“We can do everything, but we can’t do it all at once”: Motherhood, Children’s Books, and Activism in Conversation with Madelaine Cahuas

Fatemeh Nasr Esfahani & Wendy Lutter with Madelaine Cahuas


Madelaine: Good morning. Hi, everyone! How are you all doing?[1]This conversation took place on December 1st, 2023, via Zoom, from 11:30 AM to 1:15 PM.

Fatemeh: We’re doing great. We’re so excited that you can give us some time.

Madelaine: Thank you.

Fatemeh: Ok, so let’s begin. In your recent publication, “Voicing Chicanx/Latinx Feminisms and Situating Testimonio in Geographical Research”, you engage in a comprehensive discussion regarding the challenges, considerations, and dilemmas associated with conducting research within Indigenous and Latinx communities. In this regard, you emphasize the paradoxes of needing to adhere to the rules and regulations of academic work, and meeting the expectations and requests of colleagues and fellow researchers, while also prioritizing the voices of Indigenous and marginalized communities that must be heard and understood. In light of these considerations, we are interested in gaining further insight into how you have sought to balance the institutional demands regarding your work as a researcher and your ethical, intellectual, and political commitments as members of your communities. What has this pursuit of justice meant in different phases and at different junctures of your academic life thus far? In this regard, we would love to hear from you about the ways in which an embracing of testimonio has allowed you to navigate this difficult terrain across ‘academia’ and ‘community’.

Madelaine: Yes, absolutely it was a challenge negotiating institutional demands with community goals and my own ethical, intellectual, and political commitments, and I found promise with testimonio as a method. Thinking back to my time as a graduate student, the institutional demands included completing coursework, passing preliminary exams, writing and defending my doctoral proposal, doing research, writing a dissertation and then publishing, teaching, and doing service for the university. All of these are learning exercises and also professionalization exercises. They are exercises that train you how to speak, write, and present yourself in a way that signals academic competency, merit, and excellence.

But what are the community demands? What was asked and needed of me by my community? The Latinx community workers I was in conversation with did not care about how versed I sounded in scholarly debates or the disciplinary intervention I was making, although I know that can be a thing in certain activist circles. Instead, what was required of me was meaningful presence. By meaningful presence I mean showing up to organizing meetings, listening to people, like really humbly listening to people even if you disagree and not rushing to interject or critique. Meaningful presence also involves lots of problem-solving, and making sure that the community work gets done, whether it’s the organization of an event, a popular education workshop, project, or campaign. For me, meaningful presence also meant showing up in spaces to show solidarity with another organization’s work, at a community, city or school board meeting or public protest. Meaningful presence for me also looked like late-night phone calls, unscheduled conversations, quickly writing letters of support and solidarity; and picking up almost forgotten items for an event. So you can see that there are critical differences between what is needed institutionally and what is needed within the community setting that I was in.

Reflecting on these competing demands now, I can see more clearly how they don’t easily align and actually require different ways of being. For example, to survive an incredibly elitist, competitive, and isolating university, I felt like I had to put on a mask that hid, or at least held back, my true feelings that would cast me as too angry, emotional, naive or not theoretically sophisticated enough. On the other hand, in Latinx feminist community spaces with MUJER,[2]MUJER was a Latin American feminist organization in Toronto, Canada. In 2017, the name was changed to PODER to better reflect its membership and mission to create spaces that center trans, queer, … Continue reading now known as PODER, I was able to be vulnerable and humble, which was crucial to build long lasting trusting relationships.

When I decided to focus my dissertation on Latinx community workers in Toronto, I got some funny, puzzled looks from people in my department. Not my supervisor. She was always very supportive and believed in my vision, and thought of me as very capable even when I was gripped with self-doubt. The questions I was continuously presented with by others was whether the Latin, American, or Latinx population in Toronto was significant enough to study? Would this research be fundable? And would I be able to make generalizations and policy proposals by talking to Latinx community workers?

