Lessons from South Central

Rutgers–Camden Latinx scholar explores the impact of place on racial advantage

“In my first year, I am looking forward to getting to know the people that make this campus special: the students, my colegas (colleagues) across campus, and the university’s dedicated community partners,” Alicea said.

“In my first year, I am looking forward to getting to know the people that make this campus special: the students, my colegas (colleagues) across campus, and the university’s dedicated community partners,” Alicea said.

Julio Alicea recently launched his professorial career in a familiar setting—the classroom, a forum for his Rutgers–Camden students to grapple with the complicated relationship between schools and the larger society. It’s a complex connection the assistant professor of sociology knows firsthand.

Education has always threaded Alicea’s professional experience, as he has moved from teaching in public schools to public universities. He earned his Ph.D. at UCLA, where he completed his dissertation at a South Central Los Angeles-area school. His four-year study inside a high school showed how sociospatial factors such as deindustrialization, gentrification, and immigration policies have greatly impacted its mostly Black and Latinx students. 

“South Central provides a great example of how the national and the global are intertwined with the local. To this day, residents of South Central go face-to-face with the legacies of historical injustice as well as their modern day iterations,” Alicea said.

Before studying race, urban studies, and education, Alicea was a teacher at a community-based urban school in Rhode Island. He taught classes on world history, economics, and housing and homelessness to a student population that was 60% Latinx, 25% Black, and 80% economically disadvantaged. He also advised a small cohort of students, meeting with them several times a day.  

When that cohort graduated, Alicea began to question “the limitations of mainstream social justice politics in educational organizations and the significance of place in larger structures of racial inequality.” 

Those queries led him across the country to California, where he would pursue his doctoral degree and a scholarly path. The South Central Los Angeles study led him back into the public school space, where he observed the events that have shaped this long underserved community “have yielded an oppressive concentration of racialized disadvantage with wide-reaching implications for residents’ life expectancies, opportunities for social mobility, and chances at sustained happiness,” Alicea said. He noted these conditions exist in stark contrast to surrounding neighborhoods, “places where opportunities are hoarded and wealth is ubiquitous.” 

Alicea’s study further observed that, though South Central students may attend the same school, “they frequently experience different opportunities and constraints” depending on race. “As a general pattern, Black Americans and Afro-Latinxs experience worse social and political outcomes compared to non-Black Latinxs like myself,” Alicea said. 

His South Central study provided the research framework for both a dissertation and a forthcoming book examining the racial politics embedded within a school system Alicea said was committed to Black-Latinx solidarity. The timeline of his book will cover the two years prior to and following the murder of George Floyd, providing Alicea with ample opportunity “to consider the organizational challenges of promoting Black-Latinx solidarity before, during, and after a national moment of racial crisis.” 

Alicea’s own identity as Latinx, of Puerto Rican heritage, has always given him purpose and perspective as he has pursued his career: “That background means everything to me,” he said. He grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., the son of a factory worker and a housekeeper, a middle school graduate and a high school pushout. Coming from a poor, working-class family “formed the foundation of my sociological imagination, which led me to question why things were as unequal as they were and what I could do about it,” Alicea said.

With racial justice at the core of his teaching and research interests, “I was thrilled to join Rutgers-Camden because of its status as a minority-serving institution that prioritizes the common good both on campus and in the community,” he said. 

Julio Alicea, assistant professor of sociology, pictured on Rutgers–Camden campus

Julio Alicea, assistant professor of sociology, pictured on Rutgers–Camden campus

Sandra Richtermeyer, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, is equally thrilled to have the assistant professor join Rutgers–Camden.

“As a new assistant professor, it is remarkable what Dr. Alicea has already accomplished,” she said. “As a doctoral student, he received a fellowship from the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation, the most prestigious award for dissertation research in education. He is already making an impact in his research area with several high-quality publications and works in progress,” she added.

Now back on the East Coast, Alicea said he’s excited for his young son to grow up in a place where he will have access to rich cultural resources in Puerto Rican-owned businesses that are just a walk or short drive away. “The greater Philadelphia area is also my home, so I look forward to regularly spending time with my family eating homecooked meals, teaching my son Spanish, and telling stories of years’ past,” he said. 

“South Central Dreams” by Tlacolulokos. Photo Credit: The artists, 2016

Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis and Rutgers University–Camden invite you to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by recognizing and honoring Hispanic individuals who have made a difference in the Rutgers–Camden community and beyond.

Photography: Ronald Downes
Creative Design: Beatris Santos

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