While attending graduate school at Harvard University, Professor Frances Aparicio was invited to teach a Spanish course for heritage speakers — a unique opportunity for the 1980s, when this type of program didn’t exist anywhere else. She discovered a community of students hungry to learn about their histories, but for whom no good curriculum existed. Aparicio launched herself into exploring this space. The current director of the Latina and Latino Studies program at Northwestern University talked to NBN about her passions and the lessons she has learned.
NBN: What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a book on intra-Latinos in Chicago. I did 20 interviews with young college students here in the Chicago area who are Latinos, but who are more than one ethnicity or nationality – MexiRicans, Mexi-Guatemalans, etc. I have found the most rich, heterogeneous combinations that I didn’t think were possible. Most of them are second generation Latinos who were born in the U.S. and have grown up here. They shared a lot of their family stories and tensions with me, and how they negotiate in both national communities and in their family lives.
NBN: Did you always imagine yourself doing research in Latinx studies?
I actually started as a music major in college. I was very excited about it, and then I got there and two years later I thought, “I have to drop out.” I sat on a bench, took the undergraduate catalogue and asked myself, “What can I do that I’m good at but that I also have a passion for?” What I realized at that time is that you can make choices about careers and things like that, but you also have to be honest about what your passion is and what you’re good at. You have to really think about where your heart is, where you’re at and what you see yourself doing.
NBN: How can students be honest with themselves in answering the “what are you good at” question?
One of the things I have learned is humility, and learning to always be a learner. I have to look inside myself and think, ‘What is it that you do well and you enjoy doing?’ The other thing is getting rid of all this competition about who’s the best and who isn’t, because honestly, we live in a world right now where democracy is at risk, and I would say we need to think beyond ourselves. We need to think about how can we have an impact on this world. In order to do that, you have to put aside competition and think about how we work together, and think about empathy. Think, ‘How can I be generous to others, how can I make a difference in the lives of others by what I’m learning, and how does my own learning impact the rest of the world?’ instead of ‘How does my own learning make me the best?’
NBN: What advice have you given to students you work with that you think other students should hear, too?
I don’t think there’s going to be a one liner that is going to resolve all issues, but I think creating a sense of community on campus is really important. That community can be two friends, or it can be a class, or it can be a field trip. Whatever it is, students usually end up finding some sense of home on campus. The University has done a tremendous job of allocating resources to help students deal with social class difference in particular, along with racial and cultural difference. Yet at the same time, there’s still something really, really cold about this campus. The role that we play here is to help students feel safe and that they belong.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.