Interview with Carlos on “Epistemological Diversity”

Logo credit: Eva Diaz

At My Undocumented Life, we had an opportunity to interview Carlos, a doctoral student in the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, to learn more about his work on immigration and education more broadly. We thank him for responding to our questions via e-mail.

Q: Can you share with us what motivated you to pursue graduate school and your trajectory into your graduate program? 

A: There have been many motivators or factors that have led me to where I am currently pursuing a PhD. Perhaps one of the main reasons was trying to make sense of some of the circumstances in which my family and I found ourselves at some points after our arrival in Texas. Having said this, it is also important to note that I have not always been motivated to pursue graduate school, but it has been the support of those around me that has pushed me here. Of course, the consejos that my family has offered ever since we were in Mexico have been instrumental. For as long as I can remember, my mom and grandparents instilled in me the idea that I had to further my studies as much as I could. They truly believe in the role of education as the big social equalizer. Although they never really told me how to pursue a higher education, I was expected to. This does not mean they did not care nor engaged in my education. Engagement just took other forms.[i]

There came a point when my mom and I migrated to the U.S. in which I was not sure what I wanted to do or even if I would be able to attend school or work due to my immigration status. I just knew that I had to keep trying. Of course, we should problematize this idea of “trying” as it reproduces a meritocratic discourse, which suggests that if you just try hard enough, you will get there (we should also have honest conversations about education as a social equalizer). The reality is that no matter how hard people try; most do not encounter the opportunities that I have been given.

In any way, I attended college in Kerrville, Texas (benefitting from in-state tuition rates and state funded financial aid) and it was during my last semester in 2013 that I received DACA. While we need to problematize DACA, for far more reasons than just because it is not ideal (please see Alvarez Almendariz 2021), the truth is that DACA also renewed my aspirations and motivated me to continue with an education. After graduation, I juggled a couple of jobs for two years, one at an immigration law firm in San Antonio, and one at a restaurant back in Kerrville, Texas. I saved some money to be able to get started on my master’s. Having confirmed that law was not what I wanted to pursue, I applied to the master’s program in sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). There, I spent two years working under the femtorship of profs. Raquel Marquez and Harriett Romo. At UTSA, it was la doctora Marquez who really took it upon herself to push me towards a doctoral degree, and most importantly, to also make me believe that I could do it. In fact, it was prof. Marquez who first told me that what I was doing was theorizing, and that I should keep at it. After that, I transitioned to the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) for three years. I am currently at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a PhD in sociology under the mentorship of prof. Roberto G. Gonzales.

Q: How did you decide to focus your research on topics of immigration?

A: Lived experiences. And as such, this comes with much tension, questioning, and frustration. During college, I began to focus on the psychological effects that family separation had on children – as motivated by the relatively short yet forced separation that my family experienced. During my master’s degree, I became interested in topics around academic resilience,[ii] and began to explore what is now also consider a problematic Dreamer narrative. At the time, of course, I was barely encountering this movement/narrative as an undocumented student coming from a small town in Texas. I felt very attracted to and protected by it. On this, and while no longer subscribing to the DREAMer narrative, I also want to acknowledge the symbolic value this narrative/identity has for many undocumented youth and young adults who are going through difficult times, and that, as Cabrera (2020) has argued, continues to provide economic and political benefits for some.

Today I am interested in several topics.

Source: Unsplash

On the one hand, while literature has highlighted important aspects such as the diversity of experiences within the undocumented community and the role that place plays in curbing such experiences and opportunities, less consideration has been granted to understanding how experiences, opportunities, and context in general influence the ways in which individuals come to understand and make sense of their circumstances. We have failed to account for epistemological diversity, and we are often surprised and appalled, for example, when we encounter conservative undocumented immigrants, individuals who just do not hold our beliefs/arguments/premises/etc., or immigrants whose epistemological stance does not reflect what we would consider that to be of an undocumented immigrant (e.g., an undocumented immigrant supporting Trump, for example). In broad brushstrokes, and running the risk of simplifying it, by epistemological diversity I mean the varied forms of understanding and making sense of the world. We focus on diversity on some fronts but homogenize others. Even if from a marginalized position, we continue to reproduce hegemonic and oppressive logics. But we cannot uncritically assume or equate social position with epistemological stance (Collins 2000; Grosfoguel 2018).

