Students explore lesser-known communities in “Identity in the Hispanic World”

Wednesday, Dec 16, 2020

By Michelle Tong

The course “Identity in the Hispanic World” taught by Professor Christina Lee and graduate student Alejandro Martínez Rodriguez, explored how national and alternate identities are imagined, constructed, changed, and remembered.

Students were challenged to look at identity through different lenses while shedding light on communities that are lesser known. The first half of the course focused on the on the survival and reconstruction of native identities in Guatemala (Maya K’iche’) and in Chile (Mapuche), and the forced migration of enslaved people from Africa to Argentina and Venezuela and leading to present-day Afro-Argentines and Afro-Venezuelans. The second half of the course was dedicated to discussing lesser-known Latin American identities of Asian origin, such as Nikkeis in Perú and Chino-Cubanos, concluding with the complexities and diversity of Latinx identities in the United States and their relationship to current Latin American immigration policies.

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A virtual class visit featuring visual artist Eduardo Tokeshi.

“After taking Spanish throughout high school, I was interested in identities that make up Latin America and more specifically, the ethnic minorities that aren't talked about as often,” said first-year student Zaiya Gandhi. “These groups face many inequalities and I wanted to learn more about them. As a second-generation Indian-American, I was also interested in the relationship between immigrants in Latin America and the majority Spanish or mestizo groups. There are Asian-Americans in Latin America that have faced similar questions about their identity as I have.”

Lawrence Chen, a sophomore, added, “I have grown up around many Hispanics and noticed that my closest friends are Hispanics, factors that have made me realize and develop interest in the diversity of the Hispanic world. My uncle is Chinese-Venezuelan, which I always found to be a cool and distinct mix of cultures, and I wanted to explore and understand the many complexities such as this in Latin America.”

The course was part of the Collaborative Teaching Initiative which allows graduate students to co-design and co-teach an undergraduate course at Princeton with a faculty mentor. This initiative provides professional experience for graduate students as well as creates opportunities to develop innovative team-taught courses for undergraduate students.

"In December 2019, when Christina and I started planning this course, we never imagined that we would have to change so much of our ideas and approaches due to the pandemic. The original structure for the course included a trip to Guatemala, but because of travel restrictions and as the classes would be virtual, we decided to change several of the sessions to offer a seminar less focused on Guatemala and more open to different identities from Latin America, as well as working with different types of objects: films, documentary theater, poetry, performance,” said Martínez.

“Furthermore, the protests against systemic racism that took place after George Floyd's murder also motivated us to place even more emphasis on racial issues in Latin America. I spent my summer preparing the readings and discussions for this class, and I am glad to have learned so much this fall during the discussions with our students and under the guidance of and fantastic teamwork with Christina Lee."

Lee said, “I could not have asked for more engaged students or a better co-instructor. It was pure joy to design this course and co-teach it with Alejandro whose expertise, background, and interests complement mine in productive and enlightening ways.”

Throughout the semester, students participated in discussions with notable guest speakers including Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf Nahuelpan and visual artist Eduardo Tokeshi. These opportunities provided them with the chance to directly engage with members of the communities that were covered in class.

Gandhi noted, “We had a guest speaker who was a Korean-American, and he made a documentary about Korean-Cubans. I loved the amount of engagement and discussion, especially in this class, and I was surprised by how many of us could relate to the immigrant identity crisis that he described.”

As a final project, students were given the opportunity to lead the class by choosing an identity that was not covered and presenting it to their peers.

“I think this course helped me better understand political situations and economic inequalities that I will study going forward, and that other countries also face deep racial and ethnic crises similar to our own in the United States,” said Gandhi. “This course also helped me connect with other students who have had similar experiences and interests.”

“Identity in the Hispanic World” not only gave students the opportunity to explore the complexities and components of identity, but provided them with the valuable experience of giving them insight into the experiences of lesser-known communities.

Chen added, “This class has made me realize that I enjoy continued education in Spanish and that I would like to pursue a certificate in the language. It has also made me yearn to travel abroad to Latin America or Spain to experience the rich and diverse cultures that exist there in-person. I want Spanish to be a skill that stays with me throughout life, no matter where I go or what I do.”