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Paula Moya named Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity

Paula Moya, Professor of English and Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities

As institutions of higher learning across the country address this moment of racial reckoning, Moya shares her determination for Stanford and CCSRE to remain leaders in race studies.

Paula M. L. Moya, Professor of English and Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities, took the helm of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity (CCSRE) in September. Moya has been involved with the Center since its founding 25 years ago, which coincided with her arrival at Stanford. 

We sat for a conversation about Moya’s history of leadership at the Center, her upbringing in New Mexico, and her vision for CCSRE. 

Attachments to CCSRE

Moya’s long engagement with CCSRE began shortly after she arrived at Stanford in 1996 when she participated in a faculty research workshop on identity. It was there, at the workshop convened by historians Al Camarillo and Estelle Freedman, that she formed some of her longest-lasting and most productive intellectual relationships. Her future leadership roles grew out of the teaching and scholarship she did through the Center. After earning tenure in 2002, Moya succeeded founder Al Camarillo as CCSRE’s Director of Undergraduate Programs. The position was, Moya explained, a rewarding but tough job, largely because she had little staff support. “The Associate Director position did not exist at the time,” Moya explained. “It was difficult to get any of my own research done for those three years.”  

One of Moya’s responsibilities was to staff the Center’s gateway course, Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. Like other interdepartmental programs, CCSRE does not have its own faculty lines, so it relies on faculty from various departments to teach its courses. “As we know, it is difficult to find people to teach core courses in IDPs. So I just assigned myself to it and asked Hazel Markus if she would team-teach it with me,” Moya recalled. “Fortunately, she said yes!” The collaboration began a long-standing research partnership that resulted in the publication of a collection of essays called Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (2010). 

Upon becoming full professor, Paula Moya stepped into the Directorship of CCSRE’s Research Institute. Today, Moya is among the 2 percent of full-time faculty who are Latina in the US and under 1 percent of tenured, full professors who are Latina. She is the first Chicana to serve as Director of CCSRE. 

Moya was drawn to CCSRE because it offered a supportive space for cutting-edge research on race. “I’ve been exposed to so much innovative research through CCSRE. I’ve become quite attached to the place in part because of how much I have learned as a result of interacting with people at the Center,” she explained.

Following the Sun

Moya grew up in New Mexico, which, unlike most other parts of the country, boasted many Latina/o leaders and everyday markers like schools were named after people with Spanish surnames. While there was certainly racial discrimination in her home state, Moya admits, “I wasn’t aware enough to ever think that I couldn’t be whatever I wanted to be. And so I just followed my heart when it came to choosing my major.”

As a young girl, Moya was aware of her Indo-Hispanx ancestry, but grew up thinking of herself as “Spanish.” After she began her undergraduate studies at Yale University, that identity was challenged. “I met a lot of people from California and Texas who I thought of as ‘like me.’ But they called themselves ‘Chicano’ or ‘Chicana.’ It was at that point that I began to question why I called myself Spanish,” Moya recalled. “I began to explore the relationship between how a person identifies and what they ‘know’ about the world they live in. The topic has been a source of inspiration ever since.”

As a first-year undergraduate, Moya already knew she wanted to explore these questions through literature. “You know, my mom would always say that as a young girl I would follow the sun around the house and I always had a book in my hand. The sun would be coming in and I would be sitting in it reading. I spent a ton of time reading. And if you spend a lot of time reading, you develop awareness and interest about the larger world. And it helped me to learn to write better, too!” 

Reading Literature, Reading Race

Moya’s research returns again and again to the relationship between self-perception and social positioning, and the roles of race and gender in everyday interactions. She explained, “I’ve always been very interested in racial perceptions—I see a continuity between our interpretive perspectives in reading literature and our interpretive perspectives in reading the world. And how we read race onto others unfortunately affects—far too often—how we think we ought to treat them.” 

Moya’s single-authored and co-edited books illustrate her commitment to unpacking what she refers to as our “entanglements with the world.” In The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism (2016), Moya employs the social-psychological concept of the schema to capture the complexity of perceptions and how we read and interact with others. In Learning From Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles (2015), she assesses Chicana literature as a vehicle for furthering debates about experience, social identity, and multiculturalism. Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (2010) is a compilation of essays co-edited with Hazel Rose Markus (Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences) that grew directly out of their team-teaching of the Intro class.

Currently, Moya is working on a book project entitled Decolonial Feminist Fictions that explores the writing of primarily women of color who break from Western literary forms by presenting multiple protagonists and competing points of view. These multifocal narratives counter Western values of individualism and binary thinking. “Individualism can lead to major problems,” Moya argued. “It is so important that we examine how we affect each other—and how we are truly interdependent.” Moya’s writing projects parallel her leadership at CCSRE in their commitment to decolonial, antiracist, and feminist praxis.

“We Have a Lot of Work to Do”

“If we do not fully understand how race affects our everyday interactions, we cannot truly understand how the world works,” Moya insisted. “And so I am very determined to help Stanford find the right institutional structures—including possible departmentalization of CCSRE—that will enable the study of race to thrive here. I plan to try to think creatively about how to do this so that students are able to take the courses they are interested in, the university is able to support race studies the way it needs to, and faculty find it rewarding and remunerative to teach our core courses.” 

Moya looks to the Stanford faculty as well as to staff and students to help her in the quest to strengthen the institutional structures related to race studies. “We especially need the involvement of our faculty who are doing cutting-edge research about race. These faculty are here at Stanford; we just need to identify the resources that will make it possible for them to commit their time to strengthening the teaching of race even as they continue their research,” Moya stated. 

“We have a lot of work to do,” Moya explained. “I am not committed to any one way of doing it, but I am committed to getting it done. I look forward to working with faculty, staff, and students as we work together to strengthen CCSRE as an institution for teaching about and researching race at Stanford University.”

You can join Paula Moya for her talk "The Power of Stories for Advancing Good Health: The Perfecto Project with Paula Moya" taking place Saturday, October 23, 11a-12p PDT, in the Gunn-SIEPR Building, Koret-Taube Conference Center, Room 130 as part of Reunion Weekend 2021.