I still cringe at these questions. While I know some people asked me these questions out of genuine concern that I was going to ruin my career because getting funded and making hypothesis-tested generalizations is what is valued in the academy, these questions are incredibly limiting and reproduce exclusion. Following the logic of these questions (and the white neoliberal academy), if your community or the people you’re in conversation with don’t represent a statistically significant portion of the population, then they are deemed undeserving of scholarly engagement. Also following this logic, if your research is not read as fundable by the predominantly white men assessing you, or if it doesn’t lead to generalizations and policy recommendations, then it is apparently pointless.

So how to move forward? Bravely. If you believe in your community, you believe in your community, and that is enough. I don’t deny that I still hear the echo of these questions in the back of my mind, and sometimes they edge their way to the front. But then I think about how I would explain this anxiety to Latinx community workers, my compañerxs, and I am immediately embarrassed at how ridiculous it would sound.

So at that specific juncture of my academic life, being a graduate student and figuring out my dissertation project, what justice looked like to me was honoring the stories of the people that I cared about and organized with. During that time I saw many young women in my community being exploited and silenced across urban political spaces like non-profit organizations, local institutions, and municipal governance. I wanted to resist this by gathering their testimonios as evidence that we not only exist, but that we have lessons to offer for building more equitable urban futures (see Cahuas 2018). Now at this juncture of my academic career, being an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, away from home, in the wake of a pandemic and global uprisings for racial justice and abolition, I’m figuring out again what justice looks like in my role. One thing I return to that I mentioned earlier was the importance of meaningful presence and I’ve had to get creative with that since I was not able to return to Toronto for nearly two years. I’ve had to use whatever tools at my disposal, like WhatsApp and Zoom, to intentionally maintain relationships with Latinx community workers and friends at a distance. Many people were suffering, emotionally, financially, and even physically, with COVID. I did my best with the capacity I had to let people know I was present, even if I was not physically there by not only checking-in online, but also participating in mutual aid and purchasing and promoting the work of self-employed Latinx artists and cultural workers.

Another way I try to advance justice is by making scholarly arguments, that foreground testimonio as a valid geographical method and growing the field of Latinx geographies. I can say more. I just feel like I’m talking a lot.

Wendy: Oh, that’s great. Say more. I think that just understanding these two terrains is important. Because, as you said, they’re so different. And it’s almost like you were having to have split conversations, or split personalities.

Madelaine: Yes, it definitely felt like it and it still does much of the time. However, I think now as a professor and having published my work on testimonio and Latinx geographies, I feel more empowered to do this kind of work in the academy. What I mean is that I feel more confident bringing lessons from community organizing into my teaching and how I approach service within academic institutional spaces. I have also found that testimonio allows me to do research that challenges ideas of objectivity or neutrality and the power hierarchies that are embedded within knowledge production (see Cahuas 2021). Testimonio demands that we approach women of color as holders and creators of knowledge and as agents of social change. When I was gathering testimonios, there was this deep understanding among Latinx community workers about why I was doing this work, and why telling their stories was important to creating change.

After I gathered testimonios from Latinx community workers, I brought us together in two workshops to have pláticas[3]“Plática” is a Spanish word that means conversation and is also considered a Chicana/Latina feminist method. See, Socorro Morales, Alma Itzé Flores, Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano & Dolores … Continue reading or conversations to make sense of what was shared. Taking this approach reaffirmed how testimonio is also a community-building process since connections were made and relationships were reaffirmed among Latinx community workers working across different organizations. We came up with action plans around what could be changed. These spaces did help spark more conversations and showed people that they’re not alone, and that there are other organizations doing work in a more non-hierarchical way. It’s my hope that these small interventions through my research and community work make it a little easier for future researchers, especially from underrepresented backgrounds, to do work that emerges from their lived experiences and the struggles of people they are in community with. I want people to be able to lead with their hearts and political convictions rather than with the limiting metrics of academic institutions.

