Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Podcast Transcript

Carrie Gillon:               Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination!

Megan Figueroa:          I’m Megan Figueroa.

Carrie Gillon:               I’m Carrie Gillon.

Megan Figueroa:          I have a little bit of a cold so forgive me. It’s just making my vocal fry cooler really.

Carrie Gillon:               It does intensify when you have a cold. It’s true.

Megan Figueroa:          Carrie sent me this article. The headline is “Woman with Rare Medical Condition Unable to Hear Men’s Voices.” It just reminds me of my voice getting deeper because the actual problem that the woman had is that she couldn’t hear below a certain frequency. Men’s voices, I dunno, tend to be lower than women’s. Of course, this is complicated by lots and lots of things.

Carrie Gillon:               But generally speaking it’s – yeah. They’re lower.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s funny because of the amazing jokes that were made about this. [Laughter] She’s expected to make a full recovery, so I feel like it’s okay to joke about this a bit. It’s a rare thing. It cuts off deeper/lower frequency sounds. She woke up and couldn’t hear her boyfriend’s voice. That would be really terrifying!

Carrie Gillon:               Yeah! It really would be terrifying. We mock. We’re like, “Oh, how lucky she is. She can’t hear men bloviate.”

Megan Figueroa:          But really that would be so terrifying. Once I found out that it was gonna clear itself up, I guess I’d be like, “Well, I might as well strap in and enjoy this ride.” [Laughter] All the jokes about how you can’t hear all the mansplaining.

Carrie Gillon:               Unfortunately, you can still read it.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s true. What’s gonna fix that for us?

Carrie Gillon:               I don’t know.

Megan Figueroa:          You know how easy an extension would be for Chrome or whatever to just – I dunno. I don’t know how that would work.

Carrie Gillon:               It’s really difficult because you don’t wanna mute all “wells” and all “actuallys.”

Megan Figueroa:          But what about the combo – like it has to be together? If we get “well, actually.”

Carrie Gillon:               You’ll miss some great jokes.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s true. Women and non-binary people are funny. They’re making some great jokes at the expense of men.

Carrie Gillon:               Just so people know, it’s apparently called Reverse-Slope Hearing Loss.

Megan Figueroa:          Wow. Do you know if it’s always not permanent?

Carrie Gillon:               I have no idea. I’m not that kind of doctor.

Megan Figueroa:          You’re not an ear, nose, and throat specialist? [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon:               Turns out I don’t have an MD. So, it apparently affects one in 13,000 patients with hearing problems. This is very rare.

Megan Figueroa:          Oh, my partner has terrible issues – has terrible ringing, all these things. I totally feel for this woman, but sometimes you have to laugh.

Carrie Gillon:               Well, it’s just such a specific thing that it’s kinda funny.

Megan Figueroa:          I mean, when I read the headline, I could almost predict what was gonna be the issue, that it was gonna be lower frequency sounds, but it’s still good. Speedy recovery to her.

Carrie Gillon:               Yeah. We hope her well. Anyone who suffers from this, we don’t want them to suffer anymore.

Megan Figueroa:          No. I mean, you might not be able to hear me eventually. I’m just keeping going down. [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon:               The other thing we were gonna talk about is one of the most recent presidential runners.

Megan Figueroa:          Yeah. Throwing his hat into the, well, at least the democratic pool, Julian Castro. The cool thing about Julian Castro and his nomination – or his announcing his candidacy for president – is that it was done in both Spanish and English. That’s the first time that, at least what I was hearing and I’m pretty sure, it was the first time that someone has done that in the history of the –

Carrie Gillon:               It seems very likely that that’s the first time.

Megan Figueroa:          I mean, there’s a couple things about that. First, wow. How is that the first? This being the first time, in 2019, just reinforces the idea – or at least for me – that it’s not shocking that some people forget that English is not the first language here or, you know, that the linguistic landscape isn’t more complicated. I think a lot of people just don’t think about it because these things haven’t happened before and it’s kinda ridiculous that it’s taken this long.

Carrie Gillon:               Right. I don’t think any other language has been used, right, just English.

Megan Figueroa:          Yeah. It’s interesting in that respect that it’s the first time it’s happening, especially since, I dunno – I dunno if there’s – especially since here – it just boggles my mind.

Carrie Gillon:               I’m not surprised at all because it’s such an English-centric country.

Megan Figueroa:          Yeah. Fuck. We love English here but only for racist symbolism reasons and shit.

Carrie Gillon:               It’s like the linguistic wall. [Laughter] Hm, that’s interesting.

Megan Figueroa:          I loved it that it was both in Spanish and English. Like I’ve said multiple times, I’m not a native Spanish speaker, but my dad is. I struggle with this thing of like, I’m not a native Spanish speaker and there’s so many Latinx people that say that that makes me less Latina. As a Latina, I knew that Julian, who is also not a native Spanish speaker – I think for similar reasons. Our parents want us to succeed and a lot of times that means dropping Spanish because of the discrimination that our ancestors faced.

                                    People are already in his mentions and everywhere saying he doesn’t even speak Spanish or, you know, he’s not a real Spanish speaker, or why is he doing this, or –

Carrie Gillon:               That is so distressing to me. Why can’t you be a second language speaker? Why isn’t that good enough?

Megan Figueroa:          Or not even care to learn it at all.

Carrie Gillon:               But then you’re not gonna use it, right? I like the idea that he wants to use Spanish in his speech. Like, “Hey, I’m running for president.” That’s great! But you have to be at least somewhat of a speaker, otherwise it’s just gonna sound terrible. [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa:          Well, yes. I mean, so many white politicians have done this where they’re like, “Oh, I’m gonna pander to the Latinos and I’m gonna use Spanish” which –

Carrie Gillon:               Remember the Newt Gingrich that I pulled?

