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"What does it mean to be a Puerto Rican woman?": A study on cultural identity, collective agency and representation

Jocelyn A Geliga Vargas, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation provides an ethnographic account of a popular education-fieldwork project carried on with a group of Puerto Rican women (puertorriqueñas ) residing in a small Western Massachusetts city. The project, intended to examine the processes of individual and collective identity formation, affirmation, and representation in the context of the diaspora, was conducted from November, 1995 through June, 1997. At a theoretical level, this dissertation manages to contextualize the macro-structural approaches prevalent in the literature on nondominant identities produced within both postcolonial scholarship and Cultural Studies in Communication. Its focus on the experiences and histories of the diasporic puertorriqueña allows this work to engage with the complex debates on identity and nationality that have enthralled generations of scholars and critics committed to inscribing Puerto Ricans as a distinct pueblo (people) despite their lacking a nation-state; and to challenge the de-gendered character of the national fictions that have been written by Puerto Rican intellectual and political elites during the past two centuries. By wedding ethnographic fieldwork to popular education—defined as a political praxis that entails both reflection upon the world and concerted action toward transforming it (Freire, 1974)—this investigation renders a program of scholarly research capable of redistributing the privilege of education and cultural interpretation, via fostering reciprocal collaborations between the researcher and those conventionally thought of as her “research subjects.” Las Luchadoras, as the (puertorriqueñas) on whom this work is based came to name themselves, provide a portentous example of how research participants can become themselves researchers of their own culture and histories, thus turning the fieldwork process into a forum for effecting social transformations. Finally, at an ethical and political level, this dissertation discusses the usefulness of testimonial practice—the collective process of eliciting, listening to and responding to oral histories—as a means for challenging and subverting the colonizing dichotomies of traditional ethnographic methods, namely: observer/observed, reader/writer, self/other. In so doing, it provides a model for both generating popular histories that advance a rooted understanding of the intersections of class, gender, capitalist and colonial ideologies, and for making academic work accountable to marginalized group’s own struggles for political enfranchisement and self-representation.

Subject Area

Social studies education|Cultural anthropology|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Geliga Vargas, Jocelyn A, ""What does it mean to be a Puerto Rican woman?": A study on cultural identity, collective agency and representation" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920604.