The issue of representation is one I have grappled with in the past, however always under different pretenses or alternative terms. Typically I approach this issue from a sociological perspective, thinking about the nuanced ways in which structure, as one example, affects perception. After meeting with other CLC staff, I discovered that my initial understanding of representation was not completely flawed.
When conceptualizing representation, I think of the various ways in which individuals are described: based on physical, cultural, structural, or geographical characteristics. How an author or researcher writes about an individual reveals their underlying assumptions and expectations about the individual or group being portrayed. In the case of Petra, Pat Rigg (1985) consistently emphasizes her status as a poor migrant worker, one with few resources or support. From the way she described her living arrangements–“Petra gave me a small smile and, because she knew and liked D, waved us graciously into the tiny sweatbox that served her, her husband, and her two sons as kitchen, dining room, and living room, all in one.”–to the way she described Petra herself–“She is a big woman, a little over five and a half feet tall, large bosomed and very handsome with strong white teeth and long black hair in a thick braid down her back. Her hands are big and calloused.”–Rigg adamantly stressed physical details (129). As a result, Riggs’ depiction of Petra came off as degrading and self-elevating. She discussed frustrations with Petra’s diverging view of literacy and, rather begrudgingly, how Petra’s strategies for learning deviated from those of Rigg and other researchers.
Despite my own irritation with Riggs’ writing and portrayal of those involved in her work, I did appreciate one conclusion levied: that researchers, and sponsors of literacy more appropriately, need to consider the possible consequences or blowback of learning how to read. As was evidenced by Jose, Petra’s son, cultural and societal expectations, and in this particular case, gender stereotypes and socialization, often compete with modern views of literacy. Jose was not supportive of his mother’s efforts to learn to read but rather preferred she stay at home, preparing fresh tortillas for his arrival from school (137).
Contemplating how I represent the writers at my site arouses just a touch of internal turmoil. When thinking of the men at the jail, Petra, or other at-risk individuals, I do fear representing such groups in “reductive” ways. I want their character and talent to be acknowledged. I want their stories and literacy skills to be appreciated in spite of their criminal status. However, when considering how the men are represented, I feel conflicted as to how much of their story needs to be told and exactly how to do it appropriately, in a way that challenges the stigmata endured by so many. I am particularly amazed by the writers’ talent, creativity, and desire to learn during these times of adversity. However, I am afraid that discussing their incarceration, to any extent really, would lead to poor or irresponsible representation. When dealing with at-risk populations such as the incarcerated or migrant workers, what are strategies for avoiding reductive representation? Moreover, is there ever a danger in over-inflating an individual’s character or possibly glamorizing their portrayal?