Megan Figueroa:          Oh, god. Yeah. That was terrible.

Carrie Gillon:               Oh my god.

Megan Figueroa:          I know.

Carrie Gillon:               I think even I could sound better than that and I barely know Spanish at all.

Megan Figueroa:          Right. Then, inherent in that is the assumption that all Latinos speak Spanish. It’s just like –

Carrie Gillon:               Well, there’s that too, yeah.

Megan Figueroa:          But, no, his Spanish was – I mean, I don’t –

Carrie Gillon:               It was embarrassing.

Megan Figueroa:          It was. And it’s Newt Gingrich, so he can go fuck himself. That’s why I’m making fun of the way you speak Spanish.

Carrie Gillon:               For multiple things. Well, I think it was on purpose, right? I feel like his super anglicized Spanish was like, “I’m gonna speak this language because I think it will help me, but I’m not gonna do a good job at because that would make me look like a Spanish-lover or something.”

Megan Figueroa:          It’s true. Here’s something else to watch out for. If Beto O’Rourke does run for president, they’re gonna compare these two Texans because Beto is – he learned Spanish and English and that’s not what Julian’s experience is. One is Latino and one is not. There’s gonna be a lot of fucked up shit said about this. It’s already starting with Julian, so keep an eye out. Note that it’s happening. Note that it’s fucked up. First steps.

Carrie Gillon:               It’ll be interesting to see if Beto gets like, “Oh, it’s so awesome that this white guy is speaking our language!”

Megan Figueroa:          Oh, it was already happening when he was running for Senate.

Carrie Gillon:               I want it to be from the same people so we can be like –

Megan Figueroa:          “You hypocrites!”

Carrie Gillon:               “How dare you!” [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa:          Always outraged.

Carrie Gillon:               I know. I feel like that’s just life in the 21st century.

Megan Figueroa:          It really is.

Carrie Gillon:               So, when everyone’s like, “Outrage culture is bad,” it’s like, well, yeah, but it’s really hard not to be outraged.

Megan Figueroa:          It is. Are you asleep? Also, I’ve suppressed my anger and outrage for a really long time, so let me have this. And if you’re not gonna let me have it, I don’t care.

Carrie Gillon:               There’s no permission required.

Megan Figueroa:          Exactly. So, this Julian story is perfect for what our episode is about today. It’s a special episode.

Carrie Gillon:               A very special episode.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s a very special episode with a very special man and a very special book coming out. It feels like you’re sitting in his seminar at Stanford. We feel so lucky to be able to chat with him about his book “Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies in the Learning of Latinidad.” It is to be published the 22nd of January. It’s coming out soon.

Carrie Gillon:               We hope you enjoy this very special episode. It’s pretty high level, so put your thinking caps on.

Megan Figueroa:          Definitely interact with us on Twitter if you have any questions or conversation-starter questions – whatever – because this is a very interesting episode and I had a lot of fun talking to Jonathan. He is one of my faves. Here we go.

[Music]

Megan Figueroa:          Today, we are talking to Dr. Jonathan Rosa. He is an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Graduate School of Education and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He has courtesy appointments in the Departments of Linguistics and Anthropology. His research focuses on race and racialization, youth socialization, education, semiotics, language ideologies, Latinx identity, colonialism, and social change. We are super excited to talk to him today about his new book, which has the most beautiful title, “Looking Like a Language, Sounding like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad.”

                                    Thank you for being here with us, Jonathan. We’re very excited.

Carrie Gillon:               Thank you.

Jonathan Rosa:            Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Megan Figueroa:          We need to start off with some common definitions for everyone, for our listeners.

Carrie Gillon:               And for us.

Megan Figueroa:          And for us. Let’s start with, what’s a language ideology?

Jonathan Rosa:            Hold on. I didn’t know I was coming to seminar today, so we’re doing the full – [laughter] because this is a genealogical project. I would have to lay out some bodies of literature. We need to really establish the terrain if we’re gonna get into this. This would take a 10-week engagement. I will say what’s so cool to me about the concept of language ideologies is that it takes boundaries that looked fixed and it takes what seemed to be objectively existing objects or discrete kinds of objects – let me just say that language ideologies helps us to understand how we have come to inhabit and inherit these naturalized categories – named languages, sensuous experiences of those languages, ideas about correctness, and ideas about where in time and space a given language is naturally occurring or is its sort of rightful position.

                                    Language ideologies is a way of thinking about a whole range of historical, political, ad economic, as well as embodied experiential and effective dimensions. For me, it ends up revolutionizing what linguistics could be as a field, what sociolinguistics could be as an intellectual project, and what linguistic anthropology can be as a subfield within the discipline of anthropology. I think language ideologies is a way of drawing some connections across all these different sorts of domains.

Megan Figueroa:          And using it as a tool in academia is one way to look at language ideologies, but we have them no matter if we’re a linguist, an anthropology, what, right? Everyone has language ideologies.

Jonathan Rosa:            Yeah. I think that point is so important because often the concept of “ideology” is invoked pejoratively – so the sense is you’re being ideological. Let’s get to this space where we’re unbiased and where our ways of understanding and conceptualizing and representing the world are not distorted by these ideologies. The ideologies are often represented as a kind of veil or a fog that gets in the way of our true, unfiltered, unmediated encounter with reality and the goal is to actually get to reality, which is behind the ideology.

