Academia is structured to systematically devalue the work and knowledge of people beyond the “Ivory Tower.” By Ivory Tower, I mean historically White colleges and universities (HWCU)[i] with endowments and/or state funding that allows them to designate legitimate and valuable scholarship without accountability to broader society, both at home and afar. Sara Ahmed (2017) explains that a feminist killjoy is one who kills the joy of others by naming the inequality and violence that they have chosen to live in, to reproduce, and to ignore. To put a name to inequality is to kill the joy of others, especially those who benefit from it. The killjoy is the one who names harassment; the killjoy is the one who is called “sensitive.” I became a geographer because I needed spatial analysis to understand human relationships to place. I must insist that I am a geographer because I have been told by colleagues that I will never be a geographer. Is the insistence on hiring “real” geographers a disciplinary gatekeeping, or a racial gatekeeping? Given the historical and persistent whiteness of the discipline, to split the two trends is to refuse the violence of exclusion. Even as we see a moment of hope for hiring tenure-track experts studying race, environmental justice and settler colonialism, these crucial gains must be weighed against institutions that say only full professors are qualified to offer reviews for tenure – in their majority, they are White people.[ii]

I believe that the insular intellectual standards of the Ivory Tower are brittle and will crumble if they do not transform. What would transformation look like? With emerging disciplinary recognition of the importance of Black Geographies and Latinx Geographies, we have an opportunity to reframe what counts as knowledge, and what counts as scholarship. Below, I offer a few thoughts on what transformation could look like for human geographers engaging with transnational Latinidades, or a plurality of Latinx identities that are in conversation – and conflict – across nation-state borders.

Respect people’s right to self-identify, including those who don’t identify as Latinx. Fellow geography faculty have occasionally told me about how they have educated their students, telling them how to self-identify; for example, not as Hispanic or Mexican, but rather Chicana/o or Latinx. These dynamics sometimes mean that White middle-class professors publicly shame first-generation students of color for the words they use for their identities, rather than facilitate students’ ability to understand and name their place in the world. I try to use my classes to interrogate the political genealogies of identities, but not to tell my students who they are. This is important to manage the class inequalities that extend to education in the US, but also to recognize that many students come to college having talked about race extensively in Spanish (not necessarily in English), and finally that they may not identify themselves the same way I might identify them. I think this is crucial in engaging with Chicano studies: while I embrace the term Chicana as a person of Mexican descent who is proud of its activist origins, I also recognize that many Central Americans do not identify as Chicanx because they see their identity as distinct from Mexican. Rather than tell students who they are, it is our job as teachers and scholars to give them the tools they need to define this for themselves.

Scholars of human geography must strive to recognize autonomous peoples, including but not limited to differential identifications across time and place. This is particularly crucial for Black and Indigenous peoples with ties to Latin America, who may or may not self-identify as Latinx in articulated and overlapping categories. Kauanui describes this beautifully, noting that Indigeneity is about collectivity, such that “inclusion is not premised on the exclusion of one’s other racial identities or ancestral affiliations” (Kauanui, 2008: 15). Indeed, many people self-identify as both Indigenous (for example, Tzotzil Maya) and Latinx. At the same time, expansive inclusivity demands respect. In other words, geographers engaging with Latinidades should not refer to Indigenous peoples as a “subgroup” or “ethnicity” that is subordinate to the Latinx identity, and likewise should not refer to Indigenous languages as “dialects.” This is empirically incorrect, as Indigenous languages of the Américas do not have the same linguistic roots as European languages – they are not regional dialects of Spanish. Instead, Indigenous languages pre-dated colonial invasions and live on autonomously today. Whether as a subgroup or a dialect, to subordinate Indigenous identities to Latinx identities is to metaphorically recolonize them.

Geographers should consider following standards of the Canadian Press stylebook, capitalizing Indigenous and being as specific as possible when referring to living peoples. In other words, the Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary should be where our analysis begins, not where it ends. When referencing Indigenous peoples from Guatemala, this means saying more than “Indigenous people” or even “the Maya,” but differentiating from more than twenty distinct peoples (pueblos). Xinca, Garífuna and Maya peoples have survived colonization without being defined by it, each with distinct if related languages and cultures. This is one way to respect the long struggles that Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have made to be recognized as something other than a subgroup of Guatemala. The successes of struggles for auto-denomination are borne out through the Academia de Lenguas Mayas (Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages), which privileges language and spelling from Maya knowledge over that of Spanish colonialism or foreign Christian missionaries. For example, spelling “Quiché” recognizes a people through their colonized context, while spelling “K’iche’” recognizes their legally won right to auto-denomination. In the same vein, Indigenous peoples in Guatemala demand the right to be recognized as distinct peoples (pueblos), not isolated communities or groups (Cojtí Cuxil, 2005).

