Gilda Ochoa with Cati V. de los Ríos

Dr. Gilda Ochoa

Dr. Gilda Ochoa

Gilda L. Ochoa is Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Her research focuses on education, inequalities in schools, and community partnerships. She has written on Latina/o immigration, K-12 teachers, activism, critical pedagogy, and the factors influencing race/ethnic relationships, especially between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. She is the author of the most recent Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap (2013), Learning from Latino Teachers (2007), Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community: Power, Conflict, and Solidarity (2004), and the Co-Editor of Latino Los Angeles: Transformations, Communities, and Activism (2005). In this conversation she speaks with Cati V. de los Ríos about her inspiration, her methodology, and her newest book, Academic Profiling.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

It’s such an honor to come back to Pomona and interview the woman who most inspired and pushed me to go back to graduate school. It was through our grassroots community collaboration with Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona High School (that I was implementing and teaching at the time) and your drive to do transformative and collaborative work in local communities with your college students in the Intercollegiate Department of Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at the Claremont Colleges that allowed me to reenvision the possibilities of not only classroom curriculum and teaching, but also the possibilities of powerful and critical research. Gilda, I am thrilled to interview you today!

GILDA L. OCHOA

It’s great to see you! I admire all of your work and am flattered you asked to interview me. 

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

Can you tell me about your childhood and upbringing in Southern California?

GILDA L. OCHOA

I grew up locally in La Puente and Hacienda Heights, and both of my parents were middle school teachers. My father came from Nicaragua in the 1950s. He came with his parents at 15 years old. His story is one of struggling through the educational pipeline until he eventually became a junior high school teacher. It took him a while to get his GED and he then went to East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC), and eventually ended up at California State University, Los Angeles. Upon finishing up at Cal State LA and receiving his teaching credential, he struggled to find a job. He would go to districts seeking work and he was told, “The job for the janitor has been taken,” or, “People won’t be able to understand your accent.” It took him a while to find a job, but he eventually got a job at Cedarlane Middle School in Hacienda Heights, CA. He was one of the first Latino teachers hired in the district, probably one of the first Central Americans in particular. Cedarlane was eventually the middle school that my brother Enrique and I went to, and we ended up having our father as a teacher.

My mother’s family came from Sicily in the early 1900s and moved to New York City. My mother was born in New York and her first language was Italian. She lived there until she was 18, then the family moved to La Puente. Both sides of my immigrant families moved to La Puente, so I am really rooted in La Puente, in the local area. My mom ended up going to Mt. San Antonio Community College, and then Cal State LA. Both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college, to get a college degree, and my mom also became a teacher, in the same district as my father in what is now the Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District.

Having parents as schoolteachers, and coming from a biracial, bicultural family, really a tricultural family—Italian was my mother’s first language, Spanish was my father’s first language, and always going to my grandparents homes in La Puente—certainly influenced my framework and thinking about identity and about location, and I always wanted to better understand the communities that I am a part of. So going to college, whenever I had the opportunity I was always doing research on La Puente. My background has influenced my research questions and the approaches I take, and the commitment to my neighborhoods. I live in La Puente. While finishing graduate school, I moved back to La Puente and I’ve been there ever since.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 2.19.44 PMAlso… my father used to always say that one day he, my brother Enrique (whom I co-edited Latino Los Angeles with) and I would write a book together. My father died when I was in college. That was life changing for me. His death shattered my world. But I think about that… the messages that our parents put in our heads as children. My brother became a Latin American Historian, and I became a professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o studies and sociology. I think it’s a product of where we were raised and the stories and histories that were shared with us by our family.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

This speaks mountains to me as I hope to do as much research and writing about Pomona for the very same reasons! Given that you’re a Sociologist by training, can you tell me a little about your trajectory through graduate school?

GILDA L. OCHOA

I did my undergraduate studies in Sociology at University of California, Irvine, but I did a lot of my coursework in anthropology, women studies, and comparative cultures.  Then I went on to UCLA for my PhD in Sociology. Sociology is traditional, and I was trained fairly traditionally in that department.

