Laura Halperín

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Laura Halperin is an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she researches contemporary Latina/o literatures and cultures. She is currently working on a book project, which focuses on representations of harm in late twentieth century Latina novels and memoirs. Her other research interests include Latinas/os and education, access to education, debates surrounding English-Only policies and bilingual or multilingual education, and censorship of Latina/o texts in school libraries and classrooms. Professor Halperin who was hired as a professor at UNC after receiving a diversity fellowship, discusses her areas of study, as well as her personal experience as a Latina in higher education. Halperin explains how fortunate she has been to face relatively little adversity as a result of her ethnicity as a Latina minority in higher education institutions. She attributes some of her experience to her fairer skin, as she is a lighter skin Argentinian. This interview emphasizes the ways in which education and access to job opportunities play an important role in migrants’ lives, and also explores issues of race and diversity.



Janell Smith: Okay, this is Janell Smith in Hannah Gill’s global 382 class. I am here today, April 17, a Thursday of 2014, with Professor Laura Halperin. We are in Greenlaw building - Greenlaw Hall - room 403 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s about 12:26 in the afternoon and we are going to start our interview right now. So thank you, Professor Halperin, for speaking with me and taking time out of your schedule to talk with me. I kind of just want to start the interview with, “How did you get to UNC?” How did you get to professorhood?
Laura Halperin: Okay. Well, I came here straight from graduate school. I did my graduate work at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I started here on a post-doc. I received the Carolina Post-doctoral Fellowship for Faculty Diversity, which is a two year post-doctoral program and was fortunate enough to have that turn into a tenure-track position.
JS: Can you explain a little bit what that fellow is about?
LH: Yes, absolutely. It’s an amazing post-doctoral program similar to - for instance, in the University of California system, there’s a Carolina - or not Carolina, I’m sorry - UC president’s post-doctoral fellowship. What these fellowships are, are opportunities once people finish their PhDs. They are - here at Carolina it’s a two year, post-doctoral fellowship. It is across the university. So each year, different people apply for post-doctoral fellowships in different departments. It is through the Vice Chancellor’s office for Research and Economic Development. It is designed to promote diversity at the University, in terms of faculty. So, ideally, the way the program is envisioned is for people to start their post-doctoral fellowship with the hope that it will eventually turn into a tenured-track position. It’s not always guaranteed. It varies from one department to another. But, the hope is that, eventually, it will lead to a departmental position down the road. Right now the program has been reconfigured slightly different. The program now, as it exists, is smaller - quite a bit smaller than it was when I was a fellow. When I was a fellow there were ten post-docs across the span of two cohorts. Since it was a two-year program, sometimes there were four post-docs in my cohort, six in a previous. But sometimes that varied, those numbers vary. Now, from what I understand, that number has been cut from ten to five I believe, substantially because of funding, I think, questions. The way the post-doctoral program works is people apply. They indicate the departments where they would like to be housed. They can apply to more than one department. Then, what the post-doctoral program does is it sorts through all of the different application they receives. Then they send off all of the applications to the respective departments where the post-docs indicated that they would like to be housed. Each department then reads through all of the applications that they get and based on those applications can nominate up to two individuals, saying we would like to have this person and or this person, but no more than two. What the department really needs to articulate there is why is there a need to have someone who works in that particular field of study: If there’s a gap that can be filled that isn’t really currently being met or if there’s an area where a department wants to see more faculty working in a particular area of study. Then, each department puts forth one or two names and then that goes back to the post-doctoral program. Then there’s a selection committee there compiled of different people from across the University. Then they sort through all of the different departments that have put forth names and then determine who gets the post-docs. Usually, there are a few hundred applicants and then for a certain number of positions. The goal really is not only to increase diversity in terms of the racial and ethnic composition of the faculty, but ideally, I think also, folks who work in areas of study that are underserved and underrepresented in order to increase that type of diversity at the University so that it’s diversity in multiple arenas. Originally, the post-doc program was developed primarily for African American scholars and that has expanded over time to also include members of other racial and ethnic groups.
JS: I wonder if soon it’ll change for gender or sexual orientation or things of that nature.
LH: Yeah. I think there definitely are certain departs that are primarily male or sexual orientation, ability - I think there are different ways of conceiving the term diversity.
JS: And so, you said that departments had to explain why there’s a need.
LH: The department chair will write a letter.
