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Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Navigating the realm of Latin American studies: A Q&A with Karina Vado

From Miami to Gainesville, FAU professor’s journey through education sheds light on the critical need for diversity and the impact of Latinx studies.
Courtesy of Karina Vado
Karina Vado

To Karina Vado, professor at FAU and University of Florida alumna, the importance of education has always been prominent within her life. Raised by Nicaraguan immigrants, Vado grew up with a love for literature and culture, however, never saw a career in English as one that was possible or one that could even lead to success. As a current professor, her track to success in such a minoritized career has demonstrated the lack of representation for a wider variety of careers. 

From growing up in Miami, a city that is made up of over 70% latinos, to moving to Gainesville, a city that has a population of only about 12% latinos, Vado has seen the trivializing effects of lack of representation and further reveals how it affected her experience as a student at the University of Florida. For Vado, her place in society as a Latina woman has always been one of importance to her; further expressed in her current research at FAU: a book project by the name of “Latinx DNA: Race, Latinidad, and the Gene(ome).” 

Vado’s research within the realm of Latin American/Latinx studies aims to further the educative discussion on the effects of racism and the deep intersectionality present within distinct cultural backgrounds, amplifying the voices of people of color to demonstrate their significance to academia. Vado believes in the importance of diversity in academia, especially due to her experiences as a minoritized student in a large public university.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and quality.

What is your cultural background and how was your experience growing up?

My parents are Nicaraguan and they migrated in the mid-’80s, I was born in the ’90s. They had always supported my reading; that was the one thing, that even if we were pressed for money, my mom never limited me on books or my reading habits. So when I did end up majoring in English, it was not that big of a deal to my parents because they understood how important of a skill English was as a major. 

It became a bigger deal when I decided to do the Master’s Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies, which confused my mom due to her lack of understanding of the field and what I could do with that degree. After the doctorate, she finally came around and when I shared that I wanted to be a professor, what that looked like, and what time would entail for my career, she finally understood more. I am very grateful to have been able to figure out what I didn’t like as that is so important for me to stay on this route.

How did being a Latina affect your outlook on education and your experience in education?

Growing up in Miami, I went to schools where all of my education was led by Latinx teachers and my peers were also mostly Latinx, so I never felt in any way that I was not capable of doing things and I felt that it was important for me to surround myself with those who looked like me in that regard. But when I moved to the University of Florida, it was a culture shock because Gainesville is predominantly white and UF was a predominantly white institution, which was the first time I realized how few Latin American students were there; I was one of two students that looked like me in a classroom. 

This was also the first time that I had experienced a racist microaggression as I began to get told that I was “lucky” and that being Latina made my life easier to get to UF. It became really important to me to try to not only think about how we are recruiting students of color into these institutions, but also make sure that we are keeping these students in these institutions and changing the systems themselves to become safer and more inclusive spaces for students minoritized in any way. 

So when I teach and when I work with students, I want them to be seen and that is my biggest goal; that when I am in the classroom, whether during office hours or during class time, I want them to be seen and I want them to feel a sense of belonging in these spaces because they have earned to be there, and that is where my identity definitely colors how I approach my mentoring and my teaching and even my research.

What inspired you to get into the field of Academia?

Becoming a professor was never something I had thought about and I never thought that I could be one, so I originally intended to be a lawyer. So, I went to the University of Florida, I got into the masters of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies there and intended to do a master’s and bachelor’s in that with a J.D. and then I started interning at law firms, but I didn’t really like it and I figured I really enjoyed working with students throughout my master’s program. And then professors who saw that I had potential encouraged me to apply to a Ph.D. program in English, and then I kind of just went from there. 

What inspired you to go after your PhD?

I always tell my students how important it is to figure out what you want to do but also what you don’t want to do, because it will save you a lot of time and a lot of money, as in my case, law school is very expensive. I ended up finishing my master’s program and was very interested in questions of gender and sexuality, particularly as represented and theorized in literature and culture, and it was during that process that I realized that there was such a thing as Latinx studies as an actual intellectual field. It was really exciting for me to see that there were Latinx culture creators and writers who were looking towards science fiction in order to grasp and answer really complex questions about identity and power. 

To you, what makes FAU an attractive place to practice and teach your studies?

Well, I have only been at FAU for a whole year, but perhaps what is most attractive is the location; we are in South Florida, which is a gateway, an area that has a really rich and long history with Latin America and the Caribbean. For me, thinking about this migration of bodies of ideas and ideologies is really innate to my work, especially about Latinx and Latin American exchanges, throughout time, literature and culture. It makes the location of FAU perfect through its hemispherical focus on Latin American/Caribbean studies in terms of what I focus my scholarship on. But then in terms of the kind of institution that it is, FAU professors tend to be very student-centric, which allows FAU to value teaching as much as it does its students, which is something that I wanted: to be able to work closely with students and have smaller classes, which give me the opportunity to develop those relationships with students. 

I was also really drawn to the fact that FAU is one of the most diverse public universities in the state of Florida, which was really important to me because I wanted to practice my studies at a minority-serving institution, which are the kinds of students and communities that I am the most drawn to due to my own background.

How did you get into your field of research within the realm of Latinx studies?

In my master’s, I did a little bit more of Latin American Studies. It was sort of through my advisor, Tace Hedrick, a professor at the University of Florida in Latinx/Latin American studies, that I got to see that there was a field for that. I would say that one of my earliest entries to the field of Latinx studies was the Chicana theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa, who wrote a really famous book, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” and it was upon reading that book that her words spoke to me in the way nothing had ever spoken to me ever before; I feel like I saw myself in that text. 

When I started seeing Gloria, who studied Queer studies and Latinx/Chicanx studies, I began to see all these spheres and all these fields where thinking about this theoretical work to help us read literature and culture more critically to understand it in different ways, that I became more invested in these studies; starting out with Latin American studies and then sort of transitioning into Latinx studies when I began my doctorate, where I needed to pick a field where I had to intervene and engage really critically that I started to do the research for the conversations that were being had, the gaps that might exist in a particular field, which is how I sort of to transition to Latinx studies and then very particularly, a lot of my work to Latinx speculative fiction.

What is your current research and why do you think it is important?

Critical race theory is a distinct, expansive, and invaluable academic framework that I do not formally teach at FAU. As a Latinx Studies professor, I am primarily responsible for developing and teaching courses in the interdisciplinary field of Latinx Studies, as well as courses in Latinx literary and cultural studies. I will say, however, that given that Latinx Studies is deeply animated by a longer history of Chicana/o/x and Puerto Rican socio political organizing, I continue to openly teach about the issues, themes, and political and intellectual concerns that grew out of these social justice movements and that continue to animate the field that I am an expert in and that I was hired to teach about and research. 

How has the new legislation regarding the teaching of critical race theory affected you as an educator, especially as you teach critical race theory?

My current book project, Latinx DNA: Race, Latinidad, and the Gene(ome), takes on the symbolic power of bioscientific discourse and icons in Latinx literature and (pop) culture as a means of interrogating what Latinx disidentifications with science and technology may mean for questions of Latinx (de)racialization in an era captivated by fictions of postraciality and molecular conceptions of identity and self-hood. Critically exploring the cultural, ethical, political, and social dimensions of science and technology and, more importantly, how these inform Latinx identity formations—I am thinking here, for instance, of the deeply invasive rapid DNA testing measures that the Trump administration mandated for migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border to supposedly curb “family unit fraud”—prove ever-necessary in an era of rapidly fluctuating forms of technoscientific racism. 

Gabriela Quintero is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information regarding this article or others, you can email her at [email protected].

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