Drawing from Black Feminist thought, as Collins (2000) reminds us, it is important to acknowledge that illegal/undocumented thought varies in expression and that these emerge from similar yet heterogenous positions to create a group-based, collective standpoint. But equally important, however, is to understand that such ways of making sense of the world are not always illegal/undocumented epistemologies.[iii] That is, even when writing from a marginalized social position, that of the socially illegalized/undocumented, we often continue to replicate the same epistemologies or ways of seeing the world that have given way to our current conditions. Today I am interested in exploring this epistemological diversity, understanding the political projects they support, and to continue contributing to such studies from my own positionality- aware of the opportunities but also the limitations it poses. I am also interested in diving deeper into epistemologies since I think that not understanding our vision of the world and its implications can lead us to write in violent ways, often ignoring that the implications of our work do not end with the conclusions we write at the end of our writings. But there is hope, and as Juliet Hooker reminds us, it is important that we understand that our epistemology is not static. Understanding such diversity, especially as related to topics of immigration, interests me.

On the other hand, I am also interested in topics related to immigration that while still influenced by my own lived experience, seek to understand bigger processes keenly aware of the impossibility of a grand theory (Collins 2000; de Sousa Santos 2006). Lived experiences that have taken me from wanting to understand and explore issues that are perceived as only affecting undocumented immigrants to exploring bigger issues through the experiences of undocumented immigrants.

Q: What advice would you share with undocumented and formerly undocumented graduate students interested in studying immigration topics?

It feels very weird to be giving advice, specifically because I am terrible at following them. But something that I’ve learned under the mentorship of prof. Roberto Gonzales for the last four years is to be able to illuminate bigger issues through our topic of interest. When I began graduate school, I was so focused on the topic of DACA and access to education that I lost sight of how these experiences could illuminate the bigger picture. So, while DACA used to be my research objective, today it is only one of the many available avenues to understand bigger processes such as coloniality, immigrant accommodation,[iv] education, among many others.

Ultimately, and as already mentioned in the response to the previous question, I would also invite students to think about the implications of our thinking/writing. About the things that we might not mean, but nonetheless say/imply given the limits of our epistemology. To not only focus on writing better, but also less violently.

Q: Can you share with us your process for developing UndocuCrit, as a lens to building knowledge about undocumented experiences? 

Source: Unsplash

A: I honestly do not remember when this process began, but I assume it was as I wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) (#puro210). You know, I recall reading literature on undocumented immigrants and while it was and continues to be of importance, I felt like there was something missing. Of course, this does not mean that that which I looked for did not exist, but this was rather a reflection of the context in which I found myself, the classes that I took, and the authors included in those courses. Again, this ties back to my previous observation on the role of place, experiences, and opportunities on what we know and how we come to know it. This does not mean that UTSA was not a great place for me, however. On the contrary, femtors like prof. Raquel Marquez and Harriett Romo have been instrumental in my journey to be where I am now. Prof. Marquez, for example, made it a point to make me feel welcomed at UTSA, going as far as opening the doors of her office after school hours so that I could have a place to work and write when everyone was gone. As I often say, she tricked me into believing I could pursue a doctoral program one breakfast taco at a time. She is the first one who took my theorizing seriously. Maybe not because she thought it was the best or most appropriate, but perhaps just because it was different. It was in her office that I came across the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Delgado and Stefancic, which ignited an interest in Critical Race Theory (CRT). During the summer after graduating from UTSA and prior to attending HGSE for my doctoral studies, I began to dive a bit more into this field, but it was not till my first semester at HGSE that I got the opportunity to take my first class on CRT by prof. Kim Truong and prof. Daren Graves. I was amazed. For the first time in a class, most readings made sense, and the fact that lived experiences are a big component of it made it even more appealing. UndocuCrit was actually my final paper for this course, which drew some ideas from my master’s thesis that I had been thinking about such as the tenet on sacrificios as well as the very problematic, highly corny, but at the time quite useful, at least at the personal level, concept of DACAdemics.  I was very uncertain about publishing it because for me it was more of a personal endeavor. It became clear that it was not perfect but, citing LatCrit scholar Margaret Montoya[v] when talking about CRT and LatCrit, this piece was a “sustaining intellectual habit” despite being “an imaginary” one. I hoped some felt similarly. Later encouraging words by prof. Pedro Nava and femtor prof. Montoya finally pushed me to, as Pedro told me after reading and providing feedback, lanzarme, to put my work out there.

