Maria Torres-Guzmán with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Dr. Maria Torres-Guzmán

Dr. Maria Torres-Guzmán

Dr. Maria Torres-Guzmán is a full professor in the Bilingual-Bicultural Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Professor Torres-Guzmán’s interests lie in the space where culture and language intersect in the classroom as well as in broader society. In conversation here with Estrella Olivares-Orellana, Professor Torres-Guzmán takes us on a journey from her initial steps in venturing into higher education, to the culmination of her tenure at Teachers College.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me about your career path. Esteem is a journal that aims to share what it takes to become an influential education scholar and I feel that shedding light on your path will be beneficial to many aspiring scholars, especially in the field of bilingual education.Before going into doctoral work, your interests seemed to have been centered on Spanish language and literature. What made you want to look at participatory democracy and its relation to bilingual education when you decided to go into doctoral studies?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

It’s a really good question. Thank you first for including me. It was a life changing series of things that happened. When I was in my masters degree doing Spanish language and literature, I met people who were very active in our community and I started to question my studies from the perspective of what it was that it was going to help me help my community and so I swore to myself when I finished my masters degree that I would not go back to get a Ph.D. I would not go back to studying if I did not have a good reason, if it would not help the community. Now I see literature slightly differently and I see that it could be useful, but at that time I didn’t see the direct connection between studying literature and creating a tool for community involvement. So I really got involved with the community and started teaching at Wayne State.

When I was working there I realized that without a doctorate I would not go very far because I did not have a terminal degree. During the period that I was at Wayne State, one of the projects that I had the students do was a bilingual education project in the community (it was an ethics studies program). I got interested in the bilingual education project because it brought back part of what I did in my masters degree, which was language; but at the same time, it was in a very useful form because it was about education. So, the utility, the love, and the passion were there. I was able to organize to get someone to write a grant for a teacher education program at Wayne State in order to feed into the bilingual education programs in the community.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And this teacher education program was for bilingual teachers?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Exactly, but this was very new in 1974 when the fellowships and the teacher training started because of the Bilingual Education Act. I was in Monte College. It was a General Education Undergraduate program and they closed it and fed most of the program into the Liberal Arts program. I, at that juncture, decided okay, I have a reason to go for my doctorate, and that’s how I went into bilingual education.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Did you have a bilingual education experience growing up?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

There is what they call the de jure bilingual education, which is when it’s not formal but you actually experience it. When I was a child, I spoke Spanish. When my sisters went to school, I was able to learn a little bit of English before going to school. When I went to school, it was in English and then in 6th grade I moved to Puerto Rico, so I really had a de jure experience because there it was all in Spanish with an English as a second language course.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And was that when you started looking at the intersection between language and culture?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Maria E. Torres-Guzman, with Ruth Swinney

Maria E. Torres-Guzman, with Ruth Swinney

Ok, I have a book, Freedom at Work, that I am going to share with you because the last chapter has a little bit about this. When is it that I begin linguistic analysis? It was every early in my life but the fact that I was in Puerto Rico and I could hear the English of Puerto Rico and I could hear the Spanish of Puerto Rico, made me a comparative linguist there. I could see that the English people spoke was not the type that was in the books, and I could also see that the Spanish that we spoke was very different from the Spanish that was in the books, which came from Spain. So I became a comparative linguist, so to speak, when I was 11 years old. But I also think that in doing that I became aware of cultural differences. Although I think I understood the cultural differences earlier than the linguistic differences because I lived in the Mexicano community, I understood language variations very early, but language variations related to culture. My Mexican aunt spoke in one way and made foods that were very different and would speak about her culture in very different ways than what we knew at home.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Is that the book you wrote with Ruth Swinney?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Yes.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In one of your most recent articles, with Milagros Castillo-Montoya, which I really enjoyed, you use testimonios as a method for sharing funds of knowledge that may support emerging scholars to expand on current educational theories, methods, and pedagogies. Why did you think testimonios would be a valuable instrument for that task?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Ah…Because there are few studies of Latina women in higher education and when we started talking we had some understanding of other women who had done testimonios and it was purposeful for pairs of senior and junior Puertoriqueñas to get together and do a presentation at AERA last year. We presented and then we committed to writing something. Ours just happened to come out very fast. For me, it was a joy to write. It was almost a non-effort, one of those things that you say “it was so joyous, there was no effort to it,” but it was very purposeful from the beginning. We knew there was very little written on Puertoriqueñas in the academy so all of us decided that we were going to do testimonios as part of the methodology and that came directly from the Chicana Crit. Literature, Gloria Anzaldúa, and that whole tradition.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

