Home / Features / Complex Histories of the Marginalized: Q&A with Alan Aja, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department

Complex Histories of the Marginalized: Q&A with Alan Aja, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department

Some of Professor Alan Aja’s endeavors before he began teaching include work as a human rights and labor organizer. PHOTO/ Faraz T. Toor
Some of Professor Alan Aja’s endeavors before he began teaching include work as a human rights and labor organizer. PHOTO/ Faraz T. Toor

By Radhika Viswanathan

Published: November  24th, 2015

Alan Aja is a professor in Brooklyn College’s Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. He received a B.A. in Sociology and Communication n 1997, an M.A. in Sustainable International Development in 2000 and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Policy in 2008. His courses and research focus on political reasons for intragroup and intergroup disparities.

Q: What classes do you teach at Brooklyn College?

A: I teach many of the general and intro courses in the Puerto Rico and Latino Studies (PRLS) Department; Intro to Puerto Rico/Latino Studies, I teach Latino Diasporas in the United States. Both of those courses look at the complex histories of Latinos in the United States and also look at the history of Latino studies from an ethnic studies point of view. In other words, they allow us to use different disciplines, sociology, demography, history, anthropology, cultural studies, musicology, you name it, to teach a vast array of material to help students understand how diverse and complex and non-monolithic the Latino community is in the United States. So that’s what I like to say that I do.

I also teach a couple of specialty courses. One course called Cubans in the United States…That course is designed to debunk myths about Cuban-Americans and instead of starting in the 1960s, which is what most courses do, we actually go back to the late 1800s, when Cubans and Puerto Ricans were assembling here in New York City, organizing to fight for independence from Spain… At the same time the course looks at the Afro-Cuban roots of Cuban culture and how many white Cubans in the United States—like myself—have been raised to be in denial and to suppress the diversity of our roots, especially our African-ness….

The other courses I teach, one’s called Models of Economic Development in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, which looks critically at many of the dependency models that we’ve implemented in the Caribbean and how we’ve used Puerto Rico’s resources and people, and have exploited the island and how that has led to migrations over time, and how that explains the presence of Puerto Ricans in New York City.

And next semester I’ll be teaching a course on Afro-Latinos in the United States—a sort of Afro-centric history of Latinos. I’m very proud of teaching that course and the contributions, given that… we’ve been placing Latinos in an economic and social box and the reality of it is that for hundreds of years, the predominant group in Latin America were Afro-Latinos and often times they’re forgotten, they remain invisible in the U.S. The idea that Latinos can be black, we try to sort of throw that out the window….But how can that not be possible given our rich history?

Sometimes I teach a course in the Honors College, I do Shaping the Future of the City, which is a seminar that looks at—I like to call it “how New York can best meet the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow”—what can we do about climate change? How do we… ensure that we are treating each other fairly and equitably?

Another fun one, I teach Urban Institutions and the Latino Experience, which is basically a general survey of educational disparities and also criminal justice and the intersections with Latinos and African-Americans.

Q: This is a really wide range of classes; what’s the common thread among them?

A: I come with a background in public policy and my Ph.D. involves an interdisciplinary understanding of the forces that allow us to analyze the effects the decisions that government and people in power make. So that’s why I went into public policy. And in order to understand the effects of policies, of decisions, that powerful people make, you need to also understand the context and history. So in all of my courses, I make sure that at the very end of the course, that my students understand the policy implications of whatever theme that we’ve been exploring in course. What does it mean in people’s lives? How does it affect their economic livelihoods? Who made the decision for you?

A lot of my students say they’re not political. That’s not true. Everything we do is political. So I try to create an environment that allows them to reflect on the politics of reality and how differential treatment shapes the inequalities and the disparities that we see today. And how we can best redistribute resources and implement policies to undo that.

Q: What brought you into the interdisciplinary field of Politics and Latino Studies?

A: While my doctorate is in public policy, I did write specifically on ethnic communities, and…while I was working at the New School for Social Research, I looked at the way ethnic communities form ethnic enclaves—which many groups have done—to survive, to provide each other jobs, to shield them from discrimination they might face in reality at large. At the same time, I was also critical of this, what is essentially intragroup segregation… So my interests are largely around intragroup disparities, and how those disparities are not as a result of deficiencies within groups themselves, but as a result of design. So one of the things I like to challenge in our courses is cultural deficit models and… I like to debunk the thesis that some groups are better than others because they have better values. As a Latino studies professor, we find that argument offensive. So we break down why that’s offensive, why that’s incorrect, ahistorical, and we look at the forces that shape that.

