An Interview with Professor Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, PhD, Author of “How Many Indians Can We Be?”

Short Bio: Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, PhD, is a prominent scholar holding a PhD in Literature and Languages from Stanford University, along with an MA in Spanish Language and Literature. With a diverse academic background, including dual Bachelor’s degrees in French Language and Literature, as well as Spanish Language/Literature from Occidental College, she serves as a distinguished Professor in Modern Languages and Cultures, as well as Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, showcasing her commitment to interdisciplinary education and research.

1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Determined, loyal, creative.

2. Can you tell us about your journey from being a child farmworker to becoming a Professor in Modern Languages and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies? How did your personal experiences shape your academic and professional pursuits?

Sheer perseverance. I am lucky to live in a country where this is possible, I realize that in many other countries in the world, I would have not had such fortune or success.  I believe that my mother’s tremendous values and clear direction and belief in education as a vehicle for succeeding in society influenced me favorably. Coming from such economically disadvantaged worlds makes one relentless and courageous in Academia, colleagues might complain about situations and conditions that do not affect us, because we know what it is to really not have shoes, or paper to write on, or a desk, or to know how much sacrifice it takes to feed you.You appreciate the smallest of things anyone does for you and you appreciate and feel ok about sacrificing certain material things for major successes. I find that my working class ethics are truly the culprits of my success, being relentless in completing a task: getting an individual to come speak at your university, working while hungry until you finish a project, and of course not victimizing yourself because you do any of the above, because you know what it is to go without, a marvelous skill, to know how to have less and be satisfied. You do not have the luxury to give up because someone doesn’t like you, maligns you, envies you, or just plainly does not want you around, you are used to continually showing your skills and work ethic, while being questioned or challenged in your field. You know how to remain working under stress and how to continue being perseverant, no matter what.  There are multiple marvelous skills that you polish and come from necessity, but we don’t often talk about this, we don’t talk about the assets that people of color and working-class people bring to Academia. I notice how some practices from being in community that I have brought to my workplace have bloomed and others who grew up in opulence now have adopted these practices that were initially “rare” to our university. Why? Because these ways of being work in making others comfortable with you, whether it be students, professors, staff or parents. Being personable is one of them. People who grow up in the middle and upper class are not often taught to be personable with everyone, they are taught to be conditional and fear all others, because they may want what they have.  Lower class and lower middle class people, gain much from treating everyone with familiarity and bring these skills to their work posts.

3. Your role as the Theiline Pigott McCone Endowed Chair in the Humanities (2018-2020) involved a significant leadership position. Can you share an example of a challenging decision you had to make during that time and how you approached it?

I’ve had many difficult decisions in my life, I utilized this Chair to include Latinx authors, professors, leaders and invite them to come and conduct work at our university, since I have felt for a long time that oftentimes the work of Latinx/Chicanx scholars, writers, poets, falls through the cracks and is invisibilized or appropriated by supervisors or directors. In the United States Mexicans/Chicanx populations are seen as “White” by other people of color and our struggles, our history, the injustices we have survived are not narrated and often overlooked, in the mainstream culture. Yet we are still treated like second-class citizens, asked to mimic behaviors of the descendants of Europeans, when we are oftentimes indigenous, mestizos and have our own ways of doing things, of praying, of being in our families, which are hidden and undermined.

4. The title of your book, “How Many Indians Can We Be?”, seems thought-provoking. What motivated you to choose this title, and what kind of reflection or exploration does it invite from your readers?

This collection is not simply about my impression being in India, something I had desired for many years.  It is about indigeneity, colonization, social class, immigration, commonalities between cultures, and more… This collection is about togetherness; “Sari or Rebozo” exemplifies, aesthetically and semantically, the communion of two opposite cultures through a traditional feminine garment.  The other poems attempt to dispel stereotypes, unmask intra-cultural tensions with contradictory humor-and confront the many paper cuts of colonization found within the pages of Mexican, Indian and US history.

