Vilma Santiago-Irizarry

Associate Professor Emerita


My research has focused on the unintended consequences, paradoxes, and contradictions generated in the articulation and deployment of ethnoracial identity constructs, particularly in the United States and in institutional settings, where they are applied toward the reproduction of structures of inequality. Before coming to Cornell, I taught in the Puerto Rican Studies Department at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I have also done extensive field research on arts education, mental health and medical issues, and on substance abuse prevention programs in schools, penal institutions, and community-based organizations, particularly in New York City, as well as ethnohistorical research on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, focusing on Puerto Rico and Cuba, and thus involving issues of colonialism and nationalism. An ethnohistorical pet project involves the "exportation" of Puerto Rican students to Federal Indian Schools at the turn of the 20th century. My other research interests and areas of expertise include language, law, field methods, and institutional culture. I am currently engaged in archival and legal research on language rights, ideologies, and practices, which will potentially lead, among other possibilities, to a critical ethnographic examination of translation and interpretation in the US federal court system. I hold a Certificate in Dance and Movement Analysis from the Laban Centre (formerly affiliated with Goldsmith's College, University of London) and a JD from the University of Puerto Rico Law School. I practiced public interest law for eleven years in Puerto Rico, including both criminal trial practice and civil rights litigation, and danced professionally for much of that time. Beginning with my time in law, I have actively sought professional service, which I consider a significant (yet much neglected) dimension of our institutional obligations, and have occupied multiple positions in a variety of professional organizations, from the Puerto Rico Bar Association to the American Anthropological Association.

Research Focus

  • the issues and paradoxes generated in the production and deployment of ethnic constructs, especially in institutional settings, which are then applied toward the maintenance and reproduction of existing structures of inequality
  • arts education
  • mental health and medical issues
  • substance abuse prevention programs in schools
  • penal institutions
  • community-based organizations in New York City
  • ethnohistorical research on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, especially on Cuba and Puerto Rico.
  • language
  • ethnicity and identity
  • law
  • institutional culture, both in the US and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.


Academic Articles
2008 Transnationalism and Migration: Locating Sociocultural Practices Among Mexican Immigrants in 
the United States. Reviews in Anthropology 37(1):16-40.
2005 Language Rights. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinas and Latinos in the United States 2:466-472.
2003 Binary Oppositions: Re-Inscribing Ethnoracial Hierarchies in Institutional Settings. Journal for Latin 
American Anthropology 8(2):174-194.
2003 Environmentalism, Identity Politics, and the Nature of 'Nature'. Latino Studies 1(1):47-78.
2002 Transcending Dichotomies: How to do anthropology in real life/Transcendir les dicotomies: com fer 
antropologia a la vida real. Revista d'etnologia de Catalunya 20:64-73.
2001 Medicalizing Ethnicity: The Construction of Latino Identity in a Psychiatric Setting. Ithaca, NY: 
Cornell University Press (CUP).
2013 Labels, Genuine and Spurious: Anthropology and the Politics of Otherness in the United States. In 
Anthropology and the Politics of Representation. Gabriela Vargas-Cetina, ed. Pp. 78-97. Tuscaloosa, AL: 
The University of Alabama Press.
2007 Reflexivity and Visual Media: Entanglements as a Productive Field. In Doing Anthropology in 
Consumer Research. Patricia L. Sunderland, Rita Mary Taylor Denny, authors. Pp. 205-209. Walnut 
Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
2001 Deceptive Solidity: Public Signs, Civic Inclusion, and Language 'Rights' in New York City (and 
Beyond). In Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York City. Agustín Laó-Montes and Arlene Dávila, 
eds. Pp. 449-473. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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