JS: And so, in your case, what do you think the need was?
LH: We have the program in Latino Studies, which is housed in the English department. At the time when I applied to the post-doctoral program, the only faculty member in this department who worked in Latino Studies is the director of the program, Maria de Guzman. This is a program that - the Latino Studies, here at UNC, is the first Latino Studies program in the Southeast. North Carolina’s a state with the fastest growing Latino population. When you put those things together, I think there definitely was a need for more people working in this area.
JS: And how has it been working for the English department?
LH: It’s been great. It’s been wonderful. Yeah, absolutely wonderful. Folks here are really supportive and welcoming. I feel like, in general, it’s a really collegial environment so I’m incredibly fortunate.
JS: Did you ever face any hardships? Maybe that’s too strong of a word, but, difficulties? Maybe not when you first started the position, but, maybe, throughout the fellowship or even your post-doctorate degree? Did you face any hardships on account of being a Latina and being a minority in higher education?
LH: I will say for the most part, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and certainly here, at UNC and the English department, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. But, I do think that, and throughout my graduate career also, I will say though, that I know that especially speaking with friends who work at other universities and going to conferences where I am in touch with faculty who work at different universities, that’s not the case everywhere. I think part of that has to do with different university climates. But also, part of that has to do with the fact that I’m a light-skinned Latina, who’s Argentina American. If I were a darker skinned Latina from Mexico or from the Dominican Republic or something along those lines, would my experience be different? Most likely, yeah. I think that race makes a difference. Race makes a difference - race in terms of the visible phenotype - makes a big difference if we’re looking at race in that way, obviously we realize race as a construction. But, I think that makes a big difference. Now, are the experiences that faculty of color, regardless of what they look like, different? Yes. So I think it comes from, maybe, feeling obliged to and asked to and want to do more service work than other faculty maybe want to do. I think that in part has to do with different student organizations on campus - different Latino student organizations on campus - who have come and asked me to speak to their organizations. I love doing that. It’s an amazing opportunity, but, definitely, that’s a part of my job that other members of this faculty might not have. I think that’s a common trend across universities throughout the country in terms of service, in terms of the number of committees that people are asked to be on. Those are trends that we see across universities throughout the country. Unfortunately, the way the university systems work throughout the country is that for professors it’s really a ‘publish or perish’ model. I think that this department, in particular, has been really wonderful in recognizing that service is also incredibly important. That’s not the case of all departments and that’s not the case in a lot of places throughout the country, where service is undervalued and, yet, expected. If faculty members are being asked to do more service - if faculty of color are being asked to do more service than other faculty - then there’s less time to publish. And service doesn’t necessarily come in visible ways. If faculty are meeting with students on a more regular basis that’s time away from publishing. I think that something needs to be addressed, in terms of what work gets rewarded. I think that’s a national issue that merits attention.
JS: Do you feel like this University does a good job of recognizing?
LH: I hope so. (Laughs) I’m not up for tenure yet, so hopefully. Knock on wood. I do think this also varies from one department to the other. Every department has its own culture and I think, in general, my experience has been that people in this department really appreciate it when people show a vested commitment to the university in some way. I would like to think that this department is attuned to it in ways that make me feel lucky to be part of this department.
JS: What made you want to pursue teaching and being a professor?
