Dr. Katia Paz Goldfarb knows what it feels like to be an outsider, a noncitizen trying to make her way in American society. Even as an academic who came in through the “front door” with all the proper credentials and even a “green card” and eventual citizenship, she still feels some of the anxiety faced, to a much greater degree, by undocumented immigrants to the country.
That is one reason her research into the lives of immigrant families has been so successful, and why she was chosen as the keynote speaker at the April 12 Latino Issues Conference. “We wanted to have someone who knows research and can speak to research, but we also wanted someone who has worked in the community and knows the community,” said Dr. Rubén Viramontez Anguiano, family and consumer sciences, in his introduction of the speaker.
Now chair of family and child studies in the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair (N.J.) State University, Goldfarb is one of the first Latina chairpersons in the human development and families field in the United States. She is also the chair of the Ethnic Minorities section of the National Council on Family Relations.
Goldfarb used the research methods she employed while a faculty member at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to offer guidance to the young academics at the conference, many of whom were graduate students who had also presented that day. Her research at an Albuquerque public school entailed building connections between the school and the parents, who tended to keep a distance between themselves and the school for fear of contact with official institutions, especially “La Migra,” or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“Remember you are working with the community—not on the community,” she said. Building trust, being respectful, being flexible and “listening for understanding” are key elements in working with a population that lives in fear—of deportation, of not being able to speak the language, of trying to survive in a different culture. “You can feel the fear in them,” Goldfarb said.
“I had to ask what I could give them before I could take from them,” she said of the parents she worked with. Despite the requirement for objectivity implicit in all academic research, when working with immigrant populations, she added, the families’ needs must come before those of the researcher.
“Qualitative research takes a long time,” she cautioned. “You put all the pieces together and then you start understanding.”
No matter where they come from or whether they are documented or not, immigrants “do get that it’s through education they get the social mobility their children need to succeed. We all feel the same: We just want the next generation to have it easier and better than what we endured.”
While at first everything immigrants do is for their children, she found that eventually they learn that to help their children, they must also help themselves. “This is a moment of social movement,” Goldfarb said. “It’s the realization that parents need help for themselves.”
As a result, after building the participants’ trust through their continuing presence, Goldfarb and her colleague at the Albuquerque school were able to address issues of domestic violence, of undocumented people left by their spouses and having to care for families perhaps without knowing English, of intergenerational concerns—“The children are changing; what should we do?”
“All moves—whether geographical, social or emotional—carry a price,” she told the young researchers. “Remember in your work, it is not about what you need, it’s about what they need.”
Being flexible can mean being willing to adapt your identity when necessary to meet the needs of your subjects, Goldfarb said. While, for example, she is an academic, she is also a mother and a Spanish speaker who could advocate for them at times. And even though she is from South America and a native speaker, the Spanish she spoke and the Spanish spoken in New Mexico were two different varieties and she had to adapt. “Never assume you are like someone else,” she said. “I learned there are almost more differences among Latinos than between them and others.”
Goldfarb further recommended being flexible in listening. “Asking yourself what is behind the words” will help you gain greater understanding of your subjects, whatever the setting, she said.
In New Mexico, the very act of working with parents in a school setting was revealing of a greater social dynamic at work, Goldfarb said. For example, once the parents had become somewhat comfortable with the school and actually began to engage with it, suddenly “issues of power” emerged and the school resisted their input. This response only reaffirmed the feeling of disempowerment that immigrants typically internalize, she observed.
“Again, as researchers, and as educators, you have to ask yourself whose agenda are you serving,” she emphasized.