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Q&A with Postdoctoral Fellow Fatima Suarez

Oct 21 2021

Fatima Suarez joined the Clayman Institute as postdoctoral fellow in September 2021. She graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2021 with a PhD in sociology. She received her master’s degree in sociology, with merit, from the London School of Economics and Political Science and her bachelor’s degree in criminology, summa cum laude, from the University of La Verne.  Her areas of expertise include gender, intersectionalities, families, Latina/o sociology, and social movements.

Suarez’s work examines the structural and cultural settings that shape men’s intimate lives. Fatherhood, in particular, is a point of entry into men’s intimate lives. Her current project considers contemporary practices and ideologies of fatherhood among Latino men and reflects the intricacies of inequality in family life. This is the first systematic empirical study to analyze the social forces that shape, sustain, and undermine involved fathering for Latino men. Suarez’s work has been supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Latino Studies at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, N.M. She has also received recognition from the Ford Foundation and the American Sociological Association.

Suarez’s previous work on Chicana feminisms and Chicana and Latina women’s activism has been published in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social & Political Movements and in the anthology, Nevertheless, They Persisted: Feminisms and Continued Resistance in the U.S. Women's Movement, edited by Jo Reger. Learn more about Suarez and her research through the following questions and answers.

Why did you become interested in sociology? When did you know you wanted a career in academia?

I became interested in sociology when I took “Introduction to Sociology” with Professor Glenn Goodwin during my first semester of undergrad at the University of La Verne. Although I did well in school, I never saw myself in the material I was learning. I did not feel a connection with history, math, or literature. I thought these subjects were so far removed from the lived experiences of people in my community. It was not until I was in my introduction to sociology class, that I was able to see, understand, and appreciate the connection between my personal experiences (and the experiences of people around me) and the larger society in which I live. Sociology, therefore, empowered me by giving me a critical lens to see the world, cultivating what C. Wright Mills calls a “sociological imagination.” I remember listening to Professor Goodwin’s lecture on Karl Marx and his work on the proletariat (workers and working-class people) and class struggles and thinking, he’s talking about my father. The promise of sociology of speaking truth to power and the overwhelming feeling when one is finally able to connect personal challenges to larger, social problems, are the reasons why I decided I wanted a career in academia. Moreover, the possibility of pursuing an academic career became more accessible to me when I was in the McNair Scholars program, where I met academic mentors who taught me how to formulate a research question, write a literature review, choose and justify a research method, and apply to graduate schools.  

Your current work focuses on contemporary Latina/o family life, particularly fathers. In your research, what did find? How do Latino fathers feel about their lives as fathers?

Public discourses cast Latino fathers as men who have a rigid allegiance to patriarchal norms and attitudes, who value paid work over education, who discourage their daughters from pursuing their academic and professional goals, and who are reluctant to be nurturing, caregiving, involved fathers because of an “essential” and “cultural desire” to be the authoritarian patriarchs in their families. In other words, Latino fathers are portrayed in opposition to modernity. My research challenges these dominant perceptions. I found that Latino fathers are diverse in their fathering practices and ideologies. 

I also found emerging fatherhood ideals to which Latino fathers in my study subscribe. These “ideal” characteristics reflect the larger ideals about involved fathering and emphasize the transmission of cultural values and practices, including: balancing work and family, not having “too many” kids, being active in their children’s lives (especially their education), being attentive to their children’s mental health, being emotionally expressive and accessible, having greater communication with their families, incorporating Spanish and other Latina/o cultural traditions, and using alternative methods of discipline. The men in my study want to be the best fathers they can for their families. But, the majority of fathers cannot successfully achieve this new ideal because of structural impediments like work and employment and lack of comprehensive parental leave. Consequently, Latino fathers employ diverse, class-specific strategies to try to accomplish an idealized classed notion of fatherhood. I conceptualize these new diverse conceptions, tensions, and negotiations as new Latino fatherhoods.

What social factors did you find that support Latino fathers in their parenting goals, and what factors are preventing them from carrying out those goals?

Work and employment are still significant factors that shape men’s parenting. Despite the evolving cultural beliefs about fatherhood, “breadwinning” continues to define “responsible fathering.” I found that work enables Latino fathers to be good providers, but at the same time, work pulls them away from family life, preventing them from accomplishing the involved fathering ideal. In recent decades, Latina mothers’ employment has risen and Latino fathers are now increasingly not only financial providers, but also emotion-laden nurturers who spend more time with their children and inculcate values. In the U.S., however, they find themselves in “hyper employment,” exacerbating tensions. On the other hand, I found that a significant number of middle-class fathers choose to cut work hours, change jobs, or not apply for promotions (which would result in longer work hours) for their families. These decisions differ from what these participants’ own fathers did when they were growing up.

Your previous work focused on Chicana and Latina feminist activism. Why did your research agenda change? Is there a connection between this work and your current project on Latino fathers?

For my master’s thesis, I focused on how Chicano and Latino fathers help their daughters develop a feminist consciousness. For this project, I interviewed college-educated Chicanas and Latinas about their relationship with their fathers; and I found that their fathers played an active role in instilling a feminist consciousness in their daughters via their attitudes toward financial autonomy, domestic abuse and the pursuit of higher education. I went to graduate school with the goal of expanding this project by including Latino fathers as a part of the project. 

So, I spent the first five years of graduate school preparing to do this research by reading the literatures and publishing in the areas of social movements, fatherhood, and Latina/o sociology. I was overwhelmed by the multiple ways I could do this research and I lacked a sense of direction. Feeling lost in designing a research protocol, this project was now a burden to me. Ironically, my project on Chicana and Latina feminism became oppressive, making me question whether this was a suitable research study to undertake at the doctoral level. 

Five months before I was supposed to defend my dissertation proposal, I had a conversation with my advisor, and she asked me “what about this project are you passionate about?” I thought about it for a second, and then I blurted out, “Latino fathers.” One might see these two research agendas as very distinct, but I now believe that in order to answer the question of how Latino fathers (and men in general) raise feminist daughters, I needed to first examine what fatherhood means in the lives of Latino men in order to assess the conditions under which fatherhood might be a transformative experience for men, their masculinities, and their attitudes about gender. 

Building on your recent work, what are some other opportunities for research that you would like to pursue?

I would like to expand my research to include Latino teenage fathers. Research on youth sexuality predominantly focuses on girls, placing the burden of pregnancy and parenthood on young women. The intense visibility of Latina teenage mothers and their sexuality in research and social programming leaves Latino teenage fathers largely invisible. I am also happy to be in the Bay Area where there are prominent Latino fatherhood organizations in which I would like to participate. Currently, the number of organizations that aim to support Latino men and fathers is rising, which suggests that there is growing demand and interest in promoting new and different ideas about fatherhood. The questions that remain, though, are which fathers are participating in such organizations, and can Latino fatherhood organizations address the inequality that undermines involved fathering in the first place?

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.