This is definitely not an easy road, and there are no guarantees. But at least you will have your integrity if that is what matters to you. This is why I tell students to do the project that speaks to them and that is needed by communities, versus, what they think institutions or grant funders want you to do.

Wendy: It’s that whole piece of how you were talking about starting small. But that starting small, then, seems to be able to show people that it can be done. And then there’s that example, and they’ve experienced it. So they know that we can continue to do it. That’s really powerful—to start small and have it be authentic.

Fatemeh: Madelaine, thank you so much for the insightful comments and advice you provided; they are really helpful. Yesterday, during a conversation in Prof. Richa Nagar’s class[4]This was Richa Nagar’s graduate seminar, “Genealogies of Feminist Theory,” held in the Department of Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, in Fall 2023. we discussed how institutions, particularly universities, can lead to isolation. The demands of different departments often push us back to our rooms, focusing solely on our research. One powerful term that came up in our discussion was “scholars who just write” and do research without actively advocating for communities and people. Your observations about the connection between our work and communities resonate strongly and provide valuable insights.

Wendy: Before we get to the next question, I’ve been thinking about the point when you asked, “how do you do it?” And you said that you do it “bravely.” How were you able to go to those mostly white men in academia and get them to listen to you so that you could do this important work and not feel shamed or silenced?

Madelaine: I don’t think I had so many roadblocks institutionally in doing this work. I had a very supportive advisor, but I don’t think everyone has that experience.

Part of my thinking for my project was like, I don’t want to go and talk to the same Hispanic Latino dudes that are always called upon to speak for our community. Their voices are already there in the few dissertations or research projects about my community. It’s mainly them speaking. And so what I really wanted to do was share the mic and ask the women in my community about their ideas and perspectives, because they do so much of the labor. If you look at the composition of mainstream Latin American-serving nonprofits it’s men who are the executive directors and managers. And it’s the women who are the social workers, housing support workers, the case workers, the youth workers, and support staff. There’s a big difference, in terms of how much money people make, who has more decision-making power, and who actually does the everyday labor of care. If you also look at the board of directors within some of these organizations they’re not very reflective of the community either with mainly middle-class Hispanic men and white non-Latinx people. This is something people have voiced concern about time and time again, especially Latina feminists but they’re not listened to. Within marginalized communities we need to be attentive to how racial, gender, and class power relations get reproduced and challenge this in our community organizing.

So when you’re asking about, how do you do this work bravely, I think about the bravery of my compañerxs who are advancing intersectional feminist agendas within non-profit organizations, school boards, and different levels of government that are overtly antagonistic to their efforts. Their praxis is inspiring and they give me the courage to continue doing the work I do.

Fatemeh: Thank you so much, Madelaine. Your answers are really helpful and very enriching for us. Our next question is related to the term bravery as well. It is about radical vulnerability, and this is the term that we have been grappling with during the seminar we had with Richa. We also see radical vulnerability as a powerful presence in the practices of researching, writing, and being that you encourage, and aspire to, in and outside the academy. We would appreciate your perspectives on how radical vulnerability works to enrich your research, and also whether it presents potential hindrances. Specifically, it would be enlightening to explore how radical vulnerability works in the context of your methodology of witnessing and testimonio.

Madelaine: Yes, thank you for that. So to answer that question, I have to revisit Richa Nagar’s work and her beautiful theorization of radical vulnerability. She says:

[R]adical vulnerability demands a mutual surrender of egos in search for deep, ethical relationships through which members of a collective can labor together to create and enact dynamic visions of justice. No doubt, such a surrender of egos and sharing of authority and trust can be a very helpful and playful practice that can birth co-dreamers, co-authors, co-artists, and co-agitators. At the same time, this vulnerability is extremely difficult emotional labor in a world that is shaped by egos and invests in celebrations of individual merit and glory. Radical vulnerability requires letting go of such investments in individual celebrity; it requires acknowledgment of one’s own mistakes, greed, and contradictory desires; it demands a willingness to embrace sorrowful and bitter truths alongside laughter and rapture; it implies an unshakable belief in the creativity that emerges from a shared journey—one in which the risks and dangers are frequently accompanied by the joys and promises of long-lasting bonds, community, and struggles for justice (Nagar et. al, 2023: 2).

