Interview with Dr. Bonnie A. Lucero, Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley

by Ana D. Rodríguez

Note: Fall 2017 Dr. Lucero will be starting a new role as Post-doctoral Fellow in Law and Society at the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University

What motivated you to pursue a career in Latin American studies? 

My fascination with Latin American studies began as a quest to explore my own identity. Even as a very young person, I was drawn to discovering my heritage and understanding the changing community in which I lived. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was surrounded with cultural, ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity, and I was enmeshed in a place thoroughly shaped by global connections. In my hometown of Richmond, California, diverse populations co-existed but remained geographically and socially separate. My family lived in working-class neighborhoods that straddled the boundaries of African-American, Latinx, and white areas of the city. As a mixed-race person, I struggled to find my place within this richly-heterogenous yet largely-segregated society. But what made it even more of a challenge were the powerful stereotypes conflating Latinx identity with Mexican and Mexican-American people, even though the community of Latin American immigrants and Latinx people in my city was very diverse in terms of national background. I grew increasingly curious about how Puerto Ricans fit into the broader Latinx category. I wanted to learn about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans to understand that part of myself. And I wanted to explore Latin America and its relationship to the United States to figure out the social and historical forces shaping migration and immigration. Most of all, I wanted to understand how I and the evolving racial and cultural landscape of my community fit into broader global processes.

These goals steered me towards a bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the School of International Studies at the University of the Pacific. My college experience prompted new questions about my and my country’s relationship to Latin America. I was surrounded for the first time in my life by a wealthy, predominantly-white student body. Navigating this new environment forced me to reckon with the profound inequalities that defined my own country. So, when it came time to fulfill the study abroad requirement of my degree, I wanted to experience a society that approached inequality as a problem to be fixed, instead of a necessary and immutable part of life. I chose Cuba. Part of my decision was informed by the island’s historical and cultural connections with Puerto Rico. Yet, I was also interested in Cuba because I had read that the 1959 Revolution set out to dismantle class, racial, and gender hierarchies. I found the possibility of a more empathetic society profoundly inspiring.

Though perhaps not in the ways I imagined, the semester I spent at the University of Havana changed my life. It cemented my love of Cuba and Latin America. It also motivated me to dedicate myself entirely to understanding how inequality functioned in the region, and how different Latin American societies had attempted to address social stratification at specific historical moments. Upon returning to my university, I researched and wrote about the abolition of slavery in Cuba, which I understood to be a key moment in which social change could have materialized. These experiences eventually led me to pursue graduate degrees in Latin American studies and later in History.

You got an M.Phil in Latin American studies from the University of Cambridge, what are some notable aspects and differences of studying Latin America from a European perspective?

One of the key reasons I applied to study at Cambridge was because the strained relations between Cuba and the United States complicated my ability to pursue my studies on the island. In fact, when I initially proposed to complete my study abroad in Cuba as an undergraduate, I was told that it was not possible because of the embargo. I actually had to transfer to a different university to make it happen. I remember the entire ordeal involved with traveling to the island for the first time. It was during the Bush years in the 2000s, and one of the first things I had to do was attend a “briefing” at the U.S. Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy. Over the course of an hour, I listened to a U.S. official justify her office’s efforts to topple the Cuban government as the only way to deliver Cubans from what she claimed to be a tyrannical police state that oppressed them. I listened to her defend a failed policy that I didn’t believe in, one that I knew only hurt Cuban people and separated families. Later, as an intern at the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., my naïve and optimistic hopes of bringing Cuba back into the organization after decades of exclusion were greeted with laughter. Both those experiences were very jarring for me as a student. I was determined to get another perspective.