…and was that AERA presentation about that tradition as well?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Dolores Delgado Bernal

Dr. Dolores Delgado Bernal

This is the framework that we used from the very beginning. I had read Dolores Delgado Bernal and as we started the conversation I said, “We have a way of organizing our conversations.” I brought testimonios in and we decided to organize our conversations around that. We had already covered many of the areas but the one that we hadn’t covered was spirituality and that was very surprising for us. But then afterwards, I could see almost everything as spirituality; it was what made me tick.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I certainly enjoyed the article and I think using testimonios was very useful.

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Dr. Sonia Nieto

Dr. Sonia Nieto

Thank you. This was also part of a mentoring program that we have been going through with AERA; it’s a result of that. Quite a few years ago, three of us got together. Remember that I am part of that early, early group. Sonia Nieto, Úrsula Casanova, and I met in Seattle for the first time and we said “Let’s start a tradition. Let’s get together and have dinner or lunch at every AERA.” We originally set it for Thursday, because we knew we would be there but then it became complicated and everybody had presentations, etcetera. But we kept on doing it and then we added another layer of people, and we started inviting the second layer of people who got involved, and then a layer of new scholars got involved, and it got to the point of maybe 30 people, and we met only that one time. Out of that came the idea for this conversation.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In that same article, you discuss how growing up in Puerto Rico helped you learn that there is more than one way to live, be, and interact in this world. You also say that Puerto Rico gave you a critical eye. Could you elaborate on that?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

We used to talk a lot about this. We used to say that having lived anywhere in Latin America gives you a critical eye because the tendency in a lot of Latin American countries and in many parts of the world is not to see the United States as the center, but to see the United Stated as a power. Immediately, you engage in a power relationship analysis rather in center analysis. I would say that most people who live in the United States think of themselves as the center, that the world is at their feet. I grew up in Puerto Rico, which has a struggle around colonialism that is evident in the everyday life and in the politics, because there is no politics without discussing the status of the island in relationship to the United States.  I took my first husband to Puerto Rico once and I said, “Here you don’t have to do surveys, all you have to do is go outside and look at the rooftops of all the houses and you immediately know whether this neighborhood is pro-statehood, pro-independence, or wants to stay the way they are.” That’s because everyone has their flags outside. Here, people are very polite and they don’t talk about politics unless you are really a friend and even then you are supposed to stay away from talking politics. Well in Puerto Rico that’s ridiculous. You would never be caught not taking a stance or a position about something. That’s what gave me the critical eye, but also the experience itself, because I had lived as a Puerto Rican in the United States and then I lived as a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico. I could see one difference, and it is a very key difference to children here and why I believe in bilingual/bicultural education, and that is that in Puerto Rico, who you have around you, in terms of models in all kinds of professions, are people like you. There is no doubt about you and people like you being capable of being a professional of one kind or the other. There are Puerto Rican doctors, Puerto Rican psychologists. They are all Puerto Rican, so they go, “Okay, that doesn’t stop me.” What is more critical there is social class, because what may stop you is not having the money to go to college. You have to be good academically to go to college or you can’t, and that was my case.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I think I agree…you also went to the University in Puerto Rico right?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Yes. The self-confidence of being Puerto Rican and being capable of doing that, if I could overcome the economic piece, was there. That’s the difference. Affirming yourself gives you the confidence to do other things.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I think I agree with what you say about the critical eye, and I see it. I grew up in South America but did my higher education here, and I see that especially when having conversations with people who have completed their higher education over there. And sometimes even with younger people.  For example, what’s happening in Chile with all the student protests around issues of access to education, I think that youth over there have the ability to see things more critically and to question the systems that educate them.