LH: Okay. I didn’t know what I wanted to do right after college. I thought I wanted to do something totally different actually. I thought I wanted to go to law school. (Laughs). Is that what you’re thinking? Okay. (More laughter). I thought I wanted to go to law school and either practice international law or civil rights law or something where I was doing my part to make this world a better place. But, I knew I wanted to teach at some point in my life. While I was in college, there was one year when I volunteered at a restraining office helping survivors of intimate partner violence file restraining orders against their batterers. That was part of a public policy course that I took that there was a major service component and then I continued doing that service throughout the year, which I feel like gave me a little insight into how the legal system works. There wasn’t a pre-law thing where I went to school, but I took classes that were related to law to get a sense of what that experience would be like. And then I also volunteered one summer at a non-profit organization outside of D.C., helping migrants file for political asylum. What I realized during that - and also acting as a translator and interpreting documents, translating documents - as valuable as both of those experiences were, I felt…depressed isn’t quite the right word, but I felt like no matter how hard I tried or no matter what I did or what I saw the people, who actually had law degrees, were doing, I felt like every step forward almost felt like one step forward, two step backwards, instead of two step forwards, one step backwards. Most of the migrants whose claims I helped filed, I was told that those were most likely going to be dismissed as frivolous claims and those migrants were going to be sent back to their home countries even though they lived in fear for their lives if they were to return because they were political refugees. And so, that was incredibly frustrating to feel like, well, what type of justice is there in that. Same type of situation when working at the restraining office, when I realized that the majority of predominantly women, who came into the office, were most likely to resend their restraining orders and go back to living in situations where they were being abused on a regular basis. That’s not to minimize the work I felt like I was doing, but it felt like I wasn’t making the difference I wanted to make. I still was convinced that maybe I could do that, so I decided to apply for teaching positions right after college, thinking I would teach for a year or two after college and then go to law school. (Laughs) And we can talk more about this later because it sounds like we have some similarities here. So I did. I got a job teaching fourth through sixth grade and in a month into teaching, I realized that in the classroom I was making the type of difference I wanted to make and I could see it in a way that I couldn’t see, at least not tangibly so, in my experiences working in something related to the legal profession. I realized law was not for me because I needed to be able to see the difference. But then I wasn’t sure. I taught for three years while trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I taught sixth grade English and fourth, fifth and sixth grade Spanish. Then I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school and kind of combine some of my favorite components from teaching grade school. So, there was one unit that we taught in sixth grade English on Mildred Taylor’s, “Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry.” It’s a great book and we combined that unit. What we did was we included a little bit of historical background in that unit. With the mix of history and literature and talking about questions of social justice in relation to literature - that combined with teaching Spanish and teaching about culture, as well as language but teaching culture, too, and different cultures that speak Spanish; and also serving as one of the faculty mentors to a middle school student, completely voluntary middles school student group called “United, Unite Now in Tolerance and Equality,” that was designed to get students to just increase awareness about issues affecting people of color. Combining all three of those aspects of the job that really were my favorite parts of the job, I thought, “Alright, I want to go to grad school and I really want to focus on race, gender, ethnicity and literature in some capacity or another.” It was really huge and broad and amorphous at the time.
Somehow, despite how huge that was, I got in grad school. My first semester in grad school I realized I wanted to focus on Latino literature. That’s kind of the journey I took to get there.
JS: Were you ever impacted by the migration history of your family, in terms of in school, integrating or assimilating to American culture?
LH: I think so, although not in the ways we’ve read about in class. My experience was very different and again I think in part that has to do with the fact that I’m very light skinned; with the fact that we moved to the U.S. when I was two. Even now when people meet me they see me and they hear me speak, and they’re like, “But you don’t have an accent.” And I want to say, “Well, yes I do. We all have accents.” What they’re meaning is that you don’t have an accent that sounds different and you don’t look different and so those are racialized assumptions that they have when they’re asking questions like that. I didn’t have those experiences and I also didn’t live in a community with a huge number of Latinos and I didn’t go to school with a lot of Latinos. I did go to Argentine school every Saturday from first grade through sixth grade, which made my experience different. My difference is - where I felt it was in the fact that I went to school six days a week, instead of five, because when we moved to the states my parents thought we were only going to be here for a few years. The idea was we were going to move back to Argentina, so they sent me and my sister to Argentine schools on Saturday in order to keep up with language and history.The curriculum at the school was designed so that in one day you would cover what you would be covered in a week in school in Argentina so that if you went back you wouldn’t have to repeat a year.
JS: Where was this?
