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Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez uses research to create a transborder narrative

Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, AAAS fellow, shows off some ceremonial masks from Mexico on the wall of his office at Arizona State University. (Photo: Lara Herrington Watson)

Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez was born in Nogales, an Arizona border town, with his head facing north and his feet pointing south. Outside the hospital window, his basinet looked over the fence separating Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Sonora, Mex. The fluidity of the border was part of his childhood: He lived in Tucson but visited cousins and went to summer school in Magdalena, Mex.

While actual border crossings have become more difficult and dangerous since then, he says the border will continue to be a vital part of U.S.-Mexican relations.

Last year, Vélez-Ibáñez, a regents professor and anthropologist, created a graduate program that is unique in academia, Arizona State University's School of Transborder Studies. Largely formed from the Chicano/a Studies Department, its multiple disciplines, which include topics from migration and health to language and learning, are studied through the discipline of anthropology.

Vélez-Ibáñez wants to articulate a more realistic narrative of the border between Mexico and the U.S., to foster understanding among the cultural groups in the transborder region—which encompasses five southwestern U.S. states and the six northern Mexican states. Transborder cultures, he says, share a common ecology and tackle tough border issues. 

"We talk about the border itself as if it was a permanent fixture created by God, but the way we see it can change. It doesn't have to be a road block," he says.

Vélez-Ibáñez wants to promote a better understanding of differing cultural views and values created in this region by Spanish-Mexican and English-American colonization. This, he hopes, will lead to the development of fairer labor, economic, and migration policies that benefit both Mexico and the United States.

One of his main research areas is the pre-Colonial and Colonial history of the border region, which includes the American Southwest and the Mexican Northwest. Archaeological and linguistic data show that trade has been constant between the regions, he says, illustrating how much the ecology, economy, and people of the region have been historically connected.

Vélez-Ibáñez says it's important for American policymakers, and the general public, to recognize that "Mexican migration is not like the East Coast prism, Ellis Island-model of assimilation, of 'I passed a landmark, now I am a Mexican-American and I will speak only English.' " Because Mexicans have continuously migrated north and south (depending on regional economic developments) since before the current border existed, they see la frontera as just another frontier, something to cross when needed, but not permanently, he says.

Vélez-Ibáñez, who speaks flawless English and Spanish, is also keenly interested in linguistic studies. As a child, he endured spankings at his Tucson school for each word of Spanish he spoke. Still, he worked hard to master both languages, attending school in Mexico each summer to learn fluent Spanish.

Vélez-Ibáñez looks at his language experience somewhat philosophically, through the lens of Colonial history. Although saddened by school efforts to ban him from expressing himself in Spanish, he also is fascinated by language hegemony, or how language passes from one group to another, usually through cultural imperialism.

"The English-only thing is so interesting, because that's what happens when two empires bump into each other. Spanish was once a language of empire, too. I'm looking at how [language hegemony] redefines the present populations, and how it changes the narratives of each culture's own existence."

In light of recent research about the positive effects of bilingualism on early literacy and lifelong brain function, Vélez-Ibáñez hopes Latino immigrants won't be so hasty to throw away their language. "All children should be given the opportunity to be bi-, tri-, or multilingual. Any language ability is cultural capital, and whatever cultural capital a child brings to school with him, that's what should be developed," he says.

He's also researching literacy in Southwest North America, including the United States and Mexico during the 18th century and early 19th century, to examine the large disparity in literacy rates between the two regions. New England, for instance, boasted a 70 to 80 percent literacy rate, compared with rates of 20 to 30 percent in the Southwest.

Earlier scholars blamed this disparity on cultural differences, citing a Mexican cultural disinterest in literacy. Vélez-Ibáñez makes an important distinction: "There is a very simple reason for this. There were no printing presses in the region until 1837. The fact is, there was no opportunity to read something that wasn't ecclesiastical or that was not a government report," he notes.

He hopes this insight into history will change the narrative and dispel negative stereotypes about Mexicans.  

He is also wants to change public perception about minorities by researching the impact of Ford Fellowships on the American economy. He plans to gather data on how they have influenced individuals, and how those individuals have impacted academia and the economy, with a special focus on minorities. He will utilize major databases, send questionnaires to awardees, and review their curricula vitae to gather data about their contributions and achievements. 

"It's a labor of love, although it might seem mundane," he laughs.  "I was awarded a Ford Fellowship, and I could not have done school without the money."

Representative Image Caption
Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, AAAS fellow, shows off some ceremonial masks from Mexico on the wall of his office at Arizona State University. (Photo: Lara Herrington Watson)
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