I think what Richa writes here goes hand in hand with my response to the first question. Radical vulnerability is crucial to my work with Latinx community workers. Being with my compañerxs, I wasn’t expected to show off my knowledge or have an eloquent analysis of critical theory. I could say that I did not know, and it was up to all of us to think and create together, with no one individual taking credit for everything. One way that radical vulnerability showed up in my research was when I was listening to the testimonio of one Latinx community worker whom I have known since we were children. I think I was eight and she was eleven years old. We met in the play area of the community center in our neighborhood. We were extremely close, spending nearly every day together during the summer months and began to refer to each other as cousins. However, our lives at home were quite different. She came to Canada at a young age, with her parents as refugees, fleeing a civil war and state-sponsored violence in Central America. Her parents really struggled to make ends meet. As she recounted in her testimonio with me, “you know, we were poor. If you burned the rice and beans you didn’t eat.” While slightly older than me, she was tasked with significantly more household responsibilities than I ever was, which escalated once her father left. And she reminds me of this difference between our experiences during her testimonio; that my father was present and hers was not. That it was my father who went to build bunk beds for her little brothers when her father was absent. I didn’t know that story until that moment during her testimonio.

So I was protected and privileged in my two-parent-household, completely ignorant of her struggle. It was not until much later that I was able to comprehend the weight of all that she had overcome, and I still feel ashamed that I was not more aware at that time. But perhaps shame is not a very productive emotion. So, thinking with radical vulnerability. I believe these moments where my friend, my dear friend and cousin, raises my attention to the different ways we grew up—It’s a loving act of calling me in, a reminder that I do not know and can never fully know her experience. I am humbled by her strength and brilliance.

That moment between us was so tender and honest and hard. I think that was radical vulnerability in practice. Perhaps testimonio requires and engenders radical vulnerability. And there were many more moments like this with other Latinx community workers. I would talk to Black/Afro-Latina community workers and they were recounting their experiences of constantly being not understood as Latina. Showing up to community spaces and being told, what are you doing here? And getting spoken to in English when they’re like, “I speak Spanish, I’m from the Dominican Republic, and I just got here. I don’t actually speak any English” (see Cahuas 2019a). This is anti-Blackness, which Black/Afro-Latina scholars have powerfully written about for a long time (see Dinzey-Flores et al. 2019). Also speaking to Indigenous Latinx folks, and they discussed having to navigate anti-Indigenous racism within Latinx spaces, and then removing themselves from those spaces because they were so unsafe. Also, talking to queer Latinas and their experiences navigating heteronormative Latin American-serving organizations—like having to fight to post a LGBTQ positive triangle on their door, and being reprimanded for that. Those are things that I can deeply empathize with, but I can’t understand what it is to embody that reality.

I think that being in those moments with community workers, listening to their testimonios, is all underpinned by radical vulnerability. Because they’re being extremely vulnerable with me in telling me their stories, and also confronting me with my own privilege and with my own not knowing, and it challenges me to humble myself. I’m just getting a tiny piece of their stories. It is an immense gift that they’re bestowing upon me and an immense lesson in humility and vulnerability.

Wendy: That’s a great story. I think that you touched on so many things, about just being able to be open, and to listen, and to be able to have that space to have that radical vulnerability. And that story shows how you realized how much you have missed. And you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, thank you! Let’s be in this space together and reflect on what it means,” and that openness is what changes everything about what and how we know.

