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ASU alum represents university in dissertation contest

Valeria Ochoa's dissertation on Indigenous perspectives in Spanish for heritage language education nominated for CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award


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December 06, 2023

Valeria Ochoa, a recent graduate of the School of International Letters and Cultures at Arizona State University, was determined to get her PhD to prove a point, and to carve out a space for teachers and researchers who are Spanish heritage speakers. That determination led her to where she is now, teaching at Oregon State University as an assistant professor of Spanish linguistics and heritage education in the School of Language, Culture, and Society.

Portrait of ASU alum Valeria Ochoa.
Valeria Ochoa, courtesy photo

“I regularly say I got my PhD out of spite because the field itself has a lack of Spanish heritage language learners as teachers and researchers, so I wanted to tip the scale just a bit as well,” Ochoa said.

As the final step in earning her PhD, she had to complete a dissertation that contributed to her field of study in some way. Ochoa’s experience while completing her master’s program in experiential learning at the University of Oregon inspired her research topic: Indigenous perspectives in the field of Spanish as a heritage language.

Valeria’s dissertation caught the eye of other academics in the field who nominated her as ASU’s submission to the CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award. According to the website, “These awards are made each year to individuals who, in the opinion of the award committee, have completed dissertations representing original work that makes an unusually significant contribution to the discipline.” The winner of the award will be honored in December at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“As I reflected on my own experiences, both personal and academic, I felt there was a genuine lack of Indigenous perspectives in Spanish heritage language education,” she said.

While Ochoa was working on her PHD at ASU, she taught classes that were part of the Spanish for heritage learners program. This program is designed for students whose needs differ from traditional second language learners in that they learned Spanish at home or from living in a Spanish-speaking area.

Ochoa noticed that a number of Indigenous students were enrolled in courses she taught. Despite this trend, she saw a lack of Indigeneity in courses. It was during this time that she also found out that her grandmother spoke Huichol, an Indigenous language primarily spoken in Mexico belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family. According to Ochoa, her students connected with her personal experience and Indigenous family history, demonstrating to her just how important it is for content on Indigeneity to be taught in classrooms. However, such a curriculum is often lacking.

“To make progress in that area, it felt absolutely necessary to center the perspectives of Indigenous Latinx learners and teachers that are also heritage Spanish speakers,” Ochoa said. “As I started to get into the work, it felt extremely important not just for myself and my dissertation contributors, but to the future Indigenous Spanish heritage learners to show them that their voices and experiences truly matter, especially in academia.”

In order to make an impact in the area of Spanish heritage language education, Ochoa wanted to research the connections between Indigeneity, Spanish heritage language learners, teachers and pedagogy. Data consisted of personal stories retrieved during interviews, written reflections, and recordings of “sharing circles” that were conducted in a similar fashion to focus groups.

This research, along with her training in Spanish heritage language and linguistics, was integral to the foundation of her dissertation. She took measures to make her dissertation transdisciplinary and well informed by incorporating current research findings from the fields of education, anthropology, Indigenous studies, and Latino and Chicano studies, to name a few.

ASU Associate Professor Brendon O’Connor, whose course Decolonizing Methodologies also inspired Valeria’s dissertation topic, said, “Valeria was the first person — to my knowledge — to look specifically at Indigenous-identifying instructors in Spanish heritage language education,” he said. “The relationship between Indigenous identity and Spanish can be quite complex for many people, and Valeria did a wonderful job capturing those complexities and offering implications for Spanish teachers.”

Overall, her findings concluded eight different themes in the lives of the participants relating to the experiences of Indigenous instructors and learners in Spanish heritage language classrooms. Some of the themes yielded from the data showed a relationship between language and identity among participants, and anti-Indigenous discrimination among Latino people proved to have impacts. Her findings have the potential to improve educational practices for Spanish heritage learners.

Ochoa’s dissertation is available to read from the ASU Library.

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