Karma Chávez on Queer Migration Politics

Sep 7, 2016

How are gender and sexuality implicated in the immigration process? Are there concrete steps that academics can take to engage with the broader community? What are the benefits of sound-based media (like this podcast)?

In episode 19 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews guest Karma Chávez about the intersectional politics of migration, how grassroots activism is essential to make change, and how her work integrates art, activism, and academia.

Listen on: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | RadioPublic | Google Podcasts

Guest: Karma Chávez

Karma Chávez is an associate professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latino/a Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

She is co-editor of Text + Field: Innovations in Rhetorical Method (with Sara McKinnon, Robert Asen and Robert Glenn Howard, Penn State Press, 2016), Standing in the Intersection: Feminist Voices, Feminist Practices in Communication Studies (with Cindy L. Griffin, SUNY Press, 2012), and author of Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities (University of Illinois Press, 2013).

Karma is also a member of the radical queer collective Against Equality, an organizer for LGBT Books to Prisoners, and until recently a host of the radio program, “A Public Affair” on Madison’s community radio station, 89.9 FM WORT.

In Madison, she worked closely with several community organizations on issues surrounding queer, racial, economic and immigrant justice and she hopes to do the same in Austin.

Karma Chávez wearing a light blue shirt. Text reads: Freedom has to be actual liberation. It can't be basic reforms that strengthen the structures that continue to oppress.

We chatted about

  • Karma’s work around queer migration studies (02:10)
  • Queer leadership in social justice activism (04:20)
  • The unique benefits of radio, podcasts, and other sound-based media (07:10)
  • How the history of HIV/AIDS activism has intersected with immigration policy (09:40)
  • How Karma’s work braids art, activism, and academia (14:00)
  • Imagining otherwise (19:20)


The power of sound

Sound brings a different kind of imagination in a conversation form.

The intersections of art, activism, and academia

The more that I’ve gotten involved in understanding how power works, I’ve really become invested in these three arms. You have to have the theoretical arm, you have to have the on-the-street, activist arm, which can take a variety of forms. And then there’s also this aesthetic piece that is necessary to reach people in a different ways. I’ve been invested in finding ways to integrate those things.

Community engagement for academics

I think it’s important for academics who want to be connected to the communities they exist in to find  other mediums like op-eds or other forms of popular writing, because that’s another kind of way to engage with the community, and also find ways to uplift those community voices.

Collaborating and signal boosting

My project has been to uplift and work alongside young, Black queer and trans women who I think are doing the best kind of analytical and street work right now.

Imagining otherwise

Folks who are invested in prison abolition, community control of the police, a queer and feminist politics, eliminating poverty, and ensuring that anti-blackness doesn’t reign, that those who continue to be the most oppressed to create a world from their vision.

More from Karma Chávez

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas On Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts in live and public conversations and create more just worlds. This week’s episode is brought to you by our Grad School Rockstar Program and Dissertation Rockstar Bootcamp.

Cathy Hannabach (00:45):

Enrollment for Fall 2016 closes on September 16th. So if you want to join us, now’s the time. Both of these programs help progressive interdisciplinary scholars like those featured on this podcast create awesome work, build accountability and community for their projects and rock their interdisciplinary careers. You can go to gradschoolrockstars.com to find out more and join us.

Cathy Hannabach (01:12):

This is episode 19 and our guest today is Karma Chávez. Karma is an associate professor in the department of Mexican American and Latino/Latina studies at the university of Texas at Austin. She’s the co-editor of Text and Field, Innovations in Rhetorical Method as well as Standing in the Intersection, Feminist Voices, Feminist Practices, and Communication Studies.

Cathy Hannabach (01:35):

Karma is additionally the author of the book Queer Migration Politics, Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. Karma is a member of the radical queer collective Against Equality. She’s an organizer for LGBT Books to Prisoners. And until recently she’s the host of the radio program, A Public Affair, which was broadcast on Madison’s Community Radio station. So thanks so much for being with us Karma.

Karma Chávez (02:01):

For sure. Thanks for having me.

Cathy Hannabach (02:03):

So you are a fantastic guest for this show and since I started it, I was hoping to to get you as a interview person on the show. So, I’m very glad that you’re with us. So I’d love to just jump right into your work. So you’re the author of Queer Migration Politics, Activist, Rhetoric, Coalitional Possibilities. You’re also the co-founder of the Queer Migration Research Network and you do a lot of work around issues of queer migration. So I’d love for you to tell our listeners just a little bit about those projects and why Queer Migration. Why is that an interesting topic for you?

Karma Chávez (02:37):

Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I think when a lot of people think about migration, they don’t think of it in relation to queer politics. And if they do think of it in relation to queer politics, they probably are thinking about things like binational same sex couples. Basically one partner is a US citizen, one partner is from elsewhere. And until the the legalization of gay marriage last summer, you couldn’t sponsor your same sex partner for immigration purposes.