So, we put it out there. I put it out there. In relation of UndocuCrit as a lens to building knowledge about undocumented experiences, I assume this depends on who is holding such lens. For example, there have been some undocumented and documented individuals who’ve reached out stating this piece has been instrumental in making sense of their lives and/or moving their work forward, whereas others have mocked or disregarded it because how problematic some aspects are. This can be due to a dualistic approach to knowledge, the piece’s, and thus my own epistemic limitations at the time, and/or their hesitations about anything CRT. Regardless, and as we’ve pointed out somewhere else (Aguilar and Juarez 2022), while UndocuCrit might be illuminating, important, or motivating for some, many more might find it inadequate, biased, or lacking. Some of this, however, despite the fact that it purposefully employs an important amount of literature to avoid being labeled as just an anecdotal piece (a critique often launched at CRT as a discipline). It then has become evident, following the work of Reyna Rivarola and López (2021), that although undocumented immigrants’ lived experiences are important for mainstream scholars as they advance their work, the work emerging from undocumented scholars’ experiences is not always considered important nor rigorous enough to be cited. Interesante, ¿no? I do not know if I answered your comment on UndocuCrit being a lens to building knowledge on undocumented experiences, though…

For this reason, writing and publishing UndocuCrit also pushed me away from focusing on undocumented issues for a moment… I noticed that when I would be invited to panels, classes, you name it, many perceived what I have to offer more as an anecdote, dismissing the work we all put in. Our presence becomes at once necessary, yet insufficient and highly disposable… familiar, ¿no?

Q: You’ve referenced that through a “knowledge-and-liberty approach” undocumented scholars can build towards social justice. Can you elaborate on this relationship and how scholars can promote social justice? 

A: Yes. I think there is much tension/problems in that statement, going back to a motto from which I draw (La tierra es de quien la trabaja). This should get us into conversations about stolen lands, labor, lives, and ownership at least within modern understandings, among other things., which is a very needed conversation within our community, and something that I think Alonso touches in this series. But focusing specifically on this question, there are also tensions (laughs in Spanish). For one, I mention that academia needs to be reformed. That was 3-4 years ago when I was still enamored with the idea of academia. Narrowing down on the “knowledge-and-liberty approach,” at this time, I was also experiencing some of what I mentioned earlier… being seen as data but not as “creators” of knowledge. So, in a sense, it was me trying to close lines. But that is not a good way to go about this. Simultaneously, I was also flirting, as I continue to do, with this question about the type of the education we receive. Of course, we often focus on this question of access to education for the undocumented. Access, access, access, but rarely do we stop to think and question the content, nature, and implication of education in the lives of undocumented students (Aguilar 2021). And so now, where I find myself, I am quite interested in this question of education and its role on how we come to understand and make sense of our lives and the world in general. Fully aware, however, the liberty/freedom is not only about the inner battles but also about how this comes to impact/change our realities (Anzaldúa 2007; Collins 2000; Santa Cruz 2004).

In trying to avoid being prescriptive because, what do I know, I am not sure how scholars can promote social justice. I myself continue to wrestle with this. But I do think, to begin with, that we need to question whether it is social justice that we want…. At least given the normative understandings and possibilities that the modern-colonial world, the status quo, offers… That is, it should not only be for the socials for whom we seek justice… Today, we live in a world in which the way we have been socialized presents continuities from a colonial past. Although colonialism in its classic form no longer exists in most (not all) parts of the world, the logics employed to colonize and divide the world remain at work (see Collins [2000] for matrix of Domination or Quijano [1992] for colonialidad del poder, for example). Under such context, what we perceive to be justice and who we perceive to be social beings deserving of such justice remain delineated by colonial definitions (think of the Dreamer narrative and the exclusion that the rest of the undocumented community has faced when it comes down to seeking a relief, for example). Today more than never, the need remains for illegal epistemologies that allows us to “open up space through an uncertain cartography to face decisions with a vision of what is possible and desirable” (Díaz-Quiñones 2000, 22). Aware, of course, that such possibility is not a given nor what is desirable uniformly wanted.

CARLOS is a doctoral student in the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is yet to come to definite conclusions about his research interests. You can find him on Twitter @StandupScholar


[i] Check out Stephany Cuevas’ (2021) new book where she highlights the ways in which undocumented parents engage in concerted sacrificios to support their children’s educational goals.

