For the past 10 years, Joseph Orosco has taught philosophy and ethnic studies classes at Oregon State. His emphasis has been on American philosophy and Latino/a and Latin American thought with a focus on Mexican culture, history and immigration to the United States. He is also director of the Peace Studies program. During spring term, Orosco co-taught a new class on the Occupy Wall Street movement. We had the chance to talk with Orosco about why he went into philosophy, helping students to find their own paths, and the importance of advocating for Latino/a students by giving them a sense of their own narrative in the U.S.
What do you do at Oregon State?
I teach social and political philosophy with an emphasis on North American and Latin American thought. I also teach occasionally in the ethnic studies department on history of the Mexican-American civil rights movement and contemporary Latino issues.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But I was born in Quito when my mother was an exchange student in Quito, Ecuador.
What drew you to philosophy as a course of study and a career path?
I’ve always been drawn to philosophy as a sort of a practice or a way of thinking. I can remember reading about stuff all the way back to 5th grade, when a teacher gave me a copy of a popular paperback from the 50s and 60s called “The Story of Philosophy,” by Will Durant. I was really drawn into reading about all these people who had spent their lives thinking about questions like, “What is real in the world? What is the best way to live in society with other people?“ It was something that just caught my attention.
The emphasis on Latin American thought in particular, I owe to my mother. When I was growing up she would always talk to me about her experiences about Latin America and the political situations that were going on there. She always painted the story of a really dynamic and interesting political reality she experienced while she was down there. That spurred my interest in Latin American thought. So philosophy piqued my interest in a different way of thinking about things, and why things were the way they are. And then I realized that things don’t have to be the way they are, things can be different if we think about them enough
As a professor, I get to sit down on a week-to-week basis and talk about really cool things with students – some of whom are being introduced to some of this for the first time. We get to talk about stuff that is hopefully really meaningful to how they think about their lives. That always strikes me as something really amazing.
My hope is that learning the critical thinking skills students get from my classes will help them figure out what they want to do with themselves and find their own directions.
Is there anything about Latin American thought and philosophy that can help inspire them to find their own directions?
Latin American philosophy and thought in general is useful, not just for Latino students. For non-Latino students, being introduced to Latino and Latin American thought can show them alternative ways of thinking about the world and how society functions, and their place in a global society. They can see how that there have been societies, like indigenous people, who have done things in a radically different way than maybe the western European way. And that there may be models we can learn of how to organize things in terms of peaceful or democratic societies.
Latino students can learn that as well, but teaching some of this stuff for the first time for them is a way of reconnecting with their roots. I have a lot of students who tell me that for the first time they’re studying things about their culture and a part of history they never knew about. This is true particularly when I teach ethnic studies and the Mexican-American civil rights movement. They’re not familiar with some of the history of these movements in the 20th century, or they’re not familiar with what the war in Mexico and the U.S. in 1848, and how that influenced how things are today. They find out the history of why there are Mexicans in the U.S. But they also tell me what they find really important is that they find their own lives mirrored and reflected in an academic setting. It makes them realize their families and ways of doing things are valuable and important.
Would you consider it to be one of your missions to connect kids with something they haven’t been exposed to in middle school or high school?
I think the teaching of ethnic studies is an important thing in a public university like OSU. OSU has a mission as a land grant university of
being the people’s university, of being there to help the people in the state of Oregon to understand their own history and their own ways of life. One of our first and foremost missions is to speak to the needs of interests of the people in Oregon as they are. I think classes like ethnic studies – what they try to do is look at who groups of people are in the United States and particularly people of color and to do research and to highlight what has been the role of these different communities and groups in the story of the U.S.
And here in Oregon what’s really amazing to me is finding out how diverse the history of Oregon has been. That’s not something that’s normally taught in the mainstream picture of Oregon. You get a lot of stories of the pioneers and the Oregon Trail, all of which is largely true. But usually the stories of Chinese people or Native American folk, or of Mexicans gets maybe a paragraph or sidebar or a picture in a textbook. The folks I work with in the ethnic studies department are all about showing there’s much more to those interactions and stories, and how Oregon has really flourished as a state because of all those interactions. Unpacking those stories for our students is really important.
How do you see those demographics changing over time? What do you see for the future of the state?
It’s really hard to say for future, but I think the Latino population is going to be increasing, and that’s true for all of the U.S.
I think it’s important not to underestimate the importance of the stories of why Latinos are here and how they fit into the U.S. But In Oregon you don’t have longstanding families. In New Mexico there are some families who have been there for 400 years. So they know a sense of place of where they belong. I think in Oregon, you have some long standing generations, but those are rare. To give education to students and a sense of history, and how their family fits in fit in is really important.
How is OSU helpful in that way?
I think OSU does a good job of having lots of different programs on campus that work to try to make sure that Latino students are recruited and retained on campus. One of the best is the CAMP program. The program goes out and targets and recruits students from migrant backgrounds, and brings them to campus.
For a lot of the Latino students they might be the first of their family to ever go to college. That’s true of a lot of students I work with. And OSU has the CAMP program, and lots of different student organizations. It has Centro Latino. I think OSU is conscious of that and tries to do a lot of good programs that make people aware of opportunities on campus. What OSU does really well is offer students a sense of community in a lot of different spaces on campus.
I think what will also be important over the next few years will be the Center for Latino Students. That will be an important resource here on campus for research and teaching about the Latino experience in Oregon. I’m hopeful that will be a good thing and make OSU a center for new ideas and new ways of thinking about to get more Latino students from Oregon into higher ed., and maybe even create more national programs like it.
What do you try and let your students know in your mentoring relationships? They look up to you as a Latino professor. What do you try to give them in terms of guidance?
What I mostly try to do is to ask them what they think they want to do, and where they think they want to go with their education and with their career. I try to emphasize to my Latino students in particular that it’s really important they think about their education and careers as doing something to help the Latino community. We have high dropout rates in high school and college. So if you can make it through and graduate, you come out with skills and abilities that most of people in the Latino community don’t have.
So how do you want to use those skills? What will you put emphasis on? How will you use that empowerment, whatever the options might be – law school or medicine or public policy.
Most people have a sense of that responsibility. They tell me, “My parents are really looking up to me finishing. I have family members that are really proud of me.”
Is there anything you wanted to add that we haven’t touched on?
I think I’ve realized over the past 4 or 5 years that my classes – from political philosophy to human rights, to the philosophy of law in the Mexican-American experience with the American legal system – the basic theme in all of them is the idea of community.
The class I teach most often is political philosophy. It tries to emphasize the idea of community and what it means for us. What are different models and ways of thinking about of living with others in a peaceful, coordinated way? What stands in the way of trusting and feeling empathy with one another? Who are we, where do we want to go, where do we come from? For Latino students, this is a question that’s really live, “How did I get here, what do I do with it? Where do I go from here?”
I think I’ve come to realize my academic focus is rooted in that experience of Latinos in the higher educational setting and what they want to do with it.