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Hispanic Heritage Month: Adelante!’s spotlight of the week

Name: Alicia Muñoz. Roles: Associate Dean, Institute for Global Citizenship; Associate Professor, Hispanic and Latin American Studies

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.

And 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.

Do you think you would have chosen a different career path, or things would have worked out differently, if you didn’t have that? I know some colleges have Spanish/Latin American Studies departments that have a majority white staff. Did having that space make it a lot easier after a while? I do not know for sure. I think definitely who she was played a role but I also think there probably would have been other professors. You know, you mentioned that maybe some Spanish departments have more white faculty and I think the faculty that are in that department also share a passion and appreciation of that culture. I believe they would have their own perspectives on this literature and helped me process it, but probably in a different way because they are coming at it from a different position.

Moving to a different subject, although we have touched on it already, what do you think it means to be Latinx in a higher education setting? You are a professor, so I am wondering if that holds higher significance to you? I think it definitely does. I am the only one in my family with a PhD, and I know the struggles that students can face, especially if they are first-gen or if they’re from a Latinx background. It has become very important for me to reach out to the Latinx community. I’ve served as an advisor for Adelante! In the past, I always try to go to Adelante! meetings at least once a year just to introduce myself and just try to build relationships with the Latinx community here because that is an important community to me.

Has that inspired your work in the Institute for Global Citizenship? It definitely has inspired me. It’s all of these experiences that I am bringing to this particular position and the work that I’m doing at the IGC. And a lot of it really is me trying to listen and then bring those perspectives to the table.

Do you think you can explain your work at the Institute for Global Citizenship more? I currently coordinate the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, which was established in 1988 with the intention of diversifying the faculty. So it’s about helping underrepresented students go to graduate school, get a PhD, and become faculty members. It’s a national fellowship. 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. I also coordinate the Graduate School Exploration Fellowship, which has a similar mission to Mellon, but is a newer fellowship that is coming out of the ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) office. It is not a national fellowship; right now, GSEF only exists in ACM schools. I also work a lot with programming and professional development for faculty, particularly junior faculty. So a good bit of what I end up doing involves mentoring. Mentoring is very important to me. I benefitted greatly from it, just having people take the time to support the work that I’m doing and help me think about how do I move to the next step. So that’s really where my passion lies, in building those relationships and helping others grow, whether it’s academically or personally.

I know you said mentoring is a big part of what you like doing here at Macalester. Do you do anything outside Macalester, like volunteering or anything where mentoring also comes into play? Not direct mentoring but I do serve on the board for Hiawatha Academies, which has four charter schools in Minneapolis.

What kind of work do you do there? There it is a lot of thinking about the strategic plan. How do we meet our goals with respect to enrollment and with respect to academic achievement? What are other trends we are seeing with education and the larger picture.

I was hoping we could direct the conversation to Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month. What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Why is it important to have this type of month? I think for me it’s important to have this type of month because it allows for a recognition of our presence and our contributions, that’s the way I see it.

Do you have a hope for what Hispanic Heritage Month looks like? I would just love to see greater collaboration and more stories being told. I think the more that we can really work collectively, I think the more empowered we can become.

What more can be done for this month, in your opinion? Any ways it can be expanded? I would love to see more… you know we have done a little in the past… but more opportunities to come together as a [Latinx] community where we can have students/faculty/staff/ together to engage in some of those conversations or support one another.

Moving on to some fun questions. What is your favorite Hispanic dish? Well, there are different things like what I like to cook versus what I like to eat. A dish that I really enjoy is a Cuban dish called ropa vieja, which is stewed beef with onions, peppers, and tomatoes. So that is something that I really enjoy. Also sweet plantains, tacos de carne asada.

Do you have any favorite Latinx music? I don’t listen to much music. There are a few songs that I like, particularly songs that tell stories. So I really like Calle 13’s “Latinoamericano.” I also like La Santa Cecilia’s “Ice El Hielo.” When you see the videos for these songs, they are visually striking and at the same time very emotional. They really capture some of those realities the Latinx population faces.

Do you have a favorite Latinx author? My favorite author… I don’t know if I have a favorite. I enjoy a variety of texts… I do particularly like reading women’s literature. That’s something that doesn’t always get as much attention as literature by men. So within that, I like the work of different U.S. Latina and Latin American writers…Gloria Anzaldúa, Michele Serros, Denise Chávez, Luisa Valenzuela, Elena Poniatowska, and Griselda Gambaro, just to name a few.

On that note, do you have any recommendations for people who want to start reading more novels by Latinx authors? Books that might give people a glimpse of what it means to be Latinx? I think one text that comes to mind, because it’s so canonical, is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands: La Frontera. It is written by a Chicana queer writer and engages borders in a unique way. This is one text I think everyone should read. Other texts…. I like Helena Viramontes’ novel Their Dogs Came With Them and I like this novel in particular because it takes place in East LA at a time when the community is being fractured by the construction of the freeways. Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Rigoberto González’s Butterfly Boy…all of these texts give you glimpse into the diversity of the Latinx experience.

Were these novels that impacted you in any way? I’ve written an article about Their Dogs Came With Them because I was really struck by her articulation of LA. I have co-written an article about Grande’s memoir and have taught some of these other works in my classes.

I forgot to ask this earlier, but do you miss LA or home? I know St. Paul is a pretty diverse place, but coming from LA myself, I know it is not as diverse. So I was just wondering if it is a place you miss or wish you had not left? There’s never been a time where I’d wish I never left. I wanted to leave, that was important to me and I knew early on that I really wanted to get outside California for college. I wanted to see something else, I wanted to know what there was beyond where I grew up… so that became important to me. I love going back to visit. My family is there and we go about twice a year to visit them, but I don’t think I would ever want to live in LA and I haven’t lived in LA for a really long time… since I left for college, I haven’t been back. I think the traffic, the smog, and the high cost of living makes me really appreciate the Twin Cities, where you can afford a home and you don’t have to worry about the traffic. So just these other things that have also become priorities for me and my family.

Moving from LA to cities where there isn’t a large population of Latinx, has that made your identify feel stronger? Or has that cut you off from your heritage? It’s cut me from my heritage in some sense, in that the population here is different and what I have access to here is different. But it also reinforces my identities… I take great pride in being the daughter of Mexican immigrants and that’s how I often define myself. I define myself through my lineage. And also I think in part because we often get asked the question “Where are you from?” and it’s this whole explanation of, well what are you really trying to ask when you ask that. Are you asking me if I’m from LA or are you asking me what my identify is, so I’ve developed this descriptor over time, I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants who was born and raised in LA. And that’s my one-liner where I’m like okay, there. I’m telling you what you really wanna know. And so I think for me, I think a big part is just the privilege of being in this type of department. I’m constantly surrounded by my culture; I get the opportunity to teach this literature, to teach this language and all of that kind of helps make me feel connected to home. That is something I also think about when I’m teaching language, yeah I’m teaching you this grammar and allowing you to communicate… in part because I want you to be able to communicate with people like my mother, I want you to be able to see them as human beings. I want you to be able to share in their stories and I want you to treat them with dignity and respect. And that’s stuff that becomes important to me.

Did it take time to be proud of the fact that you are the daughter of immigrants? I know some people who are learning to be proud of this lineage, and I’m wondering if this was the same for you? It’s never been something I have felt shame about. It’s part of my reality and I embrace it as such.

October 5, 2017

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