Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Research among ethnic communities yields multiple definitions of citizenship


We celebrate their days,
eat hot dogs, love baseball,

but they say we were born to weed,

change diapers, carry crates in the gray of dawn

while they sleep. Awake, they look at us without seeing.

We see ourselves clearly, know ourselves
precisely, without parades and picnics.

To survive, we must.

One of the invisible living among the notable,
day after day I hear doors shut,

stumble over slurs, and bump into the man

Who nods yes, yes, but isn't listening.

-­ Renato Rosaldo

Many people think of citizenship as "a matter of documents. You either are a citizen or you are not," anthropologist Renato Rosaldo says. But why then, he came to wonder, do Americans so frequently say something like "I felt like a second-class citizen"?

Rosaldo, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, recently discussed the reasons "citizenship in the everyday language sense" varies subtly by degree. On May 2, he gave Stanford's 15th annual Ernesto Galarza Lecture, hosted by the Center for Chicano Research and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. The lecture title, "In this Together," also is to be the title of a book he is writing with Mary Pratt, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese and his wife. The lecture, he said, was his attempt to draw general insights from research that he and graduate students conducted on "cultural citizenship" in San Jose, Calif., over the past decade.

The notion that a person either has citizenship or does not, Rosaldo said, is "rooted in the rise of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy" and its long battles to obtain equal rights and protection under the law. Equal protection remains a critically important aspect of citizenship, he said, but it is not the only thing people expect when they become "citizens" of communities.

As the political philosopher Iris Marion Young has noted, Rosaldo said, "the idea that citizenship is the same for all has translated in practice to the requirement that all citizens be the same. It is that conflation or coercive conformity I object to."

Rituals of exclusion

Rosaldo's San Jose fieldwork involved mostly listening to and recording what individuals had to say about a cluster of citizenship issues that he described as "enfranchisement, belonging, having voice and getting heard." The researchers talked with refugees from Vietnam, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and Chicanos who were born in the United States but nevertheless have had experiences where other Americans assume they are not citizens.

"I was surprised by how articulate people were and conscious of these issues," Rosaldo said, "because we were interviewing people that don't ordinarily get heard" in public debates. One woman, for example, described her earlier involvement with a San Jose church group as "participating in rituals of my own exclusion."

To understand how cultural citizenship and exclusion work, he suggested that analysts begin by assuming any human group has "asymmetries, inequalities and different possible subject positions," and that many of them are not publicly stated. The "culture" of human groups serves to "mediate the conduct" of the groups' citizens or members, he said. Groups "select from and conceptually organize a more complex reality."

"If a person says, 'In my culture, we think genital mutilation is sacred,' there very likely is another point of view that is generally not heard. It is doubtful the mutilator and the mutilated will see the practice exactly the same way," he said. "Culture is more like an argument than a consensus, with ethical critiques often existing within the group."

Yet individual perspectives are not self-created. "Karl Marx said, 'People make their own history under conditions not of their own choosing.' Durkheim reminded us, 'I did not invent the language I speak; I did not invent the tools I use,'" Rosaldo said, adding that "I did not invent the idea of the lecture that I am using now, and I'm not even sure it's a good idea."

How then do people excavate suppressed views of a cultural practice? Often they try to "put themselves in someone else's shoes," Rosaldo said. "In anthropology, we call this the if-I-was-a-horse fallacy." Accessing other people's subjective understandings, he said, requires soliciting and listening to their views of experiences, rather than trying to imagine oneself having the experiences.

Respeto in San Jose

As an example, he cited his research team's efforts to elicit the meanings of respeto, a Spanish term that kept coming up in interviews with immigrants and Chicanos in San Jose.

A 72-year-old-man explained the term by his work history, Rosaldo said. He had been fired from a Mexican hacienda once for "not tipping his hat high enough to the landowner ­ not showing enough respeto," Rosaldo related. Later in World War II, when the man was laying rails for Southern Pacific in the American Southwest, a group of American GIs on a train spat out the windows at him. "His term for that was humillación, not racism," Rosaldo said. "Racism was not part of his vocabulary. We need to understand the histories these terms, like respeto, are weighted with."

In another interview, Rosaldo asked a grassroots union organizer to give him an example of how to treat someone with respeto.

The woman described a raucous meeting that took place in San Jose years ago between then-Gov. Reagan and members of the United Farm Workers. Her feet were stretched across the center aisle when the governor arrived, and to the dismay of his aides, she did not move them, forcing Reagan to take a side aisle. When Reagan reached the podium, she said she asked him why he was using prisoners to replace striking farmworkers.

Reagan responded by asking her name. She responded by offering to give him her name after he answered her question. "At the time, she believes the governor was so angry with her that he broke his pencil," Rosaldo told his Stanford audience. Years later when the woman met Reagan again in Sacramento, she related to Rosaldo, the governor greeted her immediately by her full name.

Rosaldo pointed out that this informant had "twisted my question around from how to show respect to how to get it when you are in the subordinated position. She told me, 'I got more out of Reagan by acting with respeto than if I cussed him out.'"

To give an example closer to his campus audience, Rosaldo brought up the situation of women faculty, who are a minority in the university's Faculty Senate. When the president or provost says something that some members find humorous during the course of a meeting, he said, "a recognizably male ho, ho, ho" fills the room. "What would happen, I wonder, if the few women in the senate staged a laugh-in?"

Asked after the lecture what he thought might happen, Rosaldo said he would expect regular attendees to be caught off guard by the strangeness of the sound in that context, one where male voices continue to represent the norm of citizenship.

One of the scholars in Rosaldo's audience asked how he "validated" the stories he obtained from interviews, such as the story told by the grassroots labor organizer.

If people make allegations of wrong-doing against others, Rosaldo said, he feels obligated to verify them through other sources before publication, but his goal is not to find one true account of an event. "These are inter-subjectivities, something she said out loud," which are not necessarily either her interior views or an accurate account of what happened on a particular day, he said. He added, however, that he had "seen her in action" in other meetings and found the story fit with her persona.

The value of eliciting "subordinated" or "invisible" knowledge, he said, is not to defend any point of view but to gain a fuller understanding of cultural citizenship. "Privilege tends to be invisible to itself," he said, "and it is often more visible to those outside it because they bump into it all the time." SR