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Exactly!

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And I am not sure if everybody here has the ability to do that. So I think I agree with that. You have also said that your biculturalism allows you to see worlds that academia does not acknowledge. What worlds are you referring to when you say that?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Well, for example, lets just go to positionality, and here I relate to the Chicana crit. literature, because they have a concept of Nepantla, which relates to that. Nepantla lives between worlds, she doesn’t see either or; she lives in-between, and in a way that gives you another way of looking at the world. It’s not from a black or white perspective. When you go into academia and people speak about things, I know that I always have a visceral reaction to people who present with such confidence that they know what is, and nothing else should be. And part of my visceral reaction is that I don’t see the world as black and white. I see the world much more blurred. I understand that it comes from my positionality.

I’ll give you a very clear example that I loved when I experienced it. It was Thomas Jefferson’s home. When I went to his home, I could see from the outside it didn’t look so big, but you go in and there is a dome and all of a sudden you see the grandness of this place. But then you go out through the back and there is a walkway and then there you see how it goes into ground. You go underground and you see the slave quarters. When I saw that, I was emotional about it because Jefferson was the one that spoke about education for all and when he talked about education for all, he was talking about all that were on the surface, above. What was underground, the slaves, were not included in his education. So if you take that as a metaphor, which I felt at that moment, the publicly spoken discourse is not real. If you look at it from below, you know that it doesn’t include you. So education for all does not mean for all. It’s for all who are worthy, according to my eyes. So if you think about that as my visceral reaction to this place, to the name of the person who argued for mass education in this country, and who is the best known for equality for all children, then I could see it through the eyes of those who have been colonized. If I am colonized, I am not included in the “all” and I know that the “all” is not inclusive of me. That’s what I’m thinking about in terms of the worlds that are not acknowledged.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I see…well, the fact that you say that you don’t see things black and white and that you don’t like to think that things are in a certain way and that you see the world much more blurred reminds me of when I first came to Teachers College. I don’t know if you remember, because you see so many students, but you were the very first person I spoke with. I remember that I knew nothing and no one, and I never thought that I would even be able to go school here, because I am an immigrant and I came here when I was eighteen years old and I didn’t speak English at the time, but now I was a teacher and I had become involved with bilingual education, and I thought, “Let me just go and talk to somebody.” I want to thank you because you really treated me as if I had something that was worthy, and I really didn’t know anything. Now, after so many years of studying I know that (laughter), but you embraced me in such a way, as though I had something to offer, and this was a place where I would be able to learn more and be able to contribute and move on to great things. I think that’s one of your great qualities, and it stems from you not seeing things just as black and white, and from being able to see things that other people maybe don’t. I knew nothing except for the fact that I had this desire to learn more about bilingual education, be part of that world, and read and write about it. You not only opened the door but you opened it in a way that made me feel like I belonged. I will be forever grateful. And this leads me to my next question, which is what advice would you give to aspiring scholars in the field of bilingual/bicultural education?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Thank you. I think that like you, when you came, you looked for something that could push you. You want something that embraces you. Someone who thinks you are worth it and even if you are the only one that thinks that way, that’s where you should go and never doubt. Never doubt. Because if you have this passion and want more education, and you want to find out more about something, that is what makes you the best student. It is your passion and that is why when I finished my masters, I said, “I can’t go back unless I have a real passion.” I could not see doing it just for myself. I had to do it in conjunction with the community. You have to have a passion, otherwise the road is too lonely to do it all by yourself and for yourself. You have to have the passion but you also have to have someone embrace you.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Yes, I think that’s key. The work is hard, and your passion is the engine that drives you, but you need somebody. As you did for me, and I’m sure you have done for so many other people, you need someone who gives you some acknowledgement and tells you there is a way.

