A Campus Heritage: Voices of Latinx Faculty at Yale

I never thought I’d get “weeded out,” but I did.

Going into a panel discussion titled “STEM in Industry” last January, my second-semester schedule included Biology 101/102, Organic Chemistry for First-Year Students II, Laboratory for Organic Chemistry II, and Introduction to Psychology. After the panel, I wiped my Course Search clean, devoting myself instead to the policy side of Environmental Studies, which I knew better but which felt less “job secure.”

The panelists had no shortage of accomplishments. They floated around impressive pharmaceutical company names and urged us to “connect with” them on LinkedIn. I felt miles behind my peers in the STEM marathon as panelists referenced research they had performed as early as 11th grade and one even illustrated an example by referencing a company owned by their parents. These subtle comments provoked no unease on the faces of the audience members I could see on the standard display; no one else seemed to find this foreign. 

I came into Yale as a pre-med student, planning to major in either Neuroscience or Molecular, Cellular, and Development Biology. While I felt sure about my direction, actually getting there was an entirely different story. I couldn’t stop shaking when I first walked into the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. 

The insecurity never went away. 

****

A scroll past the faces of winners for the STEM-related Nobel Prizes is a reminder of the dominance of white men in the hard sciences. For the Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine or Physiology, Latinx scientists make up 0%, 0.5%, and 2% of recipients, respectively. Comparably, as of 2020, only 3% of the science awardees were women, and none of the 617 science laureates have been Black. 

This dearth of Nobel Prize-winning scientists of color provides little inspiration to traditionally underrepresented students. However, Yale, with its abundance of resources, can and often does provide role models and mentors in many other places, especially in the professors who guide us in our academic careers. These people reaffirm students of colors’ place within predominantly white institutions. 

Yale fares slightly better in statistics indicating Latinx faculty representation than those of the Nobel Prize, but it still leaves much to be desired. In 2020, across all its schools, 4.5% of Yale’s ladder faculty identified as Hispanic or Latinx. This percentage dips to zero in the Architecture, Art, Drama, and Music schools. Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) that encompasses Yale College’s majors, the percentage creeps back up to 4.7%. 

The role of mentors is a frequent topic of study for researchers interested in Latinx in higher education. Supportive mentors help students of color to develop a sense of belonging and reaffirm their academic ability. They share culture and serve as advocates on behalf of minority students, providing valuable information on matters such as financial aid, campus opportunities, and research experiences. But there are many obstacles institutions might face in trying to  provide greater mentorship opportunities. At predominantly white institutions, even faculty and staff of color must navigate challenges related to their identity and the expectations of academia, while being expected to mentor students of similar cultural heritage. Faculty members of color might have different access to mentorship, support, and information about tenureship compared to white peers, which exacerbates feelings of isolation and impostor syndrome. The issues of representation and inclusion run beyond undergraduate and graduate students, and well beyond STEM disciplines.

****

Over two weeks, I interviewed several Latinx faculty and staff at Yale about their experiences. I was curious to find out what obstacles they had encountered and overcome, and sought to learn how their identity influenced their careers, if at all. 

Marietta Vázquez is a professor of general pediatrics and infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine. She also works as the Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Department of Pediatrics and founded the Yale Children’s Hispanic Clinic. Vázquez earned her Bachelor’s degree at Yale College before returning to Puerto Rico, where she was born and raised, for medical school. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico and returned to Yale for her residency program.

Accomplished and competitive, Vázquez recalled being nothing but excited to start her residency program at Yale. As we spoke over Zoom, I noticed how quickly her enthusiasm shifted to a much more sober tone as she discussed a racist encounter that never faded from her memory.

During one of Vázquez’s first rotations, she met with a child accompanied by two parents. “I was a first year pediatric resident, and I was just so excited,” she recalled. However, as Vázquez proceeded through a list of questions for the family, the father stopped her. “He asked me where I was from, because I had an accent,” Vázquez explained. “I told him, and he asked me where I went to medical school. I thought ‘this is odd,’ because I’ve never been asked that before in a clinical encounter. But I very proudly told him that I was from the University of Puerto Rico.” The father requested to see another doctor. “That was probably the first time that I realized how somebody could make such an incredible judgement based on my identities,” Vázquez said. 

