When Aileen El-Kadi (PhDSpan’07) migrated to the U.S. from Spain as a CU-Boulder doctoral candidate at age 27, she attempted to fit in with the rest of the students. She listened to hip-hop music, bought trendy American clothes and tried to communicate like everyone else. However she soon realized she was trying to assume a different identity from who she was.
“You don’t just immediately belong to a culture or atmosphere,” says Aileen, assistant professor and director of the Brazilian studies program at the University of Texas El Paso. “The moment I understood I didn’t have to perform all the time or try to belong, but instead could be myself and let other people understand my reality, I found a balance.”
Aileen’s own nationality is difficult to define. She comes from a multi-racial family — her mother is Italian and German and her father is Egyptian — and she was born in Argentina but grew up in Brazil. She studied in Spain and later moved to the U.S. to pursue further education. As a result, whenever a nationality box is asked to be checked, she leaves it blank.
Aileen shares her story with her students in her Latin American studies classes and asks them to let go of their perceptions of identity and focus instead on the term “identification,” which she feels is the freedom for everyone to choose who they are and to which group he or she belongs.
“Even in the most progressive and intellectual environment where we talk about global citizens, equal opportunities, affirmative action programs and denounce discriminatory acts, we cannot avoid labeling, pigeonholing and assigning ‘identities’ to individuals and cultures,” she says.
Many of Aileen’s students are from Mexico and the first to go to college. They often will segregate into groups apart from other students in the class, timid and unconfident because of the fixed realities they’ve built for themselves, she explains.
“My goal is to have students interact and work together to break these stereotypes,” she says. “More than ever we have the power to communicate our differences and argue that others should accept those differences.”
Aileen chronicled her story as a migrant in a book she also co-edited, Sam No Es Mi Tio. The anthology, published in 2008, contains the stories of 23 other Latin American writers, reporters and members of the academia who migrated to America, many of whom left an upper-class lifestyle in Latin America to work difficult jobs in the U.S. to attend college. The book aims to deconstruct fixed ideas people often have about migrants.
“Aileen is a unique kind of scholar,” says Fernando Sanchez, assistant professor of Spanish at California Polytechnic State University. “There is fire in her mind and intellectual wisdom in her heart.”
Photography ©Shutterstock/Alexander Ryabintsev