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Cecilia Burciaga

Cecilia Burciaga, Stanford’s former highest-ranking Hispanic administrator, watches a student protest, April 5, 1994. (Judith Calson/Staff Archives)

Yes, somebody who embraces you and says, “Come, there is room for you.” When I went to Stanford for the interview, I met some great people. One of them was Cecilia Burciaga, who called me up after I had applied. Actually, the person who told me to apply there was my dean at the time, because he had gone to Stanford, and I mean I didn’t know who Stanford was. I said, “Okay, I’ll apply there.” My husband at the time was looking for jobs in the southwest. I interviewed in quite a few, and I had already put seven applications for my doctorate. I put it out there, and the seven gave me fellowships. They all called me to offer me more, or to offer me advice and the advice that they gave me was, “Go to Stanford, I’d love you here, I would offer you more, but if you have a choice, go to Stanford.” How kind! They were able to put my interest over their interests.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

You will be retiring this semester and you have said that you are not leaving the Bilingual/Bicultural program the same way you found it, and that in some ways it will still reflect your spirit after you leave. In what ways would you like it to reflect your spirit?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Oh gosh! In its sense of struggle. Some people see struggle as a negative thing; I don’t. I think that we struggle every single day no matter what. I also think that what I want it to have is a sense of stability too, and even though there is struggle, it’s a part of life…but not because it’s life or death… do you see what I mean? When I came here, it was almost life and death (laughter). There was struggle then and there is struggle now, but I don’t see it as life and death anymore.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

When you say struggle, are you referring to what you call “lucha”?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Yes, yes. It’s having that sense of knowing that you have an identity that is related to oppression and even though sometimes what you want to do is put it aside, and say “I’m gonna go into this new situation with a clean slate and I don’t want my oppression to color it.” I think we can do that at some level, but there is a other level, at which no matter what you do, it still comes up…esa lucha de ser, de pertenecer, that we always have. Because this institution is like society, and there are times when we are made to feel as if we don’t belong. That’s how I feel about belonging to this institution. I belong to this institution. I’m going to retire from the institution. I’ve been here from the very beginning and gone through all the ranks. I belong to this institution and this institution belongs to me. Nobody can tell me I don’t belong, and that’s the struggle. Even when you know that sometimes you are not wanted, you can understand yourself as belonging.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And I guess that lucha gives it so much more meaning, because if you didn’t have it, it wouldn’t be the same…

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Absolutely, you wouldn’t have that desire (laughter) to write. I used to tell my doctoral students, I come from a place of struggle, of lucha, and  your struggle is in the writing, in your conceptualization. You don’t have to be out there in the community, organizing. You are the intellectual group of your community. If you write and you really push yourself to be good in your writing, es como se dice en Español, la lucha de la pluma o del rifle…y tu estás en la lucha de la pluma. Of course there is always the danger of thinking that you are the community, when you are not; you are only one representative of the community, so it’s always important to know that and be humbled by it.

The other day I went to a community event (laughter) and I tell everybody “me hecharon huevos” because it was a genuine community meeting of a community that felt disrespected by the Board of Education, and here I was on the other side being symbolically, the board of education. I could see why they were raising the issues that they were raising. I know I’m not the community all the time, sometimes I’m the other side, but to an extent I can voice some of the things that they want, in the way of ideas. Sometimes we say “Well, that person is writing but there is nothing interesting, they are just saying what we already know.” But even writing what we already know and showing what we already know is incredibly important because much of that has not been shown “scientifically,” so even the fact that we speak our language in the schools is already a position of resistance, even when the curriculum is the same as the English curriculum and might not have anything of resistance from the others’ perspective.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In saying that you are not leaving this program the same way you found it, what would you say are the major differences between the way you found it and the way you are leaving it?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

When my predecessor, Isaura Santiago, was here she brought in bilingual education as an area of study but Teachers College didn’t have a Masters degree in bilingual education until 1984. She left at that verge. I saw the first two students who went through the program. They were the first two students who were both childhood and bilingually certified. When I came in and I saw these students, they were shy of maybe three or six credits for an Ed.M. and I thought,“How ridiculous is that, why should the bilingual teachers have to go through so much to probably make the same?” My goal was to reduce the number of points and I did. I reduced it to the same number of points as childhood education. I wanted to make it equal. Some people complained as though we were taking away from the students; they couldn’t conceptualize integrated knowledge. That’s one of the first things I did. The second thing was to not focus so much on policy and having a battle every time you were teaching but to focus on reflective teaching. I brought reflective teaching as a way of thinking about how to generate new knowledge, and my goal was to take it away from the battlefield and bring it into the classroom so that we could deepen our knowledge about bilingual classrooms, because I thought that what made us weak was just being in the battlefield without deepening that knowledge. That’s when I decided that I would go with the dual language programs and I’ve been working with them since 1986. I saw them as settling some of the questions, focusing in on the instruction and not making language the point of contention. Little by little the structures came into place. Our admissions rubrics are very good. At one time we just did whatever we could, but now we have a clear sense of what the structures of the program are.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And you leave happy…

