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Identity matters: Paula Moya on learning from experience

Literary scholarship never quite recovered its poise after deconstruction dug its heels into the academy in the late 1970s, greatly complicating how people make sense of books.

The theory set out to show how slippery and ambiguous ­ even arbitrary ­ textual meanings are. It knocked the canon off its pedestal for closer inspection and gave more force to questions about what made the Great Books so great. Deconstruction also provided the burgeoning fields of feminist, queer and African American criticism with a powerful tool for interrogating and dismantling dominant paradigms, whose parts, unexamined for centuries, had in places become corroded by age.

However, for better and worse, deconstruction has been used to argue that race and identity are socially constructed ­ in other words, unreal. "The deconstructionist thesis about the indeterminacy and indeed arbitrariness of linguistic reference leads many U.S. literary theorists and cultural critics to understand concepts like experience and identity (which are fundamentally about social relations) as similarly indeterminate and hence epistemically unreliable," Paula Moya, an associate professor of English, writes in her book Learning from Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles (2002).

Moya believes that such theoretical formulations are not useful when it comes to understanding the real world. Nor, for that matter, does she think they're of much use to people trying to understand themselves and the things they watch or read. Identity has real-life repercussions, of which racial and religious minorities are perhaps most painfully aware, and post-structuralism's critical tools, like deconstruction, can appear somewhat feckless in comparison.

"Who we are ­ that is, who we perceive ourselves or are perceived by others to be ­ will significantly affect our life chances: where we can live, whom we will marry (or whether we can marry), and what kinds of educational and employment opportunities will be available to us," Moya writes in her introduction to Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism (2000), a collection of 10 essays that she edited with Michael Hames-García, an assistant professor at the State University of New York-Binghamton. "Who we understand ourselves to be will have consequences for how we experience and understand the world."

* * *

Through most of her adolescence and teen-age years, Moya considered herself Spanish. "The music that we listened to" ­ banda and ranchero music ­ "we called it Spanish music; the food that we ate" ­ tacos and enchiladas­ "we called it Spanish food," she said.

Born April 9, 1962, in Albuquerque, N.M., Moya, the second of four children, was a toddler when her family moved to Santa Fe, where she grew up and attended high school.

Two distinct forces helped to shape how many residents of that state came to view themselves toward the end of the Mexican Revolution, in 1920: an influx of white-skinned Americans from the North and an influx of brown-skinned Mexicans from the South. The northern migrants held various racist attitudes toward the Mexican immigrants, and New Mexicans, most of whom were of Mexican or mixed Mexican-European descent, attempted to shield themselves from prejudice by adopting the notion that they were of pure Spanish heritage, Moya said.

"It was a lie," Moya recalls, and yet it was the culture into which she was born. "It made me realize that how you see yourself can lead to an entirely different world view. I always acknowledged that I had Indian blood, but I didn't internalize that. ... I grew up with all the stereotypes about Mexicans. I didn't identify with Mexicans."

That all changed when Moya left to attend Yale in 1980. On her application to the university, she had checked the "other" box in response to questions about her ethnicity. "They had Mexican American but they didn't have Spanish," she recalled. As a result, she did not get invited to a pre-orientation program with other minority students.

"When people said, 'What are you?' and I said, 'Spanish,' they would look at me, like, 'You're crazy,'" she said. "So what I realized was that my self-described identity couldn't hold. Identity is part of being seen."

* * *

Moya was 19 years old and a sophomore when she became pregnant. She married her boyfriend, a fellow Yale student, and dropped out of school to join him in Houston, where he ran for political office as a state representative. Only 22 years old, he won the seat in a district that included a large Mexican American neighborhood. "So I spent the next few years being a political wife and a mother, and basically confronting culture shock because the community I grew up in in New Mexico was, even though Mexican American, culturally different," she said. "My family had been in the United States for many generations, but this was an immigrant community."

She helped her husband with his campaign, learned Spanish and took a job as a secretary. A Texas state representative, her husband was paid just $7,000 a year, and the family suffered constant financial problems, she said.

Moya later earned money by working on other political campaigns. Then, in 1984, she was appointed to the Harris County Appraisal Review Board, which was responsible for hearing and resolving protests concerning the valuation of property for tax purposes. "It was a tremendous experience for me, because I learned a lot about politics, I learned a lot about institutional racism, and I learned a lot about real estate," she said.

After roughly four years on the board, she took a job as an admissions counselor at the University of Houston-Downtown and, soon after, began enrolling in some courses there. By 1989 she was a full-time student again. She worked part time and earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1991.

By then, however, her marriage, which she characterized as never having been stable, fell apart. "It was an interesting and ultimately very difficult kind of life to be a political wife," Moya said. "I looked around at a bunch of professions and thought, well, being a professor is kind of cool ­ job for life, literature all the time; you know, I think I'll do this. I had a very pre-professional notion of it."

For graduate school, she enrolled at Cornell University, which offered her a two-year full scholarship. "I filed for divorce, packed my kids in the van and left," she said. "And it was the best thing I ever did."

* * *

Cornell University's English Department was a hotbed of post-structuralist theory at the time of Moya's arrival in 1991.

In the United States, post-structuralism was a slowly moving groundswell that attracted approbation and dissension in equal parts. Formalists, whose numbers already were dwindling fast by the early 1980s, were the most vociferously opposed to the movement. Many decried deconstruction as thinly veiled nihilism. (Formalists believe they can study a text and derive a central meaning from it; deconstructionists believe there is no such thing as a central meaning.)

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