Graduate school was not always a pleasant experience for me. I came with the questions that had inspired me in terms of race, gender, inequality, and immigration. But the way that these issues were being explored in graduate school readings and courses was often from a Eurocentric perspective… in terms of the theory we were taught and even whom people thought were “doing” theory. In fact, I remember in my Feminist Theory course, we were told that women of color weren’t doing theory…and the few women of color we read were during the last week of class.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

…and, unfortunately some of this is still happening today in graduate school…

GILDA L. OCHOA

It is still happening today! …I remember being told that my work was “too anthropological” because my work is qualitative and intimately personal, so it was seen as a negative through the lens of some sociologists. Also, the way that immigration was talked about in graduate school in the 90s, and I think it persists today, was either, race, class, gender, and immigration, were seen as variables in quantitative work, not as systems, not as larger processes, or not accounting for historical factors, like globalization, neoliberalism; none of that. Power was often not part of the narrative; it was very narrow. The other way was through an assimilationist framework, either critiquing the assimilationist paradigm or reinforcing it by talking about segmented assimilation without really looking at these larger structures and without offering a radical critique of these dynamics.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

As a Latina feminist and trained Sociologist, who and what have been some of your greatest methodological influences?

GILDA L. OCHOA

Luckily, I had great mentors in the department of Sociology at UCLA. Vilma Ortiz, my dissertation advisor is one of the people who has gotten many of us Latinas through the program. When I was there, there were 4 of us women of color graduate students who literally clung together and worked together and sought out additional resources that we felt were lacking in the discipline of sociology as it was being presented to us. So I was a teaching assistant in Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies and Women Studies, which then allowed me to think about other spaces within schools, and also other ways of thinking and raising issues I’d been seeing within my own family. But there were people in sociology that I certainly turned to. At that time, it was Mary Romero’s book (1992) Maid in the USA …it was in a qualitative class that we got to choose any qualitative works we wanted, so that was good, because that class was very micro and there was no analysis of power, so I turned to Romero’s book on domestic workers and she was someone who turned to the topic precisely because it was personal to her and she linked it to larger economic factors and racial hierarchies. There was Mary Pardo’s work (1990) Mexican American Women Activists, which is also a qualitative study and community based. Martha Menchaca, an anthropologist, wrote (1995) Mexican Outsiders. It is also qualitative, but more historical. It was asking some of the questions that I was seeing in La Puente regarding inter-ethnic relations between Mexican Americans and Mexican@s. There was Leland Saito’s (1998) qualitative study on Monterrey Park, along with John Horton’s work. Both look at demographic changes in Monterey Park and Japanese American, Mexican American, and White community dynamics. Angela Valenzuela’s work has influenced my work on schooling in particular. There were examples of people doing exciting work, and seeing the work that they (mostly Chicana/Latina sociologists) were doing allowed me to realize that there are ways to connect community questions that I had with the academy.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 2.29.10 PMYou’ve just completed your fourth manuscript…can you please tell me about your latest book, “Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans and the Achievement Gap”?