LH: This was outside of the D.C. area. In that sense my experience was different because my friends would have slumber parties or they would wake up and do sporting events or watch Saturday morning cartoons or something like that and I missed out on all of that growing up. At the time I bitterly complained, now I’m incredibly grateful, but at the time I complained. So, in that environment I was surrounded with a lot of Argentinians or Argentinian Americans, but there weren’t Latinos from different cultural backgrounds. So that made my experience different from the peers with whom I went to school five days a week. But, I guess there were other ways in which I think my experience was different. Apparently, I don’t remember this because I was so little, but my mom says when I started kindergarten or pre-k or something like that I just kept saying no one understands me. Of course I don’t remember that because I was so young, but I felt like no one understood me. Part of it was related to my name. I would introduce myself and my parents - my whole family - called me Louda, and I would introuduce myself and encounter a wall. My peers would say, “What? I can’t say that.” Then, I don’t remember if I just eventually said okay you can call me Laura or if that name was imposed on me and I just kind of adopted it while growing up. Now I assert myself as Louda, but at time it was this dual type identity where I was Laura at school or with my classmates, Monday through Friday, but I was Louda at home and Louda on Saturdays in Argentine schools and with the friends I had there. So that was a difference. Then there were just some other differences in terms of kids at school and at grade school bringing cupcakes for their birthdays. That’s not really something you do in Argentina and we didn’t bake in my household. So we would bring merengues with dulce leche, I think one year. Then we started bring empanadas. There was a way in which - it was interesting because my peers loved empanadas - but it marked me as different in a way, that I realize later, years later now that I have the analytical tools, there was a way in which I was exoctized for that. Peers would say that they wanted to be in my class, but really just because they wanted to have empanadas on my birthday, but still marking me as different. Then I think, and I don’t know if this has to do with me being a Latina or not, or just the different ways in which I was raised versus the ways in which my peers were raised, but certaintly at that junior high school age, which can be a tricky age for everyone, it was not cool for girls to speak. It was not cool for girls to participate. It was cool for girls to be dumb and for boys to be the one to participate. I don’t know if this has to do with coming from a different coming from a different country or not, but I couldn’t relate to that mentality. I’m not going to play dumb, I mean I might not get a concept, but I’m not going to play dumb in order to pretend I don’t understand a concept. That led to a major differentiation between me and my peers and led to some - I guess at the time it was called teasing, now it would probably be called bullying. I don’t know if it had to do with, I don’t know, I don’t know. I think partly, probably. I think, speaking with friends who have gone on to pursue PhDs who are Latinas, for them they said yeah, “We have an immigrant work ethic.” I wouldn’t necessarily want to generalize in that way but perhaps that played into it. I don’t know.
JS: Were you the only Latino in your class?
LH: There were two Latino boys in my class - no three. Three Latino boys and me.
JS: Were they of the same skin color, characteristics -
LH: They were all fairly light-skinned Latinos, some more brown than others, but they were all failry light-skinned Latinos as well. But it was a privileged environment. I should say I went to private school because I think that makes a big difference also. I did feel like my peers were really privileged in a way that I didn’t understand and in a way that I think to this day still affects my mother, interestingly. In that, she feels like her house is like the dog house compared to that of so many classmates I had growing up, who lived in huge - I mean I would call them mansions.
JS: What side of outside of D.C. were you in?
LH: I lived on the Maryland side, but I went to school on the Virginia side.
JS: Maryland. Montegomery County?
LH: Montegomery County, yes. You’re familiar with the area. (Laughter) I told my mom, “No, we acutally have a really nice house. It’s just these people live in mansions and I never could get used to that, even the friends that I made came were rarely ones that came from households with such privilege. For the most part I tended to feel more akin with people - I don’t know I just felt like I connected more with people who were in private school because they were on financial aid or had some kind of scholarship and couldn’t connect to this privilege mentality.
JS: Do you think the boys had similar struggles or you couldn’t tell?
LH: I don’t know. I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know.
JS: In that time of girls-should-be-quiet-and-play-dumb and guys-have-to-know-it-all, was there ever interaction between you guys or were you all separated as well?
LH: What do you mean?
JS: Separated by the gender roles that you had to assume? Did that inhibit or limit social interaction between you and the other Latino boys?
LH: Oh. I wouldn’t say I had much interaction with the other Latino boys necessarily, but I think a lot of that had to do with a lot of the girls who interacted with boys in general were the ones who played dumb. The boys who didn’t really adhere to that stuck with boys, and the girls who didn’t adhere to that stuck with boys.
JS: I was just trying to understand the dynamics. Like did you guys ever come together and describe or relate some of the differences that you were having?
LH: No, it would be interesting as an adult now to do that, but I don’t know.
JS: Were any of your teachers Latino?
LH: Growing up in Argentine school, yes. (laughs) I don’t think so.
JS: Do you think that influenced you in any way?
LH: I’m trying to even think. I only remember one African American woman math teacher in high school. That’s it, I mean otherwise really my teachers were white, Anglo- women and men. I’m sure that influenced me and I’m sure that influenced the way they handled certain situations.
Yeah, it was until college. That was the first time I felt like I fit in.
JS: What do you mean by fit in?
