This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Luis Escobedo is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice, University of the Free State, South Africa. He is the co-editor of Migrants, Thinkers, Storytellers: Negotiating Meaning and Making Life in Bloemfontein, South Africa (HSRC Press, 2021).
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Peru 4D sticker at Pawilony, June 2012 (top); Marinera Party – Organized by Fuerza Peruě (left); Recording with Yoga Terror at Fryderyk Chopin University of Music – March 2011 (right). Photos courtesy of the author.
I spent eight years at a British school in Peru that was predominantly attended by students whose skin, hair, and eye color were lighter than mine. Folk perspectives of their physical traits categorized them as “white” or other related terms, and they usually carried a positive connotation. I regularly heard other people depict my average schoolmate as the archetype of the “ideal partner” (Bruce 2007, 59), as my schoolmate was considered the heir of the city’s wealth and the bearer of an ostentatious last name. Even when some of these students or their relatives violated the law or societal norms, they would normally enjoy impunity and their offenses would disturbingly acquire an exclusive, ritualistic, and legendary status. This was taking place during the 1990s as Peru continued to deal with deep-seated economic, political, and social issues built on a longstanding structure of inequality, violence, and the reminiscences of the devastating crises of the 1980s. Broadly speaking, my school produced and reproduced this picture that was unequal in terms of class and race in a country where most people, myself included, did not identify themselves, or were not categorized by others, as “white.” The school was embedded in a particular “social geography of race” (Frankenberg 1993, 54). However, having to navigate this school space as a “non-white” student, and therefore as its “inauthentic” representative for those outside of this space, also constituted a unique opportunity for growth.
I was able to identify how those exercising power articulated classist and racist beliefs and practices, and how those on the receiving end reacted. I learned how to respond appropriately and achieve success. The struggle, however, did not end there. The following twenty years of migration across very diverse contexts would show me that social identification is an ongoing process (Jenkins 2008). For me, this process took a particular turn during my doctoral studies in Poland. My experiences as a non-member of the “core group” (Mylonas 2013, 27)—as non-white and immigrant, among other categories—continue to affect my life, and career in particular, in different ways. Unlike at school and in other educational spaces I have navigated throughout the years, the specialized knowledge of issues around race and nation gained during my doctoral studies also had a major effect on my experiences outside academia. In this text, I engage with my own story to grasp some of the most relevant identification struggles prompted by and dealt with in the reciprocal yet tense relation between my doctorate and my migratory experiences.
I began my doctorate in 2009 focused on investigating the centrality of race in Peru’s nation building as well as arguing that racism had taken shape in this process as a result of boundaries among Peruvians being made and maintained according to a racialized idea of nation (see Escobedo 2015a). I engaged with historiographical debates around the construction of Peru as a republic in order to see the role of the state and the elites in this development by examining novels written by Peruvian authors to visualize how a racialized idea of nation was espoused in the everyday lives of the new citizenry, and by using modernist perspectives of nationalism to place emphasis on sociocultural transformations. But, grasping all of this literature to understand the making of a national community, the drawing of boundaries, and the centrality of race in Peru’s nation building was one thing. Simultaneously experiencing all of this as a foreign doctoral student in a country then still largely unfamiliar with the presence of foreign students in general, and particularly those not of Ukrainian nationality (see, for example, Kubiciel-Lodzińska and Ruszczak 2016), was something else entirely. The interplay between categorization and group identification did not merely entail class and race struggles, as it mostly did during my school years. This relation also involved national(-ist) struggles vis-à-vis the host society, as well as other foreign individuals and groups. However, unlike the years I spent studying and working in the United States and Germany, this time I was also attempting to embrace a new group identification by aspiring to obtain a doctoral degree and become part of the academic world. Becoming a doctor hence had to take place amid the tensions caused by being racially “othered” and nationally “selved.”
Singing with Yoga Terror at Swieto Muzyki 2011 (photo by Pawel Przybyszewski, left,). Peruvian flag on my balcony (right). Photos courtesy of the author.
