Julie Torres (MA ’12) on her research centering Puerto Rican activists and subsequent work as faculty at UCCS

Julie Torres is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She is a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on issues related to Latinx studies, diaspora, social activism, transnationalism, and gender. She is currently working on a book manuscript, which ethnographically examines Puerto Rican women’s activism in Orlando, Florida in light of contemporary crises. She has published in academic venues, such as Anthropology News and CENTRO Journal for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. She is also a contributing co-editor of the Association of Latino and Latina Anthropologists (ALLA) section of Anthropology News.

What brought you to the field of Anthropology? How did you end up at TC for your MA? Are there any classes or professors that stand out as being particularly influential?

Like many young people, I really was not sure about my future career path when I entered college. I knew I loved reading and writing and became an English major while completing my undergraduate degree at Villanova University. When I graduated, I returned back home to New York and began working for a non-profit in marketing and communications. One day I got a call inviting me to interview for an open administrative position at my former high school. That was my entry into the field of education and, for the next three years, I worked in a couple of different schools in the city. Teachers College happened to be right down the street from one of them. I remember thinking on my way home from work on the Subway that getting my master’s degree would be a good way to advance my career and better serve the communities I was working with, which were largely Black and Latinx. When I was browsing the TC website later that night, I came across the program in Anthropology and Education and I was drawn in by the focus on understanding inequalities. So I applied and became a part-time student, attending classes in the evenings after work. Before that point, I had actually never taken a cultural anthropology course.

One class that stands out to me from my time at TC was Dr. Lesley Bartlett’s Latinxs in Education course. It introduced me to theoretical frameworks, like subtractive schooling, that would go on to shape my master’s thesis on the educational experiences of Puerto Rican students in New York City. I also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Bartlett briefly towards the end my graduate work at TC on a project examining dual language programs. I am thankful for that experience, as it really helped me realize my love for ethnography as a method.

What was the process like that led you to pursue your PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign? Did you always know you wanted to continue your studies or was that a decision you made along the way?

It was definitely a decision I made along the way. Anthropology really expanded my way of thinking about the world – although that is not say that I am not aware of the discipline’s colonial context, especially as a woman of color. So pursuing a PhD in anthropology was not a decision I made lightly. I also knew that it would potentially take me away from my family and friends, financial stability, and present its own set of intellectual and emotional demands. I do not know how else to describe it but, after much reflection, it just felt right. I was accepted into a few programs, but decided on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) because, there, I would have the opportunity to work with other Latinx scholars whom I admire, and it also helped that I was fully funded. That is one piece of advice I would give to persons interested in pursuing a PhD – only apply to programs that commit to funding their students.

You just graduated with your PhD (congratulations!) where your dissertation centered on Puerto Rican activism in Orlando. Can you describe a bit more of your research, methodology, areas of interest, and some major findings from your extensive fieldwork?

Thank you! I graduated in May 2020 and it already seems like so long ago. I would say that my research is located at the intersections of Latinx studies, diaspora, social activism, transnationalism, and gender. My dissertation, “In Times of ‘Crisis’: Puerto Rican Activism, Gender, and Belonging in Orlando,” foregrounds Puerto Rican women’s activism around events like the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, the shooting at Pulse nightclub, the 2016 elections, and Hurricane Maria. I spent two years collecting data in Orlando, Florida, using traditional anthropological methods, such as participant observation of protests, grassroots organizing meetings, get out the vote efforts, festivals, and other events in the community. I also conducted 48 formal interviews with Puerto Rican activists and Orlando residents, as well as some newspaper archival research.

So much of the discourse of crisis – and we see this with a lot of what is happening in the world today – is framed as exception. But in looking to how crisis is felt and lived, I find that the preoccupation with crisis does little more than conceal longstanding inequalities, such as present-day iterations of colonialism and second-class citizenship, across transnational spaces. Which leads me to another finding – the socio-economic and political climate in Puerto Rico has contributed to the growth of a local activist community in Orlando that very much imagines itself as part of a larger transnational Puerto Rican community.

In a lot of ways, my work is deeply painful. It deals with topics such as violence, disaster, and austerity. But there is beauty and hope in resistance – in the possibilities for another future – and that is exactly what my interlocutors were actively engaged in constructing.

Protestors in Kissimmee, Florida. Julie Torres, 2018.

You’re now an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (another huge congrats!) – what courses are you teaching there? And what are some upcoming projects you’re working on?

Thank you! I am so happy to be a part of the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program (WEST), whose mission aligns with my own position as an engaged scholar. This semester, I am teaching two courses: “Introduction to Social Justice” and “Multi-racial Identities.” Last semester, I taught a course titled, “‘¡Si se puede!’: Latinx Social Movements.” What I love most about WEST courses is that they compel students to think critically about systems of oppression and privilege through an intersectional lens. I am also the coordinator of the Latinx Studies Certificate in WEST, so I have been spending some time developing that. But the biggest project on my plate right now is completing my book manuscript, which is based on my dissertation research.

Are you engaged in any projects outside of the university?

I am a contributing co-editor of the Association of Latino and Latina Anthropologists’ (ALLA) section of Anthropology News. This year, we are working on a series that centers Black Latinidades, so keep an eye out for that call for papers! I am also really looking forward to getting more connected with the Latinx community here in Colorado Springs, which has been challenging so far because of COVID. But in the future, I hope to develop a second project that draws on participatory action methods and is rooted in the local community. Who knows, maybe it will even tap into my early training in education.
  

Having just entered the field yourself, do you have any advice for master’s students in our Anthropology program, or even our PhD students, who are interested in pursuing academia for their career trajectory?

Remember that everyone’s path is different. I did not pursue graduate studies immediately after finishing my undergraduate degree and I believe that was the best decision for me at the time. I had family obligations that often pulled me in different directions and I also became a mother a few months after completing my fieldwork. It was hard. There were days when the exhaustion set in and I wondered if I would ever graduate. In the end, I did, even if it took me a year or two longer. Life happens. That is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned during my graduate career. But it is also okay to walk away. Your physical and mental well-being are important

I would also advise graduate students or those pursuing a career in academia to seek out mentors and build peer networks of support both in and outside of your program and/or university. This is especially important for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, because academia is not built for us and can be especially isolating. But our presence matters. Your work matters. 

Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville

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