Prof talks stereotypes at South St. bookstore

Dr. Pablo Vila explores identity formation and social categories as they relate to the U.S. and Mexican relations in his new book.

Dr. Pablo Vila explores identity formation and social categories as they relate to the U.S. and Mexican relations in his new book.

Thursday night, amongst buttons, bumper stickers and books on social activism in a Center City bookstore, Dr. Pablo Vila lectured on and discussed how the identity formation of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans on the U.S.-Mexico border leads to prejudice.

Vila, a professor of sociology at Temple and author, recently published a book on this topic, titled Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier.

During the intimate Sept. 17 talk, Vila addressed a rapt audience of about 20 at Wooden Shoe Books at Fifth and Lombard streets.

The store, according to its Web site, is a self-described “all-volunteer anarchist collective,” whose members wish it to be “an empowering resource for activism, organizing, art, self-education, dialogue, community-building and the anti-capitalist struggle.”

On Thursday night, it certainly served as a place for dialogue, as Vila engaged his audience about his experiences at the University of Texas in El Paso between 1991 and 1997.

“I like [Vila’s] work,” doctorate sociology student Ed Avery-Natale said. A student of Vila’s as well as an employee of Wooden Shoe Books, Avery-Natale organized the event.

“I think it’s theoretically interesting,” he added, “how people live on the border between such different countries as the U.S. and Mexico.”

While at the University of Texas, Vila conducted research in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city separated from El Paso only by the U.S.-Mexico border; when viewed by satellite, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez appear to be one city. In this region of cultural diversity and political borders, Vila said, many Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans from different parts of Mexico and the U.S. live and interact daily.

During his research, Vila held more than 200 group interviews with more than 900 local residents.
He found that in any given region, be it northern or southern Mexico and on both sides of the border, people engage in what he calls “the trick of the labels.”

In each region Vila studied, he found that groups search for labels to raise themselves up and put others down.

In this way, he said, identities of superiority are formed so that – in the same way some Americans see Mexicans who immigrate north as causing poverty and social ills – Mexicans living on the border believe that Mexicans from the country’s interior are causing the poverty and poor social conditions in their region.

Vila also said this work can lead to significant changes in the way different groups interact.

He said when he was able to show a group that their ideas about another group were unfounded, the group expressed a desire to change, leading him to believe label-based barriers can be broken down by disparaging myths.

After his discussion, Vila opened the floor and took questions from an eager group, allowing him to delve more deeply into some topics covered in his book.

He said although he does not have the funds to do so, he hopes he will be able to go back to the border region and put his ideas into practice, bringing people from different regions of the borderlands together to dispel their misconceptions and foster community and solidarity.

Natale said Vila’s work is particularly important and that the author-professor presents it in a unique way.

“I think [his work] has enormous political implications,” Natale said. “Politically, people usually focus on statistics and numbers and generalities, and you just can’t get the same kind of information he gets that way.”

Michael Polinsky can be reached at

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