                                    That’s not how I see things. I see things as, by definition, ideological, in other words, situated and positioned somewhere in space and time and history and sociality. The question for me with language ideologies isn’t how do we get beyond them. The question is which ideologies are in play in any given instance and which ideologies are organizing and regimenting experiences of reality and everyday relationships. Ideologies as a concept is really helpful as a scalar analytic too, to think about what is happening interactionally in quote-unquote “real time” but also what’s happening across history and what’s happening in various, multiple kinds of real times in a coeval moment.

                                    I’m obviously on one level one of these sorts of very canonically oriented people where I think linguistic anthropology and the concepts that it has contributed to the creation of are the coolest things in the world. For me, language ideologies, I will wave that flag in a very insular, nerdy way. On another level, I’m also deeply ambivalent about the limitations of linguistic anthropology as a field and of normative disciplinary projects more broadly.

                                    I’m excited by language ideologies and what we can do with it, but by no means do I think that this concept is a catch-all or is the answer to the world’s problems so that if we would just understand our ideologies, then we would all heighten our so-called “language awareness” and magically the structure of the economy would transform and everything would, in a moment, become decolonized and gender and sexuality and class formation would disappear into the ether.

Megan Figueroa:          War is over.

Carrie Gillon:               If only it were that simple.

Jonathan Rosa:            Yeah. The empire would dissipate, and the world would become sustainable and renewable and our ecologies would be healthy. Yeah. I think it’s a cool concept and something that can really contribute to and refine our thinking, but it has its limitations as well.

Megan Figueroa:          Right. This brings it very nicely into, what is a raciolinguistic language ideology? Is there a way to think about this without looking at history?

Jonathan Rosa:            No. I mean, I think this is one of the biggest challenges with race as a concept and as a historical predicament – as an existential phenomenon. I worry that – now, on one level, race is a deeply embodied phenomenon and a deeply experiential phenomenon – that it has to do with the way that people navigate their everyday lives and the profound constraints and relations to which their lives are structured and situated. I get that race, on one level, isn’t just about history by itself. It’s about what is happening in this contemporary moment and possible future – so lots of different time scales.

                                    On another level, I worry that our discussions of race are often limited to the contemporary moment and to the body so that we think that race is something that emanates off of the body and can be read off of the body. Then, we presume that we will address racial hierarchies by reorganizing the positions of bodies within existing worlds and structures.

                                    I’m concerned that often our ahistorical or de-historicized approaches to race misunderstand the nature of what race is as a phenomenon that doesn’t just reduce to the body, that’s about infrastructure. It’s about colonialism. It’s about, as Christina Sharpe says in her analysis of anti-blackness, it’s a total climate. It’s the weather. So, there are atmospheric characteristics of, dimensions of, race that I’m interested in exploring that defy, I think, our pragmatic social science approaches to understanding the world.

                                    Even within linguistic anthropology and a concept like language ideologies, it signals that there are these sorts of more existential dynamics at play. I think that’s what ideology is supposed to, on some level – although it’s been mobilized as a pragmatic tool. The way that many people use “language ideologies” is to say there is an empirical linguistic form and then there are ideologies that are mapped onto that form that construe our perception of that form as right or wrong, as good or bad, as feminine or masculine, as racialized in a certain way, socio-economically classed in a certain way.

                                    What I’m suggesting is that race as a historical, existential problem means that it transforms that materiality of the world, which is of language, of the body, of infrastructures, that race is operating on a different plane, I’m thinking, historically and politically and economically that defies some of our empiricist logics, methodologies, ways of understanding the world, and ways of experiencing the world. It’s important for me to toggle back and forth between these historical and contemporary dynamics.

                                    The concept of raciolinguistic ideologies emerged as a way of reflecting on and engaging with these insights, to say there’s this existential quality to language which is we often try to figure out from a normative sociolinguistic perspective what are the relevant social categories, what are the relevant linguistic forms that correspond to those categories, how are they naturalized in relation to one another, this sort of thing.

                                    I think that what a raciolinguistic perspective is about on some level is trying to figure out those histories of naturalization, trying to figure out their institutional consequentiality, and trying to figure out how race plays a particular, a unique, role in bundling all of these processes together. It’s not a way of avoiding class or gender or sexuality or ability or religion and all kinds of axes of difference. It’s a way of saying this is a lens into those axes and their dynamic interplay. It doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it’s a useful space – problem space – in which to think.

Megan Figueroa:          I’m thinking of an example of how a consequence of our history with race would be segregated schools.

Jonathan Rosa:            On one level, segregated schools. On another level, the histories of policy that created segregation practically – or regulated segregation practically. On another level, histories of settler colonialism and enslavement that allowed in an existential way for populations to have always been segregated regardless of the prevailing policy regime.

                                    Then, also, a subsequent post-segregation or de-segregation moment in which these institutions can be more segregated than ever even as our policies rearticulate. This set of concerns around the existential nature of these structures is what I’m interested in, that they might articulate in a given way in a school or in a residential housing pattern or in a workplace or in the criminal justice system or in migration – they might articulate these racial dynamics in particular ways in specific kinds of contexts, but it’s trying to figure out the relationships across those contexts that’s most important to me. What are the historical structuring processes involved? I find that colonialism – and this is why history is the reference point here, or colonialism as the reference point in history – is so crucial to our understandings of what race means and what language means.

                                    I think it’s unsettling for empirical researchers to feel like, wait a second, I’m being trained to observe reality whether it’s in terms of language or other kinds of cultural practices or other kinds of observable phenomenon. When you say, wait, there’re these historical processes that defy observation in certain ways, that trouble and unsettle observation and, in fact, are in capacity to observe them and perceive them is central to the re-articulation and reproduction of power. When you suggest that, that’s very challenging because you’re essentially saying that our discipline is not only ill-equipped to engage with particular sorts of issues, it’s that inability that is actually quite systematic and that allows our intellectual projects to be tied to the reproduction of the very systems that we understand ourselves to be uniquely able to observe and analyze.

