Thursday, April 10, 2014

GUEST BLOGGER: Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez, "Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceanieras"

Our Guest Blogger is EVELYN IBATAN RODRIGUEZ, sharing with us an excerpt from her recent book, Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceanieras: Coming of Age in American Ethnic Communities (Temple University 2013). Evelyn is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco.  Thank you, Evelyn!

"Rodriguez presents a nuanced reading of the coming-of-age celebration in both Mexican and Filipino communities in her analysis of the two vis-à-vis larger issues of representation and situated identities. Her careful and insightful writing about issues that seem to lie beneath the surface of many of these celebrations includes extensive quotes from fieldwork that add depth and meaning to the analysis and discussion of the sexuality and complex social and economic networks inherent in these rituals." 
Norma Elia Cantú, Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and author of Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera
Brief Introduction by Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez:
I often describe my recently published book, Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras (Temple University Press, 2013) as a "window" into these Filipina and Mexicana rituals in the United States.  This excerpt from the book explains the distinctive ways I learned to best accompany and study the communities who allowed me into their lives so that I could write Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras.

 Nandiyan Lang: Ethnographic Reflections on Researching American Immigrant Families
copyright by Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez, all rights reserved 

Although I write that debutantes and quinceañeras are ventanas into the lives and identities of the individuals, families, and communities who celebrate them, peering into these windows would never have been enough to help me earnestly investigate and attempt to understand the events and people that are the subject of this book. In fact, engaging in this study forced me to abandon the idea that I should or could play the role of a detached, value-neutral observer, since doing so often raised the suspicions of early potential subjects and thus prohibited me from finding people outside my circle who would allow me to interview and/or observe them. As a result, I eventually adapted a more engaged approach that follows and has been informed by forty years of “decolonial social science,” a method most commonly employed by women and scholars of color (see, e.g., Davalos 1998; Keohane, Rosaldo, and Gelpi 1982; Leong 1995; Rosaldo 1989; Russel y Rodríguez 2001; L. Smith 1999).

            I considered a “decolonized methodology” (L. Smith 1999) to be most useful for this project because most of the immigrant families I studied were unfamiliar with sociology, research interviews, and doctoral students. Before they agreed to participate in the study, many of them could not imagine that their lives might be of interest to anyone other than members of their own families and communities and, perhaps, state officials and agents. So when I first used my institution-approved spiel to find outside research participants—by distributing church and community announcements and approaching strangers in dress and accessory shops and at community events—my advances were either brushed off or ignored entirely.

            One day, after weeks of rejection in the field and a long afternoon of getting lost in a medium-sized shopping district popular among Las Querubes quinceañeras and their families, I entered a store and approached the Latina salesperson behind the counter. Throwing my spiel and my Spanish-speaking inhibitions out the window, I introduced myself—in Spanish—and asked her if she would mind talking to me about her work to help me in my research for a “book about Mexicana quinceañeras and Filipina debutantes.” It was a breakthrough: for the first time since I’d started trying to locate subjects in Las Querubes, someone was willing to talk to me! The woman spoke excitedly about her observations of quinceañera customers, referred me to several other possible sources (including her manager), and asked where I grew up, how I came to speak Spanish, and whether I was Catholic. As I wrote up my field notes, I realized that her openness may well have been, in good part, a response to my transition from a cold, systematic approach to a less formal style that included a willingness to share some of my own personal information. It even dawned on me that before that encounter, my demeanor may have caused some to mistake me for an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agent posing as an interviewer to sweep out {ER: This still sounds strange to me, but “sweep” seems more appropriate since that’s what such INS activities were called informally) undocumented community members.

            From that time on, I was convinced that a far less impassive demeanor, a little self-disclosure, and some thoughtful reflection about the effect of my identity and behavior on my research were necessary if I wanted to (1) find new subjects and (2) pursue the study of debutantes, quinceañeras, and those who participate in the celebration of both. My preparation before entering the field (literature reviews, pilot interviews, and multiple visits to Las Querubes) had helped me identify key sites where I might find local “authorities” on debuts and quinceañeras—such as churches, shopping districts, and community associations. I spent months cold-calling vendors, parish offices, and ethnic community organizations to request their help in the research for my book. After several successful interviews, I gained more than expert insights on debutantes and quinceañeras. I also earned my interviewees’ trust, their referrals, and their valuable endorsements, which greatly facilitated my ability to locate, and even be warmly received by, additional research participants.

            The result was a snowball effect: referrals from previous subjects led me to new subjects, who led me to still other subjects. Given the obstacles to obtaining a random sampling from the undefined universe of immigrant families who organize debutante and quinceañera celebrations, this proved an ideal way for me to generate my sample of immigrant and second-generation subjects. The approval of mutual, respected social connections made potential subjects far more willing to consider participation in my study and actual subjects far more willing to honestly share with me the details of their lives.