GILDA L. OCHOA

If it’s ok, I’ll talk about my earlier books first as they all build on each other. So again, this current book Academic Profiling, comes out of larger questions I’ve been grappling with, not only as a professor, but in graduate school and also before. It speaks to my early interest in my family connections to the neighborhood, to the communities, and always trying to understand and link my lived experiences with academic concepts. I really like using Delgado Bernal’s concept of “cultural intuition.” It allows us to affirm our own lived experiences and histories and link them to the academic literature and try to answer questions with regard to those dynamics. So as I said whenever I was in college, I was seeking ways to analyze La Puente. My first book Becoming Neighbors looks at the city of La Puente, a primarily working class Latina/o community east of East LA. My focus with that study was trying to understand the dominant ideologies and larger structures in shaping Mexican American and Mexicana/o relationships. It was the community I was living in, and I was going to parent organizing meetings at the time, talking to families, learning a lot from community members and looking at historical factors. In that process, education was a crucial factor shaping relationships.  Even though I was interviewing adults, they kept talking about their own experiences of segregated schools, the process of Americanization in schools, and the debate at that time over bilingual education…all these things were shaping group relationships. So education ended up becoming central to the book.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 2.32.45 PMThen I turned to looking at Learning from Latina/o Teachers where I really wanted to center people’s narratives more, so Learning from Latino teachers allowed me to focus on a fewer number of people and really listen to what have been Latino/a teachers schooling experiences, how their schooling experiences shape what they are trying to do in the school system, how they navigate the very structures they were critical of, the very structures that have hurt us, how have they tried to navigate the system and do the work that they want to be doing as teachers for other primarily first-generation Chicana/o-Latina/o students.

But earlier on, when I was finishing up Becoming Neighbors, I wanted to see and learn more about what was happening in our schools. So I started visiting high schools and talking to people there.  I happened to go to the high school which is the focus of Academic Profiling. I call it Southern California High School, and I asked the principal: “Is there a way I can talk to Mexican American and Mexicano immigrant students to see how they’re experiencing the campus?” He said, “You know, the most important thing at our school is the relationship between Asian Americans and Latinos. That’s a really big concern for us.”  So he presented it to me.

At that time, I went into various classrooms just to observe and it was near the end of the 2000-2001 academic year, and I went into a Transitional English class. That’s what the class was called, “Transitional English.” So I asked the principal, what is this class? He just said, “Go in and see.” So I went into the classroom and sat in the back, and the teacher asked me to talk to the students; there were maybe 18 students in the class. The school has about equal numbers of Asian American and Latina/o students, but the classroom was about 95% Latino/a. I began by asking them (a group seniors),“What have your last four years been like?” At first they joked about the drama at the school. They said, “We don’t like our teachers, the yearbook;” it was a very light-hearted conversation. But then a student up front who had hardly said anything pounded his fist on the desk and said to his classmates, “I’m not sure if you’ve all noticed, but we’ve been here together all four years, it’s almost like this is the Mexican class.” After he made that loud pronouncement, everyone was just quiet. I think people didn’t know how I was going to respond. Then I threw it out to them, “What’s going on? What’s causing this?” And the students started blaming themselves. “We don’t like to study…we like to party more.” One student responded, “It’s because of the ‘Chinos,’” referring to Asian Americans. Some students laughed, then another student said, “They’ve given up on us. The honors students get all the attention and all the awards, and we don’t get anything.” That was a powerful conversation with the students. I ended up finding out that the transitional English class was a non-college prep course that they had been confined to all four years. Like the student said, it was the “Mexican class.” They weren’t transitioning into anything! It was jarring to hear this conversation.  It reminded me of du jure segregation and I knew all the literature on tracking, and the over representation of Latinos and African Americans in non-college prep courses and the underrepresentation of Latinos and Blacks in honors and APs. But to hear students talk about it was really powerful, but also disturbing because they were blaming themselves and also blaming Asian Americans… This inspired my research for Academic Profiling.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

In my experience, I have never seen an in-depth cross-examination of Asian Americans and Latino students. And you talked a little about it already, it wasn’t so much an interest, but a concern that the school community presented to you.

GILDA L. OCHOA

Yes it was a concern that was presented to me by school officials. But it was also presented within a backdrop of simplistic narratives of Asian Americans as “model minorities” and Latinos as “non-caring.” So there were dominant narratives that reinforced cultural deficiency theories.

There is a lot of work on either Asian Americans in education or Latinos in education. But the reality is that if you’re looking at the demographics of Southern California schools, it’s not unusual for us (Latina/o and Asian American students) to be in these shared spaces. That was my experience in high school. So not seeing these two groups together in the literature, knowing that there were these dominant narratives, and being aware that the school was concerned led me to want to talk to students, teachers, administrators, and parents to see how they saw the dynamics at the school and how they framed what was going on.