Categorization is unavoidable; it allows us to make better sense of the complex world in which we live (Jenkins 2000, 20). Together with group identification, it is part of the social identification process (Jenkins 2000; 2008), where the creation of a collective “us” and a collective “them” happens interdependently (Brubaker 2013; Jenkins 2000, 9; 2008). Following a constructivist perspective of boundary making, categorization takes place in our daily interpersonal relations, interactions, and transactions (Barth 1969; Brubaker 2004; Jenkins 2000; 2008). However, for a collective “us” and a collective “them” to take shape to a significant extent as a result of the externally driven differentiation enacted by categorization, this process does more than merely name individuals and collectivities. Categorizing shapes them (Simmel 1971), makes them up (Hacking 1992), and changes their world and their experience in it (Jenkins 2000). Thus, it bears the risk of reification (Simmel 1971, 8-11; Whitehead 1978, 7-8; see also Elias and Scotson 1994, xxxiv). In Butler’s (1997, 5) words:
To be addressed is not merely to be recognized for what one already is, but to have the very term conferred by which the recognition of existence becomes possible. One comes to “exist” by virtue of this fundamental dependency on the address of the Other. One “exists” not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable.
In a recently published work, Kurzwelly and I argue that categorization can be violent in that it reduces a person’s individuality, plurality, complexity, and humanity into reified social categories (Kurzwelly and Escobedo 2021). As such, it is also potentially dangerous. By enabling performativity and thus enacting “the action that the speech performs” (Butler 1997, 72), it can provide the grounds for more nihilistic forms of ascriptive violence, as Horowitz (2001) and others have shown. While many of my experiences of othering during my doctoral studies highlight this political aspect of categorization, none of them does it as explicitly as my participation in the making of a TV commercial in 2012 for a popular car brand.
The commercial played on the widely circulated narrative about the end of the world, which was, according to the calendar popularly known as the Maya calendar, supposed to take place that year on December 21st. If I remember correctly, we were four Peruvians, one Bolivian, and one Malaysian at casting. After being asked to remove our t-shirts and trousers, a group of people carefully studied our bodies while discussing us among themselves. I noticed that something about me seemed awkward to them: I had more facial and body hair than they had expected to see, so I was asked to shave much of it off. On filming day, we were decorated with long black straight hair extensions, headbands, loincloths, body paint, fake tattoos, long necklaces, bracers, and spears, which struck me as exaggerated versions of the costumes worn in Mel Gibson’s Apocalyto. One of us was asked to memorize some lines and speak to the camera in what was referred to as “Maya language.” In the background, the rest of us were told to wander slowly around three cars parked in the middle of a powerfully illuminated exhibition hall and to scrutinize them from different angles with intellectual curiosity. “Walk European,” the director instructed us. Finally, three of us were asked to perform a closing dance by a director increasingly anxious because the actors had not understood his last command: “Do the dance.” Disappointed, he demonstrated what he meant by “the dance”: exaggerated arm and leg movements accompanied by hard loud stomping.
Discussing the significance of the gaze in photography, Lutz and Collins (1993, 188) conclude that “non-Westerners draw a look, rather than inattention or interaction, to the extent that their difference or foreignness defines them as noteworthy yet distant.” Relatedly, Foucault (1977, 25) stresses that the role of photography in the exercise of power lies significantly in its ability to examine the Other while encouraging the “normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them.” This resonates with our understanding of categorization and with our story above where the category “Maya” also functions as a reifying synecdoche for “non-Westerners” or “non-whites.”
Categorization here involved classifying racialized bodies and further racialization. It meant de-Westernizing or de-whitening them further by displaying them largely naked and hairless, decorated with ambiguous and improvised costumes, and performing exaggerated movements: a romanticized yet stigmatized image of the non-Western Other. It involved changing their world and experience while constituting the collective identity (“we, the civilized Poles”) of those gazing from all of the angles of the panoptic hall. Violence, control, and punishment were also enacted in the director’s paternalistic and bigoted behavior, as in his use of expressions such as “walk European” or “do the dance.” Interestingly, right before I participated in the filming of said commercial, a Polish man had attempted to offend me by using a stereotypical “war whoop,” arguing that I looked Native American, and a Chilean migrant had defiantly called me “cara de indio” (“Indian face”). That was also the time around which I had endured the sixth physical xenophobic attack that I had in Warsaw, one that led me first to the hospital and then to rehabilitation for three months. These and related incidents had a significant impact on my career and life: I was a doctoral student intensely experiencing what I was researching. I was visualizing how race could function in nation building “from below” (Hobsbawm 1990).
Burned rainbow at Plac Zbawiciela (left). Vandalized Vietnamese restaurant (right). Photos courtesy of the author.
