By Caroline Gordon
Arts & Ideas hosted “From Theory to Practice: Ethnic Studies to Make a More Just World” featuring Dr. Lorgia García Peña who discussed how ethnic studies can improve acceptance of diversity via Zoom, April 5.
With a doctorate degree in American Studies and a specialization in Latinx/a/o studies, she works as a professor in the department of romance languages and literatures at Harvard. García Peña is the author of the book, “Translating Blackness: Migrations and Detours of Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspectives.”
In addition to teaching and writing, she is the co-founder of Freedom University, which is a non-profit school for undocumented students located in Atlanta, Georgia.
García Peña is also the co-director of Archives of Justice, a digital humanities project that aims to educate people on the hidden history of brown, Black, Asian, Indigenous, colonized, and immigrant people – focusing on those of whom are female, trans, binary, or queer.
She began the discussion by touching upon her “three points.”
First, we all have our own opinions.
Second, our perspectives on life are from eurocentric and heteronormative lenses.
And finally, ethnic studies is a field that allows us to see the world from a different point of view.
García Peña described her own perspective on being an Afro-Latina woman who immigrated from the Caribbean at 12 years old.
“Some would call me a generation and a half. One foot here, one foot there,” she said.
García Peña discussed how like other immigrant children, she went to school to improve her family’s socioeconomic status.
Along the way, she said she discovered a passion for ethnic studies despite her parents wanting her to become a medical doctor or lawyer.
García Peña explained how while in college, she became informed of the space between academia and her background and that her socioeconomic status and immigrant identity created her “own belonging to the university.”
“I had two choices: I could try to Wt in or I could change the structure of the institutions that made it so my history was not in the books. I chose the latter,” she said.
García Peña touched upon how her academic experience was “profoundly personal” because of her own issue of her history being excluded from the textbooks.
She added despite not feeling included, her mother and aunt’s feminism and desire for social justice kept her motivated.
García Peña explained how her path to earning a doctorate degree and working as a professor allowed her to find answers to questions she had about her experience as an Afro-Latina immigrant confronting racism.
Then, she described her own definition of ethnic studies as, “a project of transformation which seeks to be colonizing the university to create reforms of learning for all. It’s a process of justice.”
She touched upon the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has unveiled the fragility of capitalism and resulted in hardships for those who were previously privileged.
García Peña added that social services have failed to provide people in need with necessities such as food stamps or unemployment benefits.
She explained how many essential workers are Latinx/a/o, Black, and poor.
García Peña described how capitalism has forced universities to lay o[ faculty and stop hiring.
She added despite the financial crises the universities face, the integrity of education will continue and learning won’t stop.
García Peña discussed Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Black and Puerto Rican writer and historian who advocated for the development of Black history departments in schools.
“His proposal was to introduce that which slavery took away – the possibility of humanity and
belonging,” she said.
García Peña explained that in order to work together, we need to appreciate every voice in the classroom while dismissing a dominant voice.
She posed the question, “Out of all your high school world history classes, how many were focused on African history, outside of a section on Egypt or U.S. history?”
García Peña explained how history is always studied from the “perspective of the empire” and the history of those who experienced violence is left out.
She added we could also learn about the direct relationship between immigration and colonialism.
García Peña touched upon the current “standard of education” that is built off colonial structures but is disguised as the truth as it stems from white supremacy, that we have been taught to understand as normal, she said.
“In the process, we have all been deprived of learning because we have all been brought up with this so-called idea of truth,” García Peña said.
She explained that when we think about the founding of a nation, we might not have the factual date or the correct groups of people.
“We have constitutions that are the universal truth about those particular nations. All of those are partial truths. Ethnic studies are charged with Wlling in the men’s gap of eurocentric education systems that dominate all of our institutions,” García Peña said.
She described the social environment of Harvard, noting how it is not an institution that mostly serves Latinx/a/o students.
García Peña explained how students who attend colleges that don’t have Latinx/a/o spaces, look to the classroom as an environment for them to “form alliances” to confront the racial adversity they face.
She discussed a course she created at Harvard called “Performing Latinidad” and said it served as a “sanctuary” for students of color.
García Peña described how the class is entertaining for all levels of students as it has a strong
performance component with a curriculum that includes Wlm, poetry, and music.
“Students would get excited to perform at the end of the semester because they became visible on a campus that constantly seemed to invisiblize students of color,” she said.
García Peña described how students made a Jennifer Lopez shrine one year, which brought the Latinx/a/o community together, but only for a week because the janitors removed it.
She also discussed the day President Donald Trump was elected.
“A scary day for many of the brown, queer, and undocumented students in my class. I simply did not have the words of comfort or wisdom that could assuage their fears even a little,” she said.
García Peña explained she still held a class the day after the 2016 election, despite many of her colleagues canceling. She opened the classroom for all students as a place to process their thoughts.
She described how students came in holding each other and crying, fearing deportation, and having to adapt to the new “Trumpian world.”
After García Peña and her students vented, she asked them, “What now?”
She described how one woman ran up to the board and began jotting down her peers’ thoughts.
García Peña said the students stayed an extra three hours, where they developed their main goal – to protect undocumented students.
Their plan was to make colleges sanctuaries for undocumented students, which is a title many colleges have adapted – but not Harvard.
She touched upon how recently, she reconnected with an old student and they discussed the post-election time period and their class.
The student said, “The syllabus gave us the tools, but the class gave us a community.”