Madelaine: Yes, how much I’ve missed! Yes, I think about that all the time. I was there all that time with my cousin and I was so ignorant about her life. I was in my child state of mind thinking about when was the next time we were going to play and just unable to appreciate the complexities and challenges that she was facing alongside me, you know, all this time. I credit her as one of the first people to ever introduce me to a social justice praxis. I remember as a teenager saying some misguided things about how as children of immigrants we need to be grateful for our opportunities and work harder to get ahead, with no analysis of race and power dynamics. Slightly older, but a teen herself, she said to me, “that’s not how it works, though. People work hard all the time, and it doesn’t work out like that. There’s a lot of other systemic barriers like racist teachers and institutions that can prevent us from achieving our goals.” Again we’re both teenagers, and she’s patiently educating me and opening my mind to these complexities. She’s giving me a power analysis, and she hasn’t even gone to university yet. Looking back now I have such a deep appreciation for her insight and I am eternally grateful that I can continue to learn from her today.

Wendy: It’s just so powerful too, to think about being able to make time to reflect on that. And just think about those people in our lives who are wise beyond their years, and have that lived experience, and how that goes back to the Academy where there’s not necessarily much credit given for lived experience. And that leads us to our next question. We’ve been reflecting a lot on how activism really fits in with our research, and how we can figure out ways to resist the dominant ways of being in the Academy. We are really interested in hearing what it is that you see as activism.

Madelaine: That’s such a hard question! I am going to shoot it right back to you. Why this question?

Wendy: I think this question because we’ve really been struggling with it. Especially with this time in the world right now, with so much turbulence and violence. How do we learn, and put that into our teaching, and also include that in our research? Where is our responsibility as teachers and researchers and academics, and also as citizens and feminists to be active and to have that activism be intertwined and integrated. Does that make sense?

Madelaine: Yes. I hear you. There are two things that come up for me. One is actually a paper by Sarah Hunt and Cindy Holmes (2015) titled “Everyday Decolonization.” I draw on this paper all the time. It’s about what it means to live a decolonizing queer praxis. The authors share what they call a “both/and” approach that I find very generative. Living a decolonizing queer praxis means engaging in conversations with your community, family, and even your children to interrogate settler colonialism and how it’s interconnected with other forms of oppression. This can look like breaking down holidays, like Thanksgiving, and asking, what are we really celebrating here? The authors also explain that a decolonizing queer praxis also involves the more outward-facing or public-facing forms of activism and solidarity with Indigenous people, like being a part of a protest, or blockade (see Hunt & Holmes, 2015).

So for me, I think activism encompasses these things, the quieter work or the work we do more through our everyday relationships with people in our families, for example, and being a part of these larger actions, in whatever ways we can. But I also feel that it’s never enough, and there’s no end. I wrote a paper some years ago about Latinx community workers, and the challenges they faced navigating the nonprofit sector (Cahuas 2019b), and I had a friend of mine teach it to their class, and I asked, “What do they think? Hopefully, they don’t hate it,” and he responded that it was well-received, but one of the students was confused and asked, “what does winning look like?” That’s a great question, and I’m still not sure what it looks like to “win.” There could be some very tangible wins. For example, tangible wins could be understood as Andrea Vásquez Jiménez being committed throughout the years to stopping Hispanic Heritage Month, a cultural celebration that has been criticized for privileging white European Spanish identity, from becoming legislated federally in Canada. Not only this, but Andrea organized to have Latin-America History Month be recognized at the Toronto District School Board, the largest school board in Canada and most recently this year saw the removal of Hispanic Heritage Month at the school board, something that Andrea and many others in our communities have been pushing for, for years. Another example of a tangible win could also be understood as the campaign to end the School Resource Officer program in Toronto public schools in 2017 led by Andrea Vásquez Jiménez and other abolitionist organizers (Germano, 2017).