Interrogate settler violence and cultural appropriation within Latinidades. Laura Pulido (2018) threw down the gauntlet in both geography and Chicano studies for their failure to engage with settler colonialism. In Chicano studies, she suggests that this gap is due to the ways that settler colonialism disrupts the political subjectivity of “Chicanas/os conception of themselves as colonized people by highlighting their role as colonizers” (310). While this is a complex relationship, and certainly many people are both Indigenous and Latinx, there are less subtle ways in which Latinxs engage in cultural appropriation that effaces histories of violence. When I first read Vine Deloria’s (1998) caustic dismissal of the ways that some White people claimed they had a Cherokee grandmother without proof, much less tribal recognition, I immediately thought of references to “Aztec” grandmothers in the Chicanx community. I place “Aztec” in quotes because there are many Chicanxs who call on the dream of Aztlán and reference Aztec ancestors, decrying the loss of Mexican territory to the US while ignoring Mexican genocidal violence against Indigenous peoples written into the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (Guidotti-Hernández, 2011; Saldaña-Portillo, 2016). While I have grown up hearing that my grandfather spoke an Indigenous language (Náhuatl), it would be disingenuous for me to identify as “Aztec” or Indigenous. In other words, even if I have a distant relative who is Indigenous, I am still not Indigenous to a people or place -- there is no living Indigenous community that claims me as a member. Instead, grappling with the violence in Latinx histories of entangled relationships to settler colonialism could extend this analytic, building cultural geographies of what it means to be a settler of color and political geographies of overlapping settler states.

The relationship between geographers and settler colonialism is simpler, in that “geography simply lacks the racial diversity, scholarly expertise and comfort to explore such questions” (Pulido, 2018: 310). Indeed, those of us in academic positions must use them to recruit students of color in an effort to expand our repertoire of research questions and scholarly expertise. While geography is and has been a White discipline (Pulido, 2002), I do not believe that it must always be so. I write in the hopes that the next generation of scholars has a chance to explore some of the most pressing geographic questions of the twenty-first century. In the meantime, there are a few things scholars can do.

Become a Citational Politics Killjoy. Sara Ahmed (2013) reveals citation as a “reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” Citations are an important way to structure disciplines, where “the reproduction of a discipline can be the reproduction of these techniques of selection, ways of making certain bodies and thematics core to the discipline, and others not even part” (see also Delgado, 1984). In order to be seen as legitimate human geographers, graduate students are taught that we must choose amongst a limited and picked-over buffet of European philosophers (in my case, Michel Foucault or Antonio Gramsci). When we insist on working in conversation with Latinx thought, we are again shepherded to a Eurocentric set of philosophers (in my case, Enrique Dussel or Walter Mignolo). These are brilliant scholars who are well worth reading and citing. My point is that they are not the only brilliant scholars who are worth reading and citing. As I have attempted to do in the references to this piece, we must grapple with disciplinary tendencies that privilege masculinity, the Anglophone tradition (including volumes translated into English by high-profile presses) and colorism within Latinidades (see also Muñoz and Ybarra, this issue). I believe that Latinidades should be a key area of interest to human geographers, as transnational Latinx communities afford empirical opportunities to rethink relationships between people and place, affinities and identities, and the politics of economic production.

In becoming scholars of Latinx geographies, we have an opportunity to take to heart that “citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow” (Ahmed, 2017: 17). When I prepared for my PhD qualifying exams, I was dismayed to realize that I had compiled a reading list that was exclusively in English, even though I was preparing for fieldwork in Guatemala. To put it bluntly, the likes of Dussel and Mignolo were not what I needed to understand genocide and Indigenous territorial struggles in the absence of treaty territoriality.[iii] As a compromise, I tried to learn from both the authorized canon and from Guatemalan thinkers including Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil, Luis Solano Ponciano, and Irma Alicia Velázquez Nimatuj. Eventually, one committee member allowed me to write English summaries of these works and draw heavily on debates in Spanish (even though she did not speak Spanish). Guatemalans would not write a thesis on racial formations and land politics without reading these scholars, so neither would I. Indeed, geographers training for research in multiple languages should read published works in those same languages as a rule, not the exception.

