UCSB Latin American and Iberian Studies Program

Interview with LAIS Master’s Alumni Jorge Gonzalez (2012)

LAIS alumni Jorge Gonzalez (2012) shares his experiences in the LAIS graduate program and how his studies influence his work in activism. Read on to learn more! 

What spurred your interests in Latin America and/or Iberia?

 I was looking for a program, specifically a postgraduate program, where I could have the liberty of doing an interdisciplinary focus, and a department that would let me collect my personal ideas. I was not sure I wanted to do a PhD. I wanted to pick up tools I did not get in undergraduate. LAIS gave me the opportunity to pick what classes and professors I wanted to take, which was  exactly what I was looking for. 

 Please tell us a little bit about your MA thesis project, The (Re)construction of Blackness in Costa Chica, Oaxaca: NGOs and the Making of an Afro-Mexican Ethnic Group? What was it about?

 It began through my own curiosity. I knew that in my lineage there was an African presence and now I consider myself Afro descendant in Latin America. I was interested in the hidden and silenced black family members who were kept secret. It is important to  understand and acknowledge the indigenous presence and history.I took courses that covered such topics while I was in undergrad and I took the opportunity to study abroad in Oaxaca. . There, I got to visit and encounter a black community in Latin America for the first time. That sparked my curiosity. . There was little work on the Afro/Black  experience in Mexico, and I knew I wanted to attend  graduate school and study the pre- and post-colonial struggle for ethnic recognition in Mexico. I followed a bunch of groups online about the struggle to get recognition in Latin America. I worked on an honors thesis doing field work in Oaxaca.I also got the opportunity to meet with leaders in the recognition community, such as Father Glynn Jemott from Trinidad and Tobago, a Black priest who went to Mexico to start a social consciousness around blackness in Mexico.  LAIS allowed me to peel off the layers of my curiosity, and more clearly articulate what I was curious about. I was able to reconstruct through a  collected memory of people who did not see themselves as Afro-Mexican. There needs to be  a movement encouraging recognition and awareness of the  Afro-Mexican identity. Cecilia Mendez (LAIS Director and Professor of History), Gabriela Soto-Laveaga (History of Science, Harvard University) Casey Walsh (Professor, Anthropology), Emiko Saldivar (Lecturer, Anthropology) were crucial faculty in my growth and learning. They gave me lenses, new theoretical frameworks ,and  allowed me to dissect this topic in a more intrinsic way. Through this  complexity I began to unpack identity and think about how cultural performance plays a role in identity.I became passionate about how through performance collective identity is formed and  how NGOs manipulated this to forward their agenda. I worked with  different departments – history and sociology – and use their frameworks to form my thesis.   

Has it had any influence in your post graduate life? 

It influenced me to continue to be an advocate for Afro-Mexican politics. I continue to stay connected to the movement in Oaxaca. In fact, Afro-Mexicans  got  ethnic recognition in the 2020 census, which was great. I felt anchored and acted as a satellite for that conversation in California. I also direct a department at the World Beat Cultural Center which  organizes virtual forums and puts exhibits together.I am regularly interviewed on blackness and Mexico for local radio stations and other news outlets. My thesis topic and research interests have followed me, which is great as I have a lot to say. So I did not just leave published articles or  theses hidden at a public library. It is part of my identity and allows me to educate youth and others from Mexico. Building bridges between black and brown communities.  I picked up valuable research skills from studying this topic, and learned how to articulate it better and have a clear cohesive story. This has allowed me to articulate my ideas and weave in topics and research topics that present a new lens for seeing complex issues of race and ethnicity. 

 How has LAIS influenced your career trajectory? 

 I was studying social movements of black communities in Mexico, but had an epiphany at the end of my thesis in grad school that I did not really understand social movements happening in the US. I felt like I needed to ground myself in this country, the US, as it is my home. I wanted  to get involved, get my hands dirty, and hit the ground running. I moved back to San Diego and was inspired by my friends that were becoming advocates. It felt natural for me to move into that world, as I had been an organizer/activist in what I had been doing for my research and studies. I wanted to use the research skills I had gained to move policy forward and look at complex social issues with an interdisciplinary lens. It brings so much nuance  to singular and two-dimensional approaches used in policy. These allowed me to see how issues are complex and intersectional, and they need to be examined from different perspectives. In San Diego, I became a community organizer working on immigration and criminal justice reform, and infrastructure projects with local faith based congregations, such as San Diego Organizing Project – part of the PICO national affiliation – now called Faith in Action.  

And, what is your current career and career goals? 

Going towards my 9th year of being an organizer, I worked for the last 5 years as a Community and Civic Engagement Organizer. I implemented a lot of what I learned in grad school including research skills and my approach to complex topics. I look at topics from various lenses constantly. I’m really inspired by the mobilization and organization of community events. Cultural Performances  play a central role. Today a lot is playing out online and shaping cultural stories. I work for the Environmental Health Coalition, which is an affiliate of the California Environmental Justice Alliance.   

What was the most valuable part of your experience as a LAIS MA student? 

Having the time and privilege to read the amount of books that I read during grad school was very valuable. . I was introduced to important literature from Dr. Emiko Salvidar, and Professors Casey Walsh and Reginald Daniel (Professor, Sociology) on crucial frameworks that are cornerstones of understanding race and ethnicity. The MA program also improved my writing skills, which was very helpful.  I eventually went back to grad school to read and write a lot. I knew I had to do that for myself. I never thought I would be in this position, but to pay MA tuition,  I taught in the Spanish department. Teaching helped me prepare for giving presentations to large audiences at different conferences, cultural centers, etc, and helped me to feel comfortable teaching a subject that I became an expert on,  subject that very few people at the time were experts on.  

 What advice do you have for current LAIS MA students? 

Think about how your masters thesis topic will build a bridge to your next career path. Whatever tools and research you are doing make sure they interconnect to your next big step. Don’t see it as pre- and post-. It is something you are building and picking up through the tools you collect. Have a clear vision behind that. Ultimately have fun with the thesis topic. It needs to be fun and something you like. You should find yourself constantly trying to understand the topic through various different lenses and not just through books and reading.   Any other exciting news you would like to share with us? I am proud that everything came full circle for me. In my career path, my  goal was to publish. I published with a good friend, Miguel Becerra (LAIS MA alumni 2010, did work on Afro-Peru, thesis: Stereotypes of Afro-Peruvians through the Media: The Case of the Peruvian Blackface), and Reginald Daniel in Converging Identities: Blackness and the Modern African Diaspora. I manage  a facebook group – AFROMEXICO which has become very popular. It’s a platform  for people to learn and share information related to black Mexico, stay updated on current issues facing black communities in Mexico and the struggle for recognition and visibility of Afro communities. This group has inspired many MA and PhD students to study the Afro-Mexican identity and experience. . I wanted to make the information available in one place for people that was easily accessible. This group has also allowed me to build  relationships with professors in Mexico.