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Interview with John Garcia

Featured Study: Latino National Survey (LNS), 2006 and Latino National Survey (LNS)--New England, 2006


John Garcia

John Garcia
RCMD Director

Univeristy of Michigan - ICPSR

ICPSR Study 20862
ICPSR Study 24502

We certainly appreciate your willingness to talk to us about your latest study deposited with RCMD/ICPSR. We would like to talk to you about this study and data sharing with the broader social science community. In doing so, we, at RCMD, see interviews like this as ways to attract prospective researchers to deposit their research data with us.

Now, let's begin by finding out how you got involved in this study.

I'd been involved with several other national studies over the years involving Latinos. This was a six-person project group. Some of the people who were talking to each other about initiating a Latino National Survey (LNS) brought me to that conversation since I had done the two previous ones with different sets of researchers. So basically the combination of my long history in this area plus my experience in previous national surveys brought me into this conversation. After extensive conversations among subgroups and all six of us, we decided to go ahead and try to develop the project and try to get it to fruition with funding and to actually carry it out. That whole process probably took - well, the conversation about agreeing to work together probably took about a year, over a year period.
A couple things. One was, given the growing awareness and interest about Latinos and speculations about what they mean relative to the political process and system in terms of impact, influence or possible influence we felt there were a lot of unanswered questions; that even though there had been a lot of surveys in the last 6-8 years that most of them had been more sociologically oriented - less policy, less politically oriented. It was those gaps that we felt it was important to try to fill.

The other thing had been that when you talk about Latino you generally talk about then the "big three," that is, Mexican origin, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. And the change in demography in the Latino world had meant that there was a much more diverse, much greater number of groups that was growing in presence and size. In fact, I just saw a Census publication a week ago that indicates that Cubans are no longer the third largest Latino subgroup in America, that now Salvadorians are the third largest. Probably within less than a year, Dominicans will also exceed the number of Cubans. So just the nature of the Latino world had changed and so one of the focuses of the survey is to not only get a better sense of the Latino world but also better representation of elements within that configuration.

Now that you have conducted the study, and analyzed the data, what would say are the major findings of your research?

A couple of major findings. One is, for the longest time both public officials and the mass media have characterized Latinos as a not very unified or identifiable group. Another project I was involved with back in the late 80s, early 90s of Latinos would indicate that an interactive and unified Latino world was not strongly present, although there were developments moving toward a pan-ethnic community. That even though persons had some commonalities people thought of themselves truly in national origin terms: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, whatever. What's clearly happened now, is a much greater sense of what people refer to as pan-ethnic identity or pan-ethnicity. It is much more prevalent, not just in the mass media or in public discourse, but in everyday lives of people who we would consider Latinos. There's a lot more awareness of that, also a lot more interaction. Latinos interact with other Latinos who are not necessarily of the same national origin group. That sense of commonality has implications for political purposes: one for vocalization, another in terms of developing a more coherent or identifiable political agenda. Also, there is a real strong sense of maintaining a sense of "Latino-ness," however you want to define what that is, and not necessarily seeing it being apart from or in contrast to being an American. This sense of: "there are multiple parts of me," and part of "me" is being Latino as well as being Honduran or other characteristics as well as being American. That multiplicity of "who I am" is being seen by many Latinos as not being contradictory, and not necessarily a conflict. It's important now, given the climate that exists that kinda says, you know, you draw the line. You're American or not. If you're American you don't speak any languages other than English, you don't think about where you came from or those kinds of things. So it really kind of challenges what being American is, and it's a timely process now because there's a lot of debate going on broadly about that.

Now that this data is available to other researchers, what advice would give for those who are analyzing the contents of this study?

The LNS actually is a survey of fifteen states and metropolitan DC. What happened is that we also generated interest among people at Brown University who were concerned that the only northeastern states included in our project were New York and New Jersey and what is referred to as New England area is not really part of the sampling frame. They were successful in getting funding, I think from the Rhode Island Foundation, to basically replicate the content of the LNS, and do that in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Actually, now there is a National Latino Survey Two which was done about a year after the first survey. So in essence it gives an opportunity to raise these issues about politics, mobilization, identity, and policy preferences on a much broader geographic scope than even the original survey could offer.

