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Meet the scientist who helps “homegirls” feel at home in high school

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During Vanessa Marie Bustamante’s 13-year career in academia, one thing that never wavered was the part of her identity that was firmly rooted in being the “average homegirl.” It’s something that the California-based MiraCosta College professor, who also goes by the nickname Homegirl Doctora, says often irritates the more rigid, traditional campus culture. Still others, like Bustamante — college-educated Latinos who dress differently, mix English with Spanish, and speak loudly — feel alienated.

Bustamante and her close friends want to change that. She is part of a group called Chola Vida, which celebrates a Latino subculture that she says was once associated with gangs and is now represented by strong women who are leaders in their communities. They are partnering with the University of Colorado at Boulder to host the second La Cholla Conference in autumn.

Bustamante says the theme, “High Visibility Hynas: Cholas in Pop Culture,” explores how the concept of the chola is evolving as it becomes more mainstream, and creates a space where visitors can drop the masks they wear in higher education and to be myself

We caught up with Bustamante to talk about the conference, Chola’s visibility in academia, and how those two things relate to what meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts look like in higher education. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The La Chola Conference flyer shows the distinctive Chola art style.

EdSurge: How would you define a chola?

Vanessa Marie Bustamante: I think everyone will have a different definition, but for us as a collective, we really focus on la chola being someone who makes an effort for their community. I still work for my community, even with a PhD or other credentials that academia wants to give me. It’s an opportunity to go back to my barrio communities and lift up and educate people and say, “You know what? We can help each other. That’s how I got you.’ [That’s] the true essence of who a la chola is. She is a chingona, she is a pioneer who constantly makes efforts for society.

The first La Chola conference, held last April, focused on scholarly work and the study of cholas. How did the idea for a conference around this community come about?

In this group, many of us were educated in various fields. [We] they just had a lot of trouble navigating, not just the system of trying to get resources on campus or trying to navigate certain admissions processes and things like that. It was also in the looks we got when we were on campus, dressing up or doing our makeup like we do on campus. Just awkward looks, awkward conversations with teachers.

We would share these things with each other. I’ve been with the organization for eight years now, and one day we were just talking together after an art show, and a lot of us started saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find people like us all over the country? People who are getting higher education while staying true to who they are.”

I ended up reaching out to the higher education institution I was working at and started trying to get things set up on campus. And I was met with such a strong pushback. The idea of ​​having something like that didn’t appeal to them because of the criminal identity that many mistake the Cholas for.

The conference was eventually held on Zoom due to the pandemic. What topics were discussed?

We had people from all over the country calling themselves Cholas or doing scholarly work related to Cholas. We explored so many topics: Chola motherhood, Chola in academia, Chola Ph.D. Exchanged real-life challenges as they navigated these institutions and learned, you know, this isn’t just happening here in Los Angeles, where we’ve been, right?

It was happening in all these different states across the country, these guys weren’t taken seriously or people wanted them to change their work or their research proposals to get used to the institutions. And that’s why we really wanted to break into these institutions and show that we are here. And we create our own support systems, even if institutions don’t create them for us.

You work in student support at a college. How is cultural visibility related to student success?

If you walk onto campus and don’t see artwork that represents your community or the struggles your community has faced, you won’t feel as connected.

I think teachers are really people who speak up and are able to move on. They bring panels or they bring groups. But I have yet to see any admins, such as large-level entities, to move something like this.

With more campuses running programs like Project Rebound or the transition program [for formerly incarcerated people]we are moving in the right direction where people will feel more included.

But also the counselors assigned to these programs, do they understand this dynamic? When a student comes in and talks about their block, do they understand what it means? If they had people who really shared that experience, there would be more of a connection with the student.

How have people responded to opportunities to raise the visibility of Chola scholars and issues?

I feel like people left last year’s conference feeling like the work they’re doing is important, real, and making a difference. I’ve heard the word “Chingon” so much, like “now I feel so Chingon”. Some of the responses you got were that people felt invisible on their campus.

Some people said, “I want to be invited to this next year, like my Tia.” Or a family member, like a cousin, because they’ve felt invisible, or they’ve been criminalized their whole life and they feel like they can’t get out of it. Barrio culture as a whole has always surrounded a violent imagination.

Even from a higher education perspective, it’s just like, “Wow, what a great way to bring people to your campus.” People from your local community who can go to your school to complete some kind of program, whether it’s a certificate program, a degree program, or even a trade program.

What is your perspective on how diversity, equity and inclusion is going in higher education?

i think [La Chola conference host, the University of Colorado at Boulder] is moving to support and actually engage their communities of color, their low-income communities, their communities that are hurting. Some people actually put action behind their equity, diversity and inclusion policies. I think many colleges and universities are not there. They’re still talking about it and, you know, just talking about how they’re going to do all these great things.

What impact do you hope your work will have?

I think a lot of us hope that more people will take the seats [and] understand that these spaces are for them. Hopefully, those who are currently working in an academic environment and doing research or working in some academic institution also understand that they bring a lot, that they should apply for the next job, that they should apply for a research assistantship or whatever is what they do. Hopefully, it’s more about giving our community a chance to see their value, to see that they’re bringing valuable work.

What else makes this conference unique?

This conference was created by people who have this identity and have this experience. We have never changed ourselves to acclimatize in the educational space. We have retained our identity and made something out of it, and endured the trials and tribulations we experienced in the educational environment. So I think it’s very unique in that sense. So I will say that our organizers were actually like a couple of home girls who sat around the fire and came up with this conference.

When you say you kept your identity, do you mean keeping your way of dressing and speaking? Or something else?

I think la cholla lives inside and so it’s an opportunity to behave in this way. Being in those conditions and saying no, like, “Why can’t I make this a research topic? What does your policy say I can’t do?” It is an opportunity to speak and, in a sense, to respond.

It’s an opportunity to communicate with students in English and Spanish and say, “Hey, what’s up?” if you don’t have to talk to students like that. If you should just say, “Hi, how can I help you?”

It’s things like that, navigating that system where it tells you to be one sided, but you stay true to your language, like how you talk, how you motivate students.

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