 Vázquez’s anecdote reveals that racist incidents of stereotyping and condescension persist for members of marginalized communities at the highest levels of professional experience. Her experience is no exception, and processing microaggressions was a recurring theme through my conversations.

The first time I met Teresa Lara-Jaime, she advised me to avoid cluttering my lab workbench by cleaning vials as I worked. Soon after, we started speaking in Spanish and continued to do so until the end of the semester. Lara-Jaime is the manager of the undergraduate chemistry laboratories at Yale. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, a public university located in Toluca, Mexico. She worked in Mexico for 11 years for several pharmaceutical companies before moving to the United States for better job opportunities. Here, Lara-Jaime worked with Positron Emission Tomography – an imaging technique used to detect early signs of cancer, brain disorders, and other disease – in the Yale School of Medicine before finding her “dream job” as manager of the undergraduate chemical laboratories, where she connects with passionate students in STEM and works hard to make each lab session rewarding for students. 

While incidents of microaggressions towards Latinx professionals from ignorant members of more dominant cultural groups may come as no surprise, Lara-Jaime reminded me that fellow members of the Latinx community also question the success and qualifications of Latinx individuals in fields in which they are typically underrepresented. One student in Lara-Jaime’s advanced organic chemistry lab reacted with disbelief when he first met her in the lab. After asking if she was Latinx and spoke Spanish, he said, “‘Oh, my gosh, how did you get this job?’” Lara-Jaime said. “He was surprised that a Mexican can have that kind of job.” Lara-Jaime did not know how to answer. “I understand that some people, not only Mexicans but also some Latinos, their self confidence is low,” she said. “We have to be a model for all those students… because otherwise all the time they’ll think that other people are smarter, which is not true.”

Although I never expressed this to her last year, I understood what her student might have meant when they asked that question. To my understanding, the question was not like that of Vázquez’s patient’s father, who made Dr. Vázquez feel undeserving and unqualified. The tone of admiration with which Lara-Jaime delivered, “Oh my gosh, how did you get this job?” conveyed to me that her student’s question was one built on overwhelming awe and perhaps the internalization of lowered expectations for Latinx professionals. Like me, the student asking the question might have sought to understand Lara-Jaime’s success and the mettle that allowed her to break into a historically white-dominanted, esoteric field.

There is no shortage of explanations as to why Latinx professionals are often met with questions. The disbelief that Latinx academics encounter might not only stem from a lack of visible representation of Latinx faculty, but also from an understanding of excellent scholarship that excludes work produced in Latin America.

Moira Fradinger, an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature in Yale College who researches Latin American film and literature, has lived in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Her academic focus lies in Latin American film and literature, and she is teaching “Radical Cinemas of Latin America” this fall. 

In our conversation, Fradinger spoke about expanding the boundaries for “the production of knowledge.” In America –– and in Yale, particularly manifested in the Directed Studies program –– there exists a widely-recognized “Western canon” of literature. Fradinger insists that the production of excellent knowledge is not unique to the Global North, despite preconceived notions. Drawing from the Brazilian novelist Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “The Cannibalist Manifesto,” Fradinger explained how Latin American authors have long since challenged colonial discourse by making colonial ideas their own. She discussed the “digestion” of the Edgar Allan Poe and Sherlock Holmes tradition by Brazilian authors, noting that they absorbed these ideas, removed what clashed with their culture and traditions, and preserved what nourished styles of writing therein.

Despite this Latin American reckoning and demarcation, Fradinger notes that for many, the highest intellectual achievements remain within the Global North. She shared that, despite the work and intentions of her course, at the end of the seminar, one student approached her and said, “Thank you very much for introducing me to Jorge Luis Borges. He’s not Milton, but he’s good.”

Such instances informed Fradinger’s choice to specialize in Latin America; she found that few students had engaged with Latin American writers writing about Latin America. At Yale, the research and interests pursued by faculty members in turn affect student interest and available opportunities available to them

Raw materials are not what makes the Global South worth knowing, Fradinger reminds us. “The production of knowledge is not a property of the North. The production of knowledge is universal. It’s also a property of the South, the South has its own knowledge… Right now there’s a huge indigenous movement that defends the discourse of el buen vivir, the good living, that is coming from the area of Ecuador and Peru… that indigenous movement has a lot to teach us, a lot of knowledge to be transmitted.”