AngelaValenzuela

Dr. Angela Valenzuela

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

You mention Angela Valenzuela’s work as heavily influential in this ethnographic study. Can you speak more about that?

GILDA L. OCHOA

Absolutely. Well, I reference her all over the book! I use her book, Subtractive Schooling, in many of my classes, along with Nancy Lopez’s (2003) Hopeful Girls, Troubled Boys. There are a couple of authors whose works are a mainstay because I teach Chicana/o-Latina/o Education almost once a year now, and those are two authors who are present in all of my syllabi, along with Gilbert Gonzalez’s book (1990), Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation. Those are key books. Like Angela Valenzuela’s work, Academic Profiling is a qualitative study looking at schools and at the larger structures shaping students’ experiences. I really appreciate Valenzuela’s discussions of authentic vs. aesthetic caring and assimilationist practices in schools that subtract resources from youth. Also, the work by Stacey Lee (2005), Up Against Whiteness, another qualitative study but looking at Asian American students, has been very helpful in my thinking.

Subtractive-Schooling-Valenzuela-Angela-9780791443224CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

So this is your fourth manuscript…why do you use qualitative ethnographic methods? And I know you had mentioned in another instance to me before that you don’t like to be seen or identified as an “ethnographer,” because you felt like it was too sterile and the term carried a particular history in the academy.

GILDA L. OCHOA

Yeah, it seems too scientific.

My research and politics are informed by Women of Color feminists. For example, Patricia Hills CollinsBlack Feminist Thought, was one of those key texts we brought into our own reading lists in graduate school. Collins challenges the way research has been done in communities of color. Historically, for our communities, there has often been this voyeuristic approach, of an outsider coming in, taking knowledge, and extracting it in ways that may reinforce dominant narratives of our communities. I like to use the concept that Judith Rollins uses for domestic workers in Between Women, this idea of “windows into the exotica.” I sometimes feel that academics have gone into our communities with a microscope trying to understand “the bizarre” and “the unique”…the orientalism, right?…to expose these things. So for me, it’s always been about how can I approach the work I do in a different way. For me it’s been about dialogue, discussion, learning, participating, and listening to people’s stories. I think that I get that more through interviews. This involves fostering spaces for people to frame the narratives that they want to share as opposed to quantitative methods, and while I see the great value in quantitative, it’s not an approach that makes the most sense for the work that I want to be doing or the approach I want to be taking which is informed by accessibility, story telling, claiming voices, and understanding the relationships between power, inequality, and forms of resistance that exist within our communities.

So for example, In Becoming Neighbors, I became involved in the community. First, I began by sitting in on parent meetings when they were trying to eliminate bilingual education in the school district, but then later, I was speaking at meetings and getting more involved that way.

To me “ethnography” is too scientific. It’s often based on this idea of maintaining objectivity, neutrality, rationality, and being unbaised, but I see myself as a critical researcher. So to use the language of “ethnographer,” it still connotes this idea of the researcher peering into communities and seeing what’s happening, looking into the windows of the exotica with this assumption of being neutral or value-free where that’s not the case for any research.  And I have critiques of my own approach; I’m still working through some of them.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

Without sharing too much, can you highlight some of the key findings? 

GILDA L. OCHOA

So I gave you some of the reasons behind the work. The title is Academic Profiling and that is a concept that came from one of the Latino teachers at the school. I use it to talk about the ways in which schools profile students not only on the basis of race, class, and gender, but also curriculum track. So it’s a concept that is used throughout the book.

I use the term achievement gap with quotation marks, because I want to challenge the entire discourse of the “achievement gap.” This work is informed by larger critiques of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, and the hyper focus on the so called “achievement gap” really reifies the assumption that standardized tests are the end-all-be-all to determining how students are performing. So many people focusing on the achievement gap lose sight of larger “opportunity gaps” and also “social gaps” because the reality is that the students at Southern California High School are separated and segregated and divided and sorted which ends up reinforcing racial and class hierarchies within the school, society, and among students. So the achievement gap is in the book’s title to problematize the narrow focus that politicians and some academics and school officials use.