5. “How Many Indians Can We Be?” speaks to the experiences of immigrants and refugees. How do you believe poetry can contribute to fostering understanding and empathy around the experiences of these marginalized communities?

I tell the story in my introduction to this collection of poetry.  The first poem began as I set foot on the plane to India in 2011 to represent the US in the fabulous International Kritya Poetry Festival, held in Nagpur, India in January of that year, and organized by Rati Saxena. First of all, because I have always felt very close to East Indians, whether in a school or at a symposium, a conference or a public event, I always wanted to go there, as several Mexican philosophers I read along my life were very much influenced by India, Octavio Paz is an example.  I know that the fact that our countries were colonized by a major power, and that languages were imposed upon us, have had a similar effect on the development of our identities, as immigrants or children of immigrants into a second country.  Here I am speaking about East Indian Americans.  I am amazed that such diversity in both Mexico and India has been conflated in the interest of practicality for others, however I did see our commonalities in everything, food, candies, pastries and ways of being, but especially manners.

6. Presumed Incompetent is widely recognized as a pathbreaking account of the challenges faced by women faculty of color in academia. What motivated you to take on the role of editor for this groundbreaking project?

Yes, it was my idea to begin this project, contrary to much opposition and lack of belief that this first book could change things in Academia.  I wanted to focus on solutions, not only testimonials, which although euphemistic, already existed, so chapter 30 is a compilation of all the advice given by all 40 contributors to the first volume of Presumed Incompetent. There was nothing like it in 2002, no narrative for Women of Color and working-class women in Academia, on how to make it in our institutions, when I began this journey.  I had been a tenure track professor for two years and could not quite find answers to my questions, even from my upper administrators.  What exactly did I need to get tenured? Answers were slippery and dismissive, and I saw my White male colleagues who started their journey in academia at the same time as me have a different type of journey.  For them it was not a game of chess as to whether they would be tenured or not. They were getting positive praise, support from administrative assistants, that I was not getting. Was my situation different, did I, a Stanford PhD mother with two children, who brought many world-renowned scholars to campus throughout the year, did not deserve the praise? The support?  The affirmation?  Something was different, and I reached out to other women of color for whom it was also different, we were women, and we were women of color.  I was not being invited on TGIF’s with the guys on Fridays as they were, becoming one of the guys or asked to be a director of a program, even though in some cases I was the most capable person, before tenure.  I did not have that opportunity for people to get to know me, and allow for all the layers of biases to fall off of me: troublemaker, simply because I was a Chicana, ignorant, because I was a farmworker’s child and chose not to hide it, as I was advised by other women. But in my quest and inquiry, I also realized that there were another two groups of women who were treated differently.  Differential treatment was not only for women of color, it was also for Queer faculty and especially for women who had grown up in the working class in the United States.  Of course if you possessed all the “other” categories your intersectional measures were off the charts.

I soon realized that I could speak French and other languages but that I would never be seen as polished as a White woman who spoke French or went to the Ballet, or an upper class woman from the “developing world.”  And these biases continue to haunt me and other women who emerge from the working class or are well educated immigrants, because it is never thought that we will fully understand mainstream America, the truth is that our mother’s cooked and cleaned, in my case, for mainstream America, so we do, as we are an oral culture know about prejudices, challenges, biases the America mainstream class possesses about working class women, especially WOCS, and especially those who will not give up their cultural practices or attempt to be similar, and behave in a manner that attempts to become White.

7. The book was published in a time when conversations about race, gender, and class were becoming increasingly relevant. How do you see “Presumed Incompetent” contributing to these broader conversations, both within academia and in society at large?

The series of Presumed Incompetent Volumes, as many academics will affirm, has changed the cultureOf Academia.  I am very proud of this, and know that the academic world is improving because of the culture we have created with these books, and Presumed Incompetent media.  There are hundreds of articles on Facebook under PI, addressing other issues merely mentioned in our books or conversations, presentations, like disabilities,  foreign accents, sexual preference, religion, and more, as additional  possible intersections of oppression.