Years later, a mentor from graduate school told me that I succeeded because I didn’t “play the Race Card.” Honestly, if I believed I had a card to play, I would have done it. Instead of setting a precedent for what counts as ethical and high quality scholarship in human geography, I allowed professors to believe they indulged my habit of reading works in Spanish because they thought I was a native Spanish speaker (I am not a native Spanish speaker). Indeed, when this mentor told me that I secured a tenure-track job because I didn’t “play the Race Card,” I did not tell them that I thought it was offensive and wrong it was to assume that the only time racial difference is salient is when a person of color names racism. I said nothing in response, which is presumably the habit they were referring to. To play the Race Card is to be the killjoy who argues not only for admission into graduate school (i.e., inclusion), but also argues that classes, classrooms and reading lists should change with their arrival (i.e., transformation). If I have a Race Card as a light-skinned Latina in a discipline that claims to desire diversity, senior scholars are sitting on a stacked deck of academic tradition steeped in HWCUs. Still, I’d like to play that card. If academics are to remain relevant, much less expand who we are in conversation with, we will need to think through where tradition supports us, and where it makes scholars of color feel like their commitment to radical scholarship is supplemental to their “real” work. I’m writing here to say that cutting-edge scholarship in human geography must work in multiple languages and multiple modalities.

Don’t Just Talk or Write about Transnational Latinxs, Talk with Them (especially if you are one, lest you become a token)

“Nothing about us without us!” Like many before them, #Not1More radical immigration organizers called for a seat at the table where political organizers debated so-called comprehensive immigration reform (Vasquez, 2018). Even more, while non-immigrants like me participate in organizing for immigrant justice, we must do so in a way that centers the experience, knowledge and goals of immigrants themselves (my efforts to do so are at Cházaro et al., 2017; Ybarra, in press; Ybarra and Peña, 2017). The same is true of transnational Latinx geographies – these conversations should not be exclusive to self-identified Latinxs, but their voices should be centered as knowledge producers, not just as research participants. Likewise, Indigenous peoples (some of whom are also Latinx) have for too long been treated as either “objects of study” (Velázquez Nimatuj, 2012) or victims who speak of pain and suffering to an audience of potential settler saviors. In talking with transnational Latinxs, human geographers can move towards research that both acknowledges complex personhood and the importance of our collective relationships to place (see alsoTuck, 2009).

Many aspiring academics seek to write papers that both engage with high theory and are accessible to our communities, notwithstanding journal pay-walls. Personally, I have found that this is not the best way to engage with genuinely interested communities. I can read an article written by a medical doctor published in JAMA, but I would rather read a blog post or listen to a radio interview with the same expert. It’s not that this “jargon” is useless, it’s just that it is a conversation I am not part of. Instead of asking the folks we work with to read our 10,000 word articles, I suggest that geographers should take up multiple modes of scholarship. Following are a few examples of scholarship beyond the peer-review pay-wall:

