Feature Stories

Giving Voice

Exploring the role of race and culture in shaping media
  • UMass Amherst communications professor Mari Castañeda in her office

Castañeda is building a Media Justice Network which already includes a number of local media networks, including La Prensa, Tertulia, El Sol Latino, and the Latino Youth Media Institute of WGBY.

As a Chicana growing up in Southern California, UMass Amherst communications expert Mari Castañeda thought critically about the injustices present in her borderland hometown—a skill she is now teaching in her media and communications classes. Castañeda incorporates a personal element into her research and activism, and by doing so she gives voice to underserved populations.

“A lot of the research that I do is very intimately connected to my background, who I am…I feel like I’m contributing to a larger theoretical understanding but also participating in a larger movement,” says Castañeda.

Her research is aptly timed—the Latino media movement is exploding as big-media networks clamor to build Hispanic audiences. The influx of Latino-oriented content presents a unique opportunity for Castañeda to investigate the changing media landscape and its impacts on Latino communities. Castañeda is conducting research across the media spectrum using feminist and critical race theories as lenses to illuminate inequalities in the industry. Since she arrived on campus in 2000, Castañeda has built strong connections through Latino media advocacy work in nearby Springfield and Holyoke. This is an important theme in Castañeda’s work—she believes community service, activism, teaching, advocacy and research are intrinsically connected ideas that should not be separated, and she has won several awards for her ability to integrate them.

Castañeda teaches in the Communication Department, which has a core group of experts focused on the interplay between media and politics. Along with colleague Martha Fuentes-Bautista, she was recently awarded funding by the Five College Public Policy Initiative to jumpstart a Media Justice Network for the Pioneer Valley. In addition to this grant, the Five College Women Studies Research Center awarded Castañeda, Fuentes-Bautista, Bernadine Mellis, and Demetria Shabazz a digital humanities grant to start a Feminist Media Justice Colloquium. Castañeda sees the funding as “laying the foundations” for a major media justice consortium. The funding is helping her build new ties to local media networks, which already include La Prensa, Tertulia, El Sol Latino, and the Latino Youth Media Institute of WGBY. Farther afield, Castañeda is researching media outlets across the country and their impacts on emerging Latino communities with hopes of incorporating them into the network. Castañeda and her colleagues are designing the Media Justice Network to be an open forum for people to discuss media-related issues and work to bridge gaps within the community.

As communications technology continues to advance, Castañeda and her colleagues are investigating ways to pass policies that will promote fair and equal online access. Just as the Penny Press made newspapers affordable to the average citizen in the 1830’s, internet enabled devices are becoming more far-reaching. However, major issues remain in creating a standardized online experience that people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and geographic locations can enjoy.

Castañeda points out these media injustices extend to the global level as well. Maquiladoras, young Mexican female laborers, are working under unfair conditions to produce high-technology devices for distribution in the United States. She emphasizes that from labor to production, and content to access, it is important to look at the whole picture.

“That’s a labor segment that really hasn’t been examined very closely with regards to communication and information technology…and so my work is an attempt to try to, again, address that gap and look at the ways in which these women have been contributing historically and presently to the larger landscape,” says Castañeda.

Big media’s efforts to include Latinos leave something to be desired and much of Castañeda’s research is devoted to deconstructing the institutional racism within the media industry that can sometimes go unnoticed. Castañeda explains that media outlets are culturally divided—a status she is working to change.

On a local level, Castañeda’s work has been invaluable. In 2004, she was part of a team of Five College faculty who received funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop projects in Holyoke to assist low-income Latino families through education, empowerment and advocacy. As the former Faculty Adviser and now the co-chair of the Advisory Board for Student Bridges - a UMass Amherst student-initiated service learning program - Castañeda helps students build educational relationships with the greater community. She is also the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Director of Diversity Advancement.

Still, Castañeda’s most rewarding moments usually arise in the classroom. She appreciates the eagerness and openness routinely exhibited by her students, yet finds that too often, students do not know their own history. Whenever possible, Castañeda brings her undergraduate and graduate students to Springfield and Holyoke to remind them that being American can mean different things to different people. She recalls a recent trip to a ninth grade classroom in Springfield in which she was excited to see a sense of solidarity emerge between her undergraduate students and their more racially diverse, younger cohorts.

“It turned out to be such a positive experience for everyone,” says Castañeda.

Amanda Drane '12