Studying Immigration Through Children’s Eyes

Professor Ariana Mangual Figueroa (Credit: The Graduate Center, CUNY / Alex Irklievski)

When Professor Ariana Mangual Figueroa (Urban Education; Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures (LAILAC)) joined the faculty at The Graduate Center this past fall, she returned to the city that first inspired her research. Mangual Figueroa documents the ways in which linguistic and cultural development are shaped by citizenship status and schooling.

Born and raised in New York City, she taught in New York City public schools before completing her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley and joining the faculty of Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. But she says that her ethnographic research started at home, and now has brought her back to New York City and The Graduate Center.

The Graduate Center: What drew you to teaching at The Graduate Center?

Mangual Figueroa: I would say that I’ve been in and around the City University for my entire life. CUNY has been the site of so much organizing and so much scholarship I’ve admired. It’s a place I wanted to be a part of in a more formal way.

GC: Tell us about your position in urban education.

Mangual Figueroa: It was made possible when Ofelia García (Urban Education, LAILAC) retired. That was a tremendous point of honor and excitement to continue such important work that she started. I have a joint appointment, in urban education and LAILAC, and one of the exciting things about this role is that it formalizes an interdisciplinary, cross-program approach that she began as a professor.

Within urban education, my research focuses on citizenship and legality and the ways in which children in urban schools make sense of belonging and how their sense of legality shapes their participation in schools.

These concerns about citizenship status and educational opportunity are matters of social justice, and it’s inspiring to form part of the urban education program where faculty and students share a commitment to social change.

And, in LAILAC, it’s thrilling to be in a place where colleagues and students are working in more than one language, in Spanish or English. I work with families who live in more than one language. So, to teach in an academic space that doesn’t just privilege academic English is really thrilling.

GC: You were also a teacher in New York City public schools. Did that inform the research you wanted to pursue?

Mangual Figueroa: Yes, very much so and, I would say that even more was my prehistory of growing up in New York City as a student and a child in a Puerto Rican household. From a very early age it became clear that my brother and I were attending schools with vastly different resources, even though we were growing up in the same home. I was part of a program called Prep for Prep, a nonprofit that gives kids of color academic preparation to enter private schools. So, we had very different opportunities available to us as a result of attending under-resourced public schools versus elite private schools in the same city.

When I became a public school teacher, I taught ESL and Spanish and saw the ways that children, based on linguistic and cultural difference, were tracked into different programs and experiences in public schools.

It led me to the current work in which we take these social units, like the family, that we tend to think of as fairly homogenous. We tend to say that the family has a home language or has a country of origin, and actually there is all this diversity within that kinship unit that shapes the lives of kids. Growing up in a family that was bilingual, bicultural made me really interested in and attuned to the way people talk. So, I am a linguistic anthropologist of education and study the ways kids and adults talk about these categories in everyday life. What I want to contribute is this idea that children are active agents in making sense of these categories.

Much of the work about immigration has looked at older youth and asked youth to self-report, to answer, ‘What does it mean to be an immigrant?’ or ‘When did you realize that you had papers or didn’t?’ I have found that if you spend time with young children, they’ll show us what they understand even if they can’t furnish a response. They draw family pictures or family trees and they’ll say that this person can travel or this one can’t, or my grandma can’t come. They’re making visible that they know who’s allowed and who isn’t based on these arbitrary distinctions of birthplace and nation state.

GC: Are you researching now in New York City schools?

Mangual Figueroa: I have three related projects going on right now. The first is a book I’m writing for the University of Minnesota Press focusing on my ethnographic engagement with six Latina girls in Brooklyn. I met the girls when they were in fifth grade, and they’re now juniors in high school. They run the gamut from undocumented to U.S.-born and different statuses in between.

I also am a co-principal investigator on a grant funded by the WT Grant Foundation, which seeks to understand how educators’ practices are shifting in response to immigration policy in six school districts across the country.

Most recently, I’ve become a co-principal investigator of the CUNY Initiative on Immigration and Education with colleagues Tatyana Kleyn and Nancy Stern at City College. With funds from the New York State Education Department, we will create resources and conduct research in collaboration with immigrant, refugee, and undocumented students and families in order to support the work of the public school educators who serve them.

GC: You did your graduate work at Berkeley and now you’re back in your hometown. What did you miss most about New York when you were living in California?

Mangual Figueroa: I’m a New Yorker through and through. I don’t drive; I ride the MTA. I thrive on this sense of being part of this broader urban collective. And I think that this particular university and being situated here on 34th Street is really a meaningful way to be part of the city. It’s really genuine how excited I am. It’s funny I feel quite effusive, but it’s all true.

Submitted on: JAN 30, 2020

Category: Diversity | Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures | Urban Education