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

I leave absolutely happy. There is always the sadness of leaving but I think I would have felt really sad had I not had a faculty to leave it with that I had faith in. My colleagues are wonderful, so I am leaving in that sense with happiness.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In what ways would you like to still be involved in the field of education in general?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Short term, I still have a lot to write. I will probably do some consulting work and some professional development work. There are two more years of a grant I am involved with, which requires some level of involvement, so for the next few years I still have some work to do. Long term, I don’t know. Life has its turns. We have ideas of going to Bulgaria and starting something new there and a new life different from this. I’m planning to send my books to Bulgaria so don’t think I will be away from my books. They have been reading my books over there and for my new town in Bulgaria we have some ideas about creating a multilingual city (laughter), so there is some work to do.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I am very happy that I decided to enroll in your last doctoral seminar this semester. It’s exciting to be part of your last class.

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

Thank you! I am very excited about my last semester because it completes a full circle. I’m teaching the doctoral seminar, which completes some people but I am also teaching my cross-cultural course, which is the first course I ever taught in this college. As a result, I have been able to see how the conceptualization that I used of culture has evolved. I could se now that the space of cross-cultural communication is open to everybody engaging in his or her sense of self and cultural identity. I’m very happy about how it’s organized right now and about how students are engaging in it.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Lastly, since this is your last semester, looking back, if you could speak to that young Maria that was just beginning, what would you say to her? Is there anything you would have done differently?

MARIA TORRES-GUZMÁN

I would have challenged myself more and I would have pushed myself more to be out there. But to a new person that was like me when I went in, I think I just would have said, “go for it.” This year I went back to the first program I started, which is now called Latin American Studies, but was then called Chicano/Boricua Studies at Wayne State University. It was beautiful to see my students of 40 years ago in the positions that they are in. It was beautiful to see the sense of struggle that they have not left behind. It was beautiful to see the blossoming. I also had a chance to see my papers. I found two boxes of papers of the program at that time and audiotapes of my lectures in bilingual education (laughter). I still haven’t looked at those (laughter), but I do want to hear them. I want to see my own growth. In looking at those papers, I could also see that the kernel of my ideas were there when I was that young, and I can’t even believe it (laughter). It’s like the Estrella that I saw just starting here, that I could see the value of. The reason is because she had the kernels of everything she is going to become when she walked in the door. So it’s like seeing that in others, in younger people, in my colleagues, seeing that beauty. It’s ok that they are not as published but they may have strong theoretical backgrounds, or very strong methodological backgrounds, and you can see it all coming together. It’s being able to see the young people for the value that they have. And that’s what the retrospective has given me. The other side of the coin is that you may say, “Oh my God, I’m still at the same place I was then (laughter) I still have to struggle,” but it isn’t that way. We are always becoming, we are always unfinished, and we also have to be forgiving of ourselves.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Thank you so much for your time.

screen-shot-2012-08-08-at-2-19-25-pmEstrella Olivares-Orellana is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently, she is also an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College and a bilingual science educator. She has a B.S. in Biochemistry from SUNY, Stony Brook, and an Ed.M. in International Education Development from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests are in the areas of bilingual education, Latino education, education for SIFE students and the experiences of immigrant students.

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2 thoughts on “Maria Torres-Guzmán with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

  1. Pingback: Interview with Professor Torres-Guzman | Bilingual/Bicultural Education

  2. Pingback: Celebration of Maria Torres-Guzman’s Scholarship | Arts & Humanities

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