However, you wouldn’t have that tangible win if these organizers didn’t have community spaces to nurture them. In my conversations with Andrea, she often credits MUJER’s Decolonizing Latinx Feminisms Course, which was a feminist political education course open to community members, for giving her the conditions to do deeper work around her identity as a Black/Afro-Latina and increasing her fire for ongoing community organizing and subsequently leading her to take up a larger leadership role in organizing. She continues to advocate for the renaming of Hispanic Heritage Month to Latin-America History Month  at the City of Toronto and provincially in Ontario as a first and necessary step along a larger transformative process to meaningfully inculcate an anti-colonial and social justice praxis in the month’s celebration and beyond. She also continues to organize alongside partners across Canada and advocate for policy change that is fighting for policing free schools across Canada and also works on these systemic issues alongside international partners in the United States and the United Kingdom with numerous groups and communities.

So one can look at that and say—Oh, that’s a win, but what did it take to have this person be part of all of this?  In Andrea’s case, one of the multiple things she speaks about is the course, but also, what did it take for people to run the course? It took people taking time out of their day to come together and think and create something different. I was also a part of this course as a student and later as an organizer and it takes an incredible amount of work to figure out how to teach a class that’s a university level kind of class that’s free and open and accessible to the community. By “accessible”, I mean offering food, transit fare, child care, and including Spanish and English texts and translation. That takes work, that takes practice, and it takes experimentation. So, when I think about activism now, I think about all these things.

If we have a policy change, that’s excellent. But also I know that it took a lot of behind the scenes community organizing work to make that policy change happen. Right now, in my stage of life, I’m a mom to a six-year-old. I’m not in the place that I am from. I was mothering  a young child through a pandemic. I don’t feel like I’ve been out in the streets as much. I know other people bring their kids to protest with them. But I’m very worried about that, because we’re seeing people driving their cars into protesters. It is dangerous, incredibly dangerous. When the 2020 uprisings happened here in the Twin Cities, my partner would go out and protest, and I would stay home with my daughter. It didn’t feel safe to take my then three-year-old in the dark of night to protest, especially when it’s winter time, when it gets dark at five. I just wasn’t ready to cross that threshold.

However, I remember some of my friends who were mothers much earlier than I was, and them talking about how, when they became a mom, they felt excluded from organizing spaces and that their kid was treated as a distraction. Or they felt like they couldn’t participate in the way that they had before. And they were really integral members of these collectives that they were a part of. They shared with me that they tried to stay involved, but eventually they decided that in this  season of their life that their activism was going to be their mothering. I wasn’t a mother yet when they told me that and I thought it was going to be different for me. That’s what we all think, but now I go back to their stories—My mothering is my activism. For me, the way that I want to raise my daughter, explain things to her and inculcate feminist values in a way that’s understandable to a child is my focus now. So we’ll read children’s books together, which I love. I feel like adults need children’s books, too, because they just put things in such succinct and impactful ways that I could not do as an academic. We read We Are Water Protectors, a book about Indigenous water struggles and water’s crucial function to sustaining all life on our planet. There’s another book we read called Noodlephant, which is an abolitionist book. It’s about elephants in this imaginary world where kangaroos run everything, and they make up all these laws that are very ridiculous. One of the rules is that elephants can’t eat pasta and they’re ardently surveilled and policed. Poor Noodlephant really just wants noodles. That’s her favorite food. The question is: What is fair? So introducing these ideas in ways that are maybe not entirely obvious, but are quite impactful for little ones.

So that’s my brief, not-so-brief answer to activism. I think many of us are hard on ourselves that we’re not doing enough. I have kind of come to the point of acceptance that it won’t ever be enough. The scale of what needs to change in the world will require so much that goes beyond one person or even one community. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. In whatever seasons of our life that we’re in— If you’re a recent mom or mom to small children, if you’re in your early twenties and have all the time and energy that you want to dedicate to it, or if you’re a grandparent—I feel like everyone has a role to play and not everyone can do everything. And we should be really careful of demanding people to do it all because that’s just not realistic.

Wendy: I love that you are talking about how in this season your activism is mothering, because I don’t think that we give enough credit to that part of many women’s lives, and think about what can happen if you can change that one soul. There’s so much possibility. I had a wise, older woman say something to me that I remember so often: “We can do everything, but we can’t do it all at once”.