However, while coping with the struggles prompted by “othering” during my doctoral studies, I also had to deal with those related to group identification, specifically those caused by the tensions of being “selved” (see Brubaker 2013). Categorization and group identification are interdependent processes that constitute the internal-external dialectic of collective identification (Jenkins 2000; 2008). Similar to the way the director of the TV commercial above defined himself in opposition to us, the non-Polish (non-Western, non-white) actors, “us” demands to be defined in contrast to “them” (Barth 1969; Weber 1978). This external definition of our identity influences the internal one, the resistance and reaction to such external categorizations potentially affecting one’s own group identification (Jenkins 2000, 9). Being othered certainly had this effect on me. My initiative to found and run a not-for-profit group and initiative in 2010-2013 attests to that. Our wide-ranging activities on anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and diversity focused on exposing the inequalities and violence pervading Peru and Latin America, while creatively tearing down reified and racialized categories existing within that region as well as those permeating Polish society. Through a model we called 4D, we attempted to generate spaces for the formation of new boundaries with our hosts. All of this involved challenging the dominant narratives around race and nation prevalent in Peru and Latin America, an exercise of critique that my doctoral studies strengthened considerably. Additionally, I was individually engaged with migrant and minority politics in Warsaw, collaborating on journalistic articles, participating in committees with the local government and NGOs, making and performing music to promote diversity, fostering strategic alliances, and supporting foreigners in more precarious or vulnerable situations. While using research to back my activism may have seemed like a noble and well-grounded endeavor at first, in time it became the source of internal conflicts primarily with other Poland-based Peruvians and Latin Americans, including diplomats.
According to Helbling (2007 quoted in Evans 2019, 186), “nationalism is not simply about ‘imagined communities’; it is more fundamentally about a struggle for control over defining communities, and in particular, for control over the imagination about community.” As such, Peruvian and Latin American migrants, diplomats, and other agents abroad engage individually and collectively in struggles for control of the way in which they are represented, summoning others to an identity they are presumed to possess and holding them accountable for it. This is a matter of being “selved.” While an activist, I was certainly being “selved,” but I was also “selving” others through research-backed initiatives, resistance to reifying categories, and representations of “us” that, despite claiming they were creative, still enacted “democratic violence” (Rapport 2000) against the status quo accepted by some members of our communities. To some extent, my intervention also reproduced some internal inequalities within and among different groups of Peruvians in Warsaw. This may explain, at least partly, why I was often told that there is no racism in Peru or in Latin America; that I was not promoting diversity but “overshadowing indigenous people, who are what Peru is all about”; and that I was “killing our Spanish by singing in English.”
My identification struggles as a Peruvian child and teenager enjoying a level of social privilege, yet still confronted by issues around race and class largely due to my inherited physical traits, did not end in adulthood. Neither did they end with a doctoral degree or with any improvement in my socioeconomic or legal status in general. Categorization and group identification are unavoidable. For some of us, othering is something we simply have to live with, and “selving” can add to this struggle. What I have tried to show through my own story is that while the reciprocal relation between knowledge gained at university and experience gained outside of it can help us deal with these struggles, it can also intensify them. As such, we might end up doing to others what has been done to us. The challenge thus becomes controlling the way we respond to the injustices brought upon us and our significant others. My entire life has been an exercise in becoming more resilient, wiser, more empathetic, and a good communicator. And that has not silenced me. It has only enhanced my struggle against pressing issues like racism, xenophobia, or discrimination through research and beyond: more a lifestyle than a career.
Playing the cajoìn with Yoga Terror, December 2009 (photography by Ewa Darda). Photo courtesy of the author.
I am deeply thankful to Maria-Luiza Lucescu for proofreading the last version of this text as well as to Terrell Carver and the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.
 I have reflected elsewhere upon the way in which last names are racialized, and themselves racialize, in and through the Peruvian media. See Escobedo (2015b).
 For discussions on how categories associated with power such as “white” continue to bear a positive connotation even when associated with negative conducts such as corruption, see Bruce (2012) and Espinosa et al. (2007).
 For an account of the struggle of “becoming” an academic author and how migration while favoring this identification process also presents it with new challenges, see the work of Del Monte (2021).
 This relates to Butler’s (1993) argument that bodies are materialized as sexed within a compulsory heterosexual matrix of intelligibility.
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