Interview with Professor of Chicana/o Latina/o Studies, Gilda Ochoa

Gilda Ochoa is a professor of Chicana/o Latina/o Studies at Pomona College, where she has taught for the last 20 years. I was very lucky to take her class Chicanas/os and Latinas/os in Contemporary Society during my last semester at Pomona College and witness the way she models education as a space where theory and praxis can be connected by engaging with one’s local communities. As a Faculty Coordinator for the Draper Center for Community Partnerships, Professor Ochoa also works to connect the Claremont Colleges with their neighboring communities by integrating community engagement into curriculum and establishing meaningful partnerships with local schools and organizing efforts. Her most two most recent books, Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap and Learning from Latino Teachers, both center the personal narratives of students and teachers to reveal stories within the American school system that break through many of the stereotypes that are pervasive within the American school system.

For more information on Professor Ochoa, you can read more about her professional background here.

What inspired you to teach, specifically at the college level? When did you realize you wanted to teach? 

My parents were both first generation college students. And they were both junior high school teachers, so a lot of it was how I was socialized as the child of teachers. I heard a lot about the things they dealt with, both economically, and in terms of the day-to-day as teachers. I think I always knew I wanted to work with people. I have a brother who is four years older than me, and it helped seeing what avenues he was taking. He also is a professor. My father died when I was in college and he would always say to me, “You’re going to get a Ph.D.” Long before I knew what a Ph.D. was, he just planted that seed. My father died young, waiting for a heart transplant. Because of his health, he put a lot of focus on schooling.

My first real teaching experience was being a graduate student at UCLA. In many ways, what got me through graduate school was being a teaching assistant. Because of the narrowness of graduate school and the focus on theories I felt removed from, I felt that working with undergraduate students as a teaching assistant within Gender and Women’s Studies (then called “Women’s Studies”) and Chicano studies enlivened me. For one, they were discussion, as opposed to graduate school classes that were primarily lecture-based. And two, providing a chance for people to think through issues that maybe they hadn’t thought about before also excited me about the possibility that education can play in transformative thinking.

Much of your work—through research and community organizing—has centered on your hometown, La Puente. Can you speak to what you see as the importance of having this sort of place-based/community-centered work?

I think it has always rooted me. Ever since I can remember, my first papers in college were all about “how am I going to do work on La Puente?” Because I didn’t feel the institution was providing that space, in and of itself, where I felt affirmed and my families histories were respected, I tried to, whenever I could, create that space through the work that I was doing. Both of my parents’ own parents had moved to La Puente in the 1950’s, so I spent my early years there, but then we moved to Hacienda Heights next door, and I’ve been living in La Puente now since the ‘90s.

I was always thinking about how to root myself, and my work. And, as someone interested in contemporary issues, I always saw so much there. I was trying to create a place where my life, my research, my teaching, where I live is not so divided. I feel like it goes back to the idea of being whole.

What are the challenges, if any, you have found in both being a sort of academic “outsider” in some regards, and “insider”[1] community member though your research in La Puente?

It hasn’t always been well received, and I can give you countless examples of how its been critiqued. As a graduate student, early on, I got comments like, “Your work is too anthropological,” and that was seen as a negative because it focused too much on people and was too regionally specific. And somehow it wasn’t “theoretical” enough because theory was seen in this masculinist way that focused on the macro and excluded the personal.

Then, I would say I have gotten a lot of critiques as a professor—either because my quote on quote “N” [number of participants in my writing] was too small, being told I was gutsy for trying to publish work with such a small N—really in ways that the discipline and the people that are within the discipline work to discipline what kind of knowledge gets produced.

When I got here [to Pomona College], I knew I had to write a book, though I had no experience writing a book. I knew I had to write it for a particular audience because I had to get tenure on it, but I wanted to write a book that I still felt was meaningful for the community I was doing my work in. So I was navigating that space, and luckily had family reminding me, “You write the book that you want to write” within these constraints.

Much of your work in Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies has centered the personal narrative through the use of interview. What do see as the power of the personal narrative—particularly in an age that seems to be increasingly split between “alternative facts” and quantitative data?

I think that the power of interviews, whether it’s testimonials or oral histories, is again fostering a space for people to speak their say, share what is important for them. All of my work has been linked to what I haven’t seen in traditional academic scholarship, trying to make sure we are present—that we have something to contribute. Frankly, I always appreciate listening to people’s stories and listening to what they have to say. I think it adds so much to these dynamics.