What I would encourage researchers is that even though we think about Latinos as some type of working community, there are some commonalities and also some variation. One of the assets of this survey is that it enables you to do both; because of the sampling frame there are sufficient numbers of persons of the top 10 Latino subgroups to do subgroup comparison as well as aggregate all Latinos into one entity. You look at the variation and commonalities because that's a theme that we emphasize in our proposals but also in the work that has been generated, that these co-exist. There are elements of commonality that cut across national origin but at the same time there are particular situations or interests that are largely defined by national origin, so they co-exist. Again it represents that if you have an active community, there are times in that community from a subgroup perspective that it is dealing with something that is unique to their situation. In other cases they form alliances with other Latino subgroups. So that's one aspect. I guess the other one would be looking at "what are the glues that define this community;" the elements that say whether "I'm Salvadoran" or Chilean or Argentine. Are there some bases across which people across this national origin can come together? Also coming together is not just national origin but also nativity status - this is a significant segment, particularly in the adult population who are foreign born. So are there distinctions and divisions as well as commonalities across native born versus foreign born or say, the fourth generation Latinos vs. first generation. So you look at all the possible areas that can define or differentiate the community. Are those differentiations important distingulishing and possibly dividing the community, or is it possible to bridge across national origin groups? One of the bridges clearly is a sense of what I would call cultural loyalty, cultural awareness. Even if a person may be third or fourth generation, even that person may have much lesser frequency of use of, say, Spanish as opposed to the first generation. There is a real feeling that that language is important. It's preferable to maintain the language or at least maintain loyalty to the language even though it's not used to the same extent as the first generation. So cultural awareness, cultural knowledge is still there and cuts across generations. The other thing is that even among later generations, second, third, fourth generations, there is a sense of group distinctiveness based on common experiences. Like now, the current immigration debate. People who are being challenged about whether they have a right to be here even if they have grandparents who were born in the U.S. by virtue of how people group people together; they get thrown into that and so it's an experience which in a way shapes their continued attachment to being Latino.

When you were an undergraduate is this the career you thought you would have?

Not really, it is not uncommon among an 18-19 year olds to not know what they want to do with their lives. I started off school going to college more interested in the sciences and math and originally thought about being either an engineer or something in the natural sciences like chemistry or biology. I also had this inclination, not for a career purpose, but intellectually towards literature and the arts and the social sciences. I went around for probably the first couple of years, trying to think, well, do I pursue the science and math interest by going into a curriculum in engineering or so forth. It wasn't until my junior year that I in fact made the decision to go into government but I actually declared a double major of government and math; but the advisor indicated that that was not acceptable or an allowed double major. So I had to pick one or the other and I decided to pursue the Government major. Basically, it was a series of decisions, one leading to the other. When I had gotten through undergraduate I did not have any concrete plans about graduate school at all. It was not until my last semester of undergraduate that I started thinking about that. I applied to few places and it was late in the process so it was too late to apply for any kind of funding support so I got accepted to a Masters program and I decided to go ahead and do that and just worked full time and went through the Masters program. I did well enough that by the end of the first year the department offered me an assistantship.

So there I finished the master's, which had a thesis requirement. Now, not a lot of programs have a formal thesis requirement. There I designed a project that was a survey of Mexican-American political elites and that community, so I had my first-hand experience in terms of survey research. I designed my own instrument and identified persons who fit that description of political elites, interviewed everyone myself, did all the coding, did all the data entry, all the analysis so it gave me a real first-hand experience of the research process. By the time I finished I hadn't decided what I was going to do next. So then, I didn't want history to repeat itself, but I was within a few months of finishing up and I said, well what am I going to do now? One person on my Master's committee said, well, have you thought about going into a PhD program and I said, not really. He identified a couple of programs and said, these are programs that he referred to as "up and coming" programs that had been hiring people who were making contributions and so forth. I applied late and got accepted with no funding because all those decisions had been made. I had enough money to last me basically a quarter and worked forty hours a week and went to school full time. I did well in my first quarter and somebody had dropped out of the program mid-year and made this assistantship available. I was able to get that and kept one of the two jobs I had. The more I got into it, the more I wanted to do that.

What excited you about being a researcher?

One, I would characterize myself as a curious individual, so it's one way to justify your curiosity by sticking your nose into stuff. Secondly, intellectually it's about discipline and essentially having a rationale for doing what you're doing in terms of justifying that. Thirdly, I've always had this link between basic versus applied research. I saw the benefit of pursuing research that had direct application to real world situations. That was always a critical part of my interest in research; the knowledge that you gained from that could be applied to real world situations.

