Salem State University sociology professor Miguel Montalva Barba sits at his desk in Meier Hall office 335E. He is wearing glasses, a maroon sweater and his laughter is contagious. Montalva was born in Mexico City, but grew up in Los Angeles after his parents moved him and his two brothers to the city of angels in 1992 when he was just a young boy.
After high school, Montalva attended Cal State University where he received both his bachelor’s degree in sociology and music and master’s degree in sociology from the Los Angeles school. Most recently, Montalva attended Boston’s Northeastern University where he received a doctorate degree in sociology.
Montalva began teaching undergraduate sociology courses as an adjunct professor at Salem State in 2016 while simultaneously completing his doctorate degree and teaching courses at Northeastern. This fall, Montalva was hired as a full-time Salem State faculty member, a role in which he teaches Latinx studies and sociological theory to undergraduate students. Montalva currently lives on campus as the faculty-in-residence for the social justice living learning community.
Have you had a mentor or someone who inspired you to achieve?
I think my mom has always been really influential. She always said to us, ‘whatever it is that you do make sure you are the best at it. Regardless of the work you end up doing,’ so that was really influential.
As I started going to school I met Dr. Cristina Bodinger-de Uriarte at Cal State LA and she was really just incredibly informative. We had similar backgrounds, but she was three decades ahead of me and just seeing her trajectory was really incredible. She sort of took me under her wing and I would not be here without her guidance and support.
I always say, it takes an incredible village of strong powerful women to make us all stand here, so that’s always been very present in my development.
Can you describe your research areas?
My dissertation was on gentrification and whiteness; how do white folks make sense of a changing neighborhood and what narratives do they use to rationalize the processes that they’re beginning? Really asking the question, how are white folks understanding this, how is racism activated here and how is racism becoming embedded into these places, whether it’s the architecture, the community groups that are developed or just neighborhood narratives.
Generally, my work is centered in urban sociology, race, racism specifically, and immigration and immigrant youth. Those are my main concentrations, but the overarching pillar is urban sociology, where all of these things sort of come together.
What classes will you be teaching? Can you describe what you hope students will take away from your classes?
This semester I’m teaching a research methods course and three sections of Intro to Sociology. I have a lot of freshmen and I love teaching intro courses because it brings in folks that would never be exposed to sociology normally. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach.
Next semester I’m teaching Hispanic Groups in the U.S., Urban Sociology, and Intro to Sociology.
What do you hope students take away from your classes?
There are a couple things. For intro, my hope is to help them develop a critical awareness. And I say this in my class over and over: if we can be less damaging to others that is a huge advantage. Part of what I aim for in the intro classes is how do I give you tools to teach you how to talk about race, racism, white supremacy, gender, patriarchy and capitalism in a way that is not creating more harm?
That is my motivation for the class because my colleagues and I end up challenging such fundamental points of view for some of our students with some of the theories and things that we talk about and sometimes students are just not ready to go there.
Is there something in particular that attracted you to Salem State?
The students. I was teaching at Northeastern at the same time that I was teaching here and it was so interesting to be teaching at both places, similar content, similar courses, and I noticed how our students have such a different level of understanding of theories and concepts that go beyond the book. The Northeastern model, yes, they are capable students, but very few can actually internalize and relate to the material. It just means something completely different to them. That’s one of the things that attracted me to Salem State. I also went to a similar school for my undergrad, so it has this familiarity for me and I love my colleagues.
Can you describe how familiar you are with the Salem area? Where do you live currently?
Very little, very, very little. I’m getting better acquainted. I live in Marsh Hall, but before that I was living in Jamaica Plain, MA.
What are you looking forward to discovering?
The different pockets. I think I know very little because I don’t drive. Most of what I have seen has been on the bus routes or on a walk to find dinner. So I’ve gone down Lafayette and Jefferson so far. There are restaurants over there and that’s a totally different community. There is a sushi restaurant, an American bar, which are totally different than the stuff you see in the downtown.
Are you involved with any events on campus?
