Juan Flores (1943-2014): A Remembrance of a Great Scholar

Deep in the labyrinth of the CUNY Graduate Center in 2004, a seminar on Afro-Latin@s in the United States was being offered via the city-wide consortium. I was nearly done with my doctoral course work in Public & Urban Policy at the New School and needed a couple of electives before the dreaded qualifying examination. One of the program’s advisors at the time, concerned that the seminar would be missing “policy relevance” I needed for my dissertation, had planted seeds of doubt. But it was the interdisciplinary instructor of the course (whose Ph.D was in German Literature), who upon listening to my potential dissertation topic during first day introductions, interrupted me mid-sentence with his signature smile and said: “You really need this course.”

On December 2, 2014, Juan Flores, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, passed away in Durham, North Carolina, a few weeks after he had contributed to an academic conference at Duke University. An award-winning and prolific scholar on Puerto Rican, Latin@ and Afro-Latin@ culture and identity, it is not an understatement to write that Juan’s contributions not only left an indelible mark across multiple disciplines, but also amongst his former students. When Juan interrupted my own train of thought in that moment in 2004, it was clear that he had deliberately attempted to interrupt my research. At the time, I had specifically been exploring the roots of the ethnic enclave in Miami and proposed to rehash a theory that popped up in the sociology and economics literature in the 1980s, one that suggested that such notoriously segregated bastions of exploitation could actually be beneficial for newcomers. If the “ethnic enclave” was argued to be so good for the 1960s Cuban exiles and subsequent generations, would the same hold true for black Cubans? While few black Cubans ended up in Miami overall, even after the more diverse Mariel boatlift (1980), for those that did, how did they fare as compared to their “white” counterparts and other Latin@s in the region? Did the “owners” and progenitors of the newly ballyhooed “ethnic economy,” once viewed by the Chicago school as a necessary “decompression chamber” before eventual socioeconomic integration for children of immigrants, extend the same privileges to their black co-ethnics? If not, how should the state respond?

When Juan Flores became my professor, he challenged the methodological contours of my scholarly inquiry, despite feeling fields away in the land of urban policy analysis. His Socratic intervention was desperately needed at a time when “numbers” dominated my method of inquiry, economic theories were my prevailing explanatory referent, and my application of interdisciplinary and transnational perspectives was minimal. But to get there, Juan taught me through expertise and exposure, I needed theoretical understandings of race and racialization in the Americas, particularly Cuba. I (read: we) needed to dig deeper into Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz’s view of Cubanidad, which Juan had us critique in the seminar, as an expression of “color-blind” nationalism that seemed to involve everyone but Afro-Cubans. We needed to understand how the “Latin@ propensity to uphold mestizaje (racial and cultural mixture),” as he and fellow collaborator and life partner Miriam Jiménez Román wrote in the Afro-Latin@ Reader, was indeed an “exceptionalist and wishful panacea,” deeply embedded in the contours of anti-blackness (Román and Flores, 2010: 3).

We needed to understand how the stigma of claiming a black identity contributed to the undercounting (hence statistical understanding and political mal-representation) of our Afro-Latin@ herman@s here and abroad, evidence of his deep understanding of the crucial role of the state on peoples’ everyday livelihoods. In essence, we needed broad, interdisciplinary understandings of not just the oppressive structures of the United States (which dominates the urban policy literature on U.S. Latin@s), but also the present racial inequalities deeply rooted in the colonial contours of Latin America, with specific attention to the racial baggage that accompanies migration and transnational processes.

Juan’s death is a tremendous intellectual loss. As a peer eloquently echoed in conversation over Juan’s contributions, he knew how to enlarge and expand the theoretical and content knowledge of his students and colleagues, interventions and “interruptions” so crucial and necessary for student activism and scholarship that informed Puerto Rican/Latin@ Studies during its formative years, and now the burgeoning Afro-Latin@ Studies field. To borrow from one of the many “tweets” reflecting on Juan’s impact on our lives: Rest in Power, hermano.

Alan A. Aja is Assistant Professor & Deputy Chair in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latin@ Studies at Brooklyn College (CUNY). His sole and collaborative research on inter-group disparities has been published in Latino/a Research Review, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics & Culture, Social Research, Dissent, Ethnic Studies Review (forthcoming), the Huffington Post and the Washington Post. Aja recently completed a manuscript on the Afro-Cuban experience in South Florida.

Patrolling the Image of the Educated: Reflections from a Bronx Classroom

Part Three. Recall that along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable; at each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is part of a reflection on my experience.

One day I helped out in a classroom so loud the principal made multiple visits, but to no avail. As the substitute teacher yelled at the students, they responded by making fun of him. “McLovin” they taunted, something to which he did not take kindly. A vicious cycle of verbal attacks escalated between them as I sat down with a small group of students and worked to make the assignment accessible to them. As the pocket of students were producing amazing work, it was clear that if we simply divided up the room amongst us we could reach the students more individually and help them better to engage in the material. When I offered that suggestion to the sub he shut it down without the least bit of hesitation: “That would work in an ideal world, but this happens to be a world of criminals and rapists, and that is who these kids are going to become.”

When I informed the assistant principal of his remarks she halted in disbelief; the administration had just praised him with the offering of an extended position at the school. She thanked me for telling her and ensured he would never be welcome in the school again. “I never would have known,” she admitted. “He looks just like an educated guy.”

It was obvious that white, clean shaven, tie, and a dress shirt equaled educated. Just as obvious was the fact that if any of those elements were lacking it did not hold through. In defining the educated through the white racial frame, the assistant principal defined who her students will never be.

Teaching “Race & Ethnicity” : The First Day (Open Thread for Comments)

What’s the best way to begin a class on “Race & Ethnicity”? This question is inspired in part by the terrific discussion in yesterday’s comments about the common trainer’s question, “what about being (fill-in-your-racial-ethnic-background) makes you proud?” and by a recent question on the Teaching Sociology listserv.

For the readers here who are professors and classroom teachers, what’s the best exercise or introduction to this class that you’ve used?

For readers who have taken such a class, what sort of exercises have you enjoyed on the first day? What sorts of exercises do you absolutely loathe?

Let us hear from you in the comment box.

And, as a reminder, we have a (beginning) stash of films and syllabi here at RacismReview available for download. I know lots of folks are working on their syllabus for the upcoming semester right now. Please email me (jessiedanielsnyc _at_ gmail _dot_ com) if you’d like to see your syllabus added to the mix.