Photo courtesy of Chase Otero/The Paisano

Practicality or design brought Professor Sarah Montoya back to UTSA, with one significant difference—she is behind the lectern. Her research ranges from feminism, cyber studies, and the LGBTQ community to colonialism. Montoya was UTSA’s first student to earn a bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies. She now leads courses for the Women’s Studies program to meet her UCLA Ph.D. fellowship requirement. Montoya’s academic journey won’t end with UTSA, but her “one of us” aura may compel students to follow suit.

This Spring semester, Montoya leads three classes: Feminist Theory of Literature, Introduction to LGBTQ Studies and Feminist Theories. In Montoya’s courses, discovery doesn’t remain in the neoliberal realm of feminism and LGBTQ studies, it addresses the often marginalized or ignored aspects of feminism. Her research challenges hegemonic structures such as patriarchy, white supremacy and colonialism. She is an ally to those vulnerable to these working systems: women, people of color, indigenous people and more. She stresses to her students to reflect on their identity and to think about how it relates to power in these systems.

“My identity influences how I navigate spaces. Sometimes, as a light-skinned Latina woman, I can walk into spaces and people treat me better because I’m light-skinned, and I’m aware of what’s going on,” Montoya said. “Though, once I begin advocating for my politics that privilege can very easily be taken away, or if they find out I’m queer they look to discredit what I’m doing.”

Understanding how identity relates to the hegemonic structures is an important step to understanding how the structures operate and what it means to be a feminist in response to these structures.

“When I think about how my identity is related to power I think about the positions I’m able to occupy and the histories and stories I’m able to bring into certain spaces to interrupt the patriarchal flow of power or the normative flow of power,” Montoya said. “What a creative power it is to be able to say, ‘what you are doing right now is unacceptable, what you are doing right now is unethical.’ I think that really guides my research, to think about not just how it will benefit me but to say ‘how am I helping the vulnerable?’”

Pursuing a Ph.D. is a long, lonely road, but through it Montoya developed her moral compass, which has proved to be a sound guide thus far. Montoya said during high school she was a feminist and a Marxist, but over time it became more complicated.

“I came to UTSA and I took an incredible Mexican Studies class and I thought, ‘Oh, here’s this history I have to grapple with as a person of color in South Texas and during my master’s program I focused on what it meant to be queer and dealt with that,” Montoya said. “I feel like it all came full circle when I went to UCLA and began thinking about how all these relationships are related to colonialism.”

Montoya’s compass developed as the scope of her studies developed. At UCLA her studies focused on the colonial state.

Dr. Mishuana Goeman, UCLA Associate Director at the American Indian Studies Research Center and author of “Mark My Words,” helped lead Montoya to study colonialism. Prior to UCLA, Montoya’s research included projects such as “Data Mining Early Modern Drama.”

“I was interested in computer technology, I was interested in how queer and trans people’s identity played out online and what that visibility meant, but I didn’t really think about the infrastructure of the Internet and I didn’t think about it in relationship to colonialism. By taking [Goeman’s] courses, working with more indigenous feminists’ literature and working with native women directly my research was heavily influenced.”

Montoya was attached to Goeman’s “Mapping indigenous L.A.” project for a short period of time. The experience shaped Montoya.

Without UCLA, the connections Montoya made may have never happened. Montoya chose UCLA from a handful of University of California system schools to which she was accepted to pursue her doctorate at.

“I applied to mostly UC schools. I wanted a program with the resources the UC system has, but I also wanted it to be a climate I could live in.”

There were other great programs on the East Coast but Montoya didn’t only factor a school’s prestige into her decision.

“It was also really important for me to live in a large community of people of color. I didn’t want to feel isolated.”

Montoya explained that as a queer woman of color, she appreciated that Los Angeles doesn’t differ much from San Antonio.

Montoya’s time in San Antonio played

an integral role in her reaching UCLA. Unlike her hometown, Corpus Christi, San Antonio was larger and had a network of mentors who saw Montoya grow from an undergrad student to a master’s graduate at UTSA. Montoya credits UTSA’s smaller classes for the opportunity to have close interaction with engaged professors.

Montoya expressed her intense gratitude to Dr. Sonia Saldivar-Hull, executive director of the Women’s Studies Institute, for her help with preparing application packages to apply to Ph.D. programs.

The English department also played a pivotal role for Montoya’s Ph.D. pursuits. Montoya worked for Dr. Mark Bayer during her master’s program and received beautifully written letters of recommendation from faculty, including Dr. Joycelyn Moody.

Montoya’s return to UTSA was an ad hoc decision. Before her departure to UCLA, Montoya was assaulted. She openly discusses the matter in her classes and speaks about the experience to raise awareness. After ignoring the residual effects of the trauma, Montoya felt drained by the end of her first year at UCLA.

“I have all of this coursework, I just moved into a new place, I just got into a new relationship, and so I sorta plowed through. By the second year, I was really falling apart so I came home to heal.”

After returning to UCLA for her third year Montoya’s department suggested she do her fellowship year, which meant Montoya did not need to stay in Los Angeles. Montoya returned home and reconnected with her mentor, Dr. Saldivar-Hull, and was offered an opportunity to teach.

“Teaching has been the healthiest decision I have ever made. It has been so healing. It’s not just about coming back to my old university and teaching the same classes I used to sit in, but to teach what I learned and to see how I’ve grown has been transformative and healing.”

Montoya said self-care is important during one’s academic pursuits.

“Self-care is a gendered project,” Montoya said. “Women are often told you put yourself last and here are all the things that come in front of you. We don’t often spend a lot of time asking, ‘how am I treating my body right now?’”

Montoya suggests reflecting on matters as simple as how one is eating, exercising and sleeping because they are often passed off.

“You certainly have to honor the people who helped you get where you are, but you also have to understand you’re not letting anyone down if you stop to take care of yourself,” Montoya said.

Montoya’s research has developed at a brisk pace. On her website, www.sarahmontoya.com, her research projects are listed, including sections restricted to the public, which include projects such as the Racial Violence HUB with Dr. Sherene Razack, UCLA Penny Kanner endowed chair in women’s studies.

“The work that I do is focused on the development of computer technology in relationship to the settler state and the way native people choose or choose not to use digital technology when they’re making land claims or when they’re talking about issues around sovereignty, like data sovereignty,” Montoya said. “It’s a joining of thinking about a settler colonialism a little more robustly and thinking about development of computer technology on an interface level and an infrastructure level.”

What’s helped put Montoya’s research in a new perspective is teaching. Montoya expressed a love for the craft and believes it is what she’ll do post-Ph.D. At UTSA, she overcame her first day on the job.

“The first day was scary, exciting, nerve racking and beautiful,” Motoya said. “I remember being on the verge of tears the entire time and thinking I used to go here and now I’m teaching in the classes I sat in.

“To come from Corpus, and have parents who only finished high school, a brother who didn’t and an illiterate grandmother who signed her name with an ‘x’ and at the same time teach at this university and teach students whose lives are just like mine means so much. I am so grateful to have this opportunity. I’m positive I called my mother and cried because I don’t do anything without her. She’s my rock.”

Montoya believes in UTSA based on the growth she’s witnessed.

“To come here in ‘05 and return in ‘18 has been incredible. I want my students to know how incredible their work has been. Some students I mentor I just think ‘I can’t wait until you’re my colleague.’

“Teaching has been healing and I don’t think it could have happened anywhere else, and being able to teach students who have the same story as me.”

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