This interview with Chloe de los Reyes highlights connections among language and literacy education, lived experiences and positionalities, and striving for social justice.
Chloe is a faculty member (Assistant Professor of English) at Crafton Hills College in Southern California. Prior to this position, she worked as and advocated for adjunct faculty for many years. We met almost two decades ago when both teaching and researching in campus writing centers. And we’ve stayed in touch across career changes. Shared commitments have kept us connected.
I know Chloe to be a deeply dedicated and talented educator. She’s a lifelong learner who has taught me a lot about cultures of learning and how it’s hard to be dedicated to anything without valuing learning and unlearning.
Throughout the process of working on this interview, Chloe and I have talked about such a range of potential matters we’d want to address: from her work with the San Bernardino Community College District (SBCCD) Asian Pacific Islander Association (APIA) to the ways that farming and food production impact her teaching. What we ended up with here highlights Chloe’s commitments as an educator reflecting on identity, language, agency, history, race/ism, knowing, and belonging. Chloe both identifies as and teaches multilingual writers, and she describes the power of language learning based on strength and asset (not deficit!).
Chloe shows up in this interview exactly as I know her to be: always curious and questioning, clear about commitments to students first and foremost, and passionate about language for remedying erasure and other epistemic injustice.
I’m so grateful to share this Q&A post with Chloe de los Reyes now, at the start of a new school year. This piece has been so inspiring for me, and I hope it will inspire you, too.
Educators, I believe you’ll find good company and companionship here. I keep lingering over Chloe’s affirmation: “as a writing instructor, I am very much part of the ‘system,’ so I struggle with this, but I sure hope I can do things differently.”
And if you are someone unlearning your educational experience (aren’t we all?), then I hope you’ll keep reading. Chloe digs into how much unlearning there is to do around what we’ve been taught and deliberately not taught. She models lifelong learning + unlearning and clearly describes why learning + unlearning is essential for striving toward justice.
Q&A with Chloe de los Reyes: Language, Identity, and Social Justice
1. Though I’ve heard you describe yourself as new to social justice work, my sense is that you’ve been in it since we met back in the early 2000s. How do you tell your story of coming to social justice work?
My family moved from the Philippines to California when I was 12, and as you can imagine, this was such a significant moment in my life. I spoke English because it is widely spoken in the Philippines (we were colonized by the U.S.). But when I arrived in the U.S., folks readily pointed out my accent or the “funny” ways I used English. It always made me feel really bad. So at a young age, I became acutely aware that language is currency in America, and I needed to pay extra attention to it. This eventually led to a degree in Composition Studies.
At first, my motivation for going into Comp Studies was because I wanted to fix myself—my English—but slowly I started to realize the deep connections among language, identity, culture, and power. I realized how important it is for people to think differently about language and, most importantly, to understand that difference is not deficiency. In other words, there was nothing wrong with me. And that’s sorta how I became a (multilingual) writing teacher. I’m really interested in how we can work with students and begin by valuing what students bring with them to the classroom. I understand that in my role as a writing instructor, I am very much part of the “system,” so I struggle with this, but I sure hope I can do things differently.
Anyway, there are lots of parallels between writing/language and social justice work, the core of which has always revolved around seeing, respecting, and believing in people. My research interests have always revolved around teaching language/writing in ways that honor my students because I know how it feels to be told that my way of speaking or communicating or my language—and therefore, by extension, my way of being—isn’t good enough.
I’ve also spent most of my teaching life as an adjunct and am, therefore, very familiar with the inequities in academia. My experiences in that role further solidified the need to rethink things.
I guess I keep finding myself in roles that reside in the margins. I don’t think I intended to do social justice work. It’s just that I see many things that need changing so I thought I’d try.
One of my favorite API people, Grace Lee Boggs, often talked about how because her parents were Chinese and because she was born female, she soon realized that the world needed changing. I think it’s a sentiment that many BIPOC and other marginalized people feel: a sense of responsibility, urgency, and necessity to make things better not just for ourselves but for those who come after us.
To learn more about Grace Lee Boggs and the need to change the world, check out this recorded conversation with Angela Davis. Boggs begins speaking around minute 20.
2. How do you show up to this work as a Filipina educator—as someone who cares deeply about language and linguistic rights and as someone in a process of learning and unlearning about U.S. colonization in the Philippines?
