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Faculty Spotlight: Norma Fuentes-Mayorga

Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Faculty Spotlight: Norma Fuentes-Mayorga

Sociologist and immigration expert Norma Fuentes-Mayorga joined the faculty of the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership in 2014. This year, she was appointed director of our Latin American and Latino Studies program (LALS). 

Fuentes-Mayorga, whose work has been internationally recognized, has research interests in the areas of international migration, gender, race and class, Latino studies, education, urban issues, and mental health. She came to the Colin Powell School from the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton University, where she was a visiting scholar. Her work there, supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, focused on immigrant women’s integration and social and educational mobility. Previously, Fuentes-Mayorga served as an assistant professor at Fordham University and headed a research unit on Migration, Gender and Development. In conjunction with Fordham’s Center for International Policy Studies, she also collaborated on several policy-oriented studies, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Welfare and Immigration Reform Study in New York City and Los Angeles.  
Born in a small town in the Dominican Republic, Fuentes-Mayorga came to the United States as a "DREAMer" and earned both her B.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University. This fall she will be teaching one of the sessions in the Dean's Seminar on Immigration in American Life, titled “From Second Sex to Model Minorities: The Daughters of Immigrants in New York City & Amsterdam.” 

Can you talk about your forthcoming book, When Women Come First: Immigration, Gender, Race, and Boundary Crossing

When Women Come First: Immigration, Gender, Race and Boundary Crossing seeks to document the immigration and hardship experience by brown and black Latin American women workers in today’s low-paid, low-end service economy, and the role that race and gender play in the sorting of men and women but also black and brown migrants in service jobs. I find that race, gender, and immigrant status play a key role in the integration—but also exclusion—of non-white Latinos in certain service-sector jobs. These variables affect the job functions assigned to immigrants given the higher likelihood of social interaction required between workers, employers, and the clienteles they serve. I hope my work will influence future research work on how the transformation of our economy is also transforming the way we measure and understand racial discrimination in the workplace, especially among mixed race groups, and the distinct ways in which men and women are integrated but also excluded in “behind- and front-stage” service sector jobs; but also the contributions of immigrants to this sector. 

In the first chapter, “When Women Come First,” I focus on solo migrant mothers, comparing the gendered immigration pattern of single mothers from Latin America to the United States. I situate the growing and accelerated immigration of Dominican and Mexican women to New York City within the broader context of Latin American-U.S. economic developments following failed economic integration policies introduced by NAFTA and CAFTA-DR in the 1980s and mid-1990s.

One key finding emerging from this research is that, despite class and racial barriers, in certain service jobs, women experience short-distance mobility in ways not usually open to their male counterparts and which has direct benefit to the education and mobility of their youth.
This analysis is further developed in a second book project (which is still in its preliminary stage) examining how the immigration and work integration s of Dominican and Moroccan mothers in New York City and Amsterdam shapes their daughters’ school aspiration and social mobility. This project builds on relevant  insights drawn from the research and biographical accountings of Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Robert C. Smith, Mary Romero, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 
I believe a comparative study focused on the significance of women's migration is timely—not only because women are the majority of college-educated immigrants around the world; but because Dominican and Mexican women in New York form parts of the two largest and fastest, growing Latin American immigrant groups in New York. 

You are one of the school's experts on immigration. As a professor who has taught at other universities, what does it mean for you to work in a school where so many students are first-generation and New Americans? Do the classroom discussions differ based on students' experiences?  

My teaching philosophy has been shaped by close to 10 years of work educating and mentoring students in New York City, first as a Teaching Assistant at Barnard College, then as a new junior faculty at Fordham University, then as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton and now at City College, as a ‘seasoned’ professor—as I have been lovingly called by my Chair and other colleagues. 
What I find distinctive about my teaching at City College is that I get to mentor students from all other the world. One reason I find teaching here so rewarding is the close integration of my research with the subject areas I teach. Having been a young immigrant myself, the daughter of a garment worker, educating young people about immigration lies very close to the heart. I often joke with my students that for me, teaching classes on immigration and inequality feels as natural as the Cookie Monster teaching a class about baking cookies—although my lessons are about the barriers that keep him from getting a job or outside of the bakery shop! 
My current research on North African and Latin American immigrants in Europe and the United States has enhanced my ability to speak to students about the impact of immigration using a larger or cross-national lens, and also to discuss how schools and integration policies affect the ability of a student to succeed and become part of the host nation, or else be excluded from participation in the larger society. This comparative research has improved my insights about teaching and my appreciation of investments in public schools and teachers. 

How have your own experiences as a New American informed your work? 

Socialized outside of an ‘ethnic’ or Latino enclave or immigrant community, I lacked until almost graduate school both an ethnic or racial consciousness to help interpret and also cope with —exclusion and racism —as my Puerto Rican childhood girlfriend knew very well how to do. 
I share with my students how my interest in the role of race and immigration is born out of my own bicultural and transnational socialization, as an “in-between” member—not belonging fully to my mother’s or my daughters’ immigrant cohort. But, this same ‘in-betweenness,’ I believe, has allowed me to better understand how immigrants and other people develop or internalize interesting and yet complex identities that sometimes fall outside of the black-white racial divide or schema we are taught to internalize the United States. This “in-between” identity allows me to navigate through both the immigrant and “mainstream” communities to interpret and explain social phenomena. And it also allows me to encourage my students to reexamine themselves, to see that having a bicultural or transnational socialization, and being able to speak Spanish and English, or Arabic, or Mandarin, makes us quintessential global citizens! 

Finally, give us a picture of the Latin American and Latino Studies program (LALS). What would you like to accomplish as director of the program?

While being interviewed for the joint position I now hold as a professor in Sociology and our Latin American and Latina/o Studies Program, I was asked how my coming to City College would  contribute to the LALS Program. And I remember doing what I was not supposed to do: talk from the heart. I told them that I wanted to teach at City because it was here that I found emotional refuge while I was a PhD student at Columbia University, down the street from us. It was in the Dominican Studies Institute and among CUNY faculty at Hunter and Baruch where I sought intellectual mentoring. I told them that walking into my job talk that morning, despite my nerves, I was comforted by all the faces that looked so unfamiliar in a familiar place. 
On the eve of my first year at the Colin Powell School, I was invited to serve as LALS’ new director. In this capacity, I feel a greater sense of responsibility than the one that merely with teaching or talking to students about my research interests. I am reminded of the impact that other professors and academic programs have had on my academic training and professionalization. I have many enthusiastic plans for LALS. 
One of these goals is to promote the significance and contributions of Latin American scholars and students within the Colin Powell School. At a time when Latino students compose close to 50 percent of the student body at City College, and when most public schools in our neighborhoods and in most of New York City are minority-majority schools, my appointment is more than timely. One of my imperatives is to help prepare LALS revamp its curriculum to meet the educational and technological skills, as well as foster an intercultural savviness that our global economy now demands, and that the Colin Powell School faculty and administrators want to deliver.