Megan Figueroa:          I’m thinking about this in my own personal experience that I would not have any insight, unless I lived as a Latina, but I think that I’m one of the people that don’t look like a language or, at least, don’t look like Spanish. I’m just thinking about how I know that I went to a very segregated school, where my dad grew up in a place that was very segregated. I think about redlining. I think about all these things that came before us that got us each to where we were and how that affects whether he taught me Spanish. Like, all these things that are working together that ended up where what my languages look like.

Carrie Gillon:               Also, on top of that, to go back to the colonialism, the fact that your dad spoke Spanish in the first place. It’s a lot. There’s a lot in there.

Megan Figueroa:          Yeah. Where our family has been for at least five generations in Sonora, Mexico, it could’ve been Hiaki or something else, right, I don’t know. So, yes, Spanish is also a thing that came about if we’re looking at this historically. It’s kinda wild to think about all these things. I can see why some people are scarred of doing it because it’s just too much for them. It’s a lot to think about.

Carrie Gillon:               There’s so much in here that you’ve already said in the past like, what is it, 20 minutes or so to unpack. It’s absolutely true that we can’t really interrogate anything without understanding what system we’re a part of.

Megan Figueroa:          You dabble with this every day. Please, help us. Help us! What do we do? [Laughter]

Jonathan Rosa:            No, I’m sitting – I described it as a “problem space” and that’s borrowing from the anthropologist and historian David Scott, who I think uses that concept really productively. It’s not a space of resolution. I don’t proport to have sorted out some kind of answer. It’s more this is a useful positionality. This is a useful lens to use to make sense of – or to begin to get a grasp of – these really complex, interrelated historical and contemporary and future dynamics.

                                    The way that, as you were describing your embodied experience of being perceived as looking like a language or not looking like a language, that kind of thing, that kind of embodied knowledge and the sorts of feminists of color who have theorized that concept is central to the work that I’m trying to do in the book and to think about, wait, what is embodied knowledge as a way of making sense of forms of knowing that defy our conventional conceptions of how you would prove that you have gained some sort of insight.

                                    This is something that my close colleague, Nelson Flores, and I joke about all the time. Many folks who are working from a range of marked positionalities and mainstream institutions, there are things that you know by virtue of your lived experience that you also understand that no amount of evidence would allow you to prove.

Carrie Gillon:               Yes.

Megan Figueroa:          Right. We got to this situation where a lot – okay, this is going to Latinidad because you’re also interested in the construction of Latinidad. If you’re Latinx, you have different ways of trying to portray or define yourself and a lot of that is – because of historical elements that are forced on us, I have to prove myself to be this way or that way to be part of this community or to survive in this world that doesn’t want me, this kind of thing, and our language is a big part of that.

                                    This is what I want to ask you, what does it mean to look like a language?

Jonathan Rosa:            To look like a language is to inherit history in a particular way and to be regulated by history and to be confronted with the histories that are made relevant – that are interactionally made relevant but also existentially made relevant – to one’s everyday experiences. The sense is that you’re supposed to embody something, and that embodiment is supposed to be legible in such a way that it facilitates particular forms.

                                    It’s imagined as facilitating particular forms of communication and constraining or cutting off other forms altogether. So, hence, our notion of what a native language is, what a language barrier is, or a “language gap” [laughs], and all these ways that we talk about boundaries around language forms and then boundaries around identities and boundaries around political territories and boundaries around historical moments.

                                    The naturalization of all those boundaries is what it means to look like a language. Or let’s say the collective naturalization of those boundaries is what facilitates a process of looking like a language or sounding like a race. It’s at once this deeply interactional and interpersonal phenomenon that’s mundane and casual, that could unfold in a restaurant, unfold in a commercial setting, unfold in a school, unfold at home or a whole range of community contexts, unfold in relation to a census taker, a police officer, a TSA agent, and ICE official, these kinds of things.

                                    What looks like a metaphor, such as the “language police” becomes all too real in relation to a whole range of contexts. I think that rubrics like looking like a language and sounding like a race are an attempt to contribute to our collective understanding of those kinds of structuring processes, historical structuring processes. In the case of race and language, for me, it involves colonialism – modern colonialism – and the political and economic formations that emerged out of it and the ways that our mundane, everyday interactions are profound sights for the re-articulation of those histories.

Megan Figueroa:          Could you just give us an example of one of those situations?

Jonathan Rosa:            Of looking like a language or sound sounding like a race?

Megan Figueroa:          Yeah.

Jonathan Rosa:            Lots of examples. It was funny. The context of the book – so the book is about a high school in Chicago whose student body is roughly 95% Mexican and Puerto Rican. It was a Puerto Rican teacher who joked about how he wants his classroom to feel like family or he said “familia” in Spanish. But he said one of the things he always does when he enters the classroom is an eyeball check to see how many of the students are, the word he used was “Latino” in this case.

                                    He’s a Puerto Rican man. He says he does an eyeball check and that’s what allows him to know how much Spanish he can use. The sense is that – and then he would, based on his eyeball check, he would calibrate the amount of Spanish he would use based on the stereotypes that he was mobilizing about how race – how Latinidad – is made legible on the body and whose bodies read as Latino bodies in the category that he’s using. This is a way of trying to create family, I should say. He’s trying to create intimacy in the classroom, doing an eyeball check. He then would calibrate how much Spanish he would speak.

