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Not Half of Anything

Faculty Focus: Lori Celaya

When it comes to relations between the United States and Mexico, the debate often focuses on the divisions between the two countries — immigration, drug and human trafficking, border security and national sovereignty. But for University of Idaho Modern Languages and Cultures assistant professor Lori Celaya, it is more than a political or academic debate; it is something she has experienced and understands first-hand.

Born in the northern Mexican town of Mexicali, Celaya moved to the U.S. when she was 12. Her parents were migrant farmworkers and she often worked in the fields alongside them. For her, the border is not a line for political debate or a place where one culture stops and another begins. It is a place where cultures mix and histories are intertwined.

“It is very interesting to note that there is so much more that unites us than that geographical line that divides us. Mexico’s border has become the entry, not just into Mexico, but into Latin America. Likewise, from south to north it is the gateway into the United States and all that this encompasses,” she said. “My work focuses on the diverse nature of this migrant nation reflected by the fact that many of us started out as indentured servants, slaves or migrant farm workers. However, when we get beyond geography and politics, when we get to people, it seems that both are just as curious about each other.”

Celaya’s own curiosity has fueled her academic research and creative endeavors.

She has authored “México visto desde la literature de su frontera norte: Identidades propias de la transculturación y la migración” (“Mexico Viewed from its Northern Border Literature: Identities that Result from Migration and Transculturation”), which focuses on the history of the U.S./Mexico border and how literature and other mediums influence and form personal identity. She has also recently co-written an article with her UI colleague Marta Boris Tarre titled “Female Trafficking at Mexico’s Northern Border: A View of the Client’s Role.”

While conducting research for this article, Celaya traveled to the border and interviewed clients of the trade. The journal Slavery Today will be publishing the article in its fall publication.

Celaya also examines the U.S. and Latino cultures in a creative publication titled “Nos pasamos de la raya/We Crossed The Line.”

“My contribution resulted from a graduate seminar I took with UI English professor Scott Slovic during the fall of 2014,” she said. “I co-authored the introduction and I wrote a short story and a poem that is part of this bilingual/bicultural compilation that includes works by fifteen U.S. Latino authors.”

The distinct aspect of this work is that the stories and poems are not direct translations, but each work was spoken in both languages and then written down so the unique ways of telling are captured. Celaya says it is critical to embrace these differences.

“It is very important to know who we are as an American nation. We cannot grow and prosper as one people if we choose to ignore and deny the very weavings of our fabric,” she said. “We do not become watered down or weaker by acknowledging our diverse makeup — we become stronger and can give full meaning to the word “united” in United States. I am always pleased when students from diverse backgrounds take my courses because it presents an opportunity to exchange ideas and dialogue. It also gives me hope for a future that may become less compartmentalized and less divisive.”

Celaya’s next collaborative project is a text called “Spanish for the Professions.” It involves many types of research, including personal interviews of Latin American and U.S. Latino professionals and is geared toward students who need special language skills needed to communicate in various professional fields.

Like her varied body of work, Celaya does not intend on being confined to a single type of academic pursuit or ethnic label.

“I choose to take it all in. It is impossible for me to separate one from the other; I am not half of anything,” she said. “To quote my daughter, I am not comfortable with fractions when it comes to my defining my identity.”

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