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Scholar Spotlight on Jonathan Rosa, Linguistic and Sociocultural Anthropologist Engages the Public on Immigration and Stereotypes

Professor Jonathan Rosa will join the 12th cohort of CRF's Family Research Scholars program this fall. His research into and insights concerning immigration laws and the stereotypes that surround them could not be more relevant. As a linguistic anthropologist who specialized in Latina/o Studies he has been a leading voice in this ongoing public discussion.

He recently appeared on MSNBC’s MHP program to deconstruct the recent changes with the Associated Press Stylebook. The AP has clarified “immigration “and how it is to be used. Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor and senior vice president, wrote, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action.” Reflecting this idea that the term “illegal” should not refer to people, the AP has also changed the title of the Stylebook entry from “illegal immigrant” to “illegal immigration.” This standard for newspaper reporting, Rosa argues, is a major shift in perspective.  In an April 6th interview entitled, “AP’s immigration style change is no small thing” he was joined by NBC Latino’s Raul Reyes and Joy Reid from The Grio. Host Melissa Harris-Perry led the discussion about how the AP’s move from using the term “illegal immigrant” changes the tide in the way people are thinking about immigration. 

In the interview, Rosa responds to the question of why does language matter?  In his opinion it is all about language. “It’s important to remember that the AP was claiming that this is accurate and neutral terminology. That’s just untrue…nowhere within immigration case law, no immigration lawyers, judges, etc. use the term ‘illegal immigrant.’” Rosa clarifies that “‘Immigrant’ is defined in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality act as a person who has been lawfully admitted for permanent residence…‘illegal immigrant’ is an oxymoron. It cannot exist. It's really important on a legal basis…people are making a legal claim…it's not actually a legal term. It’s also important to remember the stigmatizing role that this language plays. ‘Illegality’ is not just mapped onto someone's migration status, it’s mapped onto one’s entire person. We don't refer to people who have cancer as cancerous people. You look at people using bumper stickers that say illegal hunting permit, that's not just a metaphor. If you know how terrifying the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids are, literally people are being hunted.” He went on to say, “it's stereotypes about language, about religion, about race that ultimately place certain people under surveillance and leave other people unmarked altogether.”

Rosa’s prior 2012 interview with Slate, “From ‘Wetbacks’ to ‘Illegals’ to ‘Undocumented’ to …?”  addressed the heated debate over language at the heart of U.S. immigration policy.  Rosa states, “This usage of “illegal” is a way of framing an entire population regardless of their migration status.” The full interview can be heard here.

Rosa was back in the news this past July as partof a panel discussion about topics such as the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, U.S. racial politics beyond Black and White, and the propriety of white comedian Tim Allen and his argument using the “N-word” in comedy will help remove some of the power and hatefulness of the word. Rosa says Allen can choose to use this language, but that ultimately it will be up to the public to determine whether this is acceptable.

Rosa is one of the newest Family Research Scholars with the CRF. When it comes to his research Rosa states, “While it is important for scholars to have the intellectual freedom to pursue their research interests regardless of whether there is popular interest in these issues, it is also crucial for the academy to be in close conversation with communities and public debates. Navigating these joint commitments to theory and practice is a challenging task, and I am grateful that UMass is the kind of forward-thinking institution that supports and celebrates this work.” 

Rosa is developing a grant entitled, “Learning Latina/o Ethnolinguistic Identities across the U.S.” for the National Science Founding Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. For this project, he plans to conduct ethnographic and sociolinguisticfieldwork throughout the nation’s most distinctive Latina/o contexts, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. This fall he has invited Ana Celia Zentella, one of the foremost researchers in what she has named “anthro-political linguistics, to give a public lecture at UMass Amherst and she will also collaborate with him on his upcoming  projects. She is a central figure in the study of U.S. Latina varieties of Spanish and English. Her book, Growing up Bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York (Blackwell, 1997) won the Book Prize of the British Association of Applied Linguistics, and the Book Award of the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists of the American Anthropology Association. More about Zentella can be found here.

Full videos from April and July:


Discussion of the Associated Press' decision to drop "illegal immigrant" from its storybook: HERE

Discussion of language and immigration: HERE

Discussion of citizenship rights and immigration reform: HERE 

Discussion of race in the context of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial: HERE  

Discussion of racial politics in the U.S. beyond Black and White: HERE  

Discussion of race in the context of Tim Allen's comments about the "n-word":  HERE





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