LH: Where I could be myself. Where I could be myself. Where there were people around me who had similar ideas. Where I went to a place where education was something that was valued. Where we could have conversations until 4 a.m. in the dorms. Sometimes they were silly, sometimes they were deep. I also went to a school that didn’t have core requirements, other than the ones for your major. What that meant was pretty much every class that students took everyone wanted to be in the class. That lent itself to an amazing environment in terms of student really taking charge of their own education. I think that was an amazing thing probably for professors and students alike.
I think for all those reasons that was the first time I really felt like I fit in. Also, wasn’t an environment where I was surrounded with people from privileged backgrounds: there were people from all sorts of different backgrounds there. Even though it was a private university, there were people from all different backgrounds there, of all colors and it was an amazing environment. That’s where I felt like I finally found myself.
JS: I was going to say was it the diversity in college - the diversity of ideas and people - that really helped you come into your own.
LH: Yes, for sure.
JS: I guess my last question is, how do you define diversity, especially within the context of faculty diversity? Is it numbers? Is it race? Is it concrete? Or, is it a conglomerate of different things?
LH: I think it’s a lot of different things. I think part of it is numbers. To say otherwise, I think, would probably be false. But, I don’t think numbers are everything. Like we talked about at the start of the semester there can be a minority-majority. I think part of it has to do with which people are in positions of power because that also makes a big difference. Even if the four to six percent that you mentioned [referring to the four to six percent of Latinos who make up faculty of highere education institutions nationwide, which was discussed prior to recording.] goes up to twenty percent - I’m throwing out a random number - what does it mean if those in position of power are at two percent? So I think that’s a big part of it who has power. Of those four to six percent how many have tenure and how many are tenure-track or fix term? So that’s something else to thing about.
I think that, as you mentioned, diversity comes in all sorts of different ways. It comes with respect to questions of race, questions of ethnicity, questions of gender, sexuality, ability. It also comes with being open-minded and being willing to see places change and move forward based on changing demographics, especially here at a state school. What are the states changing demographics? What does it means if the demographics of the state are drastically different from the demographics of the faculty? What message does that send? So I think that’s part of it. But, I think it’s a lot of different things. I think it’s about what types of opportunities are made available and who has access to those opportunities.
JS: What are the implications that you think diversity has on a university setting?
LH: I think that diversity is a term that often gets used in a way that could potentially be tokenizing. That’s where I would say, yes numbers matter, but it’s not just about numbers. It’s also about politics. It’s also about the mentality that one brings in and the willingness to change and the willingness to be an ally of people to all different walks of life. I think diversity in its - and I don’t want to use the word truest because I have problems with that word - diversity in its best sense is about that. It’s about being open to people of different walks of life and recognizing that an attention to one particular group’s needs can only benefit everyone, so that there’s a relationship between the individual and the collective; an individual group’s need and a collective group. I think, for instance, with respect to Latino Studies, I think anyone can benefit from Latino Studies here at UNC. While a number of Latino students come and flock to the classes, its not just Latino students who are coming to flock and take the classes. I think that by the same token, having these types of classes allows Latino students to feel like, oh, they finally can see themselves. They finally can see themselves in history, in literature, in all sorts of areas of studies that maybe they hadn’t seen themselves in other courses they had previously taken. I think it’s really important for students to be able to identify with the material so that there isn’t a huge disconnect. I think once students are identified they are more likely to become committed. And once students in general are committed and invested in their education that leads to a better educational experience for everyone. I think the same could be true of learning about different groups, of realizing, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even realize that this other group has gone through all of this.” And so the more we learn, the more informed we are and the more equipped we to make the types of changes we feel are necessary and, I guess to quote Gandhi as cliché as that might be, to be the change we want to see in the world.
JS: Do you feel like your position as a professor allows other Latinos on campus to see themselves.
LH: Yes. I do. I do. I say that and I feel like I can say that confidently, mostly because of students who come and ask me to speak to different student organizations, and then students who have come up to me after those talks come up to me and said, “Okay, now I want to take one of your courses,” and have indicated as much in terms of saying okay, finally, maybe this is something I can do with my life. I think that has to do with some of the conversations we’ve been having when we just finished reading, “A Home on the Field.” What does it mean if there’s a cycle where a population continually sees members of that population working in types of sectors of the labor population that invariably affects future generations in terms of what they might envision their futures looking like. I think the more of a presence that there is of Latino faculty, the more likely it is that those percentages will rise.
JS: Well, with that, I think we’re finished.
LH: Okay, great.