                                    It was funny. The eyeball check is sort of, on one level, totally understandable. On another level, it’s tricky in multiple ways because, first of all, the Latino students – the students who identify as “Latino” in this case, in this context They weren’t calling themselves “Latinx” very much. Some would use gender-specific terms. But most of them would say that they were Hispanic or Latino. Many of them would remind this teacher, “We don’t speak Spanish. Stop speaking to us in Spanish.” So, the very students whose bodies were made racially legible to him in a particular way are then – and whose racial legibility authorizes him to use language. He understands their racial legibility to authorize Spanish language use. They reject that.

                                    On the other hand, many bodies don’t present as Latino that could be Latino bodies or people who might self-identify. We would wanna think about where, you know, Afro-Latinos fit into that picture, where indigenous Latinos fit into that picture, where Asian Latinos fit into that picture. We could talk about whiteness and Latinidad, which is a very complex conversation too. That’s looking like a language.

                                    Then, the sounding like a race piece is the way in which the students and the teachers and community members and administrators were grappling with these perceptions of peoples’ identities in relation to their language use. The transition between the first and the second half of the book ends with a young woman who, she’s a freshman, and she says to the students – she’s Latina – and she says to a small group of students, “Do I sound ghetto when I talk? Do I look ghetto?” She’s grappling with the ways that what she sounds like and what she looks like don’t reduce to who she is and don’t reduce to her language practices. Her “sounding like” and “looking like” are sights of anxiety that defy empirical practice in any straightforward way.

                                    There’s this existential way in which race, class, gender position her as ghetto and position her language practices as ghetto – or can position them in such ways – and that she is aware of that positioning and she’s articulating it. That’s a question of what language she sounds like – or, I’m sorry, what race she sounds like.

Megan Figueroa:          She was asking about if she sounded ghetto in English?

Jonathan Rosa:            In English, yeah. I mean, which is really important. Of course, we wanna think about, again, the specific race, class, gender dynamics that are associated with a concept like “ghetto.” But she’s making sense of the ways that even her English isn’t ever good enough so that the story, based on that teacher’s stereotype, what makes Latinos Latinos is Spanish. The students reject that and say, “No, we use English and Spanish comfortably” – many of the students. Then, we wanna think about the ways that indigenous languages are positioned in relation to Spanish and all this kind of thing, how Spanish becomes racialized and marginalized in the US context while it’s hegemonic and elevated in the Latin American context.

                                    These students are making sense of these multiple positionalities in relation to each other while also recognizing that their English is not enough – many of these students, their US citizenship is not enough – to position them as legitimate Americans and legitimate youth, legitimate adolescents, this kind of thing. They’re making sense of the ways that these narratives that we’ve circulated about what inclusion and equality look like don’t correspond to their everyday lives. They’re deeply aware of that.

Megan Figueroa:          This goes back to boundaries.

Jonathan Rosa:            Absolutely.

Megan Figueroa:          We might even say “borders.” They’re negotiating borders between Spanish and English. There is a historical reason for it. We’ve got to this place for a reason. There’s a reason why she is concerned about whether or not she sounds “ghetto.”

Jonathan Rosa:            Absolutely. She’s making sense of, on the one hand, what a school is in relation to a broader socio-economic structure and the ways that schools are often popularly imagined as these sites of access to upwards socio-economic mobility, even though what schools had done really well historically is reproduce a highly stratified economic structure where so few people have access to career opportunities, higher education opportunities, that are substantive.

                                    The idea about “ghetto-ness” is making sense of an institutional structure, making sense of an economic structure, also making sense of these boundaries around identities. What the book tries to analyze, I think, collectively is how borders around languages and varieties of languages, borders around ethno-racial categories, and borders around geopolitical territories are negotiated and naturalized jointly so that, as the students are grappling with their simultaneous Mexican-ness, American-ness, Latin American-ness, and all these diasporic and domestic identities, they’re making sense of their relationship with languages and varieties of languages and they’re making sense of their relationships with ethno-racial categories as Hispanic, as Latino, as Mexican, as Puerto Rican, this kind of thing.

                                    There are all of these efforts that they’re facing within a school to manage their identities and transform their identities. The book looks at how these borders come to be created and how people push back against them and respond to them and sometimes reproduce them.

Megan Figueroa:          There’s a lot of erasure when it comes to the Latinx community because so many people that are outside of the Latinx community assume that everyone’s Mexican. I think I got a little taste of this, in an example from your book, where a kid was playing Xbox, right, and someone over the internet – so someone he didn’t know – says that he sounded Mexican. When people say, “You sound Mexican,” I think it’s usually as a catch-all for “You sound like you’re brown” or “Latinx,” “from somewhere where they speak Spanish,” right? It’s a catch-all as far as I’ve seen.

Carrie Gillon:               In the United States.

Megan Figueroa:          In the United States, yes. When they say, “You sound Mexican.” It might be true that you are Mexican – Mexican American – but it’s not always the case. I wonder, what are they picking out when they do that? What’s happening there?

Jonathan Rosa:            That’s what prompted that question and that conversation. I went on to have a whole – that interaction comes up later in the book where I had a text message exchange with him afterwards because I was trying to get at this very issue of when you were playing Xbox and someone told you that you sound Mexican – or they referred to him as “Mexican” – and he says in response to that – because I asked him, “Do you have an accent?” He said, “No, I think I might though” and he said, “because when I’m playing video games on Xbox Live, I’m just talking like this, and they come and say I’m Mexican out of nowhere.” He says, “And I was just talking English.”

                                    He’s coming to terms with the ways in which his English is racialized as, as you suggest, brown. That has to do with a whole range of stereotypes that position Latinidad as this brown, intermediary, mestizo category. We wanna think about that and what gets erased there, but Mexican-ness does become a reference point. It’s really tricky though because Mexicans are, of course, two thirds of the US Latinx population.

