New Faculty Spotlight: Clarissa Rojas and Susy Zepeda

In this “Spotlight on New Faculty,” the UC Davis Humanities Institute interviewed two new faculty members in the Department of Chicana/o Studies. Clarissa Rojas and Susy Zepeda enrich the department’s teaching and research on critical studies of health, and Chicana/o identity.

Clarissa Rojas, Assistant Professor
Department of Chicana/o Studies

The Department of Chicana/o Studies welcomes a new assistant professor, Clarissa Rojas. Rojas has a PhD in Medical Sociology from UC San Francisco and degrees in Ethnic Studies from San Francisco State University and in Women’s Studies and Chicano Studies from UC Santa Cruz. The faculty position at UC Davis is a return to campus for Rojas, who taught briefly as a lecturer in Chicana/o Studies, and Rojas “is delighted to join a truly dynamic department that has led the field with historic innovative scholarly approaches to Chicana feminisms, Chican@ health and Chican@ art.

Intellectual trajectory

Rojas locates the early shaping of her intellectual and activist consciousness in her experiences growing up on the Mexico-U.S. border as well as in her migration to the United States.

When Rojas arrived in the U.S. public school system at age 12, she came face to face with racial inequities and observed a racial structure that determined which students gained access to honors and advanced placement classes and which students were subjected to remedial courses and administrative surveillance. Rojas notes that these experiences produced an intellectual curiosity about how social structures organize socialities and life possibilities differentially.

These experiences formed the foundation for Rojas’ scholarship and activism. Rojas’s research is driven by “the political urgency to address, respond to and transform the co-constitutive phenomena that conjure the possibility of violence for particular bodies.” Her long history in the anti-violence movement informs a scholarly interrogation into the ways the state, macro-structural processes, and social-political institutions shape and produce violence at the most intimate levels for women of color, migrants, and communities of color.

Research interests

Rojas co-founded INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and co-edited the ground-breaking The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, which asks critical questions that emerge when we center the lives of women of color in our understanding and attempts to end violence.

Rojas has documented multiple forms of violence including violence at the U.S. Mexico border, violence in educational institutions, and medical violence. Rojas has also documented innovative approaches to respond to violence. In the 1990s, Rojas worked with undocumented survivors of violence who faced deportation because they sought help with police or health care providers. Rojas critically interrogates the kinds of responses to violence that have produced further harm for migrant, women of color, queer and trans communities. Her recent research offers innovative paths toward alternative efforts to address, intervene in, and transform violence.

Her path-breaking article, “In Our Hands: Community Accountability as Pedagogical Strategy,” shifts the paradigm for how we can think about, learn, and teach the subject of violence in the classroom. The praxis-oriented approach invites participants in the learning experience to practice, create, and document alternative strategies to respond to violence.

She is currently working on a book project that examines, in part, how the transformation of violence is a necessary precondition for the possibility of health among Chicana/o Latina/o communities by investigating how structured and intimate forms of violence “land” on our physical bodies and shape our bienestar, our well-being.

“Violence,” says Rojas, “is a deeply structured phenomenon in our social lives that cuts across imagined individuated scales of social organization and analysis such as that which we might consider as interpersonal, institutional, national, and global.” Rojas’s work intends to address “this complicated terrain in order to imagine and document how it is that the transformation of violence occurs, and may be made possible.”

Teaching and research at Davis

Rojas says she is “a teacher at heart,” and after 15 years of teaching at San Francisco State and Cal State Long Beach as an adjunct and as a tenured professor, she is excited to work with the students at UC Davis. “It is, after all, why we are here, to teach, to serve the students” she says. She plans to teach several courses in the Chicana/o Studies Department, with a focus on the health curriculum, where she will offer her expertise in the transnational study of health and health institutions, de-colonial health projects, and community responses to violence and healing.

An author, educator, activist, and cultural critic, Rojas is also a talented, internationally-published poet whose work will appear this Spring in a collection of Chicana/Latina lesbian poetry. In addition to her compelling academic work and thoughtful teaching practice, Clarissa Rojas is a treasured addition to the Department of Chicana/o Studies and the UC Davis community by sheer example of her creative, collaborative, and politically-engaged life.

