10 Questions with Chantal Figueroa

Visiting professor Dr. Chantal Figueroa, of globalization in education, aims to have her students understand who they are and why. After moving from Guatemala, Dr. Figueroa received her Ph.D from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in comparative and international development education. As a queer, Latina, woman of color, her work with critical discourse analysis is the only way she knows that her heartbreak from injustices in the world are warranted.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

The Catalyst: You’ve dedicated so much of your life to CDA. What are your goals with the research you do?

Chantal Figueroa: So I use critical discourse analysis to really understand how power is being used and to comprehend my own experience in those dynamics of power. Especially as a queer, Latina woman in academia, if I didn’t have a methodology that would help unveil power, I would just feel crazy.

TC: How do you think CDA can be used to improve journalism?

CF: Well I think, politically, today, the media is so polarized that, if we are critical of the discourses that are being used and repeated in the media, we can be critical of the information that we are being sold. So I think you can use it as deconstructing, you know, news and how we consume it, but also in being very intentional with the words that you use. And I think both are important.

TC: What do you see as your greatest accomplishment? What more do you hope to achieve in the future?

CF: My greatest accomplishment … Right now, my greatest accomplishment is that I’ve created a consortium of researchers that do mental health research in Guatemala. And so we are working together to create a survey on the prevalence of mental illness, but through the Indigenous perspective or the Mayan perspective. And I’m very proud of that because I think we need to have the data to show how much mental illness is prevalent in a society so that we can create better mechanisms.

I hope to become an expert on mental health and be able to help minorities­—in particular Latino or queer minorities—in having a voice in their own mental health journey and having the tools to cope with the imbalances of power in their lives.

TC: What do you miss about Guatemala? Is anything shockingly different in the U.S? What do you think the U.S. could learn from Guatemala?

CF: Well Guatemala is home, so I miss everything. In particular, I miss the volcanos, I miss my family, but the mountains help. I think, in Guatemala, we do humor very well—a lot of anthropologists have talked about how Guatemalans use humor to cope—and I feel like I’m not as funny in English as I am in Spanish. So I miss that part of myself.

And the U.S. could learn very much of how to be content, and how to be happy, and how to make light of very awful situations and just kind of always bet on happiness no matter the context.

TC: What hardships do you face as a female of color in academia?

CF: So as a Latina in academia, first of all, there are not a lot of models to follow. There are very few Latinas in positions of power, and seniority, and academia as a whole. So I always kind of succeed in academia out of kind of revenge; like I wanted to prove everybody wrong. So I always had to fight against those stereotypes that I wasn’t smart enough or prepared enough for not having those models.

And now that I’m a professor that really has … That’s been very hard just because you don’t … It’s hard to have a community that helps you be strategic in your career or somebody to look up to. So I think I’ll say like the lack of community. But that has also allowed me to look to my peers as my mentors. And so I’ve been able to compensate by finding community very intentionally, and very broadly, and making those people that are mostly my peers into my mentors and vice versa. So I really enjoy that.

TC: What is one place in the world that you’ve never visited but really want to travel to and why?

CF: Hmm. That’s hard; there are so many places. Let’s see … Oh my god this is so hard … Ok maybe Bhutan—ugh I hate this answer already—but I would love to go to Bhutan because they have a happiness index. Instead of a development index, they have a happiness index. And I would love to see a country that has really focused on pushing back on the idea of development and progress, and really focusing it on happiness and contentment. So I would want to see what that looks like, and see if it’s as utopic as it sounds from the outside.

TC: Based on your year at CC thus far, what do you like most about this institution and what do you hope to see improve?

CF: Hmm. What I like most about CC is how communities are formed between other colleagues and students. I really appreciate how easy it is to make friends, and we can all share our experience at CC together.

I’m actually on this quest of finding the Latino students on campus. I would love to meet them and know about their experiences. And I think more … I think a focus on well-being that isn’t defined in the biomedical model or in the individual model, but a focus on well-being that is about relationships between students and faculty, is what I would like to see improve.

TC: How do you think CC can grow in terms of improving racial dynamics?

CF: Well I see that they’ve … They have a lot of different strategies that they’re employing already, but I think the changes have to be more structural. Like having more faculty of color have decision-making power would help. Also, understanding diversity not as an issue that needs to be resolved but as a … so not as a deficit model of like a problem, but rather, as something that makes us all better and that we all need to live in diversity so that we can actually be better citizens, cause the world is diverse.

And I will also say maybe—and this is maybe because I’ve only been here a couple of months—but a focus on community building locally rather than looking for communities abroad. So I haven’t found a lot of Colorado Springs specific community building. But maybe I haven’t been looking too hard.

TC: Do you notice a stigmatization of mental health on college campuses and in the workforce? What are the problems with this? How do you think these problems can be addressed?

CF: Yeah. I think overall mental health stigma is prevalent because of the history of what has happened to individuals that have been diagnosed as mentally ill. So I always push against this narrative of stigma. And I use the case of Guatemala to exemplify that stigma sometimes is just a fear of reality. So if you’re going to be institutionalized, and overmedicated, and your treatment is going to have violence the way it happens in Guatemala—or it happened in the U.S. early in the century—then you’re going to develop this fear of being labeled as such, right?

So I always push for an understanding of mental health because we talk about mental health but we really don’t know what it means or how to define it. And we almost use mental health and mental illness interchangeably. So I always try to push and ask people to think about how they define mental health. And my definition of mental health comes from a psychologist from El Salvador who defined mental health as in the relationships among individuals: the relationship you have with yourself, the relationship you have with your community, the relationship you have with your state, or with the institutions around you. So if you think about mental health in the relational, as opposed to in the chemistry of your brain, then you have to take into account social justice as mental health. You have to take into account the quality of mental health. You have to take into account dismantling white supremacy as mental health.

So that’s how I see mental health. And I really want to—it’s almost like my life mission to—bring that understanding of mental health wherever I work because it’s a much more holistic project: one that looks at dismantling structures of power and that focuses on well-being, not just on one individual, but how we feel in community, how we feel with ourselves, how we feel with the state. So, yeah. I push a lot on what definitions we take for granted of what mental health looks like. Because if it’s just the absence of illness, I’m not aligned with that definition.

TC: If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

CF: I thought about this question a lot, and I think it would have to be Frida Kahlo. I was like, that’s such a stereotype. But like, to just sit down and have some tacos and some beers with Frida Kahlo would be like the best thing in my life. Just because she’s so … First of all, she’s just magical. And she was so fierce in her time, you know? And I just would want to, for five minutes, like, see the world through her eyes. And I think that would be the best moment ever.

Remi Shore

Remi Shore

Remi Shore

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