How about some of the challenges?

The initial challenge I had was that, again, my Master's thesis was on Mexican-American political leadership. Given the time that I was in school, the field of "Latino politics" in essence really didn't exist. I knew that was something in which I wanted to invest. For my formal training, there was no course work in this area; it was limited work on the minority politics field and that was a relatively youngish field at the time too. It was largely focused on the African American experience and so in terms of formal training in what I had pretty much devoted most of my career, I had virtually little or no formal training. What I benefited from the training I did receive was that I thought it gave me a good foundation in terms of understanding basic political phenomena, like understanding partisanship or mobilization. I read what researchers told me about that area in general or for a particular population and raised the questions about Latinos. How do I take that knowledge and apply it to the areas that I'm interested in. From a methodological point of view, as a Master's student I took all my methods courses in either statistics or psychology department, not poli sci. Similarly, as a doctoral student I took most of my stats courses from the stats department, equipping yourself to do work in an area where substantively you're not getting any formal training. The other thing I did was basically reading work that was starting to come out of that time period, not necessarily from political science but from other fields to look at that predominantly Chicano experience and add to that substance. That's the way I approached it.

What are in your future research plans and inquiries?

With this project, the LNS project, we've just submitted the second of three books that we've produced with this project, and we're hoping to have the third book done by next spring. That's really, with what you were asking earlier about what did we learn from that survey in terms of understanding Latino American politics, in essence is putting together a model about in essence of the formation of Latino identity and the political ramifications of that in a variety of different domains; primarily being electoral, organizational, from a leadership point of view, from a partisan point of view. What do people have a sense of who they are defined by being Latino or Hispanic - what difference does it make politically? If it does and if so, what about that identify or grouping formation is it that has a political payoff? Otherwise, the other project on my own that I've been working on for a number of years is referred to as the political integration of immigrants, and basically more in terms of how individuals who come from other political systems become immersed in the political process of the United States; what influences that and how does it manifest itself? I wanted to look at the non-electoral element of that participation, because unfortunately, too many times you think about that, you think, well, are the people, these individuals becoming citizens, and are they registering to vote? And if they don't, are they not politically incorporated? I'm looking at incorporation much more broadly than the naturalization, electoral side of things. Looking at that whole immigration incorporation experience, a couple of other projects I've been looking at is more survey methodology, because so many surveys are now being conducted not only in English but in the language of the target population. What does that mean in terms of both measurement and validity, reliability? And when you're talking about getting the answers from persons in a language other than English, in terms of whether the instrument is conveying the same meaning and whether people are responding to those questions, whatever the language, in the same manner. There are methodological issues in terms of comparability, validity, reliability, of instruments across different language mediums. The last one is really looking at more specific political mobilization and particularly among younger populations. Historically and literature tells you that the least engaged population is the youngest population, and on the other hand the younger population tends to be better educated than their older cohorts. From a resource point of view you would think that they have the potential to be more politically engaged, and to some extent the current political climate may be in fact a trigger to get young people involved where otherwise they may not be. Just looking at the dynamics, young people and their engagement politically over time, historically. Also demographically, that's where the growth of Latino population is; a population that will, say in the next ten 10 years, become 18 years or older. So that 18-30 is going to be the bulge of the adult population. It has a lot of political ramifications, if you've basically got a politically inactive age segment despite a continued growth, it cuts short the political impact possibly.

We are certainly appreciative of you depositing this study with RCMD. What are your views about data sharing with other members of the research community?

Quite a bit, in fact the LNS and the New England Survey was an offshoot of the original effort. In fact when the current group of PIs, when we formed a group one of the conversations apart from the substantive nature of Latinos was the utility of the data we collected to the larger community. We agreed upon that we would make available this data within a year to a year and a half, and that's not too typical. One, you have the old challenge of people willing to share the data in the first place. If they do, they're more likely to want to hold onto it and say, well look, I spent all this time to go and raise the money to go do this project and I should be the primary, initial benefactor of my research efforts in terms of generating research articles or books, etc. One experience I had previous to this is that there was what was referred to as the Latino National Political Survey (LNPS) - there was a 1989-90 team. Again, a major survey at the time, different group of PIs and myself. After the second year in which we had completed the survey, and we were working on things, I started raising the issue about depositing that particular study. We basically had a deadlock where two of us were inclined to do so within three years, and the other two were inclined to say, well, hold it, I got this, that, and the other one I got to get done; when we get it done, then we'll consider the release. What got more frustrating was that this, that, and the other one that had to be done kept taking longer and longer. Eventually they were able to get that data deposited but it was like some six or seven years after it was done. It was a good study, it was a good survey but also by the time it was processed and released it was like seven years old. A good example of what that means is being at ICPSR gives me access to look at data downloads by study.