Karma Chávez (03:06):

And so that was historically about the only way people thought those two things came in contact. But the field of queer migration studies takes a much deeper look at the way that a kind of racialized gender and sexuality actually impact every part of the immigration process. So, from the way that you get screened from who is even able to legally migrate to most Western countries, to what grounds one might ask for asylum or refugee status in an offering country as a result of their gender or sexuality or something connected to it. And so actually when you start to look much more closely at the immigration system, you realize how much gender and sexuality are implicated in every single part of it.

Cathy Hannabach (03:54):

So [inaudible 00:03:55] both of those particular projects as well as the kind of broader work that you do around this brings together academics with artists and activists, and it seems to be a central investment that you have in addressing these issues. Why do you think that’s particularly useful around queer migration?

Karma Chávez (04:13):

I think one of the ways that I approached the study of activism and social movements and coalition building is to look at what’s queer about all of those formations. And if you look historically at many of our major movements, at least in the United States, which is the context that I focus on in my work, so many of our movements have been led, if not overtly then behind the scenes by queer leadership. And so I think there’s something about being queer identified that motivates people to be change makers.

Karma Chávez (04:44):

And we absolutely see that in the immigration justice movement. And so since 2006 in particular, which is where you might want to … you might want to call that the start of this contemporary movement. And we’ve seen particularly young queer undocumented leaders taking the helm in so many different ways and focusing their attention on the broader movement, but also demanding that they be included within it. And so I think this is important to call out both because it challenges the way we might think about immigrant communities and immigration activism and also because it centers an intersectional kind of politics. And so for me, that’s really important. And this is just a primary sight to look at this kind of intersectional politics in the contemporary era.

Cathy Hannabach (05:36):

So you just had a move. You just joined the faculty at the university of Texas at Austin were actually several of our other podcast guests teach at including Eric Tang and Simone Brown. And in the show notes I can put links to their episodes. And it seems like that’s a hotbed of really awesome activist oriented scholarship of community engaged scholarship. What is it about Austin that makes those kinds of engagements so possible and so supported?

Karma Chávez (06:10):

I mean I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and that wasn’t necessarily what drew me here. I mean part of what drew me here was frankly the University of Wisconsin system has all but eliminated tenure protections. And given that I study activism and I’m also very involved in the community, it didn’t feel safe to me to remain as a queer person of color at the University of Wisconsin. And so I luckily had this job offer from Austin and then since having accepted it, I’ve learned a lot about some of those folks that you just mentioned and others that this is that kind of spot. So I think it’s a young community, it’s an educated community, and it’s also one of those progressive communities that thinks it’s doing a lot better on issues of race and poverty than it actually is. And so I think that’s sort of a perfect environment for activist scholarship and activism and community organizing more broadly.

Cathy Hannabach (07:07):

So when you were at Wisconsin, you hosted a fantastic weekly radio show called A Public Affair. What was that about and are you planning to do one in Texas per chance?

Karma Chávez (07:19):

I would love to be back into radio. Radio is one of my favorite things to do. I found it very much a part of my, my scholarship at least in in some pretty concrete senses as like someone who does qualitative research, someone who’s invested in a wide range of social justice topics. So A Public Affair was … I was one of five hosts. The show runs Monday through Friday for the lunch hour and it just addresses contemporary issues. It’s completely up to the host what issues to address and who to allow to address them. And it was, yeah, I did it for about …

Karma Chávez (08:00):

I did it full time for two years. I did it part time for a total of about four and it was just a great opportunity for me to celebrate voices that weren’t normally heard on the radio and to cover issues in ways that they’re not normally heard in mainstream media. And that’s the value of community media over corporate media.

Cathy Hannabach (08:20):

Do you think there’s something unique about radio as a form or maybe sound based things? I would include podcasts in here too, but anything where you actually get to hear people’s actual voices as opposed to their written words or visual media or those kinds of things which have their own kind of unique contributions, but is there something unique about, about sound?

Karma Chávez (08:43):

I think so. I’m super invested in sound, I think … I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m out on a walk or if I’m in the car or even when I’m on my bike, I usually pop one headphone in and I’m always listening to podcasts, whether it’s actual podcasts that don’t have a radio equivalent or shows that I’ve downloaded as podcasts from the radio, I think that’s the benefit of sound, right?

Karma Chávez (09:07):

You can have it with you constantly and you can engage with it when you want to and you don’t have to have the visual element to it. And I think sound also brings a different kind of imagination to thinking through in kind of a conversation form, which I really appreciate. And so yeah, I’m a huge fan. Huge fan of various kinds of sound media.

Cathy Hannabach (09:29):

Nice. So you are working on a new book about AIDS Activism called AIDS Knows No Borders. What is that book explore?

Karma Chávez (09:39):

You know, one of the things that I found interesting a few years ago, I was invited to be in a special issue, the quarterly journal of speech on act up at 25 and so at that time I was finishing up, or maybe finishing is probably too much, but I was trying to finish up my first book and I had been invited to this new thing.

Karma Chávez (10:01):

I was like, “Oh, well this would be a great opportunity to look at some new research”, and so with AIDS activism, I was like, “I wonder what Act Up did with regard to immigration issues because these were important issues” because the first time, for example, that the word AIDS was mentioned on the US Senate floor it was in relation to a proposed amendment to the 1987 supplemental appropriations bill, which included a piece about providing extended funding to a trial for those who were on AZT.

Karma Chávez (10:33):

And Senator Jesse Helms, the sort of infamous Senator from North Carolina, he added an amendment to that that said that he would only approve that appropriations if there was a banned passed on HIV positive people, I think at that time he just said people with AIDS, being able to migrate or naturalize in the United States. So quite literally the very first time that the US government was talking about AIDS was about immigration, so I thought, “Gosh, there has to be something there.”

Karma Chávez (11:06):

And it turns out that there are at least with the Act Up, and so a lot of the research that I already have done is about Act Up and some of its coalitional partners across New York and across the Bay area. But it will extend further than that. But looking at how activists were actually addressing these issues because there were numerous, and what’s frightening to me is how important this issue was. And yet immigration shows up as basically just a footnote in almost all the books on the history of AIDS activism.

Karma Chávez (11:38):

And so this book is trying to fill in that gap and really look at the way that AIDS was not just about what we normally think of it being about, which was drug users, gay men, US citizens, even though it’s also about that, but it was also very much about how the national body was getting imagined in relation to suppose foreign pathogens, both as people and as the disease.

Cathy Hannabach (12:06):

I find this super fascinating. I wrote in my recent book, I have a chapter about the incarceration of Haitian migrants in the 1990s who were HIV positive. And so that wasn’t the focus of the entire book, but that was the focus of that chapter. And that research was just absolutely fascinating the way that US nationalism was deployed as this attempt to construct this image of a very, very white wealthy and HIV negative national body over and against these bodies that are constructed as diseased as invaders, as things that need to be barred, and particularly incarcerated.

Karma Chávez (12:51):

Yeah. Yeah. This is awesome. So that was actually the first piece that I wrote for that quarterly journalist speech issue was about how activists in New York were responding to the detention of these Haitian migrants in Guantanamo Bay, and there will be a chapter, so I can’t wait to read your chapter. So that I can hopefully extend on it or make an original contribution in relation to it. So that’s awesome. I need you, your book’s already on my list, but [inaudible 00:13:18] now.

Cathy Hannabach (13:19):

I’m sure it’s a long list.

Karma Chávez (13:21):

It always is, isn’t it?

Cathy Hannabach (13:23):

I know there’s always more stuff to find, but that’s part of the pleasure of research, right?

Karma Chávez (13:27):


Cathy Hannabach (13:29):

So you have a really long history of combining art, activism and academia around a variety of issues. So I would love to hear from you why you do that, why you think that’s important, how your work braids those three different realms together and in particular how does that serve social justice or at least the social justice concerns that you focus on?

Karma Chávez (13:52):

Yeah. I mean, I guess in some ways I was just born and bred this way, always very involved in community theater and these kinds of things when I was a kid. And also separately from that kind of a little pain in the ass to whoever I was upset with regarding subject. I wrote my first op-ed I think when I was 11.

Cathy Hannabach (14:14):

Oh my goodness.

Karma Chávez (14:16):

I was angry about a bond. They were going to vote on a bond issue as to whether to build a new performing arts center for the high school. And there were all these rich farmers who didn’t want it because of course it would have been more taxes for them. And you know, I wrote this very snarky letter when I was a kid.

Karma Chávez (14:34):

But anyway, so I have this kind of long history of this stuff. I studied a lot of performance studies when I was in graduate school and have then always studied activism. So in some ways they used to be fairly separate for me. And then I think in large part the more that I’ve gotten involved in understanding how power works, I’ve really become invested in these three arms. And so you have to have the theoretical arm, you have to have the on the street kind of activist protest arm, which can take a variety of forms. And then there’s also this aesthetic piece that is necessary to reach people in a different way.

Karma Chávez (15:12):

And so, I’ve just been invested in finding ways to integrate those things, to find the political and the poetic and the poetic and the political and also to constantly be either bringing my own analysis or working with grassroots intellectuals on helping them to strengthen theirs and to learn together to try to make stuff better. So it’s hard for me to imagine them not as integrated, I guess at this point.

Cathy Hannabach (15:41):

It’s a different way of teaching too, right? And it’s a type of teaching that academics don’t tend to get a lot of training in. There have been certainly interventions and certain programs or fields privilege bringing those realms together more than others, but there aren’t regular pedagogy training courses for academics on how to bring in activism to your teaching or how to actively engage art unless you’re an art teacher or something like that.

Karma Chávez (16:13):

No, it’s true. One of the things that Wisconsin that we did and then I’m really sad to be leaving was called Comparative US Studies and it was essentially this amorphous group that didn’t really exist on paper, but it was designed as a place for the study of American studies because there wasn’t an American studies department at Wisconsin.

Karma Chávez (16:32):

And those of us who revitalize this thing that had existed for a while, we decided we wanted to do those three arms, the activism, the academic end and the aesthetic. And, you know, we just kind of figured it out as we went along and we made sure that there was a component of each of those at every event we did. And we put on some incredible stuff. Like we hosted community debates. Actually I shouldn’t say everything because now I’m going to contradict myself because the debates actually did not have necessarily an aesthetic part of it unless you consider the art of rhetoric, which was quite entertaining. But for example, we had a Black and Latino community organizer on one side of a debate against the sheriff and a psychiatrist.

Cathy Hannabach (17:19):

Oh wow.

Karma Chávez (17:19):

So we get the sheriff to agree to do a debate about whether building a new jail was the best way to make the community safe. And 350 people showed up to this debate. And it was a serious thing. And there was media all over the place. Of course, the community organizers won because we stacked the audience and we also really, really prepared them for the debate, but that was important for us to bring those issues to the community in ways that you don’t normally see. And so, usually when we had speakers for Comparative US Studies, almost always we also had an artistic response.

Karma Chávez (17:56):

So sometimes that was music, sometimes that was a poet, sometimes that was visual art because the integration was just an important way to reach different audiences. And I think it’s all about audience.

Cathy Hannabach (18:08):

And sometimes even the same audience engage in different ways. I mean think about just for myself, the way I read an academic article and what it sparks in terms of my thinking is different than when I see a live performance or I go to a demonstration or I have a conversation with someone about a political issue. It’s not that one is necessarily more intellectual or smarter or better, it just …. it sparks different things.

Karma Chávez (18:39):

Yeah. I think that’s totally true. And that’s also a big part of why I think it’s important to an extent … I mean, I understand the critiques of this too, but I do think it’s important for academics who want to be connected to the communities they existent to find other mediums like op-eds or, or other forms of popular writing because that’s another kind of way to engage with the community and also to find ways to then uplift those community voices. Yeah, there’s so many different ways that we connect. And so we have to figure out those ways in order to connect.

Cathy Hannabach (19:20):

So this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise. And we’re getting to my favorite question that I get to ask people, which is the reason behind the whole thing. And my favorite thing to talk with people about is their version of a better world, that world that they’re working towards when they create whatever it is that they create when they step in front of a classroom, when they publish their books, when they organize events, whatever. So I’ll just ask you, what’s the world you’re working towards? What is the world that you want?

Karma Chávez (19:51):

Of course that’s a very complicated question.

Cathy Hannabach (19:53):

Of course.

Karma Chávez (19:56):

The last several years … I mean, my scholarship has always been on immigration and my activism historically has been in relation to immigration. But really in the last several years I’ve understood that the whole thing is premised on anti-blackness.

Karma Chávez (20:13):

And so my project really has been to for the last few years to uplift and work alongside a young black queer and trans women who are, I think, doing the best kind of analytical and street work right now. And so I’ve devoted most of my attention, most of my resources to supporting that kind of work. And what that means to me, of course, it’s not just like any random young queer, black person, but folks who are invested in prison abolition, invested in community control of the police, invested in queer and feminist politics, invested in eliminating poverty and ensuring that anti-blackness doesn’t rain, ensuring that those who continue to be the most depressed, not that that we should have Olympics or whatever …

Karma Chávez (21:09):

But I think it’s pretty straight forward if you look at all the, the numbers and the realities out there to sort of create a world from their vision, because as my friends, the group I work with in Madison, Freedom Inc always say, “When black folks get free we all get free.” And I really do believe that but that freedom has to be actual liberation. It can’t be basic reforms that actually strengthen the structures that continue to oppress.

Karma Chávez (21:38):

I’m like most radicals off in the clouds some way, but I do think there are concrete ways that we can create those visions and I see them all the time in my communities, which is what gives me hope, I think, to continue to do this kind of work.

Cathy Hannabach (21:54):

That’s I think a great point to end on. So thank you so much for being with us and sharing your vision of what it means to imagine otherwise.

Karma Chávez (22:03):

Yeah. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Cathy Hannabach (22:08):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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