So to go back to your question, I was probably interested in doing this line of work, this interdisciplinary field of academia, largely because of my own experiences. My parents came from Cuba in the 1960s, they were given refugee status—this is a very salient thing, especially right now—and they were treated very well by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, other groups, who I would argue deserve refugee status more so—and I can say that because I’m Cuban-American—do not receive that status and therefore, end up with differential outcomes, unequal. What you grow up surrounded by those disparities…those realities, those environments, shaped my thinking, my trajectory. And I said, “Whatever I’m going to do with my life, it’s hopefully to use scholarship to help bridge the gap between these disparities.”

Q: What do you think about teaching this class in this day and age and in this political climate? Do you think it’s important for students to know this, especially now?

A: Absolutely. Just today I explained to students how refugee policy works in the United States and how we actually have a very difficult, strenuous vetting process. In other words, while the corporate media makes egregious claims about specific groups of people, they do so without any understanding of refugee policy and how it works, and the intricacies and the complexities. It turns out we have a very selective—we’ve always had a very selective policy—we’ve let in very few compared to other countries, and that’s ironic because oftentimes we start those conflicts through our invasions. So it’s very much pertinent.

You know, one student a few weeks ago basically summed up the course that he’s taking for me and he said—it was something to the extent of—“Holy crap, I just now realized how violent we were, how violent we were in taking people’s lands!” And we were talking about how we invaded Mexico in 1846. And yet the narrative I was taught in high school was that there was no bloodshed; that it all happened as a result of our hard work and good will, and no one told me about the effects and the moral consequences. So the student was able to make a parallel between modern day and between yesterday, which wasn’t that long ago, it was about 150 years ago. And if students can see the parallels between the present and yesterday and how the United States is responsible for perpetuating that global inequality, then I think I’ve done my job.

Some paintings that depict Latino nationalist movements—mostly in Puerto Rico—that are in Professor Aja’s office. PHOTO/ Faraz T. Toor
Some paintings that depict Latino nationalist movements—mostly in Puerto Rico—that are in Professor Aja’s office. PHOTO/ Faraz T. Toor

Q: That actually reminds me of this book I read called “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” how history is written by the winners. I don’t know if it is, but is it becoming more prevalent that people who aren’t necessarily the winners are voicing their side of history?

A: I would like to argue that our classes and the classes that I teach—I do my best to teach a people’s history, to teach a marginalized history… I use the U.S. invasion of Mexico—there were complexities. Mexico wasn’t all that great either. At the same time, you’re allowed to look at those complexities, and in a sort of a post-modern sense you can also look at how power was acquired and how racism was used as an ideological justification at the same time as warped interpretations of dominant religions, like at that time Christianity. So those parallels allows one to sort of see in sort of the modern day—not necessarily comparisons—but extensions. That’s what I would argue, in the way how power structures have both changed over time and how they remain the same.

Q: What’s your hope that your students not only get out of their classes, but how they implement what they learn into their lives and their futures?

A: I would hope that students get a better understanding of not just themselves individually—and I say that because American society tends to focus on the breadth of success of the individual, which I think is detrimental—rather than see themselves as part of a larger collectivity….We are shaped largely by our environment. We can improve standards of living for people—to hopefully build healthy, sustainable communities—but we have to take in the needs of all—and specifically marginalized. We can use both universal and targeted approaches at the same time. [And I hope] that students understand that if we do not focus on building more equitable structures, then life will be much more difficult for them and their children and grandchildren over time. So, yes, in our courses—and my courses—I would hope students are allowed to reflect on their own histories, and I want to make sure that especially students who have never heard or read their histories in their high school textbooks, that they realize [the history is there] and it’s up to them to organize and mobilize to make sure their histories are embedded in textbooks and that their needs are met.

Q: What kind of research are you doing right now?

A: Right now I’m in the copy edits of a book that I finished a year ago, but it’s taking a long time to get out. It’s a book on Afro-Cubans—it’s really about relations between black and white Cubans in Miami, and it’s also where I grew up. And it’s going to be controversial, but I’m looking forward to it coming out. And my next project is, I’m hoping to be working with my colleague who is at Ohio State, Miranda Martinez, we’re hoping to look at economic democracy, and these are sort of these newer nuanced approaches of distributing resources and allowing people to participate in democracy and money in more democratized, fairer ways, ways that the very small number of people who own the means of production would not like, but would allow more folks to live and have a decent standard of living. So we’re thinking about a book like that.

And I tend to publish on a numerous range of works, whether it’s—I teach here and I have a piece out now in the American Prospect on the role of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and how important they are and they have been to African-Americans, especially providing a safe place. We like to think, I should tell you, in the PRLS Department and also Africana [Studies Department] that we provide that safe place for students of all backgrounds. Anyone can take our courses, obviously, but especially Latinos and African-Americans and groups who have been equally marginalized and see themselves as a sort of alliance. We kind of function like the HBCU of Brooklyn College, in that we provide—I hope students feel this way—a safe place where they can express their identities and also search for them and come to terms with their own sort of realities.

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