Studying at the Latin America Studies Center at Cambridge afforded me an opportunity to escape some of the antiquated Cold War thinking that plagued area studies in the United States. Moreover, it pushed me to think beyond the comparative framework that implicitly poses the U.S. as the main point of reference. In that vein, one of the most transformative aspects of my M.Phil studies was being able to engaging with Cuba and Latin America more generally beyond the Cold War politics that dominate area studies in the United States. From this perspective, I was able to see Cuba for more than just the Cuban Revolution. Studying the history of race and ethnicity with my advisor Gabriela Ramos gave me new ideas about why Cuba captured my interest. It was more than just a single moment of revolutionary upheaval, but rather a much longer trajectory of struggle. This interest pushed me towards a historical approach to Latin American studies, with an emphasis on the evolving nature of social inequality.

I began to explore social inequality through the lens of race. My master’s thesis explored the impact of slave emancipation on ideas about race in Cuba. I sought to build upon this study during my doctoral studies in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, by exploring the ways imperial transition shaped racial hierarchies in Cuba at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, as I studied the work of black feminists and delved further into the archival sources, I realized that a history of racial inequality in Cuba would be incomplete without accounting for its entanglement with gender hierarchies. My dissertation represented my first attempt to grapple with those issues. After obtaining my PhD in 2013, I devoted my scholarship to exploring the intersections of race and gender. I co-edited Voices of Crime: Constructing and Contesting Social Control in Modern Latin America (University of Arizona Press, 2016), a volume that explores how race, gender, and class informed ideas about criminality in the region throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I also finished my first monograph, Revolutionary Masculinity and Racial Inequality: Gendering War and Politics in Central Cuba, 1895-1902 (University of New Mexico Press, forthcoming in 2018), which analyzes the ways Cuban soldiers and politicians employed ideas about masculinity both to challenge and reinforce racial hierarchy. The seminar on the history of race and ethnicity in Latin America at Cambridge empowered me to bring a scholarly and historical approach to my personal and experiential interest in social inequality. It allowed me to pursue personally and politically meaningful work that I believe provides a new perspective, which has the power to produce knowledge for change.

Tell us about your current teaching role at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley

When I got the job offer to work at the University (then called University of Texas-Pan American), my first thought was that this was the perfect job for me. Throughout graduate school, I had often questioned whether there would be a place for me in academia, where the odds seemed to be stacked firmly against women of color and people from working-class backgrounds. I had also felt torn about potentially taking a job that would isolate me from communities that I wanted to serve. The prospect of working at one the largest Hispanic-serving institutions in the country melted away these apprehensions. The job seemed to offer the best of both worlds—it afforded me a place in higher education while also enabling me to serve a community with which I truly identified.

Over the last four years, I have embraced this position as an opportunity to apply my areas of expertise in ways that validate and empower my students in the classroom and beyond. Part of that vision stems from my own experience as a student who struggled to identify with curriculum centered on a wealthy, white, male experience. I want my students to feel invested in the content and to see its relevance to their lives. Thus, in my courses on Latin American and the Caribbean, I purposefully center the historical experiences of social groups that are typically omitted from the historical record. Students learn about immigrants, African-descended peoples, indigenous populations, women, LGBTQ+, and religious minorities, among others. In this way, my courses empower students to see themselves in the curriculum, explore the common humanity of people across the Americas and beyond, and think critically about what they might reveal about our own society and experiences.

As a Latin Americanist, working with a predominantly Latinx student population has been a very fulfilling experience. Because of the working-class and immigrant backgrounds of many students, I have found that my teaching on historic social inequality and struggles for justice has resonated in unique and meaningful ways. I have proudly watched as many of them apply the lessons embedded in my curriculum to create change within their communities. I have also enjoyed working with a truly bilingual and bicultural student body and a borderlands community. In this context, the student population possesses a foundation of language skills and some degree of cross-cultural competency, which provides them a distinct advantage for studying Latin America. More than that, in this unique cultural context Latin American Studies is not merely a vehicle for understanding some far-off foreign society, but rather a mirror for exploring the dynamics that have shaped and continue to influence the borderlands.

