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  • So you're "Latina Latina":Positionality and Reflexivity in Developing Scholar-Activist Praxis
  • Thelma I. Vélez

When i signed up for field methods in graduate school, I really just wanted to know how to structure qualitative research that would broadly adhere to positivist epistemology. I admit, at that point in my academic career, I possessed a fairly narrow definition of what qualified as research and how it should be conducted. And thus began a process of un-learning, as I scrutinized forms of knowledge production considered valid by many of my colleagues and contemplated on the type of knowledge I wanted to produce. My research praxis evolved as I immersed myself in scholarship on methodology, ethics, positionality, extractivism, and scholar-activism in the field (Rose, 1997; Hale, 2001; Nagar, 2002; Nagar & Ali, 2003; Chacko, 2004; Koopman, 2016; Valentine, 2005; Breitbart, 2010). Self-critical introspection and dialogue with feminist geographers, to whom I am greatly indebted, led to my own reflexive-turn (Rose, 1997; Foley, 2002).

In this essay I situate my experience as a scholar-activist researching and supporting agroecological expansion in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria and I reflect on some key tensions that have arisen prior to and during my time in the field. I first elaborate on some of the conundrums I considered before deciding to work in territorial space devastated by a disaster, and my efforts to distinguish myself from piratic researchers. Additionally, I discuss some of the tensions that arose while navigating multiple, intersecting identities. To explore these tensions, I begin by providing some personal and professional context.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, I was already embedded in research on alternative food movements in the mainland U.S. At the time, I was mapping the values and goals of various food-movement activists and organizations to distinguish food justice and food sovereignty from less radical food movements. Before this, I spent over a decade working with sustainable urban agriculture projects and mobilizing for food and farm issues as well as farmworker justice in South Florida. Though I am an environmental sociologist who focuses on social movements, political sociology, and food, climate, and environmental justice, my master's research was in agroecology (as a science and practice). I provide this context to highlight that my understanding of agroecology is situated in hands-on experience working the land, and that I share an ideological [End Page 215] orientation in support of agroecological expansion.

For those who may not be familiar with the concept, agroecology is often considered to be a combination of, or the sum of, practice, science, and movement. Agroecology is founded on principles incorporating holistic sustainability and ecological considerations in agricultural production and land management. However, holistic sustainability extends beyond the ecological-economic realms, including social, cultural, ideological, and political principles as well (Rosset & Martinez-Torres, 2013). As a social movement, agroecology promotes security, justice, and sovereignty for people across the world, ranging from small-scale landholders to landless peasants engaged in territorial disputes.

Puerto Rico's colonial status and its growing agroecology movement have received considerable attention following Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico's colonial status is an underlying factor for many of the socio-economic problems on the island today as well as the injustices that Puerto Ricans have endured under U.S. hegemony (Vélez, 2019). Within weeks of Hurricane Maria, various organizations affiliated with the Our Power Puerto Rico #JustRecovery initiative mobilized resources to help rebuild and support Puerto Rico (Dutta, Tyler, & Vázquez, 2019). Unlike most aid organizations, Just Recovery empowered locals and frontline communities to envision and lead their own recovery. For those on the island, expansion of agroecology is considered a critical component of a sustainable recovery and transformation toward communities that are self-sustaining and resilient to climate change.

My decision to engage in agroecological projects in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico was difficult. As an academic, I represent an institution deeply embedded in colonial epistemology; indeed, academics have been known to perpetuate the reproduction of unequal exchange through extractivist methodologies (Tilley, 2017; Kouritzin & Nakagawa, 2018). However, as a scholar-activist already working on food systems and radical movements, I was excited...


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