What I did was look at that first study, the LNPS and look at the first six months after that study was released and how many data downloads were conducted off that one. And also looked at the first six months after the LNS was released. In the case of the former, there were maybe 48 downloads, and the case of the more recent LNS we had 900 downloads. Substantively, they were both good studies, but one was only one and a half years old and the other was seven years old, so in trying to promote data sharing we want people to share but also in a timely manner because the value of those studies become more relevant the sooner it's done. Also we had the first book which came out was based on a series of focus groups that were conducted over seven or eight cities, and the data was basically the transcripts. We had now deposited that transcript data for archiving, because maybe other people would like to look at those responses for insights and so forth. Basically, to me it's not an absence of an active research community doing research in this area. It's more trying to get individuals to think of part of their research commitment or research activity, that data sharing and depositing is part of that. And doing that not only benefits the larger community but you can argue from a self-interest point of view, it gives that PI or PIs greater visibility and you're going to be cited by anybody who uses that work. Also, as in the case of most large-scale surveys, there is always more research to be done than the PI's can do. For instance, our PI group still talk every week as a social survey group, I just finished talking, and we were talking about being mindful of their own media use, and basically what kind of importance does news media has on political information and so forth. And the common response was, well, we hadn't looked at that yet. So most surveys, even if you've got active PIs, and you've got a pretty full scale survey, there are things you've got to look at. So the other potential benefit to the PI or PIs is that you make it available, you've got a built-in advantage over other people because you're familiar with the study, you did the study, you're familiar with what is in it. It opens up the door for possible collaboration, you know, I hadn't looked at this, we've got someone else who's interested in meeting to explore the topic. So, let's work together and explore that whereas the other PIs are saying, look, I don't have time for that. So, again there are both direct benefits to the principal investigator as well as the larger research community.

How did you find the demands of your time, and any other experiences that you went through with the depositing process with RCMD?

I'd done a couple other surveys beforehand. Since I was involved from the ground up in terms of how the study was designed, and the sampling frame and the instrument, and had made sure that I had the documentation for all those steps. So when it came to the point of depositing the data, in addition to the data file itself, all the documentation didn't have to be constructed from memory or from scratch. So for the most part all that preparation made the depositing much easier. Inevitably there will be some things by the protocol used within ICPSR that may have the processor contact the PI. In all cases I had been the contact person of the group for the depositing part, so now we get contacted saying, we've got this question about this particular item or so forth but for the most part those referrals or those queries were relatively modest or minor. A couple of times I had to look some stuff up but in most cases I either had that information at hand or could get it. So it wasn't that much of a demand, largely because you put the prep time in beforehand, it shouldn't be that much of a demand.

How have you applied your research experience in the classroom?

Two ways: one would be, obviously both materials for the classes, in terms of things you've written or results you found. You integrate them in whatever the topic area of the class.

Secondly, it gives you more insight in terms of discussion. I mean, you can present a number of tables and so forth, but you also - it's the interpretations and the cumulative effect of saying, I've been doing this for a long time. It's not only the bigger surveys you've been involved with, but in my experience there have been a number of surveys that I have played an advisory role in, like the initial PEW Hispanic survey, I was one of six people that met with the Washington Post, the PEW Foundation and Kaiser which funded it and designed that survey. There's one that's now called the Gender Multicultural Leadership Survey, a survey of Latino, Asian, Native American, African American elected officials. I was on the advisory committee to help set up the sample design and the instrument. Because you engage in research apart from the ones you have a primary role you get involved with other projects in some kind of advisory form so you know what's going on out there and you can use that information in the classroom or talk about these issues. The other benefit you can do is if you're teaching a course specifically about the research process then you can also relate that experience in that context.

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