            I arranged all my subsequent interviews and family observation via telephone. Typically, I continued to introduce myself as a UC (University of California) Berkeley student writing a book on Filipina debuts and Mexicana quinceañeras, mentioned that I had been referred to them by a specific participant, and asked whether I might interview them (at a location of their choice) for about an hour to an hour and a half. I also assured participants that I would not use their real names in my book or in any reports or presentations. Remarkably, of the subjects I contacted in this manner, the only ones who did not participate were those whose schedules did not coordinate with my own.

            With the exception of a few vendors who requested that we meet in their workplaces or over coffee, I interviewed all of my subjects in their homes. I found this to be the ideal setting, since it put my subjects at ease and allowed me to view their neighborhoods (to understand who and what made up their local milieu), to observe the interior landscapes of their homes and family lives (to understand the priorities reflected in their communal spaces), to view items that subjects mentioned casually in their interviews (e.g., photos, letters, and videos), and to meet family and friends (all potential subjects) who formed the cast of characters in the stories they shared with me.

            Because the immigrant families I studied were almost as reluctant to share personal details with members of their community as they were with outsiders (for fear that the information might become community chisme or tsismis [gossip]), I attempted to convey enough familiarity with their cultures and neighborhoods to be trustworthy but not enough to signal the risk of a slip that might reveal any of their personal information. I presented myself as a young adult who was out of the age range of both the parents and the teenagers I interviewed but who (through my race, language, and family background) had experienced what it was like to be the teenage child of immigrants and to have immigrant parents who work hard for their family’s advancement.

            For the most part, this role—which was, in fact, my identity—came quite easily. At the time that I was collecting data, I was in my mid-twenties—almost a decade removed from high school and highly cognizant of the exceptional sacrifices my immigrant parents had made to help me become one of the few first-generation minority graduate students at UC Berkeley. As the product of a working-class Southern California suburb that was primarily Mexican, white, and Filipino, I was well acquainted with the etiquette involved in gaining the trust and respect of Filipino and Mexican elders and young people alike. During my interviews and observations, I usually wore my everyday clothes—jeans, comfortable shoes, and a casual (but not revealing) top. I addressed the Filipino immigrants in my study as “Auntie” or “Uncle” (as I, and others in the community, would normally address those belonging to my parents’ generation), and I spoke with them in English (the same language I would normally use with older Filipinos) but responded to them in Tagalog on the occasions when they chose to use Tagalog with me. I also addressed the Mexican immigrants in my study as I normally would, calling them “Señora” or “Señor,” and I usually interacted with them entirely in Spanish. Although I sometimes had to ask my Mexican interviewees to speak more slowly and I always explained that Spanish was a relatively newly acquired second language for me, I believe that they greatly appreciated my use of their native language and that it encouraged them to honestly and generously share with me their experiences as immigrant parents in America. With my younger participants, I almost always spoke in English (although I followed the lead of my subjects in the use of Spanish or Tagalog terms to describe people or items, especially for elements of their own debuts and quinceañeras), and we called each other by our first names.

            At my first meeting with each research subject, I reiterated that I was a Berkeley student writing a book on Filipina debuts and Mexicana quinceañeras. I also shared that I was the eldest daughter of Filipino immigrants and that my interest in my research topic stemmed largely from my upbringing in a city with comparably sizable Mexican American and Filipino American communities. If my subjects asked me questions about my own life, I tried to answer them honestly but with enough generality to prevent them from forming preconceived notions that might influence their responses. After assuring them that I would keep their identities confidential—in my personal, as well as professional, work and interactions—I asked them to sign a voluntary consent form, to provide a pseudonym (if they so desired), and to keep in mind that I was not searching for “right” or “wrong” answers—just honest accounts that would help me better understand debuts and quinces. In an effort to build further rapport and trust, I started each interview by simply asking my subjects to tell me about themselves.

            I believe that all of these factors—my appearance, my limited self-disclosure, and my ability to speak in the native languages of the participants—helped convey that I was someone who was “nandiyan lang,” a Tagalog phrase that is used to describe the location of someone or something in a nonspecific way. Because Tagalog is a language of not only words but also many subtle mannerisms, not-so-subtle gestures, singsong tones, and animated velocity, Filipinos have countless (and confusing) ways of describing location. Doon is often used to indicate a place or point that is far away, and diyan is often said to indicate a place or point that is not “here” but is relatively nearby. When nandiyan is pronounced in a drawn-out manner (“nandiyaaaan”), with one’s eyes wide open and one’s gaze aimed in a particular direction, it can mean “there, somewhat close by” or “right there, obviously.”

