Catherine Ramírez (UCSC) discusses recovery projects, decolonial tasks, and the value of experience
Catherine Ramírez, Chair of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and featured speaker for CCSRE’s upcoming Faculty Seminar on Assimilation: An Alternative History, had a formative experience as a graduate student—she recalls seeing an installation by artist Judith Baca at SFMoma that was a pivotal moment in her academic career and continues to shape her scholarship.
“I was inspired to write The Woman in the Zoot Suit, which started out as my dissertation in Ethnic Studies, when I saw Judith Baca’s 1976 multimedia triptych Las Tres Marías (The three Marias). In one panel we see a painting of a cholas from the 1970s…and then on another panel we see a Pachuca from the 1950s. Judith Baca told me that painting was based on her own memories of seeing Pachucas in the 50s,” explained Ramírez, who also knew Pachucas growing up in Southern California.
“The center panel is the mirror. So when I stood before the Las Tres Marías I thought, ‘Wow, here is this whole line of women, of which I am a part.’ But this has been totally ignored in Chicano Studies. [My dissertation] was very much a recovery project inspired by the discrepancies between what I was learning in school and what I knew from my own life.”
Baca’s piece has since become a metaphor for the voids that Ramírez’s research fills within Ethnic Studies and Chicana/o Studies in foregrounding overlooked narratives and offering sharp critiques that inform multiple disciplines.
Ramírez has been awarded fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford; UCSC’s inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures; and UCSC’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
What follows are excerpts from my interview with Ramírez about her research on assimilation, strategizing interdisciplinarity, the decolonial tasks of Chicanafuturism, and the ways her experiences have informed her scholarship.
CCSRE: In your book Assimilation: An Alternative History, you argue that the process is one wherein the lines between unequal groups, the integrated and the outsider, are both blurred and reinforced. How did you first come to recognize the problem with the polarized view of assimilation, which lean on one or the other side of the equation?
Ramírez: Once I became interested in the topic of assimilation I was struck by how much assimilation was defined as a kind of disappearing act, a blending in and, for the assimilated, according to the dominant theories in sociology, for example, it involves the loss of ethnicity and ethnicity becomes merely symbolic. [Ethnicity] is celebrated with food, flags, certain holidays like Saint Patrick’s Day, but it is not a stigma, it is not a barrier to access to institutions or societal resources. What struck me about that definition was how well integrated certain people are in society while at the same time they are not just excluded, they are targeted, they are persecuted by the state, and their integration in society is predicated by that exclusion and persecution. The most salient example for me of that paradoxical integration and persecution is undocumented workers, in particular, undocumented agricultural workers, of whom there are many where I live in Santa Cruz County. We know this is sort of the dirty secret of agriculture. Many or most agricultural field workers are undocumented and without them, that industry would collapse. Without them, we would not have the fruits and vegetables we encounter when we walk into Whole Foods. And so what we see here are a group of people who are extremely well integrated in a particular segment of society, but they would never be mistaken for “assimilated” according to these more dominant definitions, particularly in sociology. I ended up calling this the paradox of assimilation in my book. What I’m trying to do with my book is expand ideas about assimilation. We need to have a very capacious and flexible understanding of [assimilation], its contradictions, and the role of social structures and relationships of power.
CCSRE: Your approach to ethnic studies is very transdisciplinary. Can you explain how you came to traverse disciplines throughout your career? And what advice do you have for students today who also feel inclined to bridge multiple fields of study, but might be facing obstacles?
Ramírez: There is a lot of talk about the value of interdisciplinarity, but when it comes down to it, academia is still very much organized around disciplines. I’ve been very fortunate to work in interdisciplinary spaces for most of my career. One of the most important skills I learned as an English major was the ability to do a close reading, textual analysis. I also credit my strengths as a writer to the study of literature. However, when I applied to graduate programs I was pretty certain that I wanted to be in an interdisciplinary graduate program like Ethnic Studies or American Studies. My first job, however, was in an English department. So I ended up back in English and then I moved into American Studies at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC). And then American Studies dissolved and I landed in Latin American and Latino Studies. I’m very grateful to my colleagues in LALS for providing me with a new intellectual community…I feel that I have really benefited from my conversations with social scientists, in particular. I don’t know if I would have written a book on the history of the concept of assimilation if I hadn’t moved into an interdisciplinary space housed in the social science division at UCSC.