I am involved with several events on campus. In the residence halls I have a running Wednesday night showing where we watch an episode and host a discussion after. It is a great way to have discussions that center on social justice. I have also hosted a social justice social hour and I have a Masked Karaoke coming up in November. By creating masks to wear while performing karaoke students feel more comfortable to sing. I am also co-hosting an event with Toiell Washington in the new Diversity Center opening up November 4th for Change Makers Week.
While at Northeastern, you participated in a discussion regarding whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist. Do you believe Beyoncé is a feminist? Can you describe your viewpoint?
I think this is a big conversation. Beyoncé is a feminist in the themes and empowerment embedded in her music. I’m critical of the definition of feminism that she uses because I think it is a particular brand of feminism that still centers men. I choose a very different definition of feminism that is a little broader and more inviting and doesn’t center on men.
When we think about feminism as equal rights and equal things we are still putting men at the center and basing everything around this dynamic. I don’t think that is the most appropriate definition. I prefer Bell Hooks’ definition of feminism because it doesn’t recreate the power structure. If we keep this language of equal things, equal pay we’re still using white men as the marker of everything that we need to be equal to.
Women can actively [re]create patriarchy and are sometimes upholding it as much as men are. So, that is why I choose this other definition and I think in that way Beyoncé can still fit because these are themes addressed in her music, but there are some things that need further questioning. So yeah, it is a complicated conversation.
(Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name Bell Hooks, is an American author, professor, feminist and social activist. Hooks defines feminism as the movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation, and oppression. Learn more.)
Do you have any favorites? Movies? Musical artists? How about a book you’d like to recommend to your colleagues? Something light, or something heavy?
You know what’s funny, I don’t have favorite things and I get this question a lot. The only thing that comes to mind is this movie called Finding Neverland with Kate Winslet and Johnnie Depp. It’s sort of the history behind the Peter Pan story and what Neverland is. There is something really special about that film and, yeah I cry.
An academic book I would recommend to anyone thinking about race and racism is Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara E. Fields and Karen J. Fields. That will just give you a completely new perspective on racism and it’s incredible what they are able to do in that book.
Another book is Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump by Asad Haider. It’s this really short book, a conversation about identity politics, what has become of that whole topic, the dangers that it is now posing and how white radical groups are using that language. It’s a beautiful critique of identity politics that somehow reignites us back to what we should be working on.
A really good book that is completely different is the Interpreter of Maladies by American Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s a beautiful book of short stories and there are some that take place in Boston, like the Mapparium. The first couple stories are centered in Boston, so it’s nice to read about the places you might have visited like the reflection pond and it is just written so beautifully.
Do you have any secret talents, instruments etc.?
Yes, I’ve been singing since third grade in choirs up until just about a year ago. I had to put it on hold a little bit to finish my dissertation. I’ve been a singer and am trained as a classical singer. Music has been my form of therapy; if I’m happy I’m singing, if I’m sad I’m singing, if I’m praying I’m singing.
I need a process and singing is my way of processing emotion and it has been my therapy for a really long time, and I miss it and singing is such a physical activity. Most people don’t realize that and they think singing is from the throat up, but it requires so much from your back, your stomach, your legs and so there is this certain therapy that I get from it.
Singing full voice is also really incredible. When you feel the resonances in your nasal passages, and this is sort of the nerd stuff you learn as a classical singer, and how does it resonate in your nose or behind your eyes.
Do you have any questions for your colleagues?
I’d be curious to hear or learn how other people approach teaching intro classes and what their aims are. I’d be really interested to hear people’s answers to that question because it’s that moment when you’re in a room full of students who are not majoring in that field and may not be interested in that class. What happens in that moment?
I’m also curious as to what are we doing with the voices that may or may not be in the room? Where is the Asian and Asian American perspective? I haven’t seen much conversation or programming centering on the Asian American experience. What are we doing to fill and provide that perspective in our classrooms? Are we including Asian and Asian-American perspective in our materials and in our syllabus? In a similar line, are my colleagues including any people of color scholars in their syllabus, beyond the section that covers “race”?