            In relation to my research subjects, my “position” as nandiyan lang indicated that I was both close and at a safe distance. This notion has been heavily influenced by the ni de aquí, ni de allá researcher approach employed by a long history of critical Chicano/a scholars (see, e.g., Anzaldúa 1999; Cantú and Nájera-Ramírez 2002; Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981; Romero 1992). However, whereas ni de aquí, ni de allá emphasizes a liminal location that is “neither here nor there,” nandiyan lang conveys an indistinct omnipresence. Being nandiyan lang meant that I was “inside” enough for my research participants to feel at ease and “outside” enough not to pose the threat of divulging information that might become grist for the local gossip mill. My clothes placed me at a safe, but not too remote, distance from both the trendy Las Querubes youth and their more buttoned-up parents. My ability to speak some Tagalog—unlike most young Filipinos in Las Querubes—distinguished me as somewhat more culturally mature than the teenaged participants, but having been born and raised in the United States likened my background to that of the Filipino teens. Although my Latino subjects and I never lost sight of the fact that my background is not Mexican, my ability to speak Spanish fluently combined with my familiarity with Mexican culture (from having been raised in a border city and having resided in central Mexico for a period) gave validity to my sincere understanding of, respect for, and support for Mexican culture and people. Finally, my identity as a UC Berkeley researcher gave me both shared status as a student with my younger subjects and shared status as a responsible adult with my older subjects.

            Clearly, however, my status as in-between and a bit of both generations, communities, and cultures does not eliminate the cultural differences that existed between my subjects and me or the effect of these differences on my presentation of the participants’ experiences. For example, my identity as a woman influenced both what my subjects chose to share with me and how I chose to interpret and present my findings. James Clifford argues that such partiality is unavoidable in ethnographic research because “culture is not an object to be described, [and] neither is it a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitely interpreted” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 19). He writes that it is therefore impossible for researchers to find and report “complete truths”; at best we produce “partial truths” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 7) that examine how they have been informed by our subjectivities.

            Nevertheless, I believe that my nandiyan lang identities and research approach enabled me to obtain a great deal of rich information about the people and events presented here and that they helped me understand my data from multiple perspectives. As a partial insider to the communities I was examining, I was more attuned to the intricate layers of my subjects’ accounts, and I was able to probe and interpret them in effective and culturally sensitive ways. At the same time, as someone who was also partially outside the communities I studied, I had more leeway in seeking clarification of terms and customs that participants might otherwise have presumed were understood.

            This is not to say that being an insider-outsider did not have its occasional drawbacks. My role as a researcher was occasionally challenged when my subjects allowed my partial insider status to cause them to slip into treating me as a full-fledged community member. For example, I became an unwitting center of “drama” when—much to his girlfriend’s consternation—a male teenage entourage member told his friends he thought I was “cute.” And I was asked by more than one “auntie” to advise her daughter to postpone dating until after college—which was at odds with my ideas on female autonomy and had not been my own experience. Then there was the question of how to present my scholarship. I have had to wrestle with creating accurate, but critical, portraits of the people I have studied—portraits that some of them might find unflattering or, at worst, as betrayals. I have also had to struggle with finding a writer’s voice that is neither so intellectual that it renders my research inaccessible (not to mention boring) to people like those I studied and lived with in Las Querubes nor so colloquial that it is not taken seriously by my colleagues in academia. Finally, I have had to learn to trust that the snapshot I have created of the communities in my study will be understood as representative of only their particular communities, at one moment in time—and not as defining and everlasting representations of all Filipino Americans or Mexican Americans.

            Despite these challenges, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to collect the fascinating stories that my subjects shared with me and to be able to present them to a wider audience. I hope that readers will learn from the whole and partial truths that I have gathered and use them to achieve improved understandings of debuts, quinceañeras, and the lives of the immigrant families who celebrate them.

~end of excerpt~
You can read Chaper 1 at Temple University Press' site; and you can also order the book from them.


Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez is an Associate Professor in the University of San Francisco's Department of Sociology, and is the only tenured Filipina at USF (she hopes this will change in the next several years!).  Additionally, she directs USF’s Asian Pacific American Studies program, serves USF's Critical Diversity Studies and Philippine Studies programs, and is President of AWU, a non-profit organization that explores Asian American Pacific Islander women's experiences through books, digital productions, and educational materials.  

 She was born in Honolulu, raised in San Diego, completed her Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley; and studies and teaches about race, ethnicity, gender, immigration, and generation.  She recently published Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras: Coming of Age in American Ethnic Communities (Temple University 2013), is currently collaborating on "Mother of All Stories," an AWU project collecting stories about Asian mothers and mothering; and her new research will be exploring second-generation experiences of "returning home," or visiting and studying  parents' homelands.
Photos are courtesy of Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez, Temple University Press, and Wikipedia
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