Toward a Better Understanding of the Immigrant Experience

May 10, 2013

"Every country in the world experiences immigration of people and animals and we should all be collaborating and looking for ways to work together and not fear the differences in each other." -Maria Aguayo Telles (Photo credit: Lily House-Peters)

Having worked at the UA for 26 years now, I am a three-time alumna of this exceptional University and continue to be part of it. Red and blue runs through my veins, and I am very proud to be a Wildcat.

During my time at the UA, my educational and work experiences have connected me to many places where I have been able to work with national and international constituents and colleagues. Because my prior and current research centers on different aspects of transnationalism, I have presented in many places here in the U.S. as well as Barcelona, Spain and Santiago de Cuba in Cuba.

As a master's student in the language, reading and culture program, I found that the contributions of immigrants from Mexico were often overlooked. With close ties to the immigration community, specifically from Mexico, the intent of my initial research was to understand the social and cultural capital of immigrants coming to the U.S.

At that time and supporting the work of the prominent sociologist Alejandro Portes, I investigated individuals who followed a selective acculturation path – those who adopt some of the host society’s traits without completely giving up their identity. For example, individuals in the study were eager to learn English, but not willing to give up Spanish. They incorporate the American holidays in their lives as they continued to celebrate the Mexican holidays and traditions.

My findings also suggested that the way Portes conceptualized acculturation paths more clearly describes the current immigration wave, which includes more Latinos and Asians than before. The current trend does not support sociologist Milton Gordon’s theory of assimilation, which was more appropriate for the immigration waves into the U.S. from Europe.

Later, I focused on transnationalism.

Understanding that transnationalism was a vibrant social phenomenon occurring around the globe, and also in the southwestern region of the U.S., I wanted to explore the lives of immigrant populations and also to investigate how transnationalism takes different forms.

Attuned to conversations about immigration taking place within the U.S. political system, I observed that a specific type of perspective arose in conversations about documented Mexican immigrant; that such individuals posed challenges rather than being assets or part of the fabric of the U.S.

As I continued my research, I began to study the relations and history between Mexico and the U.S., connecting with some of the best scholars and historians at the UA, including UA Regents' Professor Oscar Martinez of history and Richard Ruiz, who heads the Mexican American studies department. Ruiz became my mentor, and always provided guidance, connections to contacts, information and other research materials. Before long, Ruiz also became instrumental in my studies, later serving as my master's degree director and dissertation chair. Today, I credit Ruiz for what I have been able to accomplish.

Also, one semester I took a class on immigration and education from Luis Moll, a teaching, learning and sociocultural studies (TLS) professor, and was thoroughly impressed with his scholarly work and knowledge. Moll also would eventually serve on my dissertation committee. This great Vygotskian also became instrumental in my research.

In studying what social capital immigrants bring to society, I found that instances of transnationalism occur daily and in domains that are social, political, cultural, economic, pharmaceutical, educational and technological. In public discourse, such things are not generally taken into account. 

I also understood that the importance of a positive host society is crucial in the path immigrants take. Not having a welcoming host society results in a different, sometimes negative path for some.

This summer, I am scheduled to present in Prague in the Czech Republic, further promoting the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, TLS and the Department of Mexican American Studies. Also, I soon will be able to represent the UA Department of Medical Imaging after taking a post serving as assistant to Diego Martin, the department head. Such opportunities are instrumental in promoting the UA and the state of Arizona, which has made history in so many different ways, especially with regard to impacting immigration reform. The whole world wants to learn the intricate details of Arizona.

Maria Aguayo Telles is currently the program coordinator for the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry. Telles has earned three degrees from the UA: and a master's degree and doctorate in language, reading and culture with an emphasis in immigration. Her areas of research include Middle Eastern Studies, U.S.-Mexico relations, immigration, transnationalism and history. Telles has more than 26 years of administrative experience at the UA and has served on many internal and external committees, boards and institutes. Telles has facilitated policy workshops for students, administrators and faculty.