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UCLA alumna Stephanie Santos (Ph.D. 2018) speaks about her path into academia and why she brings feminist, queer theories into her work in Southeast Asian Studies.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Interrogating narratives in the Philippines

"How does one do work that speaks back to the ways in which Southeast Asian studies was born out of war? And that war was both directly and indirectly supportive of U.S. colonial expansions in Southeast Asia, particularly military imperial expansion," asks Stephanie Santos, assistant professor of gender, women and sexualities studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "How do we as U.S.-based Southeast Asian scholars do work that centers the voices, especially for me, of vulnerable Southeast Asian populations?"

Santos was born in the Philippines and worked there with the United Nations after receiving her undergraduate degree in journalism. She remembered reading that the Philippines were leading in gender equity and empowerment indicators because of a high proportion of women in the paid economy and the representation of women in major political roles. However, as a journalist and ethnographer, when she interviewed women in fishing villages and urban poor communities, she learned more about the challenges they experienced and the pressures to export their labor.

"It was that disjunct between these narratives on the ground and the narratives about them being propagated in government statistics reports and official development instruments that drove me to study what was really happening and why?" she said.

Intentionality in the classroom

Several years later, Santos arrived at UCLA as the Amerasia Journal and AAPI Nexus assistant editor in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

As she sat in graduate-level classes, she was intellectually and personally energized by the material and methodologies covered. She recalls Asian American studies professor Keith Camacho's work around militarization in the Pacific and the research that professors Victor Bascara and Lucy San Pablo Burns were pursuing.

"They were the ones who got me excited thinking about doing a Ph.D.," she said. "The ways they did critical Pilipino studies and Southeast Asian studies that spoke back to the prevailing area studies frameworks were really generative for me."

While at UCLA, Santos was awarded the Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship from the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. She received her Ph.D. program in Women Studies in 2018. 

Now as a professor herself, she thinks very intentionally about whose writing she assigns and what she includes in the syllabus. Santos said she strives to create a feminist pedagogical syllabus that centers the knowledge and experiences of marginalized people and Southeast Asian scholars, while also interrogating who we understand as "scholars."

Research is not neutral

"When we are seen in studies about development, a lot of the time, we're included as data or case studies," Santos added. "Southeast Asian scholars are excluded from conversations about theory or methodology and these exclusions are often done politely. Polite, but firm."

Santos acknowledges that she draws from feminist and queer theories of research. "This research is not neutral. We don't do research as neutral participants," she states. "What makes the research queer and feminist is that there's a strong sense of how this research is going to drive social change and will contribute to the wellbeing of the community."

Whether that looks like interrogating dominant narratives or providing statistics to underscore certain experiences, she believes that part of her work is advocating to push for community-engaged research that is relevant to the people she is speaking to and learning from.

Currently, she is looking at the modern state of transpacific forms of capitalism, including digital labor and "this category of essential workers who are doing work at a distance."

She recounted that in January of 2020, when there was a volcanic eruption in Batangas, Philippines, call center workers were still required to go to work, so she was not surprised to learn that they were also forced to work during Covid-19.

"Their labor is still being extracted at extreme physical and mental costs to the people who are doing it, but their bodies are still over there," she said. "It's almost like you can extract the labor for the benefit of the digital lives of people in the Global North and then they don't have to deal with the bodies and consequences of those being exploited."

She is also studying the biopolitics of development strategies, as well as what emerges from the Southeast Asian diaspora outside of California, particularly in Denver where she resides.

When asked the joyful, affirming aspects of her work, Santos is visibly excited.

"Just having the privilege of talking to people and building and learning from these stories," she responded. "Talking to students about their research, it's fun! I don't know if there's a lot of jobs where you can actively do that."

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Published: Tuesday, March 16, 2021