                                    While, on one level, vis-à-vis Central Americans and a whole range of groups, we would wanna understand how Mexicans can be positioned, how there’s a consequentiality to the homogenization of Latinxs as Mexican and the ways that certain groups, especially Central American groups who are US-based who are forced to migrate multiple borders and forced to undergo various modes of marginalization in relation to each of those borders, I think it absolutely makes sense for us to interrogate these stereotypes about Mexican-ness.

                                    On another level, I wanna be really careful about not flattening out Mexican-ness, which is internally so complex and internally stratified in so many different ways. I think we have to be really careful about neither homogenizing Latinidad as Mexican nor homogenizing Mexican-ness. I think it requires us to figure out, how is it that populations are being positioned in relation to each of these categories? How is it that those positionings have shifted in a range of historical moments? What are the consequences of these positionings?

                                    That’s what I’m up to in this work and especially trying to figure out how – in a given institutional setting – how all of these historical dynamics cohere, are animated through specific projects of the self, or ways of managing an organization or a space or identities and relationships, and this kind of thing. That’s, I think, the way that I’m trying to come at these sorts of phenomena.

Megan Figueroa:          You’ve opened up a can of worms that’s so important to open. [Laughter] I think that’s what that is.

Jonathan Rosa:            It’s really funny. I’ve been dealing with this looking like a language, sounding like a race thing since my masters thesis more than 10 years ago. I’ve been sitting with it for a really long time, the basic insight, but the conceptual framework that has come out of it that I’ve worked on collaboratively, especially with Nelson Flores who is my ride or die. That collaboration has been really important in terms of, I think, our unique ways of coming at some of these questions around, “Wait, what are these institutional designations that we have for language use?” You know, an English language learner, a heritage learner, a standard English learner.

                                    How is it that people have been positioned as separate from one another and that that positioning ends up being really, really consequential in terms of one’s access to different learning opportunities? How is it when race enters into the discussion suddenly these distinctive categories and practices don’t look that different from one another? We can point to some organizing principles and organizing patterns involved.

                                    The raciolinguistic perspective thing that Nelson and I have been working on for some time now has been a really important, I think, part of giving some form to the insight around looking like a language and sounding like a race.

Megan Figueroa:          What are we doing to students when we label them “English language learners”?

Jonathan Rosa:            Oh, lord. [Laughter] Okay. I am simultaneously a pragmatist in terms of understanding that – I work in our teacher education program at Stanford. I work in schools in an ongoing way. There are a lot of administrators and teachers who want to know, okay, we have to be in a classroom tomorrow. What are we doing? It’s nice for you to reflect on how these borders were naturalized, and it’s really complex and historically specific and X, Y, Z. I’m faced with a classroom full of students tomorrow, so what’s going on?

                                    I think it’s a question of figuring out what categories we’re inheriting, what policies stipulate – what kinds of categories are stipulated by policy – what it means to work within and beyond those policies so that we’re not simply reproducing them on their own terms. When you say, “What are we doing to students when we label them as English learners?” I hesitate to just answer that straight out because I think we’re doing lots of things.

                                    There might be people who are using that label, on one level, but then strategically repositioning their students are students who are linguistically dexterous and skillful in so many other ways. Because I think the label emerges out of a deficit perspective, clearly, and even our notion – what I write about in the book and in some of my other work is how our mainstream, institutional definition of “bilingualism” in the United States and bilingual education was a euphemism for linguistic deficiency so that the kids who are positioned as bilingual are kids who are viewed as linguistically inferior and therefore participating in the quote-unquote “transitional” bilingual education program.

                                    “Bilingual” never meant the use of two or more languages. “Bilingual” meant inability to produce forms of English that are understood as proficient. That definition of bilingualism in the United States is a sad one. The tricky part is not simply – the knee-jerk, progressive response would be to simply affirm diversity, affirm bilingualism. I think we have to be careful with that as well.

                                    It’s always bilingualism defined on whose terms, diversity in service of what, and what’s the broader vision of change that we’re embracing here. Is the goal just simply to valorize bilingualism, to make it a good thing? Because what we see so often is that once you make it a good thing, good is often commodified. Once something is commodified, particular populations will derive value from it, and it will be used to harm and extract and dispossess other populations.

Megan Figueroa:          This is a really good point because think about dual language immersion and who benefits the most are white, middle-class kids. They’re the ones that get the benefits of this. And they get the good PR if we’ll call it that. They’re gonna be the ones that are going to be able to put on their resumes or their CVs that they speak Spanish fluently.

Jonathan Rosa:            This is the difficulty with the concept of fluency. When language use is defined outside of – when we are making sense of what legitimate language use is based on these sorts of what Guadalupe Valdes calls “curricularized assessments of language use,” then we’ve removed language from any kind of context of use outside of those assessments. There are people who are using languages all day long to navigate their everyday lives who are framed as people who are not proficient users of that language. Vice versa, there are people who cannot use that language to navigate spaces outside of mainstream academic contexts but who are positioned as expert users of that language.

                                    Once we have that kind of a reality, we should have to take many steps back to say, how did we get here where the kinds of expertise that we’re celebrating and cultivating and assessing and using to stigmatize particular people are – I mean, we would be doing so much better, which is why I say, what are doing when we’re labeling people as English language learners? We’re doing a lot of things. We could be doing a lot better.

Megan Figueroa:          Right. This is not even to say what happens with the tracking inside the schools once you’re labelled “ELL” or “English language learner.” We see it all the time. I think people think that it’s not happening anymore. And I say –

Carrie Gillon:               What’s not happening?

Megan Figueroa:          Tracking of kids – this nefarious tracking where, like, these kids are gonna be – I dunno. Basically we’re funneling a generation into special education courses that they don’t need because we don’t understand how their language works. It works perfectly fine, but we assume it doesn’t.