People at Southern California high school would talk about the “gap” incessantly. It wasn’t even the achievement gap; it was just “the gap” between Asian Americans and Latinas/os. This is very problematic because it assumes this divide is natural and has always and will always exist. It assumes that it’s meaningful because schools are basically relying on those standardized tests to determine it. This language of “the gap” also homogenizes Asian Americans and Latinos as monolithic groups that are diametrically opposed. It doesn’t look at class differences or generational differences, which are real. In the community of Southern California High School, it’s primarily Mexican American and then primarily Chinese American, Taiwanese American, and Korean American, all of whom are primarily 1.5 generation and many of them have parents with college degrees. For Mexicans they are often are 2nd and 3rd generation American but the first generation to go to college. There are some class and generational differences, but as the book highlights many students suffer from our current schooling and academic profiling.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

As someone who identifies as a critical researcher, how have you navigated the academy in terms of balancing your community and activism work with all the demands of the academy?

GILDA L. OCHOA

When I talk to graduate students today, they seem to be doing what some of us were struggling to do in the early 1990s. And I was talking recently to my former advisor about this, Vilma Ortiz, and we see these generational changes which are exciting, because having had her as an advisor allowed me to know that it was ok to ask some of these questions… Having been able to read Mary Pardo’s work, Hondagnue-Sotelo’s work, some of these key people allowed me to know that there was a possibility to do this type of work. And with this next generation of researchers, there are now possibilities to build on this work…like the work that you are doing and have been doing, Cati that’s exciting.  So I’m humbled and am critical of what I am doing as there is still a lot room for thinking about what I should be doing.

With all that said, disciplines, academies and institutions are about dividing, right? The research I’ve done in La Puente, the work I do in schools, like at Southern California High School, it all highlights how schools divide and sort people and structure relationships; academia is similar. It’s about… you do research, and THEN you do teaching, and THEN you do service or community work. But it’s all separated. For me, it’s always been about how can I be whole? How can I not reinforce those divisions? How can I teach on topics that I am personally and politically committed to? And also do research on topics that I am teaching and learning from and committed to politically? How can I do work in community that then helps my teaching. So looking at these three things we need to do in the academy – teaching, research, and service — and linking them in a holistic way so that it’s not just doing community work on my own, but rather working with a teacher like you, Cati, in the community who is teaching Chicana/o-Latina/o studies courses.  Partnering together because all of that pushes my thinking, allows me to think and ask new questions, but it also invigorates the classroom and inspires students in terms of seeing the possibilities for social change.

I’ve been lucky to be in Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies because the foundation of the field is all about challenging the way that research has historically and typically been done in our communities. It’s about producing work that is accessible; it’s about working in partnerships and communities, challenging the status quo. So having a joint appointment in Sociology and CLS where that is the foundation of the work that we do facilitates my process.

CATI V. DE LOS RÍOS

Thank you, Gilda, for your time! Thank you again for reminding me, through this very brief conversation, of the power of Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies and its sundry commitments to education and its local communities. Many of us continue to find solace and strength in your words, guidance, and example.

Cati de los Rios

Cati de los Rios

Cati V. de los Ríos (Contributing Editor) is a doctoral student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia Universityand Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) in Harlem. She holds a B.A. in Chicana/o Studies and Spanish Literature from Loyola Marymount University, an M.T.S. in Theological Studies and Secondary Education from Harvard University and an Ed.M. in Curriculum & Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. She taught high school Literacy and Ethnic Studies courses in California and Massachusetts for six years, Adult ESL classes for many years, and is currently an adjunct instructor at City College New York and Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include the aesthetic contours of Latina/o critical literacies, immigration & curriculum studies, emergent bilingualism, critical pedagogy, youth activism, and high school Ethnic Studies. She is also a community organizer and Core member of New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE).

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