Aurora’s Interview with Alma Flores

Introduction

 

Dr. Alma Itza Flores currently works as a visiting assistant professor here at Loyola Marymount University teaching Chicano/a studies.  She has achieved her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from UCLA, her master’s degree in Education from the University of Texas and her doctoral degree in Education with an emphasis in Race and Ethic Studies from UCLA. Dr. Flores was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and immigrated alongside her mother and siblings to Santa Barbara, California when she was eight years old.  She is a first-generation college student and as such, much of her personal research and work is geared towards the relationship between the education system and Mexican immigrant families, the experiences of Mexican first-generation college students, and Chicana feminist theories.  Similarly, Dr. Flores works alongside countless students of color as well as their families by providing guidance as an advocate, a professor, and a mentor.  I found the prospect of this assignment to be both intriguing and inspiring as I hoped to get to know Dr. Flores better over the course of the interview and also to obtain a greater understanding of the status quo stories and representations of women in the media today through both an oppositional and a Chicana lens.

Early Life and the Move

 

   

 

Before Dr. Alma Flores lived in America, she recounts having a very happy middle-class life with her family and friends in Guadalajara.  Her father worked in accounting and her mother was a stay at home mom.  They had a tight bond with the extended family on her father’s side and having dinner every Saturday with relatives was tradition.  Life changed, however, when Dr. Flores’ father lost his job due to the companies bankruptcy and the family was forced to turn to other economic pursuits.  Subsequently, she moved alongside her mother, who was bilingual, to her grandparents house in Santa Barbara while her father stayed behind in search of work.  Her mother soon got a job working at Sears and that very fall Alma Flores began attending school in the area.  She described the jarring shift in environments by stating,

“So I think that one thing with my family in particular is we had a very stable, middle-class, life in Mexico and when we came to the U.S. it was like completely the opposite. Where at one point we were on food stamps and now my parents I would say have stabilized themselves to where the can get a more middle-class life. But really those first couple I don’t know… eight? Ten years?  It was rough. But again, I don’t think I realized that I was poor or that I was brown until I started school and realized, ‘Oh, not everyone lives this way. Not everyone has this experience’”.

This reflection directly correlates with the systems of oppression that have been put into place by the White Capitalist Patriarchy within our nation.  It was only until entering school and thus, a societal structure, that Dr. Flores felt the systems of oppression that were working against her due to her social location.  Hearing her speak on the matter was eye opening and a privilege check.  I remember when I was younger comparing my move across the country to experiencing culture shock and viewing the situation as a difficult experience.  I can now formally recognize how incorrect and incomparable that statement is due to my privilege as a white woman.  When Dr. Flores’ geographical location shifted, so did that of her social location according to the oppressive eyes of the society she was trying to assimilate into.

Growing up in Santa Barbara proved difficult for Dr. Flores as her hopes of returning to Mexico faded with the progression of time her family continued to spend in America. She found herself constantly comparing herself to her white classmates and recounted experiences in which she tried to make excuses for her family such as lying to her classmates about what she was going to be doing over breaks, due to the fact that she generally spent them assisting her grandmother in her job as a domestic worker.

*To hear more about Alma Flores’ thoughts on moving from Mexico to America see audio clip below*

Navigating America’s Education System

 

The theme of education and education reform are constant throughout much of Alma Flores’ life and, in fact, part of her choice of career spurred from the power she felt through being able to obtain the vocabulary she needed to express the injustices and forms of oppression she had felt throughout her lifetime.  As a result, she is passionate about assisting immigrant families in navigating the U.S. education system and takes pride in being the helping hand that she wished had been there for her during high school experience. Dr. Flores explains,

“So a lot of my work with students and families does revolve around access to higher education but within that I think I also try to affirm their experiences to let them know that I know what its like and also to demystify these notions of college or that they’re not smart or that they can’t be in the AP class. Because I think schools do a very good job of making us feel that it’s our fault. Like we’re just dumb and that we belong in the basic track. The way schools are set up is that we’re often tracked away from those classes from a very early age. I think to affirm those voices and to light that fire that I know is within all of us but sometimes gets stamped on from a very young age.”

She expresses her frustrations with the undeniable systemic forms of oppression that are deeply rooted within our nation’s education system and how the work to discourage immigrant students from being high achievers and thus, gradually working to create change.  Education is key and Alma Flores is well aware of it.

 

Status Quo Stories

 

As previously stated, much of Alma Flores’ work is centered around immigrant families and their integration into American society with an emphasis on the education system.  In relation to this, her dissertation focused on Chicana mother/daughter pedagogues.  She studied high achieving daughters who were currently professors or in doctoral programs and their relationships with their immigrant mothers in order to understand what it was that they were doing to encourage and create space for their child’s success.  As such, she provided examples to refute the stereotypes and narratives of immigrant families. On the matter she states,

“So again, when we think about immigrant mothers, their often in the media at least framed as having all these anchor babies or as very submissive. When in reality, in my studies they are very knowledgeable and hold these ways of teaching their daughters both, to quote Patricia Hill Collins, ‘To fit into these systems of oppression but also to challenge those systems at the same time,’ which is a very difficult thing to do. Right?”

