Tell us about your research project and why it is important to you.
My project is about the community organization that exists in informal settlements and about the importance of taking these processes into account when making public policy decisions. I find the ability of people to self-manage their own spaces fascinating, and I think that the biggest urban problems we have today come from the imposition of certain public policies that modify the built space and do little to really listen to the voice of citizens. Understanding the self-management and organization that happens in irregular settlements can shed light on the possibility of more humane cities.
Have you submitted or published your research somewhere? Tell us about the experience.
Yes, I have had the opportunity to talk about my research at the most important urban planning conference in the United States, the ACSP (Association of Collegiate School of Planning) conference. The most interesting thing about this experience was meeting other people who are studying similar cases in the Global South and understanding the differences and similarities between them. On the other hand, it is very illustrative to see how others address these issues, in addition to the possibility of networking with other researchers.
What would you say is something interesting about your area of study that most people don't know?
I think there are many myths about irregular settlements. The main one is the fear they generate; it is undeniable that the first reaction that some people have on this subject is the fear that exists towards these places. Fear, as we well know, stems from misinformation–from ignorance that exists towards certain issues and groups. It seems to me that if we address these issues up-front, make them known, and offer a more humane vision, we can gradually overcome those veils of misinformation and thereby contribute to peace and security through mutual understanding.
Tell us about your academic or professional collaborations with Mexico.
Before coming to UT Austin, I was a professor at the UANL (Autonomous University of Nuevo León) School of Architecture. I have continued collaborating with professors at that university during the little more than two years that I have been at UT. Recently, I was able to serve as a bridge for a research project between UT Austin and UANL. We conducted a binational study with researchers and students from both institutions on informal settlements in Monterrey, Mexico. What gives me the most pride is that this research won the best research award from the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association.
What attracted you to Texas and UT Austin?
I had the opportunity to meet professors from UT Austin who went to present their work to UANL. Talking to them, I could see that UT Austin could help me explore these issues that I wanted to venture into. Little by little I was informed about the different programs that UT had, and from talking with some professors I made the decision that UT was the best for my research interests.
What have been some good things you didn't expect from Texas or UT Austin?
Frankly, I did not expect the hospitality and helpfulness of many professors; I think they are very open to supporting their students. As for Texas, I was surprised by how present and diverse the Latin community is. This is noticeable in the options to eat and have fun, but also in the culture, which I think makes Austin a very enjoyable city. Also, the fact that Austin is such a child-friendly city has allowed my partner and I to have quality time with our son. There are even bars that have children's games here!
What have been the biggest challenges of studying at UT Austin and living in the United States?
I think it's a super competitive environment. The students here take their studies very seriously, which makes them very prepared in the classes. Trying to be at the level of class discussion in a language that is not your own is the most challenging thing I have faced so far, academically speaking. As for living in the United States, it is not easy to understand a culture so intertwined with a history of intense segregation. For me, it was a shock to realize how this history is reflected in the urban geography, making some groups particularly vulnerable.
How has the support of ConTex and CONACYT impacted you?
It has been amazing. As a student, there are many things to be worried about, but knowing that financing is not one of those concerns has made a very clear difference in how I approach my studies. Also, this scholarship is very prestigious. I was even invited to meet with the President of UT.
What kind of work do you expect to do in the future? How do you expect your research to benefit people in the United States and Mexico?
I believe that I will continue working in vulnerable communities. I have found an area of research that I am passionate about and that I believe is under-researched in both countries. I believe that a focus on good qualitative techniques in conjunction with a legitimate interest in low-income settlements can create a difference in the formulation of public policies. Both Mexico and the United States have vulnerable populations, so learning about, developing, and improving methods to approach them is the motivation behind my work.
What advice would you give to other Mexican students who are considering studying in Texas?
That it is essential that they get in touch with as many researchers and students in Texas as they can. I talked to some professors, but after coming here I realized that it is common practice to also have contact with students through video calls, phone calls, or emails. I have talked with several candidates myself. I consider this a great way to get a feel not just for the university, but the city itself.