  • Co-author with scholars and practitioners who are from the communities where I work. In my case, this has meant writing in grant money for folks in Guatemala to participate in data collection, translations, and analysis. When I say co-author, I mean co-author. Unless there are ethical reasons not to list someone as a co-author (such as physical safety), it is important that we break from the extractive traditions of taking insights from insider informants and claiming them as single-author knowledge. In a mentoring context, this also means being clear with students with “insider” status (e.g., first-generation Latinx) about what kind of work earns them authorship status, and why. This means that students – undergraduate and graduate – who provide access and conduct interviews with Latinx communities should be afforded opportunities to co-present work at conferences and co-author papers.
  • Attend conferences, gatherings and/or workshops that are important to the folks I work with. I have found that there are international conferences that are mostly people from Canada and the US gathering in Latin American countries to more efficiently spend their conference budgets. As an example, I recall a conference that was held in a tourist town for security reasons instead of an accessible college campus (Antigua instead of Guatemala City), and where most participants spoke English outside of formal panel presentations. As international travel is difficult for me for health reasons, I try to prioritize invitations from Guatemalan scholars to attend conferences they organize. While it is intimidating to present work on Guatemala to Guatemalans, I do not think I should publish that work if it is not good enough to share with those experts best positioned to judge the empirical engagement of my work.
  • Publish articles in multiple languages, and in multiple countries. I have published both data-rich policy-oriented documents and an academic article in a social sciences journal published by Guatemala’s flagship public university, Universidad de San Carlos. These are steps that I took to be in direct conversation with the work of Guatemalan scholars.
  • Write beyond the pay-wall, and using different modes of engagement. I am neither artistically inclined nor trained, but I have been fortunate in recent years to partner with other folks who know how to illustrate, record and edit video. I am confident that a ten-minute documentary short that I squeezed into a budget and wrote a script for in a single evening will have broader reach than the book I worked on for a decade. Increasingly, scholars are learning how to incorporate audio/visual presentations and more engaging ways to share our work than the standard journal article.
  • Work towards recognizing the value of scholarship beyond the pay-wall in hiring and tenuring geographers. As a mentor on my tenure committee succinctly explained, this means shifting recognition of these forms of knowledge production from the “service” to “research” category. While this may not afford the privilege of slow scholarship, we can broaden the horizons of what counts as scholarship.

In putting together my tenure file for external reviewers, I had the opportunity to work with my department to put together five publications that represent my intellectual trajectory. I suggested that I thought the collaborative project I coordinated for a zine and documentary short should be included as a crucial statement of how I see my intellectual development and political praxis (Cházaro et al., 2017; Ybarra and McKinley, 2017). One of my mentors thought that this might not be valued by external reviewers, and instead suggested sending it along only as “supplemental” material in addition to a book and four peer-reviewed journal articles. At no time did anyone suggest that these works were unimportant. Instead, this was a conversation about how to give me the best chance at a successful tenure process. This is an unresolved tension: at what point in navigating the safest course for recognition in a White discipline are we reproducing it? The key processes we must improve are explicitly valuing multiple modes of scholarship in hiring and tenuring faculty members.

Towards the Future of Latinx Geographies

To date, human geographers have reproduced boundaries in Latinx geographies, particularly in terms of Anglophone language limitations. At a minimum, geographers who speak only basic Spanish, Portuguese, etc., should not publish works that claim ethnography as their primary research method. More importantly, I suggest that those of us working on transnational Latinidades should engage with these issues across the borders of nation-state, language and pay-wall. This is not only a more just way to engage with Latinx geographies, but it will also broaden the issues that human geographers can engage with and deepen our knowledge on transnational topics.

For those of us who work hard enough, and are lucky enough, to have tenured positions at academic institutions, it is our responsibility to transform academic standards for what counts as scholarship – by which I mean what counts in evaluating graduate admissions, fellowships, tenure-track hiring, and awarding tenure. Even as many scholars think about visual works, engaged and/or public scholarship, these key interventions are rarely valued at the crucial moments of hiring tenure-track professors and evaluating tenure files. I believe that we can find ways to value public scholarship that engages relevant audiences in ways that are more appealing than the pay-wall peer-review journal article, and that we must do so in hiring and tenuring academic geographers. Just as a video is not a substitute for a peer-reviewed journal article, neither is a journal article a substitute for a video. In stretching our arms wide and embracing multiple modes of scholarship, human geographers have an opportunity to demonstrate our relevance in the real world.


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[i] Historically White colleges and universities (HWCU) are often an unnamed norm, as only historically Black college and universities (HBCUs) are labeled as such. In the US, HBCUs have always admitted White and other non-Black students, while HWCUs explicitly barred people of color for decades.
[ii] For the most recent year data is available, the NCSES Survey of Earned Doctorates reveals that just 8% of US permanent residents and citizens awarded Geography PhDs in 2016 are under-represented minorities (by comparison, aggregate Social Science PhDs were earned by 19.5% under-represented minorities). The AAG calculates that 71% of geography faculty are “White Non-Hispanic” and an additional 15% are “international” without race/ethnicity data (which includes British and other European faculty). The AAG does not break down these statistics between adjunct / tenure-track faculty, much less tenured / untenured faculty.
[iii] By treaty territoriality, I refer to the ways that analyses of Indigenous self-determination against the US and Canadian settler colonial states are often read through the lens of treaties with settlers.