Susy Zepeda, Assistant Professor Department of Chicana/o Studies

The Chicana/o Studies Department welcomes a familiar face to their faculty as interdisciplinary and transnational feminist scholar Susy Zepeda joins the department as an assistant professor.

Zepeda came to UC Davis last year as the Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor for Social Justice.  Along with co-directors Ines Hernandez-Avila, Yvette Flores, and Amina Mama, Zepeda organizes and coordinates the three-year Mellon Social Justice, Culture and (In)Security Initiative.

Research interests

Zepeda is a decolonial feminist studies scholar with a Ph.D. in Sociology with Designated Emphasis in Feminist Studies and Latin American & Latino Studies from UC Santa Cruz.  An innovative and creative thinker, she is currently at work on a book manuscript, “Tracing Queer Latina Diasporas: Remembering Xicana Indígena Ancestries,” which explores the cultural production and representation around queer Chicana Indígena women who incorporate ancestry into their storytelling-work in film, sculpture, and painting.

Zepeda explores visual storytelling, thinking with Gloria Anzaldúa’s foundational text Borderlands/La Frontera as a set of methodological tools for tracing Chicana/o indigenous ancestry. Part of her dissertation research looked at Anzaldúa’s sacred objects (archives) held at UC Santa Cruz. Focusing on her experiences with these sacred objects and how Anzaldúa used her meditation with these sacred objects in order to build her writing, Zepeda explores the theory and praxis of writing as ceremony.

Zepeda explains that she studies cultural production because it is a space where she can find alternative narratives. She adds, “Part of the function of cultural production is that it offers representation with many interpretations, giving us a ‘way in’ to a story, and allows us to explore on our own.”  Forms of cultural production and art are “ways of remembering” the past, and teaches about history in ways that are different from linear reading. “It leaves you with threads,” she says.

Research and teaching at Davis

“It is exciting and amazing to be here at Davis,” Zepeda says. Her unique first year spent teaching as a Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor with Women and Gender Studies, Native American Studies and now with Chicana/o Studies, created an important interdisciplinary space for Zepeda in Hart Hall.  She expresses her gratitude to the Davis Humanities Institute and the Mellon Social Justice Initiative for bringing her to campus and into the “rare and valuable experience” of working collaboratively with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates across various disciplines on social justice issues.

“I feel that I have always been an interdisciplinary person, and now I feel that I actually fit here in Davis,” Zepeda explains. “I don’t feel that I have to quiet any piece of my thinking down, but that it’s given me a space to think critically about how I want to make contributions to these fields in a good way, and do the work of bridging in a balanced way.”

As a faculty member in Chicana/o Studies, Zepeda is already teaching a graduate course in the Native American Studies Department on Indigenous Sexualities. This productive course has provided a space for her and her students to think critically about Native American studies and queer studies, in an honest, interrogative way. She intends to pursue the intersections between queerness, feminisms, and Chicana/o Studies, both for her own research and because there is a desire for this intersectional work on campus. She explains that was approached by an undergraduate student, along with her colleague Sergio De La Mora, to organize a queer/LGBTQI Latina/o film festival. In the spring quarter, Zepeda and De La Mora will co-teach a queer latinidad course and plan to bring the authors of the assigned books to dialogue with students in the course.

The value of the humanities

Trained as a sociologist, Zepeda has always worked with an eye towards bridging the social sciences and humanities. She explains that art and culture are ways to tap into histories and narratives that can drop out of our research when we are focused only on social science methodologies.

“You can have more of a profound connection with others in the space of the humanities – because we are doing the work of connecting back to society, to think about what is happening now in our world rather than a detached reality,” Zepeda continues.

This is evident in Zepeda’s work on campus, through the Social Justice Initiative, which deals with concrete issues faced by marginalized communities, and in her personal work to create decolonized spaces for writing and thinking where we can approach our writing in a creative way, rather than as something that “paralyzes us.”

Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies