About Lisa A. Flores, Ph.D.: Lisa Flores is Josephine Berry Weiss Chair of the Humanities and Professor in the Departments of Communication Arts & Sciences and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). An acclaimed critical rhetorical scholar, Dr. Flores’ research focuses on rhetorics of racialization and the politics of migration. Dr. Flores’ publications include her 2020 book, Deportable and Disposable: Public Rhetoric and the Making of the “Illegal” Immigrant, as well as numerous book chapters and essays in leading communication journals like Quarterly Journal of Speech, Women’s Studies in Communication, and Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies. Dr. Flores’ is also co-editor of the anthology Readings in Cultural Contexts, with Thomas K. Nakayama and Judith N. Martin.

Dr. Flores’ contributions to rhetorical criticism have been recognized with numerous awards from the National Communication Association, including the Douglas W. Ehninger Distinguished Rhetorical Scholar Award, which celebrates scholarship in rhetoric and public address, and the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award, which honors critical scholarship on rhetoric and public discourse. She has also received distinguished scholar awards from the Rhetorical Communication Theory Division and the Critical and Cultural Studies Division of NCA.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Dr. Flores was Professor of Communication and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Colorado Boulder. Dr. Flores received her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, her M.A. from Northern Illinois University, and her B.A. from Berry College in Georgia.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in bringing rhetorical criticism into conversation with critical perspectives on race, gender, and colonialism and begin to focus your research on the rhetorics of borders, migration, and migrant identities?

[Dr. Lisa Flores] I began my Ph.D. program thinking that I was going to study Russian politics and argument theory. This was in the early 1990s, and the US went into the Persian Gulf War. It was my first time watching war on television in any concentrated fashion. I had just begun my Ph.D. program, and I found myself struggling with the tension and disconnection between what I was studying in rhetoric and what I was seeing on screen. I was in an argument theory seminar that met one day a week for four hours and was reading articles on things like the enthymeme [an Aristotelian term describing an argument in which at least one premise is not stated]. Then I would come home and turn on the news.

I started to struggle with my decision to pursue graduate studies. I tried to drop out, but honestly, I could not find a job that paid what my assistantship paid. I had to stay in grad school. Then I found my way into a women of color feminism class, and it changed everything about the ways in which I thought about my education. Suddenly, I felt connected. That literature shifted the terrain of my doctoral studies.

I was fortunate to have access to three feminist rhetorical mentors, which in the 1990s was almost unheard of. They became my committee. They supported, guided me, and directed me to things I had never encountered. One of my committee members gave me the idea for my dissertation, which was a study of representations of Mexican and Mexican American women in television. I continued to do that work immediately upon graduation in my first tenure track job at Arizona State University.

Somewhere between 1995 and 1998 — I can still picture the day — I was at my office on a Saturday trying to get some writing done when I heard a news report. Gentrification was occurring in and around the university. The Phoenix metro area has a huge Latino/a/x population, and much of it is Mexican American. The report stated that, in a neighborhood near the Tempe campus that was undergoing gentrification, elementary school kids walking to school were stopped by police and asked for verification of their residency. It could be that it was their parents who were stopped, I do not know. It is a memory, but it is a very profound memory. At that moment I decided, “Enough with studying popular culture. I need to study migration.”

I made a concerted effort to rethink my research program into studying migration. Shortly after, I took a position at The University of Utah, where I was jointly appointed in the Department of Communication and the Ethnic Studies Program. I was teaching an introductory course in Chicano/a Studies, which I was not trained in. I had no background in that at all and no background studying race, other than that one women of color feminism class. I just had to figure it out.

In teaching this class, I discovered an interesting narrative around what it means to be Chicano/a Mexican American in the United States. As I taught that history, I learned about the significance of the early years of the 20th century. This seemed to me like a perfect project. It was a history that was new to me. It was a history I had never seen told in communication outlets. Teaching that course and that history redirected and focused the work that I wanted to do.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book is Deportable and Disposable: Public Rhetoric and the Making of the “Illegal” Immigrant. Could you introduce us to this project, which you note in the book as being 20 years in the making, and how it maps the rhetorical construction of Mexicans in the United States — both migrants and U.S. nationals — as “deportable,” “disposable,” and “illegal?”

[Dr. Lisa Flores] This book was born through teaching the course I discussed in the previous question. It was born because I was teaching a history that I was unfamiliar with. It is a history of this era that scholars, particularly historian Natalia Molina, name the era of the immigration regime. In the early 1920s there was no border patrol and Mexican migration was not even on the radar of US politics. Mexicans went freely back and forth across the border.

I was doing some archival work, and I came across this fascinating moment in the 1920s, when a Mexican who was undocumented was crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. He was stopped, searched, and arrested, but the reason that the arrest occurred was that they suspected him of smuggling Chinese people. So, in the early 1920s the US-Mexico border was seen as a danger to the US because it was thought to be a route by which Chinese migrants entered the US. Chinese people were the threatening migrant population. At the time, Mexicans were not at all on the radar.

The history that I was teaching in this introductory ethnic studies class took me through this 40-year era when Mexican migrants went from being completely invisible on a national level to the epitome of an illegal alien. Within just a matter of years, they become the most contested undocumented migrant population.

I began that project sometime between 1998 and 2001. It was just a very slow project for all kinds of personal, rhetorical, and theoretical reasons. I would write pieces of it. I would get distracted. I would then write more pieces of it. But around 2015, I was now at the University of Colorado and sort of desperate to finish the book, which would move me from associate to full professor. I was seven years behind the expected timeline for promotion from associate to full professor, and I started figuring out that I was asking the wrong questions. I had a nice descriptive story in each chapter, but I had no overall argument.

At the time, in 2015 through 2016 and the election of Trump, we saw heightened attention to borders again. DACA was being contested. Much of this was nothing new, but I got tuned into conversations around deportability. I was watching the news, and I was thinking through what is going on, and I realized that this theoretical lens of “deportability” made sense to return to as a way to grapple with these issues.

I knew enough of the history to know that the US turned to deportation prior to the invention of the illegal alien, which is immediately attached to Mexicans. At the same time, I was recognizing the ways in which I had not done all of the homework that I needed to do as a scholar on history, on context, and on theory.

I have a chapter in the book that is about US born citizens of Mexican descent, which explores the Zoot Suit Riots and how Mexican Americans, mostly male youth of color, especially in the Los Angeles area, were being routinely terrorized. I had to think through this moment and read in order to understand how this related to the logic of deportability. I found the literature on disposability, and then I understood the connection. Coming to these two literatures, deportability and disposability, helped me think about the concrete rhetorical stories I was telling in the book in that language — as stories of deportability and disposability. Some bodies are considered useful because they are regarded as discardable. That became the thread that helped me pull the book together.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you tell us more about the construction of Mexicans and Mexican Americans as deportable and disposable? How do you see this as connected to your recent work on contemporary “rhetorics of containment”?

[Dr. Lisa Flores] I think my work in this book on deportability and disposability moves us toward thinking about rhetorics of containment. One chapter of the book looks at the Bracero Program, which was a program that brought millions of Mexicans to the US as contract laborers. It was a fascinating rhetorical moment of welcome and celebration, which treated Mexicans as neighbors, as saviors, as friends, as allies. There are all of these media accounts of the buses or trains that would arrive in agricultural towns, and parties were thrown. I thought, “Wow, how cool. Here’s this moment when Mexicans are being actually seen as part of the nation.”

As I was revising that chapter in light of my new focus on deportability and disposability, I was also revising another essay which looks at a more contemporary case — a 2010 United Farm Workers campaign designed to provide pathways to citizenship for agricultural workers. What emerged is that the only way that the US was able to launch the Bracero Program was to revise an original law from the 1800s that banned contract labor. At the time, the US brought immigrants in as contract laborers, and this law said that contract labor is a form of indentured servitude because when you bring somebody down on a contract, you control every piece of them and their lives, and then they have to go back to where they came from.

Suddenly, I realized that the US was really reinstalling indentured servitude through the Bracero Program, and I saw a connection with the efforts of the United Farm Workers, which is an organization that does everything possible to make better lives for migrant workers, most of whom are undocumented. Still, these initiatives were premised on a discourse that said, “Stay in your place. Your place is in the field on your knees picking the crops.” One of the most innovative and dedicated migrant rights organizations was relying on the exact same logic of disposability.

This led me to begin thinking about containment, though I did not call it that at first. The US loves Mexicans, or any racialized or gendered population, so long as we stay in our place. I began to think about the connections between two sites of the management of Mexicans: the border, which we typically name as a site of movement, and the agricultural fields, as a site of promise. The US relies upon cheap labor. We needed that in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1950s, and we need it today. As long as Mexicans stay in the fields, we are all happy with them. We will even give them some form of residency so long as they continue to pick our crops. That is when I started to think about containment as a larger thing — as a process of racialization.

Containment is absolutely embedded in anti-Blackness. The historical work here again becomes relevant. When the Bracero Program launched, federal funds were made available to agribusinesses and to pay the transportation costs to bring Mexicans from Mexico to the US. Meanwhile, the same law prevented those funds from being used to move domestic migrants in any capacity. This meant Black agricultural workers in the South were prevented from moving westward where there was need for agricultural labor. The US effectively saturated the labor market in the south with Black workers and in the West and Southwest with Mexican workers, and was able to reduce wages and keep both populations completely under control as a consequence.

Today we see the same logic being practiced with respect to voting rights: restrict access, restrict movement, contain populations. The promise of containment is that race stays in its place. A big piece of disposability is the restriction of access to citizenship. If voting is one of the ways in which we become citizens, then restricting voting access is the contemporary mode of this larger logic. We see the same process of containment adapted to the new forms required to maintain power today. Imprisoned bodies, felons, are more disposable than just about anybody else. We could look at the overturning of Roe v. Wade and certain states’ commitments to prosecute those who have abortions or assist people in having abortions as a gendered manifestation of the same thing. It is also racialized because the impact of this decision is going to fall disproportionately on women of color.

When you are the subject of rhetorics of containment, you become afraid to move because if you are seen, if you are visible, if you do anything, you are going to be scrutinized and criminalized. You live in fear that everything will be taken away from you. That is not just for undocumented migrants or people convicted of felonies. It does not matter if you actually committed a crime. Racialized bodies have to live in fear of movement. You still have to live in a contained way. That is the promise of race: that we will be contained and do what we are told.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You have published several important essays arguing for a critical reformulation of rhetoric. For example, you authored a number of influential pieces on racial rhetorical criticism, including “Between Abundance and Marginalization: The Imperative of Racial Rhetoric” and recently edited two special forums on intersectionality. For those of our readers who may be less familiar with these critical perspectives, could you introduce us to “racial rhetorical criticism” and how your critical approach brings a focus on race into conversation with intersectional feminisms?

[Dr. Lisa Flores] The ways I think about racial rhetorical criticism today are slightly different than they were when I wrote the 2016 essay, but I will focus on where I am now. If I were going to try to define racial rhetorical criticism, I would say that it is a project that expects rhetorical scholars, particularly those of us who work to explore some component of marginality, to interrogate rhetorical theories, methods, practices, and assumptions through a racial lens and revise them so that it becomes harder for folks to do rhetorical studies without attending in some way or other to race.

I will give you an example to try to make that more clear. There is a fascinating conversation happening right now amongst a number of rhetorical scholars on time and temporality. Rhetorical scholars have always talked about time and temporality and the distinction between chronos and kairos — the time across [linear time] and the time of the moment. Racial rhetorical scholars today, informed by race scholars in interdisciplinary ways, are saying, “All those theories about time are white. They presume progress. They have a particular path.”

Black scholars are very clear that such theories serve particular racial ends. If we look, for instance, at the slave trade and slavery, there is no clear past, present, or future. Slavery did not end. Its logic continues today. When we locate it in the past, we presume it is over; we ignore the ongoing manifestations and the long arc of violence. In response, rhetorical scholars today like Ersula J. Ore, Logan Rae Gomez, and Matthew Houdek, are retheorizing rhetorical conversations of time and temporality from that racial perspective. That is what my hope is: that racial rhetorical criticism is a project where rhetorical scholars say, “Here’s this rhetorical question that is so central to the discipline, what happens when we put it in conversation with literature or debates in scholarship on race? How do we shift our theories, our practices, our ways of understanding, so that we make possible different ways of knowing and thinking?”

I hope that scholars will hear the word race in racial rhetorical criticism as really capacious and intersectional and necessarily also about doing decoloniality, about doing gender feminism, queer theory, sexuality studies, and ability studies. In my first piece on racial rhetorical criticism, “Between Abundance and Marginalization,” I said if I had way more time and way more pages, it would not be racial rhetorical criticism, it would be some sort of decolonial, racial, gendered, queer rhetorical criticism. I had a set number of pages and a set number of words and a set amount of time, so I focused on race, which is where most of my interests lie. But it has to be an intersectional, multifaceted, always changing project. We will need to name it differently as it grows, but I would never want it to be something where we are talking about race in this narrow kind of way.

[MastersinCommunications.com] As mentioned above, you have edited two recent special forums, both in Women’s Studies in Communication, the first collecting contributions from feminist border scholars and the second from graduate students whose work engages intersectionality. Could you provide us some background on these special issues and what, taken together, they help contribute to how we understand intersectionality?

[Dr. Lisa Flores] Here I want to give some recognition to friends and colleagues in different places with whom I had these various conversations. The intersectionality special issue [“At, Of, and Beyond the Intersections”], for instance, was not my idea. It came to me when Professor Kristan Poirot at Texas A & M University asked if I would consider doing a forum on this.

I was the Forum Editor for Women’s Studies in Communication at the time. My task was to do two forums a year for the journal. Part of Poirot’s thinking, from listening to graduate students in her program, was that intersectionality, as a theoretical, critical conversation, was rising again in really complicated ways. Folks were asking questions about how we were taking this approach, and if it was possible that intersectionality had become the latest buzzword and was losing all of its interruptive possibility.

Together she and I imagined a forum that focused on graduate students writing about intersectionality at different institutions in a range of subdisciplines. For me, what was powerful in that forum were its tensions and the way intersectionality emerged as a contested term. For example, Hana Masri’s piece, “Communication Studies’ Hollow Intersectionality Rhetoric” pushes back hard and says, “Whatever this thing is we think we’re doing in practicing intersectionality, it’s not working anymore.”

Other folks are asking us to think about intersectionality as itself already constrained or contained by the notion of the intersection as a rigid space. Not a fluid space, not an open space, but two points coming together. For me, that forum pushes us to some sense of how we might have been complicit in going along with an idea and allowing the idea to become more token than generative. I do not know Kimberlé Crenshaw or want to speak for her in what she was hoping to do with the term, but my sense is that is not what she wanted. The contemporary conversations on intersectionality are drawing attention to complicating that problem.

The other project, “At the Intersections: Feminist Border Theory,” emerged out of conversations with friends and colleagues. I was in conversation with Karma Chávez and Stacey Sowards, both of whom are friends of mine, about a conference panel we wanted to do. We said, “What if we go to border studies and think beyond the US-Mexico border. What if we think about border studies as feminist border studies? How do we bring these conversations together?” We are clearly all invested in the same larger questions, but these issues are often treated apart from one another.

That came about because I am fortunate enough to have really smart friends who are better read than I am, who say, “What if we changed the questions?” and, “What if we create structures to bring pieces together?” Maybe that is what I hope racial rhetorical criticism does — that it pushes us to ask different questions, and these two forums may become examples of what that looks like in practice.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your work as Professor at CU Boulder you are Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as Chair of the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, and Excellence in Academia) Council. Could you introduce us to your work in these positions? How does your background as a critical scholar of race, gender, and coloniality influence your goals for, or orientation toward, this work? [Note: This interview took place prior to Dr. Flores’ move to Penn State].

[Dr. Lisa Flores] I will start by saying that sometimes I think I could be so much more effective in both of these roles if I were less of a “faculty person”– someone who truly loves ideas and scholarship. Sometimes I just go into my theoretical faculty mode and folks say, “Yeah, but what are we going to do?” I say, “Well thinking is doing,” and they say, “No, really, what are we going to do?’

