes in systems or institutions, but of a gap. A gap that led to some improvements — to admitting more racialized students or to creating more spaces of thought and culture for non-white students.
The point here is these elite universities did not take notice, even though the students demanded and organized, and there was never any recognition of Latino and Ethnic Studies in these spaces. And we're still waiting...
And wide, because they include not only Black and Latino Studies but also Asian, Native and Islamic American Studies. As you say, Ethnic Studies are a critical place from which to question and understand the world outside the Europeanizing hegemony. They give us back a little of what was taken from us through the processes of colonization, slavery, segregation, migration, etc.
If you ask me, that is the most important thing that can be done from the academy. We educators have an enormous responsibility in changing the way we raise our young people, and it is urgent. We must decolonize thinking and give students the tools to understand and question the inequalities that have led us to the terrible tragedies of today's world-from the separation of parents and children on the border of Mexico/U.S. to the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.
We must be responsible, and Ethnic Studies invites us to embrace that responsibility.
I would better propose "latinidades" to try to cover all the multiplicity of experiences such as race, ethnicity or culture... There we can start the conversation, we have to see it with the principle of dialogue and not as a definitive way of identifying ourselves. Think that identities are always plural, and that no one is one thing and the same.
It is important to take this fluidity into account when establishing dialogue and to give space for everyone to define themselves as they see fit.
I also asked it because of your idea of "dominicanidad" and the invisible boundaries that create the notion of race and identity/ies).
I look at the idea of borders in two ways: as a physical space and as an embodied space, which one carries with oneself. I also understand it as a verb: "to border".
'Bordering' is an action that recreates exclusion through dominant narratives that tell us who does or does not belong to the nation. These narratives are supported by stories or tales that we receive from school texts, patriotic symbols, the media and the news. The way in which the notion of nation has been developing since the 19th century everywhere has depended on this process of 'frontiering', a narrative of exclusion.
For any narrative there is a counter-narrative. There are always those who propose another way, which reminds us of another kind of being and belonging. For me, this is the richness of looking at counter-narratives, of proposing possibilities and of contradicting the colony, the state, and the university. If I had to define in a very simple way what I do in my research, I would say that it is precisely that: "to contradict" the narratives of exclusion that surround and border people.