Today’s post was co-authored by Student Engagement Librarian Ray Andrade and Library Student Assistant Vero Urubio.
On January 24, 2022, Jonathan Rosa, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, spoke as part of the IRDL Scholars’ Speaker Series at the William H. Hannon Library.
The panel was hosted by Marie Kennedy, who was accompanied by IRDL scholars Catherine Meals and Michael Flierl. After a brief introduction, Rosa explained how he has applied his interdisciplinary background in anthropology, linguistics, and comparative literature towards his research rooted in social justice and community-based activism. The conversation touched on many prevalent discourses and intersections within these fields of work, challenging linguistic and ethno-racial borders; including, the nature of code-switching in classrooms and new symbols that arose out of merging one’s cultural flag with geographical landmarks. Through the power of community-based activism (where context matters), Rosa outlined the power that comes from the reclamation of constructed identity and unapologetic ownership of belonging.
From “Hispanic,” to “Latino/a,” to Latinx,” Rosa discussed the lineage of coined terms—both affixed and adopted—that bolster inclusivity on a local and national scale. The term “non-binary”, for example, is not a new idea that popped up with today’s counterculture or youth. To refuse the validity of people’s existence who are outside of the gender roles that had been enforced is either born of ignorance or blatant racism, as pre-colonial history recorded—for instance—the Nádleehí in Navajo, Niizh Manidooowag in Ojibwe, and so many others of the various Indigenous tribes and traditions. Today, the two spirit identity and tradition carries on from those first encounters and surviving stories in the 17th Century of what European colonists and Spanish monks couldn’t exterminate.
In reflecting on this presentation and discussion, the idea of “transformative terms” as being akin to “transformative spaces” stuck as a main point of contention. Rosa suggested how these terminologies might not be the answer to the existing problem that labels provoke. Linda Martín Alcoff coined the term “ethnorace” to narrow the broadened and misconceived definition of “ethnicity” and pair it with the currently lacking and also misconceived definition of “race” to describe this phenomena in today’s culture. Currently, it is the subject of many discourses that have offered alternative ways of reconsidering the functions of ethnicity and race. Just like how we consider ever-evolving language to define and re-define practices and self-hood, spaces that have been defined by what they once were and who they once served can take on this metamorphosis in the public eye and ear.
One of the most regurgitated comebacks to the natural ebb-and-flow of language was one Rosa not only showcased in his riveting presentation in a “Meet the Press” talk with Tom Brokaw, but countered: “why does it matter so much to them what they want to be called?” For one, the term “Latina/o/x/e” is primarily used here in the United States—it is only in the U.S. that the context necessitates them. These verbal constructions “other” non-whites. You will not find any “Latinos”, “Latinas”, or “Latinxs” in Central America, Guatemala, or Mexico, but you will hear them being referred to as such if you live in the U.S.
When it’s convenient for those with power, language is stigmatized and scapegoated. What is necessary to recognize is the difference between what gets translated and what remains behind the barrier of privilege. In the eyes of so many outside of the label, it shouldn’t matter because it wasn’t meant for us to decide in the first place. It was only meant to be a label: it was only meant to “other” us. Yes, it does matters because we are human and have an unalienable right to have ownership in the discourse about how we fit in this narrative of America that so many only want to see through the lens of a single story—a squeaky-clean, white story—when there is so much more to our place in the story than being the ever-immigrant.
People have heard it said that communication is key, but comprehension plays a big role as well: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, you can communicate your needs or the needs of a community, but the level of which the other parties—whether that be those in power or fellow activists—are listening makes all the difference in what gets changed.