8. How does Presumed Incompetent II build upon or expand the conversations initiated by the first volume? What new insights or perspectives does this second volume bring to the table?

It focuses more on issues of social class, and what both volumes have done is that they have opened up the conversations about what intersectionality means while an Academic, and how it defines Academia. It affirms the interdisciplinary work of Academics of color in most disciplines, as well as the research, and the professional personae of someone like me who grew up with almost no books at home, but who of course is able to adapt and produce top notch literature, research and creative writing as well as poetry, without being condescended.  It supports POCS of all genders, allowing them to demand that others drop the “isms” they might have about this person, simply out of lack of exposure to these new groups that are joining Academia en masse.  It has become obvious recently that we (POCS, women, children of immigrants) have been able take advantage of ALL opportunities placed before us.

10. The contributors come from diverse intersectional and transnational identities. How did you ensure that these diverse voices were represented authentically and effectively in the book?

There were many submissions to select from, and if I or the other editors felt that people were not truly baring their realities, we either requested edits, or rejected the work, as we felt it might not add to what we were trying to uncover.  In one particular case, I remember having a heart-to-heart conversation with one of the contributors who had many euphemisms for saying what she needed to say, (there were already several books like this available) and I frankly told her that if she could not speak about it openly, we could not accept her chapter. She is very courageous, I am happy to say that her chapter is one of the best chapters and most compelling raw but sophisticated testimony in our collection.  In another case the person was unwilling to speak about the realities of her privilege, unmasking the fact that some races are treated better in academia than others, and she was the perfect example of this, but would not testify to this, instead giving us old stories about her past, that had little to do with the professoriate in academia, and so, even though I loved her writing style I had to say no to her contribution, as she was unwilling to tell the world that she was in fact privileged, compared to other Women of Color.  We also made sure that we included African American, Asian American, Chicana/Latina women, Indian and East Indian scholars in our manuscript, from the large selection of articles we received.

I also have to add that I carried this project on my back for 8 years, because several women of color who had been seeking tenure and had experienced similar biases to all the rest of us, pulled their chapters, because as soon as they received tenure, they were given administrative or quasi administrative jobs that they did not want to possibly jeopardize with their testimony.

11. The Runaway Poems is praised for its exploration of motherhood and the wisdom it brings. Can you discuss the role of motherhood as a source of inspiration and insight in your poetry, and how it intertwines with the broader themes you address?

We all have mothers, and I consider speaking from the perspective of a mother to be a feminist practice, whether you are a biological mother or not, because at one moment or another we all mother other people.  I am never offended when my students tell me that I remind them of their mother, as I know some of my colleagues would be. Mothering to me is the most sublime and educationally focused form of giving.  There is literally in my conception of “mother” a whole set of skills that one is able to teach, if one mothers effectively. With The Runaway Poems, I wanted to both be open about being a mother and a poet, and also put on the table, as it was not, that our children are not always a reflection of our parenting, that there are so many other elements in our cultures that contribute to our children’s decisions, and that we are not culpable for their decisions, but yes, need to be mindful in understanding their particular cultures, needs, evolution, because they are not ours, even though these entities come from us.

It was difficult for me to publish this collection, as I began writing it when my son ran away, as a young teenager, I think this is a mostly American phenomenon that we still need to theorize and understand, multiply and take the taboo away from it.  Parents are embarrassed when their children run away, they feel guilty, and poetry was extremely therapeutic for me, and I know for other parents who have read the book and thanked me for the collection.  I am very proud of this collection, as I know that it is unique and groundbreaking, and very much about American identity:


Chamomile did not make you whole 

as I suspected, my son. 

It didn’t cure the ache

of immigration:  

Your grandfather’s native ache, 

Your great-great-grandfather’s European ache, 

You still had to go  

on your urban Walkabout, my growth. 

No, the chamomile, peppermint, mango, guava cloves and cinnamon tea

The chamomile I transfused into you 

did not put you at ease.

The novena I prayed, 

for your restless nightmares, 

didn’t  calm you.  