Jonathan Rosa:            This is where the interrelations among special education and language learning – or one of the places where they intertwine – where the particular form of deficiency associated with language and the particular form of deficiency associated with ableism and ableist institutional structures are so closely connected to one another. One teacher articulated that really explicitly to me. She said, “Yeah, our special needs students and our ELLs, our English language learners, are both second-class students.”

                                    They’re students who are in the shadows. Latinx parents understand this, and they often will do everything they can to make sure that their child is not classified as an English language learner. At the same time, often they’re raising their kids speaking multiple languages. Parents are caught in a really complicated situation. Teachers are caught in a complicated situation. Students are caught in a complicated situation. And administrators are caught in a complicated situation.

                                    We’ve gotta do better on so many different levels around these kinds of issues. The other tricky part is the way in which these sorts of linguistic policies and institutional practices end up framing English language learning as the red herring, so that the goal is to learn English and then you will be able to achieve and participate in this mainstream school setting. But what about the millions of kids who were born and/or raised in the US who identify as monolingual English users or as English dominant and yet are still facing profound experiences of educational underachievement and marginalization?

                                    Why is it that we use language as the rationalization for some populations, but then those populations learn English, and then it’s no longer language, it’s something else? It’s their culture of poverty or whatever X, Y, and Z other behavioral stereotype we want to mobilize. I worry about the ways that language is a rationalization for these much broader kinds of political and economic and historical issues.

Megan Figueroa:          You’re forcing people to always fight to prove their existence. It’s like a snowball effect.

Jonathan Rosa:            That’s why, I think, Nelson and I were so inspired by this Toni Morrison quotation where she says there will always be one more thing. You try to prove that you’re legitimate in terms of language, in terms of your ability to create art, in terms of athletics, in terms of whatever form of prowess – art, music, expressive practices – and it’s never enough.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s never gonna be enough because of this history that we have, especially if we’re not examining it. They’re gonna be so many people that are resistant to examine. Why do you think that so many people want to divorce identity from language?

Jonathan Rosa:            There’re lots of ways that people want to divorce language and identity, other ways where people wanna combine language and identity. I mean, the effort towards – so there’s no official language in the United States at the federal level but more than 30 states have adopted English as their official language. There are efforts to cultivate this sense of what language and identity are or any act of dis-identification is, by extension, an act of identification in some particular ways. We wanna figure out what they’re avowing at the same time that they disavow something.

                                    The effort to, I think, de-politicize language – which, if I hear you correctly, I think that that’s kind of what you’re getting at – it’s this way of saying, no, language is an objective fact. Correctness is an objective fact. Proficiency is an objective fact. Either I can understand you, or I can’t understand you. Either you spelled it correctly, or you didn’t. Either you conjugated that verb, or you didn’t. Either you defined that word, or you didn’t. There’s this goal of positioning language – positioning commentary about language – as, again, this unmediated, non-ideological perception.

                                    The effort is to just sort of say, look, we can all agree that language is this space that is outside of politics, that’s outside of bias and identity and attachment. There’s, I think, a profound political project behind that that is central to liberal governance, to liberal political orders, which is to say when you are in a liberal, constitutional regime, that means that there’s an agreed-upon set of language ideologies that are understood – the law is a language ideology, to be clear, in the sense that we’ve agreed on this contract and its meaning is structured objectively because of how we’ve agreed that language works.

                                    These stereotypes about language use making a people more or less democratic, making a society more or less coherent and unified, this kind of thing – these stereotypes are really, really powerful. There’s a simultaneous de-politicization of language and hyper-politization of language. It’s both of those processes that I think we have to pay very close attention to.

Megan Figueroa:          I was just thinking of it as a more simplified version of that. It’s true that I’m not thinking about both of those things.

Carrie Gillon:               I feel like this is something that we do all the time, we pretend that we are unbiased about certain things and then we are really hyper-partisan or whatever about the same thing.

Megan Figueroa:          Exactly.

Jonathan Rosa:            Yeah. I mean, this is why these debates about – I think a language ideology’s perspective is supposed to say, wait, we have to analyze language in culture in order to figure out what are the broader semiotic forms involved here and what are the broader historical and political and economic kinds of processes that are unfolding here?

                                    Because what looks like language is actually – we see this happen with all kinds of semiotic forms or symbolic forms. When I was talking about gender, X, Y, and Z hierarchy, this effort to both position oneself as disinterested – so I am the disinterested observer. I’m merely commenting on the world as it is. These forms of commentary about language are systematically structured in relation to various forms of difference.

Carrie Gillon:               That’s good.

Megan Figueroa:          Wow. You say that we should be careful about how we advocate for bilingualism. What do you think the best way we – listeners that listen, people that have kids in schools, people that care about kids that come to school with a language other than English – what can we do when we advocate for bilingualism?

Jonathan Rosa:            I think this looks different depending on what scale and what context. We could talk about what it looks like for a teacher in the classroom context to build community through bilingual education and to anticipate the ways that different students in the class are positioned in relation to expectations about their language use.

Megan Figueroa:          That could be good. Because I think we have teacher listeners too.

Jonathan Rosa:            Yeah! I mean, one question from me with teachers is, what’s it mean to understand, to take account of, these racial and class dynamics in relation to language that often elevate particular students and that denigrate other students? What’s it mean to be on the lookout for everyone’s skill? That’s the question for me as a teacher. If there is a particular learning goal, learning outcome, what’s it mean to see a clear connection between what someone is already doing and that outcome?