Madelaine: I like that, too.

Wendy: I feel like as women we put this upon ourselves. We can do everything, we can do it all. I’ve also come to realize that maybe we can, but we cannot do it all at once. Thinking about how to teach your daughter and how to have that be your activism, being able to make big changes in small ways. That is so wise.

Madelaine: I’m unfortunately still too rare. I’m Latina. I’m bilingual. I’m a professor. My daughter is going to our neighborhood public school. I feel like I can and should do something there. It’s not some savior complex, but l think about how I can be useful? How can I contribute to affecting some small form of positive change, like a ripple that has unanticipated effects? It’s never clear how your actions will create change, but if you create conditions where community is coming together, where people are building trusting relationships, where people are able to be vulnerable and express their needs and desires, where you’re able to make small interventions around social justice, then perhaps that’s going to lead to bigger changes, right? Instead of going into the school and saying , “well, I know how this all works. So these are the top-down policy changes that we’re going to do immediately,”  there needs to be groundwork and conversation happening among parents, families, teachers, and staff. Then, hopefully, within the next five years, we can create more resources for low-income and immigrant families who make up a significant portion of the school population.

Fatemeh: Yes, thank you. I truly loved this part of our conversation, particularly your insights on mothering, parenting, and reading as a form of activism. It is also so interesting because, during our first conversation, Wendy and I realized that we share a love for books and novels. And you also mentioned children’s books and reading together as a kind of activism. It was incredibly enlightening. So here’s our next question:

Many graduate students and researchers like ourselves confront the challenges of transcending dominant, Anglo, Eurocentric, and colonial forms of knowledge production. Within this dominant epistemic landscape, the insights and perspectives of certain communities are often marginalized and stifled. Considering the journey you have undertaken, what advice do you offer to researchers like us? How do we ensure that we do not participate in the violence that marginalizes or reduces Indigenous, non-Anglo, non-Eurocentric knowledge and strives to cultivate a discourse that goes beyond a superficial rhetoric of inclusivity, diversity, and equity?

Madelaine: So there’s no right answer. There’s no formula. Do the work that matters not only to you but to the community. I feel like that’s the most exciting work. I know, we all have different approaches. So I don’t want to say, if you do your research without talking to anybody that’s going to be bad. But, It’s just not my thing. I need to be in conversation with people. But you have to do the work that really matters to you, speaks to you, and hopefully speaks to others. I also think that sometimes we create these grand and unrealistic expectations that our work is going to solve everything. It just can’t. Not one thing can solve everything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time or it’s a failure.

If you get in a room and do a performance for people and people feel something, they are moved, and they feel like they want to act, or if they even just have a moment of relief, then I think that’s something. We need that. And if you do work that can advise policy or the law, then great, why not try?

I think it’s also important to check your interpretations, to have conversations with people, continuously. That has been the most generative thing for me. When I share my work with community workers and ask them what they think and listen to them, that is when I learn that it resonates with their stories and their lives, or that this was really affirming for them. Sometimes, they even say, “actually, I kind of saw it another way.” And then I will say, “okay, let’s talk about that.” So it’s getting over that fear, too, of, ‘Oh no they’re going to hate it.’ Maybe I’m just an anxious person, too. But if your relationships are strong and real, then you’ll be able to get through conflict and disagreement. In “community”, It’s not always roses and butterflies. People have different ways of thinking and trying to do things. The question is how do we come together in a good way? What is the intention here? So, just do the work that really resonates with your heart and your spirit, because it’s a hard road to complete a dissertation. I think it’d be impossible to do it on something that you didn’t care about.

Wendy: You are such an inspiration, and we appreciate your generosity so much. It was a day maker to have a conversation like this. We have so many things going on in the world that are not fun to think about, and to have your generosity and your offerings with us, this was really inspiring for me.