What are some of the dangers in reproducing others’ personal narratives, particularly in spaces like academia?

 I am always mindful of how the narratives or interviews are being heard, or read. So that hopefully they are not simply being consumed, because if they are being consumed, typically that consumption involves a hierarchy and an exoticizing and an othering. I always want to make sure there is a larger framework to understand people’s experiences.

So even in the book, Learning From Latino Teachers, I really wanted to organize it differently. I really wanted to have the interviews more in their entirety. And I still kept some of them, but when I shared it with people to read, including my brother, he was concerned. He was like, “people need to have context to better understand.” Because, without context, we are all going to read it—and we still do—through our own lenses. And so if people are reading through a lens that reinforces hierarchies or has racist assumptions about Latino communities, then just the narrative itself is not going to disrupt it. People need to see where it fits in. 

Shifting to the work you have done at the Claremont Colleges to push for more “Community Partnership” classes,[2] what is the value of these collaborations, both for the Colleges and the communities they work alongside? If classes are going to seek these collaborations, what are ways they can ensure they are creating/sustaining meaningful partnerships?

These are the pressing issues, and I go back and forth. I have changed my thinking over the years in terms of the importance of it. One is, I think, who has built these institutions, and why are working class Latino communities and African American communities not having access to them in a holistic way? So, thinking about, who literally, physically built this space? How, then, can we make sure that the communities that surround these colleges have access to them? The disparities are so stark, and I think that’s one way of chipping away at these inequalities.

I think for myself, in terms of my own teaching philosophy, like I said, being a TA kind of enlivened graduate school. I think, in many ways, community partnership work enlivens this space. It’s disruptive of the norm in the way that teaching typically gets done. It’s disruptive in the sense that typically only certain kinds of knowledges are valued, if it’s in an academic book. We work with communities and you see we have a whole wealth of community knowledge that needs to be brought in, and shared, and complicated.

But, I’m also cautious. We need systematic change, and this is only one small path in that route.

Going off of that, if you had to define the qualities of what you see as a “model educator”—at any level of education—what would you say some of those qualities might be? 

The first one that comes to mind right now is humility. Teaching is really humbling because, just when you think you have it, either in terms of the curriculum or the pedagogy, you don’t. Either because different people are in the space, or different things are happening at the societal level, so it’s that humility that always leads you to think, “What can I do differently? What can I try another way?”

I think I am influenced by Angela Valenzuela’s idea of “authentic caring”—really trying to care for people authentically in terms of knowing that the time I see students is a short time and there are a lot of other things going on in students lives, so it is important to keep that in mind. For me, it’s always been being non-judgmental, and creating a space where students’ voices are brought in.

If you could tell education policymakers any one thing, based on your experiences being on the “front lines” of the classroom, what would you share with them? 

I think they need to listen. They need to listen especially to students and families who have been most disenfranchised by our educational system. Whether that’s first generation students, students of color, undocumented students, GLBTQ students—and parents, too. These are the families and the students that oftentimes not only have the least resources in our schools, but oftentimes also have been most negatively effected by our current/historical policies and are blamed with an assumption that “they don’t care” or that they “aren’t into education.”

Really listen to see how schooling can be reconceived and schools can be remade in spaces that really do value the community and all the community has to offer. I think too often politicians are completely disconnected, and they don’t have a sense of urgency of what’s happening.

Which voices, if any, did you not hear or not have access to growing up that you think might have fundamentally changed your experiences with school and beyond? How so?  

The voices and experiences of GLBTQ community members. They are completely covered up, not only in the curriculum, but also in terms of teachers and students having to hide their identities. We are so structured in binary, either/or ways, and every-day school practices reinforce that. Whenever you bring in more histories and experiences, you begin to disrupt ways of thinking and perhaps expected ways of being.



[1] Here, I am borrowing from an “insider/outsider” framework that Sociologist Victor Rios utilizes in his book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. Rios conducted research as a graduate student researcher in the same neighborhoods where he grew up, affording him the peculiar position of being both considered a member of the communities he was researching and of an academic institution often understood to be at odds with those communities.

[2] For those unfamiliar by what is meant by “Community Partnership” classes, these are classes which pair traditional classroom instruction with community engagement projects outside of the classroom. For example, in the class I took with Professor Ochoa, we also worked on a podcast storytelling project with a local high school. More information on that collaboration here and on examples of other such courses Pomona has historically offered here.

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