[ii] In UndocuCrit (2019), I cite Yosimar Reyes when describing the need to move beyond the idea of resilience. And as Bonilla (2020) reminds us, we should do this given than when we talk about [fostering] resilience, we exempt the government/institutions from their responsibilities. In my current work in Puerto Rico, I have come across the term bregar, and have theorized about it through my own experiences- chingar/andar en chinga. And so, I’ll switch to Spanish now. Al igual que la palabra bregar, el termino chingar conlleva diferentes significados que van mas allá de la triplicidad que Díaz-Quiñones presenta: como trabajo concreto, como un principio de placer erótico, y como una negociación-acción-espiritual o social (28). Esta ultima es de mi interés. El andar en la brega, el saber chingarle, se puede considerar como un saber otro cuyo lenguaje y practicas preceden al individuo en particular y que al mismo tiempo sustentan la comunidad a pesar de un contexto sociopolítico de ilegalidad. Esta forma de navegar la vida, un saber otro al cual Díaz-Quiñones se refería como el bregar en el contexto puertorriqueño, no se aprende de los libros, sino que, como las ganas de darle una vida mejor a los tuyos, se desprende de la vida misma, y, que, por ende, no es reaccionario sino constitutivo de una forma de ser y estar en el mundo, es pues “un saber transmitido, tradicional, que se aprende en la lengua y en las practicas sociales de la vida cotidiana” (81). En un mundo moderno en el cual la lógica del cercado a los relegados a la zona de no-ser se vuelve la norma, este saber otro, en su forma más sobria, le permite al indocumentado abrirse brecha en una cartografía incierta, en ocasiones para evitar ser identificado y en muchas tantas para crear oportunidades otras. Y, aunque de antemano “queda excluida la realización de la totalidad” dadas las limitaciones (81), le permite encontrar ese “equilibrio inestable que no se resuelve nunca (35),” pero que facilita la creación de espacios de participación y de relativa autonomía a pesar de la asimetría del poder” del estado nación, la falta de documentación, y sus manifestaciones empíricas y fenomenológicas (86).

[iii] Here I use the term illegal cautiously. Drawing from Sati (2017) and an important body of work on illegality, it is important to note that the illegal exists as a social fact, and not an individual trait. Sati, for example, prefers to use the term illegalized, which I can also agree with. But here when I say illegal, I do not refer to the individual but rather to a way of thinking that contradicts that which has been privileged and documented as the hegemonic epistemology.

[iv] I chose the word accommodation on purpose. While sociology of immigration talks of assimilation/integration, Zuberi (2001) reminds us that a racialized and racist society is from the start “a barrier to full assimilation into the dominant culture” (146). As Suzzane Césaire (2012) has already reminded us then, assimilation does not necessarily mean liberation but rather, perhaps, just accommodation in the modern-colonial word (32).

[v] Prof. Margaret Montoya shared this during her participation at the CRT conference at Harvard Law School: Movement Lawyering panel on “Origins, Developments and Future” in April 2019.


Aguilar, Carlos. 2019. “Undocumented critical theory.” Cultural Studies <-> Critical

Methodologies 19(3): 152-160.

Aguilar, Carlos. 2021. “Undocumented Critical Theory in Education.” Pp. 149-163 in Studying

Latinx/a/o Students in Higher Education: A Critical Analysis of Concepts, Theory, and Methodologies, edited by N. M. Garcia, C. Salinas Jr., and J. Cisneros. Routledge.

Aguilar, Carlos, and Daniela Juarez. 2022. “Undocumented Critical Theory: A Brief Review.”

Pp. 17-25 in Communication Theory: Racially Diverse and Inclusive Perspectives, edited by J. T. Austin, M. P. Orbe, and J. S. Sims. Cognella Academic Publishing.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2007. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Third edition. San

Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Bonilla, Yarimar. 2020. The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA. Political Geography 78: 102181.

Cabrera, Gabrielle. 2020. “Disrupting Diversity: Undocumented Students in the Neoliberal University.” Pp. 66-86 in We are Not Dreamers: Undocumented scholars theorize undocumented life in the United States, edited by L. J. Abrego and G. Negrón-Gonzales. Durham: Duke University Press.

Césaire, Suzanne. 2012. The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945). Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Cuevas, Stephany. 2021. Apoyo Sacrificial, Sacrificial Support: How undocumented Latinx parents get their children to college. New York: Teachers College Press.

de Sousa Santos, Boaventura. 2006. Renovar la teoría crítica y reinventar la emancipación

social: encuentros en Buenos Aires. 1. ed. Buenos Aires: CLACSO : Universidad de Buenos Aires, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani (Colección Edición y distribución cooperativa).

Díaz-Quiñones, Arcadio. 2000. El Arte de Bregar: Ensayos. San Juan: Ediciones Callejón.

Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2018. “¿Negros marxistas o marxismos negros?: una mirada descolonial.” Tabula Rasa (28):11–22.

Hooker, Juliet. 2017. Theorizing race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quijano, Aníbal. 1992. “Colonialidad y Modernidad/Racionalidad.” Perú Indigena 13(29):11–20.

Reyna Rivarola, Alonso, and Gerardo R. López. 2021. “Moscas, metiches, and methodologies: exploring power, subjectivity, and voice when researching the undocumented.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 34(8): 733-745.

Santa Cruz, Victoria. 2004. Ritmo: el eterno organizador. Ediciones Copé, de Petróleos del Peru.

Zuberi, Tukufu. 2001. “The Population Dynamics of the Changing Color Line in the USA.” Pp. 145–67 in Problem of the century: racial stratification in the United States, edited by E. Anderson and D. S. Massey. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


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