My campus IDEA Council is responsible for helping our campus think about our IDEA Plan, and our IDEA Plan is huge. We have 36 big recommendations and about 150 small recommendations. There is an accountability structure that makes certain schools and colleges responsible for implementing at least the first 22 recommendations, which are about undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff. In my Associate Dean job, there is just one of me, so I had to decide what to tackle first. The IDEA Council’s charge right now is to help campus units think about what issues are most pressing to them if they do not have the depth and breadth to pursue all the things that the IDEA plan assigns them and have to choose.

If we are going to prioritize, we need to hear from campus. We could pick, but that is just us picking, right? It is no better than anybody else picking. Instead, we are gathering data, we are doing qualitative research and then distilling it and using it to make these decisions.

My rhetorical training is almost empirical in that if I do not have textual evidence to make my point, I am not going to allow myself to make that point. I need to be able to trace a particular textual pattern before I am going to say, “Here’s what I think is happening.” I think the same thing allows me in these campus meetings to hold a particular politic, which is a critical race, feminist, queer, decolonial politic, and attend to the institutional realities that make some things possible and others unlikely.

One way my background in critical race and decoloniality is a benefit is that it allows me to recognize the reality that, as an institution, we are inherently conservative, if not white supremacist. This means we need to commit to listening to what might be possible. I also hope that it means that, when the IDEA Council talks to all of campus and says, “Here is what we learned and here is what we want you to think about in your very on-the-ground work in your unit,” that these recommendations are at least partly informed by a critical race, feminist lens.

This translation may not be as successful in my Associate Dean job, but it could be. This Associate Dean position is relatively new. Nobody really knows what they want except to fix everything, which of course is not possible. As Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I strive to figure out how to cultivate a more equitable, inclusive, accessible and diverse college.

I try to be very intentional about making diversity the last of those terms. Diversity cannot be the first thing, because then all we are doing is bringing in a lot of different bodies who are likely to cycle through the same revolving door because the university is not able to hold us and help us to thrive. We need to build equity, inclusivity, and access through thinking about both university policy and through scholarly norms like our merit and promotion standards. We need to interrogate the ways we continue to reinscribe narrow notions of excellence, like which journals a person publishes in. It is time to rethink things like merit.

We are also in a place of heightened fragility and alienation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not in-person, but we are not remote. The levels of anxiety are heightened, the levels of fatigue are heightened. We need to think about how we hold community. How do we bring graduate cohorts, who spent their first year and a half on Zoom and maybe have no sense of who anybody else is, together? These are some informal pieces that are especially pressing. It is an important time to reinvest in the creation of thriving communities.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in critical perspectives in rhetorical criticism, and more specifically rhetorics of race, borders, and migration, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?

[Dr. Lisa Flores] Higher education is going to ask us to choose: “Are we A or B? Do we want to do X or Y?” I think that the expectation that we choose requires us to commit far too early to things that we do not know that we are ready to commit to. It also asks us to be safe, narrow, and linear, when I do not think that this work is linear in any way.

Delay the choices. Going back to our discussion of rhetorics of containment, allow yourself time to move between and across and in and through every conversation. Know that the academy remains a very alienating and often violent institution that asks scholars of any age to stay in our places. My advice is to stop staying in your place, but to know that every time you move, you bring risk upon yourself.

Graduate school should be a space where you have the freedom – though I do not like that word – to throw all of the toddler tantrums and be as uninhibited as a third grader in your ideas. Do not worry about getting it wrong. Expect that you are going to get it wrong, and allow yourself to be bold and provocative, and take as many risks in your ideas as possible.

I think higher education wants us to produce a finished product on our first draft. We cannot produce a finished product on our first draft. We constrain ourselves when we conform to the rules of, “The paper is due on Saturday.” Sure, the paper is due on Saturday, but your ideas are going to continue to grow for the next three years. Turn in the paper. Just imagine it like your first words when you were a young child. You get the words wrong because you are learning a language and do not know the right grammar. So what if you messed it up?

Give yourself that space to make mistakes because that is where the real power comes from — when we gift ourselves the creativity of youthfulness, of young ideas. We read a finished product and then we think we have to produce a finished product. We do not always remember that the finished product, the book or the essay that blew us away, was a draft for three or even ten years.

Thank you, Dr. Flores, for sharing your insight on rhetorics of race and migration, intersectional rhetorical criticism, your work as Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and more!


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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.