"I am not a criminal," said the woman Luz Hernandez was interviewing. "I did not rob anyone or kill anyone. I was working and that's not a crime. Why call me a criminal?"
After federal officials arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers at a Postville, Iowa, meatpacking plant in 2008, Hernandez, a doctoral student of linguistics, worked with a response team to assist the detainees. She interviewed many who were later deported to Guatemala and Mexico, and some mothers with dependent children who were allowed to remain in the United States.
She is now incorporating that experience into her doctoral research by analyzing interviews she has conducted with women from the raid.
"Looking at how they perceive and explain what happened to them, we can see how the women felt when the raid occurred," Hernandez says. "We can learn how they perceive the immigration system that criminalized them and the linguistics they use to interpret their situations.
"They don't see themselves as victims; they feel they were fighting each day to provide for their families in a foreign culture," Hernandez says.
The linguistic analysis will tell Hernandez many things about ideology, gender, social structures and beliefs, which may be helpful to advocacy groups working with immigrants or officials seeking the perspective of those arrested.
"Using linguistics to investigate social issues can help us examine the relationship between power and the powerless," says Hernandez, who has two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree from Mexico's Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.
Working in the University of Minnesota's small but internationally known Hispanic linguistics program, Hernandez says she hopes to finish her doctoral work in 2014, then get a job doing research and teaching at a college or university.
- Joe Kimball
This version corrects the school from which Luz Hernandez earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, which was listed incorrectly in the print version. We regret the error.