It’s funny because I was just chatting about this with another Filipina educator. This is such a momentous time—the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, and persisting violence against API, among many other ongoing injustices. This time has really spurred a reawakening in me, and, I’m guessing, in many others as well.
For me, there has always been an intense desire to interrogate many things I have come to believe; however, more recently, these things have become front and center. I want to know “real” history, especially the contributions of Filipino/a/x/s to the U.S. I want to know about the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, especially when the history of U.S. colonization has been largely made invisible. For example, how many folks know about the contributions of the Delano Manongs to the United Farm Workers Movement? I want very much to reconnect + reexamine what I have come to know about who I am as Filipina, as an American, as an Asian American, and as an educator.
Peter Mayshle’s chapter in Immigrant Scholars in Rhetoric, Composition, and Communication: Memoirs of a First Generation got me thinking about my last name. de los Reyes, for example, translates to “of the kings” in Spanish, and it’s a big part of my identity. It’s the name of my family and our history, of the many things that I hold dear to my heart and feel immense pride in. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my last name also reflects the history of the Philippines, especially of Spanish colonization. What does it mean to carry the name of those who colonized my people?
It’s a lot of unlearning of the master narratives touted by history books such as the Philippines being “discovered” by Magellan or being “saved” by the Americans. It’s learning to sit with these difficult truths and making space for whatever arises.
3. You’ve shared with me that the Multilingual Literacies course you teach has been an amazing support to you, even as you are holding space and supporting the students. Will you tell us about this course and the community that has developed? What relational work is happening?
Oh, yes! I know there’s a lot of work on diversity and equity in academia, yet despite what many think, it is still predominantly white, not just in terms of demographics but also in culture and in epistemologies. It can be a very exhausting (and scary) place to navigate. However, I’ve always found community with my students, particularly with those who share similar backgrounds to mine.
I recently started teaching pilot ESL non-credit courses in the last year. (A group of us was tasked to explore the possibility of creating multilingual support structures for my college.) Because these courses were new, there were a lot of unknowns, and we were (and still are) figuring things out as we go. It required a lot of work. Yet, there’s something really awesome about sharing space with folks whom I can relate with on a deeper, experiential level.
Although I openly talk about being multilingual, I think the students and I, in these courses, really connected through our shared language experiences. I’m sure it helped that all of the students were women. I learned so much from them, and our classroom became a counterspace, where we were able to talk freely, challenge the stereotypes of “ESL” students, and express frustration regarding the stigma that comes with the terminology used to describe us (ESL, ELL, nonnative speaker). We talked about our hopes and our fears. We told our stories to each other. No one was trying to fix anyone. We were just learning language together.
4. This course is also an example of the work you do with renaming, reframing, and reclaiming the story. Will you tell us about why naming and renaming matters so much to you (as it does to me)? I really appreciate how you intervene into epistemic injustice.
Sometimes this can look like (insisting on) documenting work (e.g., end-of-the-year reports) that few others may read. At times, this can also mean inserting in presentations, workshops, documents, course introductions, particularly on multilingual literacies, some type of statement or discussion about how language can shape our views and our work with/for students. For instance, I often talk about why I choose to use the term multilingual (instead of ESL) to refer to our students: one reflects deficiency, while the other reflects asset. It can be very hard to reframe things when certain terms and understandings about language learning have been codified (I’m very much aware that official documents, course records, and many other places still use “ESL”), but that’s why it’s important to always interrogate or push against this. Even the term multilingual is imperfect, so I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to describe the work that we do. Of course, changing terminology is just one of the many steps towards changing paradigms.
I think about having (and giving/sharing/co-constructing) agency over the telling of how certain things are or came to be so as to not risk others’ interpretation of them. I’m struck by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s commencement remarks for Franklin and Marshall College, where he quotes Arundhati Roy’s clarity: “There really is no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced or preferably unheard.” Nguyen calls “to abolish the conditions of Voicelessness.”
Right now, I am thinking of all the ways we can uplift unheard stories, including my own. This is not an easy task, but it’s a crucial thing to strive for.
And if you feel called after reading Chloe’s interview, you can donate to a friend’s organization, Island Grad, which celebrates Pacific Islander graduates every year. Here’s a link to make donations.