An introduction from blogger Melissa Ruiz '25:
Without a doubt, every student at Princeton will tell you there was one class that completely changed their perspective on a topic, a field of study or even life. Courses like these are available at Princeton, they make you reevaluate what you think you know and even spark curiosity to learn something new. As Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month comes to an end, I’d like to share one of my professors from the Latino Studies program that has challenged me to think critically about the way I view Latinx representation not only in media and literature but also my past education and narratives I’ve consumed. In my sophomore fall semester, I took “Introduction to Latino/a/x Studies” with the amazing Dr. Keishla Rivera-Lopez, a lecturer in the Effron Center for the Study of America. The course explored themes such as identity, culture, belonging and Latinidad. She has taught me countless lessons through her courses and with each one, my intellectual curiosity has grown. I invited Professor Rivera-Lopez to share more about her experience as a Latina professor at Princeton, how she came up with such interesting/engaging courses and what her main goals are in teaching Latino/a/x Studies courses.
My short time at Princeton has been the most impactful and memorable teaching experience for me. It is in these classrooms, through dialogues that I realized my students have a hunger for more, more discussions about the popular culture or media that is supposed to represent us though many times it falls short and disappoints us. Though, sometimes, there are glowing renditions of our culture that give us immense pride. My students want more book and film recommendations that can, hopefully, endeavor to fill the gaps of knowledge they were deprived of in our primary and secondary education systems. They ask if I’ll be teaching more classes to satisfy their intellectual questions, which, in turn, makes me feel very needed and valued at this institution. This idea of more is not a coincidence when it seems like we’re often excluded from the curriculum or in other facets of society, and these moments remind us we’re often offered less. So, it seems my role here has been to provide more to my students, and it reminds me a lot of my experiences as an undergraduate seeking more knowledge and information regarding my homeland and culture to not only be included, but done so in an authentic and positive light. I know what it felt like to not see my history or my communities represented in mandatory literature or history classes throughout my education or that I belonged in those conversations or spaces. I had an immense feeling that learning my history and culture was a personal project, a solo trip I had to take and fulfill for myself. So, I majored in Latino and Caribbean Studies and immersed myself into finding out more.
My students’ introspective natures remind me of myself - this is why I went to graduate school and pursued a career in academia in the first place. As an undergraduate in a “Latino Literature” course, I rediscovered a passion for reading when I was no longer required to reread the same books and narratives that were recycled year after year in my high school education. I was finally not bored in a literature class and felt like I had to make up for years of no exposure. It untapped a desire for more in me - this is why I see myself in my students. This class cultivated a new worldview and way of understanding how and why my family came here - my dad in Brooklyn and my mother in Chicago and later settling in New Jersey within a Puerto Rican and Dominican enclave. I learned these enclaves aren’t a coincidence - they erupt from waves of migrants, like my family, who had to leave their homelands. I reflect on the meaning of education and its accessibility because most of my family hasn’t received a college education. I think about how I represent my own family history in the classroom as a first generation scholar, a Puerto Rican woman from an urban working class city, a Latina in academia and how it has given me a unique approach to teaching. Being a Latina is deeply rooted in my pedagogical approach and scholarship.
And, within the liminality of representation or course offerings, I hope my classroom is a space for interesting and thought-provoking dialogue, one that offers historical context about migration and labor that help my students better understand Latino communities and activism while also providing nuances about culture and identity that help them better define and construct Latinidad for themselves. I hope my classrooms are a safe space to discuss the current happenings within Latino music, aesthetics, literature, and media so my students feel represented in the classroom and can discuss how iterations of the past inform the present. Or, why, for example, we can, and we do, discuss big cultural icons like Bad Bunny, Karol G, Cardi B, JLo, etc. in productive and meaningful ways.
I believe representation weighs heavily in the way a college experience is shaped and felt, so my job here in front of the classroom isn’t miniscule. I want to underscore the reason I have the role to be in front of the classroom in the first place is because of a dedicated and passionate professor, Dr. Yomaira Figueroa-Vasquez, who became my mentor and invested in me while I was an undergrad. Mentorship is critical to the retention and success of working-class, underrepresented, and first-gen students. She also taught me an invaluable lesson outside of the classroom - my history and experiences matter and, I too, belong in institutions, like academia, even though they don’t necessarily always make space for our stories, contributions, or us. Furthermore, I’m proud to be here and be able to do this work. This rhetoric pushed me through many moments of doubt, imposter syndrome, and hardship in graduate school, and now, as I navigate academia.
I am so lucky to be in conversation with and teach students because I learn so much from them. Their kind words and honest feedback make me feel truly valued and appreciated as a Latina at an ivy league institution. Though it is an enormous task, I endeavor to impact my students through in-class instruction, mentorship and dialogue that emulates the way my mentor helped and shaped me. Ultimately, my students inspire and motivate me to keep developing courses and different projects to maintain their engagement and interests. I am thankful for their contributions to class discussions, intentional reading, and their feedback that lets me know what my classes mean to them. I hope I can fulfill their need(s) for more in their quest to obtain and understand Latino Studies discourses of culture, literature, and histories.