For this reason, I have dedicated myself to rebuilding the Latin American Studies program at my institution. One of the initiatives I am most proud is Global Latin America, an Interdisciplinary Lecture and Engagement Series I founded in early 2016. As director of the series, I curate an enriching array of cultural and academic programming on the global connections defining the region and its borderlands. Some of the academic talks have focused on Mexico’s African heritage, Chinese Cubans, and this coming semester, Islam in Latin America. Because the Rio Grande Valley has remained geographically and politically isolated from the centers of elite knowledge production in the US, I envision Global Latin America as an important step towards connecting students and community members with internationally-recognized experts. Global Latin America also bridges classroom and community by recognizing the lived experiences of the borderlands as a valuable intellectual pursuit and forging connections between current and future generations of Latinx leaders. I see the series as a strong foundation for an academic certificate program, a minor, and eventually a major. Within an increasingly neoliberal academy and corporatized university, ensuring that students—particularly students of color in one of the most impoverished areas of the country—have access to this kind of liberal arts education is, in itself, a revolutionary act.

Which is your current research project?

Currently, I am finalizing my second monograph and looking forward to starting a new book project. My current book, titled Geographies of Power and Privilege: Urban Racial Segregation and Colorblindness in a Central Cuban City (under contract with University of Alabama Press), examines the gendered mechanisms of urban racial segregation over Cuba’s long nineteenth century. I explore how racial segregation was constructed and perpetuated in a society devoid of explicitly racial laws. By the late nineteenth century, Cuban law did not even recognize race, let alone prescribe racial segregation in the way Jim Crow did in the United States. Scholars have searched for indirect mechanisms of racial inequality, concluding that class was the principal mechanism of racial exclusion. However, the singular focus on class has perpetuated a male normative perspective, which obscures the myriad ways racial exclusion was bound up with gendered relations of power. Consequently, we have an incomplete understanding of the ways race functioned in Cuba and other supposedly-colorblind societies across the Atlantic World.

In the book, I argue that the key to understanding racial segregation in Cuba is recognizing the often-unspoken ways ideas and practices of gender shaped the historical production of race. Through a microhistorical case study of the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos, my research demonstrates that laws governing processes previously understood as neutral and ungendered—for instance slavery, emancipation, migration, urbanization, and property ownership—in fact shaped urban society in distinctly gendered ways. For instance, in mid-nineteenth-century Cuba, enslaved women in rural sugar districts cited their legal rights as mothers and wives to achieve freedom in larger numbers than their male counterparts. Many of these newly-emancipated women migrated to the city, where they found opportunities for wage work, which allowed them to take advantage of their legal right to own land independently from men. The way these women navigated urban space in turn shaped the city’s racial landscape. Most black women migrants settled on the cheaper and less regulated land located on the urban peripheries. But the relative autonomy of these black women property owners drew the scrutiny of local white male elites, who expanded policing and imposed new regulations to preserve urban order. Heightened state surveillance in turn helped institutionalize de facto racial boundaries. The gendered implications of the law were instrumental in producing and perpetuating urban racial segregation, without ever mentioning race outright.

My second project is a new book manuscript tentatively titled Malthusian Practices: A History of Pregnancy, Abortion, and Infanticide in Cuba. I became interested in this subject when I discovered over 300 newly-declassified abortion cases, mainly involving poor women of color, from the early years of the Cuban Revolution. This set of records seemed to contradict the revolutionary discourse of women’s liberation and racial justice. Thus, I began to wonder how laws regulating women’s reproduction perpetuated racial and gender inequality even in moments defined by intense social change. To address this question, I employ a reproductive justice framework to explore evolving interpretations of laws governing pregnancy and fertility control, and their consequences for women of African descent in Cuba. My intersectional approach to women’s health, bodies, and sexuality addresses a critical lacuna in the scholarship on Cuba—and much of Spanish America—by considering the way laws regulating women’s reproduction impacted the status of entire social and racial groups.