From left to right: Teresa Lara-Jaime; Moira Fradinger; Marietta Vázquez

****

Many institutional obstacles hinder the advancement of Latinx academics, including shortage of funding and a lack of established Latinx faculty to provide support and encouragement. Systemic factors such as media coverage and enduring conceptions of “canons” also stifle Latinx intellectual excellence at the highest levels. However, the question of chipping away at these injustices remains unresolved.

Yale has undertaken several strong initiatives to promote diversity in its faculty and staff. In 2015, the Office of the Provost implemented a $50 million initiative that supports the “appointments that enrich the excellence and diversity of Yale’s ladder faculty.” Departments such as Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry have started to use a hiring process that removes researchers’ names and the journals in which they published, in one instance bringing up the percentage of women candidates from 33% to 45% after the results of the first-round.

There are many factors contributing to the slow rate at which faculty composition approaches the same distribution as the student body. One reason might be the “pipeline problem,” which attributes a shortage of Latinx professors to their concerns about financial security, the intellectual diversity of institutions, and support in navigating the tenureship process. However, the nature of faculty retention also plays a role in delaying representational progress. Whereas each year a quarter of the Yale undergraduate population is replaced, only 4% of faculty members are replaced each year. Furthermore, because faculty are never forced to retire, older professors are usually white men.

I came into these interviews with this pessimism, and I expected to hear the faculty complain of a lack of representation and institutional support. I was met with unwavering optimism. Clearly, the people I interviewed are much stronger than me. I can only hope to one day approach their ability to persevere and to smile through struggles.

Dr. Vázquez refuses to compromise her identity as a Latina. She demonstrates this commitment in varied ways. Vázquez noted how when she first came to Yale for her residency, she tried to “talk like the people at Yale spoke, and to be interested in what they were interested in… to talk the science and the papers and the grants.” 

Today, Vázquez has tailored her work to the community she loves. When asked about her current responsibilities, she proudly said, “I’m an activist!” 

Vázquez founded the Yale Children’s Hispanic Clinic in 2013 and has played an integral role in its development ever since. “[It’s] the thing that I’m the most proud of,” Vázquez said. “Through that clinic, I learned so much about the community in a different way, learned about what it was like for them.” Currently, over 95% of Vázquez’s patients are undocumented immigrants.

Her Latina pride manifests itself in her day-to-day approach as well. “I’m a Latina who conducts research, writes grants, but I’m that one who speaks Spanish, who is loud, who cares about how I dress and how my hair looks and how I put on makeup,” Vázquez explained. “I’m not gonna hide that. And I’m not going to hide the fact that I like to play music in clinic, and we bring food to clinic because that’s important to us. It’s important to me.”

Professor Fradinger is continuing her work in highlighting underrepresented voices and intellectual histories. Her latest project, with the working title “Antigonas: A Latin American Tradition,” actively works to redefine the “canon” by looking at versions of Antigone from Argentina, Haiti, Brasil, Perú, Mexico, Uruguay, Columbia, and Chile, and comparing them to one another as opposed to the more common comparisons to ancient or modern European versions.

Teresa Lara-Jaime, in addition to mentoring the organic chemists of tomorrow, has started taking classes focusing on managerial processes. She noted how she strives for perfection, even if it means putting in more work than the next person. “I’m struggling a lot with my accent, but I am trying to surpass that challenge with work… I don’t have to say many words when my work represents who I am.”

As she lamented the injustice Latinx students and faculty feel in having to work twice as hard to prove that they belong, I felt my usual pessimism sink back in. But, like Vázquez and Fradinger, Lara-Jaime would always end with a rally of optimism. These faculty members at once validated my feelings of insecurity as something not unique to me; they made clear that these struggles cannot be undone quickly, if ever.

“It’s a lot of challenges… but in the end, I’m very proud to be Mexican. I always joke that Mexican is like ‘Mex – I – Can,’ and I like that. I’m very proud to be a Latina.”

The simple act of hearing these faculty and staff members’ stories and celebrating their successes revitalized me and inspired me. It reminded me of the power of a community that transcends generations, countries, and topics of study. 

I won’t get weeded out again.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *