Spring 2017

Cesar Chavez poster

An Autoethnography on Latinx Studies Pedagogy and Mentorship

by Hannah Noel, Ph.D.

On July 29, 2014 Butler County, Ohio, Sheriff Richard K. Jones sent a letter to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade Kuribrena. This letter reads like an invoice demanding $900,000 from the Mexican government for “dealing with your criminals.” Sheriff Jones wrote a similar letter in 2010, has made trips to the U.S.-Mexican Border, and has appeared on conservative news outlets, such as Fox News, as a hardliner on immigration in America’s heartland. In July 27, 2010 while being interviewed by Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, Sheriff Jones told Van Susteren that he was able to deport undocumented people at a rate of “roughly 30 a week from all over the world.” He also tells Van Susteren “our population in our county is 350,000.”1 Under the leadership of Sheriff Jones, rural Butler County is also a participating in a Memoranda (286 g) Agreement where an Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) officer serves as a law enforcement officer in a local police force. Butler County is also a Secure Community where local police and sheriff’s offices share biometric data with ICE.

After earning my Ph.D. in the summer of 2014, I moved to Butler County as a contingent faculty member to teach the Latinx studies courses in a Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies Program at a public university. My first teaching job with Ph.D. in hand, I became invested in working though some key pedagogical and ethical questions at the intersection of local politics, the classroom, and developing a responsible community-based pedagogy for my Latinx studies courses. In my three years at this institution, I took advantage of every available opportunity to develop my teaching skills.2 These experiences afforded me the opportunity to make connections with students, scholars, and social activists who changed the way that I approach teaching and mentoring my students.

This autoethnography is an informal rumination on one such experience: my mentee and student Esther, a Ph.D. candidate in Education, Culture and Curriculum. Throughout our careers we are sometimes privileged to meet people who change our outlook on life and enrich our lives—Esther is one such person. When I was at my previous institution, I was the only faculty who was an expert in Latinx studies.3 I should note that my previous program did not offer graduate level courses; but, I was fortunate to have a supervisor who allowed me to conduct independent studies with Esther—an extraordinary student with multiple undergraduate degrees and a Master of Science degree. Through secondary sources in the fields of education and Latinx studies, in this autoethnography I explore what developed into a relationship between mentorship and friendship, active and engaged learning, and a “pedagogy of acompañamiento,” or a pedagogy of accompaniment. Esther introduced me to the pedagogy of acompañamiento and Enrique Sepúlveda III’s (2011) work on the topic. Sepúlveda developed this pedagogy while working with mostly undocumented Mexican youth. This pedagogy of acompañamiento “merged critical literacy, poetry, and storytelling into a relational “pedagogy of the borderlands” through which the students could speak back to society and the educational intuitions around them” where “educators of transmigrant students find their own was to acompañar [to accompany] students through the liminal spaces of schooling” (2011, 550).

A Brief History of Latinx Studies

Esther and I meet at a department meeting and, after an email follow-up to a conversation about Latinx studies, we decided to reunite over coffee to discuss her goals in the Ph.D. program. Although familiar with Latin American studies, Esther was not at all familiar with Latinx studies. Latin American studies and Latinx studies have sometimes overlapping, yet distinct, cannons. Esther took a class with me on Central American children in the United States.. This coursework focused on reading 1-2 books a week on Central American immigration and/or Central American communities in the United States; writing and submitting a book review to a peer-reviewed journal; and on developing a community-engaged high-impact event in coalition with the Center for American and World Cultures on campus. My mentorship of and independent study with Esther is a good example of how Latin American Studies and Latinx studies often overlap on issues of migration and transnational communities. The community engagement component of this independent study was deliberate and significant. Through ethnographic research and surveys of immigration courses taught at colleges and universities, Margaret M. Commins (2013) finds that courses on U.S. immigration are most effective at inspiring student learning when they engage with interdisciplinary experiential learning. Esther’s work in planning Latinx themed events, participating in (and winning) a related art contest, and her presentation of a cumulative project during a campus-wide academic forum all contributed to her community-based interdisciplinary experiential learning.

As films like Precious Knowledge (2011) directed by Ari Luis Palos demonstrate, there are pushes throughout the United States to limit the teaching of ethnic studies curriculum as some purport that it teachings cultural separatism and challenges national cohesion. These fields, however, are not new. Latinx studies has its institutionalized academic origins in the Puerto Rican and Chicano Studies programs and movements of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Frances R. Aparicio (2003) notes that in the Midwest context, Latinx studies programs have always been more “Pan-Latino,” a gesture that is representative of the comparatively more diverse demographic histories of the region (6). In 1997, Juan Flores wrote about the present and futures of such programs, as well as the evolving discipline of Latinx studies. At the time of Flores’ writing, students at elite colleges, such as Columbia University and Williams College, were mobilizing to have a space and a place for Latinx studies in their institutions at the same time that budget crises and the consolidation of resources were causing the restructuring and downsizing of similar departments and programs at public universities. Flores writes that, especially given attacks on affirmative action: “Latino Studies needs to be understood as a social movement, as an extension within the academy of the movements against racism and on the behalf of immigrant rights afoot in the wider society” (Flores 2007, 2010).

Although I will leave my commentary on current events at a minimum, I would like to extend Flores’s arguments about the important of Latinx studies as a social movement to the contemporary era where anti-immigrant sentiment has reached a renewed zeal. This modern era must be understood as taking place in a nation where “governing immigration through crime,” or in a time when the crimination of heretofore non-felony acts for immigrants—like minor traffic violations—as felonies to hasten and justify deportation, is the norm (Inda and Dowling, 2013).4 This dynamic of criminalizing the very existence of undocumented people is embodied in legislation, such as the Sensenbrenner Bill, against which Latinxs throughout the nation mobilized against, in what Inda and Dowling (2013) term “migrant counter conducts,” during the May 2006 immigration protests (Aparicio 2010; Dewitt. et al. 2014). Moreover, as Nicholas De Genova (2004) contends, discourses of “illegality”—a racial epithet that the AP no longer endorses—in the U.S. context function as code words for “Mexicanness” or “Latinxness” regardless of U.S. citizenship status. De Genova also warns us that this dynamic helps to script the U.S./Mexico border zone as a “theatre of an enforcement “crisis”” (De Genova 2004, 171).

Indeed, Flores asserts that la frontera/ the border is the founding metaphor for Latinx studies (1997, 215). When writing about the criminalization of migrants in the United States, Inda and Dowling (2013) take up this metaphor in their assertion that post-9/11 the border functions as a type of “mobile technology” exercised in part through the national and trans-spatial context of federal, state and local immigration control measures, such as Memoranda Agreements (also known as 287(g) programs) and Secure Communities. As alluded to earlier, Memoranda Agreements are when members of a local police force are trained by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and function as immigration officers. 287(g) programs were first written into law in 1996, but were not enforced till after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Secure Communities refers to a system where communities elect to share biometric data (fingerprints) of migrants with ICE.

The words of Mexican/ Chicano/ Transnational performance artist and cultural critic Guillermo Gómez Peña (1996) ring true here when he writes “I carry the border with me, and I find new borders wherever I go” (5). In other words, Inda and Dowling (2013) assert that in the post-9/11 United States the border has become a “deterritorialized” space enforced by increased security and immigration control present at national boundaries, and in the U.S. interior (Inda and Dowling 2013, 10). Put differently, the border zone is the Midwest. The border zone is the Northeast. In the U.S. context, the border is interpellated as an illegal space inhabited by Mexicans, which is then de-territorialized in the regime of governing immigration through the criminalization of the undocumented. Composing 60% of the US Latin/x population and about 73% of those who are deported, “Mexican” is also interpellated as a stand-in for “Latinx” (Pew Hispanic Center).

When I meet with Esther, she had taught Latin American Studies classes, but did not yet have the opportunity to study Latinx studies. During our first meeting at a coffee shop, our discussion of the difference between the two fields of study began our academic relationship and the early beginnings of our friendship. At MCLA there is an initiative driven by Dr. Mariana Bolivar to build a Latinx and Latin American studies minor that I strongly support. Mariana’s minor has been mindfully conceived and institutionally integrates the two overlapping—yet distinct—fields into one potential minor with two tracks, one concentrating in Latin American studies and another in Latinx studies. Twenty years ago when Latin/x studies programs were new to many college campuses, Pedro Cabán (1998) put forth the argument that Latin American and Latinx Studies programs have fundamentally different institutional origins and concerns. Indeed, the Latino Studies Association did begin at a conference panel discussion at the Latin American Studies Association in San Francisco, because, in part, Latinx scholars did not find an intellectual home at the conference. I was fortunate to attend this meeting after being awarded a travel grant from LASA as a graduate student to present a paper in Latinx studies. Cabán notes that, in its origins, “Latin American Studies was a top-down enterprise promoted by government agencies, university administrations and large foundations,” whereas ethnic studies programs like Latinx studies originated during Civil Rights struggles and study dynamics of internal, external, and settler colonialism (Cabán 1998, 202). Latinx studies, in turn, often—but does not always—prioritize community accountability. Although one can critique the placement of Latinx studies in a Latin American Studies program as an “othering” gesture by the relegating of U.S. ethnic studies into an extra-national or regional context rather than acknowledging Latinxs as part of American studies, such a critique is complicated by the realities of transnationalism, globalization, and free-trade agreements. Similarly, Cabán notes the complexities of also including ethnic studies in American studies curriculum. Movements to create programs, like Mariana’s here at MCLA, is particularly important given Frances R. Aparicio’s critiques the use of key Latinx texts in syllabi as “the mascots of multiculturalism” (2003, 7); having minors and majors that make ethnic studies pedagogies, methodologies, and scholarly texts central to, and not peripheral to, the academic cannon can help to work against such tokenism.

Today, the presence of Latinx studies courses as parts of larger academic departments and programs at universities still upholds a framework of multiculturalism, but also requires instructors to be experts in the field. There are also fruitful connections that can be drawn between Latin American Studies and Latinx studies; given our limited course offerings at MCLA the opportunity to have a minor in a field would make our students more educated about the nuances of the fields, and more educated about contemporary political issues like immigration, working conditions, and the significant impact of Latinxs on U.S. media.

A Mobius Relationship Between Mentor, Colleague, and Friend

As a part of this ongoing academic collaboration and friendship, after our independent study, I applied for a grant to work with Esther and another student on a Latinx studies writing and reading summer project. Such projects are important as qualitative studies have shown that the intensive and directed mentorship of Latinxs, a population that lags behind all other racial and ethnic groups in terms of educational attainment and wages, significantly increases success in careers and educational endeavors, as well as helps to sustain the psychological well-being for the student throughout their studies (Valentin et. al. 2016). More generally, a two decade-long study of mentor and protégé relationships found that engaged protégé’s experienced “increased academic and professional satisfaction and success” as a result of the mentorship relationship (Huwe and Johnson 2003, 42). Research asserts that mentorship entails advising, nurturing, and coaching students (Valentin et al 2016, 35), and is particularly useful to students when the approach is catered to promote the individual growth of the mentee (Zalaquett and Lopez 2006, 342). This individualized focus to mentorship is key and is a hallmark of our mentoring relationship. Since I have left the Midwest, we collaborated on a panel for the American Studies Association and both presented this summer at the biannual Latina/o Studies Association conference. Research indicates that such ongoing mentorship—that I would suggest morphs into friendship and relationships of mutual learning—is most successful with protégés demonstrated good work is reciprocated with more mentorship (Huwe and Johnson, 2003, 47).

Some scholarship contends that there are three distinct types of mentors: formal mentors (provided by an institution), informal mentors (provided without institutional support, like a priest), and family mentors (Valentin et. al. 2016, 28). Although we meet in at a public university where I was a faculty and Esther a student, our mentoring relationship is now more informal and includes discusses of career/live advice and, most of all, academic support and friendship. Other scholars have intervened in this literature arguing that successful mentorship often contains an element of friendship and individual-focused mentorship that could disrupt the borders between teacher and student. For example, Sassi and Thomas (2012) discuss a methodological approach to mentorship as a “mobius of friendship and mentorship” that garners success through a nurtured relationship between mentor and protégé (830); our relationship of mutual mentorship has allowed for this interlocking mentorship and friendship. As an individual on a student visa in the United States and a resident of Honduras, Esther has taught me a personalized history of immigration policies and neocolonialism that I could not learn in a book. Her current research and volunteer work with Central American youth in Ohio leaves me speechless, proud, and honored to know someone who works so diligently to put theory to practice.

Educational studies suggest that there are two types of interrelated mentorship: career support and psychosocial support (Kram, 1988). Career support provides advice specific to the field of study, and psychosocial support includes “encouragement, listening, and friendliness of a mentor” (Gonzalez-Figueroa and Young, 2005, 215); Sassi and Thomas (2012) would liken the later to “friendship.” As Esther applies for jobs we discuss various options, but often I find that I can only listen or direct her to others who can better address her questions regarding, for instance, residency, citizenship, and fellowship applications. I liken this to what Esther taught me as “pedagogy of acompañamiento”; a pedagogy of listening, witnessing, and searching for alternative spaces of belonging.

Looking back on our mentor-protégé relationship, Esther is also a teacher and mentor to her students, as well as myself. Our conversations about pedagogy, teaching, and scholarship are enriching and generative. Coming back to my original point of concern—teaching ethnic studies in Butler county with a sense of community accountability and care—I believe that the mentee, in this case, surpassed the teacher. Esther’s current work working with Central American youth using ar(t)ography—an arts-based method/methodology where the participants move from the intersecting identities of artist, researcher, and teacher—more directly engages with the Latinx community of the region than my terminal large-scale events (that catered to a largely white upper-middle class demographic) ever did. My current research focus on white ethno-racial formation and white racial rhetoric, in retrospect, is not surprising given the types of activities that I helped to organize while employed in the Midwest.

I had originally proposed to the Guest Editor of the Mind’s Eye, Dr. Rosanne Denard, a co-written essay with Esther for the MCLA faculty magazine’s edition on mentorship. After meeting with Esther this summer and understanding that she is in the last year of her PhD program, working 40-hours a week, and volunteering with the Central American youth she terms “her kids”, I felt it was best that I change focus of my piece to a short reflection on mentorship so that she focus on her many responsibilities.

Biographical Note:

Hannah Noel is Assistant Professor of multi-ethnic studies and the digital humanities at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Her research, publications, and teaching lie at the intersection of Race and Ethnic studies and Media and Cultural studies, with a focus on Latino/a Studies and Whiteness Studies. She is a book review editor at Diálogo, An Interdisciplinary Studies Journal. Noel‘s has published pieces in Diálogo, The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Media, and her most recent article “Deflective Whiteness: White Rhetoric and Racial Fabrication” was published in fall 2018 in Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies. Her book project that expands on this article, Deflective Whiteness: White Identity Politics in a Post-Race Era, is under contract with The Ohio State University Press.


1 Although this original version is no longer viewable, this similar interview from 3 days later is still live: https://video.foxnews.com/v/3705374363001/?#sp=show-clips.

2 I volunteered to teach community engaged learning courses; I took an elective teaching enhancement semester long course; I applied for and was awarded a grant to help non-traditional students with their writing; I helped to organize a Uni-Diveristy Latin/x cultural festival; spoke about immigration at community events; organized immigration forums on campus and in the community with well over 100 attendees; organized and brought four guest speakers to campus; and I organized the academic forum component of a yearly multi-day Cesar Chavez celebration.

3 As a hire in multi-ethnic studies and the digital humanities at MCLA, I’m attempting to develop similar courses here and I’ve already taught my Media and Immigration course, that I developed while teaching in the Midwest, in Spring 2018. I plan to teach Introduction Latinx Studies as a Core Human Heritage course in Spring 2019; MCLA already offers other comparative American ethnic studies courses.

4 For information on the latest figures, please see the TRAC Immigration website at Syracuse University (http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/).


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