Madelaine: Well, I’m happy to do it. I know what it’s like to be a grad student. I think this is a really interesting assignment and I am just honored to be invited.  These are the best parts of my job—talking to students like you all. And having these kinds of conversations is really generative for me, too. So, thank you again, and wishing you a wonderful, restful weekend and semester.


Cahuas, Madelaine, C. (2019a). “Interrogating Absences in Latinx Theory and Placing Blackness in Latinx Geographical Thought: A Critical Reflection.Society & Space Magazine.

Cahuas, Madelaine C. (2019b). “Burned, Broke and Brilliant: Latinx Community Workers’ Experiences Across the Greater Toronto Area’s Non-Profit Sector.” Antipode, 51, 1, 66-86.

Cahuas, Madelaine C. (2022). “Voicing Chicanx/Latinx feminisms and situating testimonio in geographical research.” Gender, Place & Culture, 29:11, 1514-1527.

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This conversation emerges from the collaborative efforts of Professor Madelaine Cahuas, Professor Richa Nagar, and ourselves, Wendy Lutter and Fatemeh Nasr Esfahani, participants in the ‘Genealogies of Feminist Theory’ Seminar at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 2023. We wish to extend our sincere gratitude to both of them for their profound collaboration and active involvement in this project. Through this experience, we have not only delved into the subject matter of collaboration but have also encountered a novel form of collaboration—one founded on commitment, intimacy, comprehension, and empathy.

First, we would like to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Professor Madelaine Cahuas for the time she dedicated to this interview. She graciously accepted our invitation for conversation, dedicating valuable time despite her demanding schedule, culminating in the article you are currently reading. During the weeks we were engaged in this collaborative interview process, Madelaine spoke to us not only as a highly knowledgeable researcher and educator, but also a friend, companion, and ally. She responded to our requests and emails with kindness and openness. Her valuable insights have not only broadened our perspective but have also inspired us to delve deeper into the critical issues covered here. Madelaine would like to thank her querida compañera Andrea Vásquez Jiménez for her generous engagement with the interview and offering crucial input on what “winning” looks like.

We would like to extend our deep appreciation to Professor Nagar, not only for graciously offering her class as a space of co-learning, co-working, co-reading, and co-writing but also for her unwavering support and collaboration in this particular project. Her generosity in actively collaborating with us, providing invaluable insights and her time to shape this dialogue is deeply appreciated. Furthermore, Richa offered several rounds of meticulous editing and review that were invaluable in preparing this interview for publication.

We are deeply indebted to Dr. Nithya Rajan for her invaluable assistance in reviewing, refining, and editing the draft of this interview. Her insightful feedback and meticulous attention to detail have significantly strengthened the quality of this work. We are immensely grateful for her guidance and support throughout the editing process. In addition, we are so grateful for the opportunity that AGITATE! provided for us to share the conversation with our readers. AGITATE!’s strong commitment to promoting diverse perspectives and fostering intellectual dialogue is truly commendable.

Last but not least, we express our gratitude to all our peers in the ‘Genealogies of Feminist Theory’ Seminar at the University of Minnesota who dedicated time to read through the conversation, offering valuable comments and notes. Thank you!


1 This conversation took place on December 1st, 2023, via Zoom, from 11:30 AM to 1:15 PM.
2 MUJER was a Latin American feminist organization in Toronto, Canada. In 2017, the name was changed to PODER to better reflect its membership and mission to create spaces that center trans, queer, Black/Afro-Latinx, and Indigenous people in the wider Latinx community (https://www.poderff.org/)
3 “Plática” is a Spanish word that means conversation and is also considered a Chicana/Latina feminist method. See, Socorro Morales, Alma Itzé Flores, Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano & Dolores Delgado Bernal (2023): Feminista pláticas as a methodological disruption: drawing upon embodied knowledge, vulnerability, healing, and resistance, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2023.2181441
4 This was Richa Nagar’s graduate seminar, “Genealogies of Feminist Theory,” held in the Department of Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, in Fall 2023.

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