                                    What I find in so many situations in terms of language, especially a whole range of other domains of learning and domains of skill, is that the very things that we say that we want kids to be able to do they’re already doing in different ways. It’s just that we haven’t cultivated a collective way of recognizing and honoring what people are up to. I’ve been in schools where the question is, “How do we get these kids to read or write? Their literacy skills are low,” when these kids are engaging in literacy practices all day long. They just don’t happen to be the practices that are rendered legible or valuable or meaningful in the context of the school.

                                    I’m thinking about that on one level. There’s a broader level which is to say, how is it that bilingual education is structured – or dual language education is structured – in a school in relation to questions about who is it that designs the curriculum? Who’s the teacher? Is the teacher associated with the community of language users? Are we talking about two languages that are positioned in hierarchically distinctive ways in relation to one another? How is the language teacher positioned in relation to the hierarchically more marginalized or subordinate language form? Is that teacher from that community? Does that teacher have meaningful learning experiences within that community? Is that teacher positioned in such a way that they could honor the students who are coming to the classroom using languages – using linguistic practices – that are often marginalized in those contexts?

                                    At the policy level it’s a question for me of saying, wait a second, how is it that we’ve separated language learning from its history as a civil rights issue, from its history as a part of a much broader set of political struggles? So that we weren’t just trying to increase linguistic proficiency or multilingualism and bilingualism, we were trying to transform a society that has systematically marginalized particular populations. What’s it mean to think about language policy in relation to housing policy, health policy, living wages? This whole range questions about electoral representation.

                                    How is it that we, if anything, we double down on our commitment to linguistic rights as human rights and to language and its relationship with regard to social justice? Part of doing that involves creating a much bigger political vision. I think these questions are relevant on really small, everyday scales in schools and communities and on much broader political scales nationally and locally.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s so important. I’m thinking, what could just one single listener do to not be so discriminatory in terms of what someone looks like? When you’re looking at someone you think that they might speak Spanish, or whatever, what can they learn from this conversation we’ve had to be a bit better? I really do believe that people that listen to this show, they wanna be better. They tell us that.

Jonathan Rosa:            Yeah. To me, again, that kind of a question is really hard because –

Megan Figueroa:          Yes, of course.

Jonathan Rosa:            I’m worried that it recruits me to sort of say, “I know that if you modify your behavior in this way then the world will be better.” I guess the question that I ask myself all the time is, “How do people in their everyday lives already live beyond the borders that we have arbitrarily imposed on ourselves and on others in terms of language and a whole range of identities, in terms of commerce, in terms of collective, mutual interdependence and responsibility for one another’s well-being?”

                                    I think that humans can be really scary people, scary creatures, but also beautiful creatures who can create alternative orders and imaginaries. That’s not reduced to humans either. I guess it’s less to me what someone could do to modify their behavior in some sort of narrow way and more to me about cultivating what’s it mean to collectively participate in a project of cultivating an alternative mode of perception – or alternative modes of perception – where we’re recognizing worlds that are already in existence, we just didn’t know how to recognize them before?

                                    You can arbitrarily separate languages from each other. You can arbitrarily position groups as racially superior or inferior. You can arbitrarily demarcate borders. But that doesn’t mean that people live their lives or that the world then is completely reduced to those narrow distinctions. What’s it mean to look beyond them, and what’s it mean to connect that mode or perception or the cultivation of that mode of perception to broader kinds of political struggles that are at once attune to contemporary rights challenges but also always looking back to previous moments to say, wait, what are we inheriting here? How are we working collectively to build on previous struggles? What kinds of futures are we imagining?

Megan Figueroa:          Perfect. Exactly. I agree. I would’ve said the exact same thing.

Carrie Gillon:               And in the exact same words. [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa:          The exact same words.

Jonathan Rosa:            It’s a hard question though. It’s a hard question.

Carrie Gillon:               It’s a very hard question. You’re right. I mean, it’s complicated because we’re all – there’s no one, easy fix for these things. That’s what we always are looking for is – like, our easy fix is “Don’t be an asshole.” But it’s very much tongue in check and we know that it’s not enough.

Megan Figueroa:          Right. Right.

Jonathan Rosa:            Yeah. Because nice people scare me, too.

Carrie Gillon:               [Laughter] We don’t really mean “Be nice,” we just mean “Don’t be an asshole.” Those are different. Those are different.

Megan Figueroa:          It’s true!

Jonathan Rosa:            No, I get it. I mean, look, I don’t begrudge you “Don’t be an asshole” as a useful working slogan for it.

Carrie Gillon:               But it’s obviously very flattening, and we understand that.

Megan Figueroa:          Yeah. Hopefully, I mean, I think the listeners understand that, too. Because we give them so much information, it’s obvious this is all so much bigger than ourselves – me and Carrie, specifically, bigger than us. It’s a good starting point for a lot of people. If you have to start somewhere, I guess “Don’t be an asshole” is a place to start. But, yeah, if we start perceiving things – if you’re noticing these things that you weren’t perceiving before, you start perceiving them, I mean, it’s kind of organic that you’re gonna want to be kinder to people.

                                    This has been fantastic! That you so much.

Carrie Gillon:               Yeah, thank you so much.

Megan Figueroa:          I’m really excited to get your book.

Jonathan Rosa:            I’m excited for you to have it. Now that – I feel like I’ve been talking to people about it for so long and a lot of my close friends are giving me a lot of trouble for it.

Megan Figueroa:          They’re like, “Is it real? Is this really happening?”

Jonathan Rosa:            It’s not a real thing, clearly. [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa:          It was great to talk to you again. And, people, don’t be an asshole.

Carrie Gillon:               Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]

[Music]

Carrie Gillon:               The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at vocalfriespod@gmail.com. Our website is vocalfriespod.com.

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