The study begins in the early eighteenth century, when colonial officials established the island’s first foundling asylum to care for abandoned infants and curb infanticide. By the early nineteenth century, precisely as Cuba transitioned from a white settler colony to a predominantly-black slave society, white Cuban elites excluded women and infants of African descent from accessing the asylum to ensure the institution could save white babies. I end with the consolidation of the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s, when the state again intensified its policing of women’s reproduction. The racially- and class-specific application of anti-abortion laws reinforced the racialized-gendered subordination of poor women of color within patriarchal family structures, while permitting expanded public roles of white women as symbols of revolutionary progress. Over all, this project illuminates how the regulation of women’s reproduction served as a key pillar of racial hierarchy, a continuity that endured through moments of social upheaval and revolutionary change. I am looking forward to engaging with and contributing to the growing body of scholarship on women’s bodies and reproduction in Latin America.

How do you envision the panorama of Latin American scholarship in the future?

One of the aspects of Latin American Studies that I particularly value is how deeply embedded the notion of intersectionality has been in much of the recent scholarship on the region, even if the theoretical influence has not been explicitly named. Latin Americanist scholars have long recognized the ways gender, class, and race have functioned as entwined system of inequality. In the field of Cuban Studies, Verena Stolke’s pioneering 1974 book Marriage, Class, and Color in Nineteenth-Century Cuba, created a strong foundation for future intersectional work. Recently, a new generation of scholars including Aisha Finch, Tiffany Sippial, Karen Y. Morrison, Camillia Cowling, and others have contributed some inspiring research centering women and gender in historical studies of social inequality in Cuba. As I move into my new role as Post-doctoral Fellow in Law and Society at the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University, I look forward to contributing to this growing interdisciplinary collaboration between scholars of Latin American Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career teaching Latin American studies?

There are many rewarding aspects of my career as a scholar and teacher of Latin American Studies. I think one of the things I have enjoyed most has been the ability to produce knowledge that has a direct bearing on the experiences of ordinary people and on struggles for social justice today. So much of my research and teaching has been dedicated to exposing the implicit and indirect ways race has operated in Cuba’s supposedly raceless society. In some ways, this research is specific to particular moments in the histories of Cuba and Latin America. However, I also see important parallels for the shifting landscape of race in the United States. Over the course of my life, colorblindness has become the unequivocal and unquestioned foundation for prevailing discussions of race in the United States, even as racial inequality and violence have not only persisted but grown worse. I see important parallels to Cuba; the consolidation of racelessness as a key pillar of national identity marked not the end of racial exclusion, but rather its mutation. Some of the worst episodes of racial exclusion and the most genocidal acts of racial violence occurred under the veil of racelessness. By understanding the way race operated in this context, my research potentially offers insights for combatting these abuses in the United States.

Translating these insights into the classroom and beyond has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.  Like my research, my courses expose the implicit, unspoken, often unconscious ways in which racial difference and other axes of inequality are constructed in specific historical and cultural contexts. Discussing the implications of concrete historical examples across the Hemisphere, my courses empower students to see the United States, Latin America, and the borderlands between them in a new light, as they learn to question, analyze, and critique dominant narratives and find their own voice. I have watched as my students apply their new knowledge and critical thinking skills to create change in their communities, whether by engaging in discussion with the spouses or children, by conducting original research, or by emerging as local activists.

In discussing these intersections of race and gender, I have had the privilege of seeing other women feel validated in their lived experiences. I have particularly enjoyed mentoring several very talented women students of color on original projects that grew out of my courses. One of my masters’ students is doing a fascinating project on the forced sterilization of Mexican- and Mexican-American women in the Rio Grande Valley. And another student is conducting research on the experiences of women of color in higher education. To me, there is nothing better than empowering students to produce original knowledge that is meaningful to their own lived experiences and has the potential to create positive social change in their communities.

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