The future is uncertain for many Latinxs. Anti-Latinx violence, both interpersonal and systemic, is escalating across the country. For example, the Biden administration has increased deportation and prosecution of migrants and seeks to deter migration. The COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects Latinxs, rages on in the United States and around the world, and gun violence continues to affect our communities as we grieve the recent losses at Uvalde. Zooming in a bit from the bleak global and national contexts, there is also uncertainty in academia, and Latinx anthropology in particular. Some scholars and activists have questioned the role and responsibility of anthropologists given the incredibly high levels of suffering happening around us―much of it preventable. Some have critiqued the anthropological enterprise and the academic industrial complex more broadly. Meanwhile, many of us―especially women, nonbinary, trans, queer, disabled, Black, and Indigenous Latinxs―continue to experience racism, sexism, cisgenderism, and ableism in our departments, schools, and universities. What does this mean for Latinx anthropologists? How do we understand our present moment? How can we imagine, move, and work toward a different future?
To begin to answer these questions and gain some perspective, we (Andrea Bolivar and Julie Torres) turned to the Association of Latina/o and Latinx Anthropologists’ (ALLA) past. We interviewed some of ALLA’s founders and first presidents about the birth of the association. We hope that this serves as the beginning of a larger project that uncovers, celebrates, preserves, and at times questions ALLA’s genealogy and the wisdom of our elders and ancestors.
ALLA officially formed during the 1988 American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. Founding members included Thomas Weaver (University of Arizona) as chair, and Olivia Arrieta (University of Arizona), Steve Arvisu (University of California-Bakersfield), and Paule Cruz Takash (University of California, Berkeley). A Nominations and Membership Committee was appointed and included Carlos Vélez-Ibañez (University of Arizona) as chair, John Aguilar (Arizona State University), Diego Vigil (University of Wisconsin), Sylvia Rodriquez (University of New Mexico), Alicia Chavira (University of Califiornia, Los Angeles), and Xavier Totti (City University of New York). The purpose of the association was to “provide mutual support in matters pertaining to professional development, affirmative action, sponsoring sessions at national meetings, and cooperation in research and publication.” We spoke with Diego Vigil, Carlos Vélez-Ibañez, and Roberto Alvarez to learn more about ALLA’s early history. Each was not only instrumental in the association’s early years but would go on to become president of ALLA. We also spoke with Pat Zavella (University of California, Santa Cruz), who was involved in the association’s founding as an assistant professor, and who would later become ALLA’s first woman president.
But first, to understand ALLA’s origins, we must recognize the sociohistorical context that preceded its emergence. Notably, the Chicano Movement or El Movimiento of the 1960s and 1970s was a key moment in the history of Latinx political activism and the development of a shared ethnic consciousness. Protest was central to the movement, which was comprised of several issues, including the restoration of lands, farmworkers rights, and education reform. Several of ALLA’s founders, including Vigil, Vélez-Ibañez, Alvarez, and Zavella had participated in these movements and were deeply involved in the struggle to affect change in their own communities. They shared that ALLA, too, crystalized around protest―of racism within anthropology, the delegitimization of the work of Latinx scholars, and the whiteness of academic spaces. For instance, Alvarez recalled an early experience at a job interview when a faculty member asked him what he could add to the department given that they “already have one Chicano.” Some faced obstacles publishing and felt excluded from professional opportunities to present their work, while others were questioned about the seriousness of their scholarship. Vigil described early difficulties that he and others encountered in getting their conference papers accepted by AAA in the years before ALLA’s existence. And engrained in Vélez-Ibañez’s memory was a line from his fourth-year review report, which stated: “We’re not certain as to whether Dr. Vélez is more invested in his community or in anthropology.” At a time when reflexivity and the concepts of native anthropology and insider/outsider status were coming into sharper focus, ALLA helped to demonstrate that the two―community and anthropology―were not mutually exclusive. As Zavella explained, they drew on the concern with activist scholarship foundational to the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. ALLA played a significant role in facilitating such discussions, which have contributed to more diverse Annual Meeting themes, such “Borders and Crossings” in 2012.
But while ALLA’s board and members worked hard to bring forth panels that critically reflected the dynamics of power both inside and outside the discipline, they sometimes faced institutional challenges. For instance, in 1995, members of ALLA organized a AAA-sponsored session for the Annual Meeting titled, “Race, Cultural Pluralism, and the Anthropological Promise.” The session brought together prominent anthropologists of color, including Roberto Alvarez, George Bond, Leo Chavez, Steven Gregory, Faye Harrison, Bea Medicine, Sylvia Rodriguez, Renato Rosaldo, Roger Sanjek, and Pat Zavella. According to Alvarez, there was a scheduling conflict with panelist Bea Medicine, which forced her to have to choose between two panels. When she withdrew from both, the other panelists unanimously decided to cancel the ALLA session. Faye Harrison, who writes about this event in Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age, argues that the incident was about more than a scheduling error on the program; it was about “not only having to negotiate a climate of hostility or ambivalence but also having to struggle to break out of the limits imposed by alterity and nativization.”
These struggles, as well as the coraje they inspired, were central to ALLA’s inception. Coraje, a Spanish word that translates to anger or courage, captures both the anger over what Alvarez described as the “inequality of and the profiling of who we were, what we could, or what we couldn’t do,” and the “fearlessness,” as Vélez-Ibañez put it, that mobilized members to work to make a change within anthropology and beyond. ALLA not only provided a space for Latinx scholars at different stages of their careers to gather with “like minded folks,” as Zavella explained, and escape the “shock and […] adjustment” of being a person color at the AAA Annual Meetings, but also a space of empowerment to produce counternarratives to traditional anthropological representations of their communities. “ALLA has been at the forefront of reminding people that we’re here and that we have a message beyond anthropology,” Vélez-Ibañez affirms, “in delivering the narratives that we know to be true.”
While protest was an important part of ALLA’s roots, so was partying, and perhaps the two were interrelated. Vélez-Ibañez and Vigil fondly recalled a huge pachanga that ALLA hosted during an Annual Meeting in the association’s early years. It took place in the same hotel as the conference, and almost 200 people attended in a single hotel room. It had been organized to recognize Eric R. Wolf with what was then named an “Azteca Award.” ALLA members and allies played the bongos, made music, and danced late into the night until the police showed up and shut it down. Parties like that were not rare in the early days. Both Vélez-Ibañez and Zavella affectionately called Vigil the “pachanga president,” and Vigil proudly confessed to the nickname. Legend has it that Zavella once organized an unforgettable party bus tour of San Francisco’s salsa clubs via The Mexican Bus. Zavella was also instrumental in starting the joint reception between ABA, AFA, AQA, SANA, SAW, SLACA, and SUNTA. The joint reception continues to be a cherished event at the AAA Annual Meeting. Such social events provided essential nourishment for ALLA’s early members who were otherwise isolated at their home institutions. Even today, social support and camaraderie is a huge draw for members who still experience discrimination and marginalization in anthropology, academia, and their larger lives.
As we neared the end of our interviews, we asked our senior colleagues to reflect on ALLA’s influence on the larger field of anthropology. Alvarez shared that ALLA greatly contributed to the discipline by offering some of the first examples of insider-outsider anthropology and engaged anthropology. Zavella was in agreement that since its inception ALLA has been asking questions that are considered cutting-edge now, such as questions about “positionality, community work, intersectionality, activist anthropology, border crossings.” Vélez-Ibañez quickly responded with “our fearlessness.” ALLA was “the glue” that brought everyone together and allowed them to be fearless. As he puts it, “ALLA has been at the forefront of reminding people that we’re here and that we have a message beyond anthropology. We deliver the narratives that we know to be true. ALLA provides a kind of fearlessness, the group comes together and says, ‘tu sabes que, este no sirve, you know what, chale with that, here’s a different way of looking at it.’” He mentioned the works of Chavez and Zavella as examples of fearlessness because it “corrects” popular but harmful narratives about Latinxs and had never been done before. “It didn’t exist!,” he exclaimed. Vélez-Ibañez ended our interview with: “There’s a purpose beyond ethnography. Correct the narrative. Whether it’s the impact of COVID, the disintegrating of public schools, our motivations, all of us have been involved in one form or another, to create a different narrative.”
May we continue to band together, find a purpose beyond anthropology, and fearlessly create different narratives.