A Conversation with Dr. Jess Vega-Centano

By Katelyn Meinershagen, Andrew Goh, Maiquel Gutierrez, Veena Sahithi Mokkapati

(Source: http://communications.fullerton.edu/comm/faculty/vega-centeno_jess/vega-centeno_jess.php)

California State University, Fullerton’s own professor Dr. Jess Vega-Centano allowed us to interview her on her dissertation “Turning up the Volume: on Racial Silence: A critical examination of consumption practices of Puerto Rican women Post-Hurricane Maria”.  Dr. Vega pursued a Bachelor’s in Psychology before achieving her PhD at University of Texas in Austin.  She has extensive experience in the field of advertisement and communication through both working at agencies and teaching at different universities including CSUF.  As a Puerto Rican woman herself, she sought to take this project with extreme care and passion as it was personal.  The focus of our interview was to dissect her dissertation thoroughly.  We accomplished this through gathering background information, discussing the different research methods, and analyzing the data provided by both the interviewee and the paper.

Read More: A Conversation with Dr. Jess Vega-Centano

In “Turning up the Volume: on Racial Silence: A critical examination of consumption practices of Puerto Rican women Post-Hurricane Maria”, Dr. Vega’s research focuses primarily on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a natural disaster which fatally impacted Puerto Rico and other islands native to the northeastern Caribbean in the fall of 2017. Dr. Vega, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was at home watching and reading the national news coverage of the natural disaster when she noticed a variety of publications reporting on the niche and personal topic of how native Puerto Rican women on the island were styling their hair and embracing its natural texture. 

Prior to observing the news coverage centered around how Puerto Rican women were styling their hair, Dr. Vega reveals that she had no real previous interest in the beauty industry. As a Puerto Rican woman Dr. Vega has had first hand experience styling and caring for her own hair. Dr. Vega mentions that she has embraced a range of styles and shares that she prefers her hair when it is in its naturally curly state, “my hair became a symbol of my ethnicity and I wear it as such”.

Although hair was an influential factor, Vega also wanted to use her research to focus on two groups she felt like aren’t typically included in research: women and those of Puerto Rican descent. Dr. Vega expresses that Latinx representation in research is typically centered around Mexicans or immigration, neither of which fully represent the range of the community. As she began preparing for her research she realized that the national conversations being held about how the women were doing their hair post-hurricane Maria was laying the groundwork for a much larger conversation centering around race.

In her research, Dr. Vega constantly references how the ways in which consumerism is linked to race and during our time speaking with Vega she expressed first hand the difficulty she experiences trying to find hair care products and ingredients to cook traditional Puerto Rican, even in a place as diverse as Orange County, California. She often resorts to ordering these items online, but she also recognizes the lack of inaccessibility women who don’t have the same resources and who may have just immigrated to the United States have in trying to acquire these items that would make them feel at home. In her paper, Dr. Vega references the Critical race theory which expresses how laws, social/political movements and the media help shape the perception of different races and the ways in which every race consumes. Dr. Vega decided early on that the theory was one she would use in order to conduct research and interview her participants. 

Dr. Vega stated she has always loved talking to people and realized that after Hurricane Maria, she realized that she loved talking to Puerto Rican women about their hair. Using purposive sampling, Dr. Vega began her search in order to find participants willing to be interviewed. She specifically searched for women that were forced to leave the island and had in depth interviews with them. Dr. Vega managed to secure interviews with 18 different women. All interviews ranged from 60-90 minutes and all participants were between the ages of 19-56.

Dr. Vega used the snowballing research method the most when interviewing her participants. A majority of the time, women would just self-disclose all their stories, struggles and personal experiences to her. It was almost as if they were just having a normal conversation about their lives and hair. Dr. Vega described women disclosing their personal stories as “diarrhea of the mouth.”, meaning that many of these women just wanted to share their personal experiences and tell her everything. During her research process, she learned a lot about these women which made her research process extremely easy.

Lastly, Dr. Vega also stated that at times during the interviews, the language barrier was a bit of a problem, but both Dr. Vega and all of the participants were still able to communicate with one another. Vega is bilingual but speaks mostly English, her level of Spanish isn’t as advanced as her participants. Most of her participants knew a little English but a majority of them were more comfortable with speaking in Spanish.

(Source: https://www.npr.org/2018/06/03/616565034/after-hurricane-maria-puerto-rican-women-embrace-their-natural-curly-hair)

Based on the results and the data collected from the interview with Dr. Vega, we discovered that there was a connection between racial features of Puerto Rican women and their lives in the United States. Interviewing and collecting data also gave us insight on knowing more about issues going on in this world especially when it comes to the negative impacts diversity had on these women. The fact that other Hispanic people besides Mexicans should be included is very important in the advertising and public relations industries in order to be more inclusive. For example, whenever someone refers to the Latinx community, the country Mexico would immediately come to mind, but what about the other Latinx native countries? Dr. Vega feels like she can add a unique perspective since there aren’t many women of color working in the field, another reason why she wanted to conduct research on this topic.   

Puerto Rican women have specific curly and dark hair, which gave racial and prejudice issues during the acculturation process. Culture and immigration play key factors in improving diversity amongst jobs and opportunities. Unfortunately however, racism still exists. Dr. Vega discusses that the problems these women encountered will most likely continue for years and hopes for a future where race plays little to no role in the path of one’s success. In our interview, Dr. Vega shared that one thing she found shocking through the interview process was the consensus of facing discrimination in public.

“My hair became a symbol of my ethnicity and I wear it as such.”

In Conclusion, Dr. Vega has demonstrated immense passion for this research project regarding Puerto Rican women and their struggles with the acculturation process.  Through her usage of qualitative research she was able to have down-to-earth conversations with her interviewees in order to gain as much data as possible.  Usage of purposive and snowball sampling also aided in grabbing a larger audience to get more concise research data.  Key topics rose up from her research and they became a focal point in her study such as curly hair, gender, and critical race theory. Dr. Vega believes that issues regarding race have profound historical context and the issues from her research will take a long time to fix.  The image discussed in the dissertation that others have of Puerto Ricans continues and will continue to have a negative connotation for a long time to come, but maybe one day race will no longer play such a heavy role in perception. Overall, we thank Dr. Vega for her time, allowing us to interview her and giving us amazing insight on the topic.

Featured above is a short highlight video from our virtual interview with Dr. Vega.