My advice to students in LALS is, because the profession continues to be organized around disciplines, they need to be intelligible to a discipline. They can be interdisciplinary, but at the end of the day they need to be very strategic about where they are going to get a job if they want to remain in academia. And often specific disciplines are defined by not only their methods and their sources, but by conversations that have been going on for a very long time. My interdisciplinary students need to be a part of those conversations. Sociology and political science are having very interesting conversations about assimilation, but they are not talking to each other. When we have interdisciplinary spaces like CCSRE or LALS that’s where these scholars can come together as colleagues and speak to each other and I love being a part of those conversations.
CCSRE: You've written recently on Chicanafuturism. Can you explain what that is? Do you hope that Assimilation informs a more equitable and fulfilling future for Chicanas?
Ramírez: I love this question. I’m just tickled by how much attention my work on Chicanafuturism receives. When I started writing about Chicanafuturism that was a hobby. And I can’t believe that people continue to ask me about it. Chicanafuturism is a term that I coined in an article that was published in Aztlán in 2004. It’s basically the Chicanx iteration of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism refers to cultural production that brings together Afro diasporic histories, the concerns and imagery, the tropes of science fiction, and also science and technology more generally. Chicanafuturism is similar except I’m looking at people of Mexican descent in the U.S. It’s very much a decolonial undertaking. It’s interested in looking at narratives that are very critical of modernity and European colonization. It’s concerned with the health of the planet and the health of the people on this planet.
So much about assimilation is about the future, like demographic change and how a so-called minority that becomes a numeric majority is going to transform a people, a place, a country, a culture. A more nuanced view of assimilation is part of a decolonial project for shaping a more equitable future for Chicanas.
CCSRE: Does your upbringing shape your academic career and research topics? If so, how?
Ramírez: Oh definitely. In terms of my first book The Woman in the Zoot Suit, my own family history helped inspire that book, in which I excavate the history of participation of Mexican American women in the zoot suit subculture of the WWII period. I grew up knowing women who participated in the zoot suit subculture, who spoke Pachuco slang. Then I got to college and I took Chicano lit classes and I was introduced to this whole subgenre of Chicano poetry called Pachuco poetry. And I saw multiple productions of the play Zoot Suit as well as Luis Valdez’s film Zoot Suit. And I was like, “Why so much focus on the Pachuco?” [Women] were minor characters—the girlfriend, the sister, or the clown. And I was like, “What’s up with that?”
The impetus for Assimilation was Samuel Huntington and his whole “Hispanic challenge,” which is a euphemism. It is a twentieth century way of saying “Negro problem” but replace “Negro” with “Hispanic” and replace “problem” with “challenge.” One of his claims was that Hispanics aren’t assimilating, can’t assimilate and they refuse to assimilate because of this replenishing of the ethnic group by immigrants who continue to come into this country and the proximity of Mexico and Latin America. And people even say to me, “You seem pretty assimilated.” And I think it’s because I didn’t speak Spanish. I had to learn it in school. And you know when I go to Mexico I’m Caty, but here I’m just Cat. And so, if I’m assimilated, but I’m still Mexican and my credentials are still doubted and I still get asked “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” And so Assimilation is definitely informed by my experience of assimilation.
Catherine Ramírez will discuss her book Assimilation: An Alternative History on Thursday, October 28th at 12pm PDT. RSVP here to join in-person in the CCSRE Conference Room, BLDG 360, or REGISTER to join via zoom.
Learn more at https://catherinesramirez.com/.