Her mention of submission and dependency on a male figure struck a chord with me and immediately I thought of our in class discussions regarding the common stereotype that refers to women of color as either demure and submissive or aggressive and abrasive.  As Dr. Flores counters, however, it actually requires a great deal of intelligence and charisma to not only fit into a society that is out to get you, but to also hold an oppositional gaze and to teach their children to do the same.  In her 1992 book, Black Looks: Race and RepresentationBell Hooks speaks of the importance as a woman of color to view the world surrounding you with an oppositional gaze.  This entails enacting a form of political rebellion and resistance that can be found through the act of disidentifying with and returning the gaze that the media directs towards oppressed people.  When asked about times that she had witnessed or partook in the act of oppositional gaze, Dr. Flores began to discuss the variety of status quo stories that can be damaging towards students of color and her attempts to counteract that. She states, 

“And I think that really disentangling that for students has been one way for me to complicate that stereotype of like the perfect immigrant. Right? Which I see why the immigrant movement uses that also as a tactic to kind of be like, ‘These are the students. They’re 4.0 students. They’re perfect students. Why wouldn’t we give them citizenship?’  But then how does that then one: Reaffirm this meritocratic way of thinking about education and ‘It’s only the perfect person that will be granted citizenship.’ And what happens to all of those other students that maybe are not the 4.0 student but should still deserve…”

I found it deeply intriguing to hear how she viewed the immigrant movement as actively denying oppositional gaze in this regard and instead harnessed the romanticization of the perfect immigrant as being equivalent to an “average” American citizen.  

 

*To hear more about Alma Flores’ thoughts on oppositional gaze see audio clip below*

Role Models and Representation

 

 

When she was growing up, Alma Flores had no role models in the media.  Her role models were her parents and other friends and family members in her life due to the fact that there was next to no representation within film and television that she found she could relate to.  On the subject of representation of gender, race, and sexuality within the media, Dr. Flores states,

“I think it’s obviously a lot better than what it was when I was growing up and I think things like Instagram and all these social media outlets have made it much more accessible for people to find other people that are going through similar things or that they can relate to. I never had that and I feel like that would have been hugely important for me to be able to connect to people outside of Santa Barbara. So I do think it’s definitely much better but its still often done in a very tokenizing way.”

In saying this, she puts forth the idea that more accessible media platforms such as social media has the capability to provide a space where women of color can celebrate and affirm themselves in ways that society won’t.  Listening to this statement as a white women made me feel encouraged to increase my ability to apply oppositional gaze specifically in regards to the presentation of race in the media.  I haven’t had to live with feeling misrepresented or flat out ignored due to my race and thus, it can be easy to not give a thought to the amount of racial diversity that’s being presented on screen at any given time unless I am actively reminding and training myself to look.

As the interview proceeded, we began to converse about the presentation of women of color within film specifically. Dr. Flores claimed,

“Like thinking about films, right?  It’s people of color, women of color having to overcome something. It’s like the slave narrative, right?  Told in different ways and recycled in different ways across people of color.”

This comment caused me to reflect on the “oscar bait movie” and how, while there is generally at least one film every year that depicts a historical event regarding people of color, the reason that they have a nomination is due to the fact that they cater to the middle class white audience.  This stands directly inline with Gregory Manstios’ views as stated in his essay, “Media Magic, Making Class Invisible.”  Over the course of the piece, he discusses his stance on the structure of our nations mass media and how it operates as an exclusive, white and bourgeois-centric sphere. While class is more the focus of the writing, Manstios holds an intersectional standpoint and argues that race and class are inseparable in this regard.  Regardless, these “oscar bait films” work to perpetuate the slave narrative of people of color being in a lesser position of power and managing to survive or overcome.  To a degree, that mentality normalizes the notion.  In response, Alma Flores then continued to express her desire in having more representations of people

of color in films that are not tragedy based but instead, are fun, romantic and light-hearted.  We need more representation within the slice of life genre seeing as these are the lives of so many people who reside within our nation.

 

*To hear more about Alma Flores’ thoughts on race and media representation see audio clip below*

Views on Intersectionality

 

 

When asked to comment on a quote from Audre Lorde’s essay, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” stating, “Ignoring the differences of race between women and the implications of those differences presents the most serious threat to the mobilization of women’s joined power,” Alma Flores reflected that,

“Even as a brown woman, I have many privileges that I have to continuously interrogate and reflect on that have allowed me to navigate the world in a very different way than someone who is trans, who is queer… And hearing from them often teaches me what I need to do with those privileges. So I think its important to center their voices and to use Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework.”

Here Dr. Flores spends time both acknowledging her own privileges and expressing her alliance to those whom are more marginalized than her as primary factors in keeping the

feminist movement strong.  Standing inline with Audre Lorde’s perspective, the most marginalized voices should be the ones that are most centralized within a movement.  Similarly, it is imperative for those with privilege to harness its power and have the dialogues that need to be had with those in their social circles who are under the influence of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.  However, this has to be done simultaneously without taking stage presence away from the most oppressed members of the movement.  As someone who wants to be an ally yet is concerned about my inability to fully empathize with the struggles of women of color, transwomen, and other marginalized individuals, I found Dr. Flores’ statement to be affirming and inspiring.  I personally am of the belief that intersectionality is key to building momentum within the feminist movement and thus, it is reassuring to think that directing my focus towards drawing others into the spotlight and using the platform that I have due to my privileges will be productive towards the accomplishments of the movement.

 

*To hear more about Alma Flores’ thoughts on intersectionalism see audio clip below*

Final Thoughts

While understanding the importance of more accurate and more diverse representations of women of color within the media, Alma Flores also expresses the belief that it is equally important for immigrants and students of color to have representations of people of color in successful and powerful positions within their real lives.  This is why she sought after obtaining a position as a professor and a mentor: to show her students that achievement is possible in a society that will try to systematically oppress you.  Her passion and charisma for supporting intersectional feminism is truly inspiring and I was grateful to have multiple moments during the span of the interview in which I had deep revelations of my privilege and of the work I need to do in order to be the best ally that I can be.

 

 

Works Cited

Hooks, Bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Routledge, 2015, pp. 115–131.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Amerst College , Sister Outsider Crossing Press, 1984.

Mantsios, Gregory. “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible.” Manstsios, Gregory.  media.lanecc.edu/users/martinezp/images/MediaMagic.pdf.