The herbs, the prayers, the happy colors of your room,  

the blessing by the curandero at the Zocalo last year, 

did not cure you,  

the sweeping by the old Zapotec woman didn’t feed you, my son 

the picture of you, my friend took to the Virgin’s Villa my dear, did nothing for  


Your nostalgia 

was knee high deep, my love. 

Our cutting of your hair 

did not purify you. 

The toxins of your culture were far gone, 

they had become part of your active blood 

Huitzilopochtli—my son 

my pieces have become whole  

in your presence again 

I, Coatlicue, have collected  

resculpted, redesigned my heart into your head, your head into my heart, 

 oh my child God.

12. Do you have other writers in the family and friends?

Of course, my sons were both published poets as children, and I am held together, supported, affirmed by a great many communities of writers that holds hands from Washington to Mexico, via California.

13. Lastly, what’s next for you as an author? Are there any upcoming projects or themes you’re excited to explore in your future writing?

My memoir, Fresh as a Lettuce: A memoir, a combination of vignettes, poetry and testimony will be coming out this Fall, in December with El Martillo Press in Los Angeles, I believe this will take me and my oeuvre to a number of places.  I have edited and written introductions for three anthologies forthcoming in this coming year.  This is important to me because I know many poets who are fantastic, but are not featured, as we only have a couple of tokens, who are generally fantastic poets or writers, but since we Latinxs make a fifth of the population of the United States, we need to feature additional Latinx writers, and I hope my anthologies assist people in choosing other options as they purchase and get to know our poets and authors.

14.  In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities for scholars and

It is a challenge to resist appropriation by mainstream media, and boxing us in.  We as scholars should be able to take our work into many directions.  There are several poets dedicated to underlining the pressing issues we face with environmental destruction.  If you are being appropriated, and your values are being directed towards a direction you had not selected, be strong in redirecting your voices and speaking up about issues that are not popular. The media and “successful” people like to focus on what they can FIX, so as to continue being successful, what is paramount that we work on is the environment and the destruction we have already caused.  There will be islands under water soon, there already are.  What countries are going to take those people in?  Where will these people live, how are we going to protect and support them, feed and house them? 

Another essential topic we must unpack: What are drugs doing to our young people in particular, who benefits from drug trafficking?  Why have we not stopped people trafficking and organ trafficking? Who is benefitting from this?  Will we be incarcerating children at the borders in the future, in the United States?  Where are the lost children, the US government lost in the last few years? 

15. Can you share a memorable experience from your teaching career where you felt a significant impact on your students’ perspectives or understanding of the subjects you teach?

I have had students that have come back to me and told me that some of the issues we discussed in my classes about Latinx/ Chicanx literature/life/culture, and Women Gender and Sexuality Studies radically changed their lives, in looking at themselves as people who listen, are empathetic and need to unlearn what society taught them in school, that has nothing to do with living out in the world.  I particularly appreciate older, re-entry students.  In this case, my student Tony had to finish a third quarter of Spanish, as I teach anywhere from beginning Spanish to literary criticism and theory both in Spanish and English. He was a Veteran and was going to school funded by what we call the GI bill, financing for veterans who have served.  This student sometimes brought his daughter to class, with my permission as he sometimes did not have daycare, and I had told the class that for extra credit they could sing a song in Spanish, in front of the class.  Tony sang many songs for us, for extra credit, he not only learned a lot of Spanish doing this, as he would consult with Mexican men on how to sing the songs and pronounce the language, but he also set a standard for my class that was unequaled, and by him respecting the rural Mexican singing, he much improved the learning of other students. We brought in some of the Mexican ladies that work on campus to hear him sing at the end of the class, and they were much impressed.  Respect was the lesson. May we all experience our own personal paradigm shifts in collaboration with just causes, as we improve the world for generations to come, across the globe.

Share on:

We believe in sharing knowledge with everyone and making a positive change in society through our work and contributions. If you are interested in joining us, please check our 'About' page for more information