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Good Migrations

New anthropology professor Leila Rodriguez comes to UC with a background in immigration and demography.

Date: 12/7/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Leila Rodriguez
As a child, Leila Rodriguez wanted to be an actress. The thought of living in someone else’s shoes intrigued her, fueled by the gallimaufry of cultures she was exposed to through foreign children’s books her mother bought and the French school she attended in her native Costa Rica.

“I’ve always been interested in different cultures,” Rodriguez says. “Pretending to be someone else always seemed so fun.”

Leila Rodriguez and Nigerian immigrants.
Leila Rodriguez comes to UC with a background in migration. She has previously worked with Nigerian immigrants who moved to New York.

While her acting career never formulated, she says her career in anthropology has given her a similar satisfaction because she constantly gets to meet new people and learn their stories.

Rodriguez is one of three new assistant professors in the Department of Anthropology this year, coming to University of Cincinnati after earning her PhD last spring at the Pennsylvania State University in anthropology and demography. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Africana Studies.

“I’m really excited to be here,” she says of her new role at UC. “The faculty are very supportive and it’s great to have so many readily available resources to help me with my research.”

Rodriguez’s research interests focus on economic adaptations of immigrants and the economic determinants of migration, with a major emphasis in Central America. Her dissertation focused on the self-employment experience of Nigerians after immigrating to New York City.

Part of her interest in immigration comes from her own experience leaving Costa Rica at age 10 for the United States. While living in Pennsylvania for a few years, she met other immigrants from other places—including students from Russia.

Some were inclusive and would only befriend fellow Russians, while others acted more American, shunning their native language to adapt to their new culture.

“Even though I was young, I was still curious as to why these students reacted differently about their culture even though they were from the same place,” Rodriguez says.

Leila Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, a native of Costa Rica, focuses much of her research on migration in Central America.

When she went back to Costa Rica and started college, her experiences with cross-cultural environments and people stuck with her. She earned her BA in anthropology before coming back to the United States for graduate study.

Past research studies have looked at Russian, African and Central American immigrants. Now that she’s at UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, she is starting a new research project about Latin American and African immigrants in Cincinnati, comparing their economic opportunities to a similar move to bigger, more immigrant-ready cities such as New York or Miami.

“One of my goals is to contribute to making migration more sustainable,” she says. “It’s an ambitious idea, but whether we like it or not, migration is increasing. Understanding it better might make it more manageable for the immigrants themselves, the countries they’ve left behind and the countries receiving them.”

She continues, “Anthropology is really important to understand what is going on in the world. It’s great to be in a field that offers broad perspectives on different cultures.”

That’s a lesson she is keen on teaching her students: regardless of beliefs or opinions on other cultures, it’s important to study them and understand that no culture is right or wrong.

Seeing that “aha” moment in a student’s eyes is a great reward of the job, Rodriguez says.

“I feel blessed that I’m able to make a living doing something I feel so passionately about.”

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