Meet the FAS faculty: Ángel Escamilla García

May 8, 2024

By Abiba Biao 

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Ángel Escamilla García is on a mission. As a sociologist, he understands better than most that the decisions we make are influenced and shaped by systems that exist outside of our individual control. These systems might be invisible to us, but their existence engenders social phenomena like racism, discrimination, and inequality. Can we identify these systems so that we may respond to them? Escamilla García believes that we can. 

Escamilla García is Assistant Professor of Sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Originally from Chiapas in Mexico, Escamilla García received his B.A. in Social Anthropology at the Universidad Veracruzana in 2011. There, he discovered how social sciences and humanities could be dynamically applied to social issues due to their versatility as disciplines

It was seeing people move and migrate around him that sparked a particular interest in finding meaning behind migration patterns. 

“There are people of certain ages and genders who do certain things [like migration] and I said, ‘Okay, there are invisible forces influencing it, and I want to know how [those forces] work,’” Escamilla García said.  

His journey toward these answers led him to pursue postgraduate education at Northwestern University, where he earned his PhD in Sociology in 2022. He then served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Migrations Initiative at Cornell University before his arrival at Yale.  

Escamilla García:It’s important to make these kids proud of their origins and let them choose what they want to preserve. (Leon Overweel/Unsplash) 

Escamilla García studies the migration experience of particularly vulnerable groups from Latin America to the United States, with a focus on youth, indigenous and LGBTQ+ individuals. Using primarily ethnographic research, Angel investigates the sociocultural factors that compel people to emigrate to countries like the United States. 

His most current project is investigating the roles of linguistic isolation among Guatemalan child migrants who speak Indigenous languages. 

“My interest is showing the importance of recognizing them [Indigenous people] as an independent group that have a distinctive pattern of migration and a distinctive rich history, and the role of language in their incorporation to the U.S.” he said. 

The strong monoculture of the Spanish language often contributes to the underrepresentation of Indigenous communities in research surrounding Latin America. Now in the U.S. there is unspoken consensus that all Latin American migrants are Spanish speakers, but that is not the case.  

“The United States is used to this Spanish-speaking Latin America: schools, hospitals, immigration courts. Everything is adapted to Spanish and that is fine, but then we have this large population who do not speak Spanish, or Spanish is not their first language,” he said. I think it’s important for me to recognize this linguistic but also cultural and ethnic diversity. 

Through his research, Escamilla García discovered that 30% of Guatemalan children who migrate as unaccompanied minors to the United States speak an Indigenous language. He also emphasizes the importance of autonomy and choice when creating and maintaining identity, saying that change is inevitable and that it naturally accompanies new environments. However, neglecting heritage and overprioritizing assimilation can be harmful to migrants.  

“It’s important to make these kids proud of their of their origins and let them choose what they want to preserve,” he said, “not tell them ‘You have to be Indigenous because that’s where you come from, but also not tell them ‘You have to forget about your culture.Instead, it is necessary to offer them information about their culture, their countries of origin, and the pivotal role of migrants in countries like the U.S. 

Escamilla García: “What can we do to keep the research going, but at the same time, preserve them [research participants]?  

Research ethics is a fundamental principle behind Escamilla García’s work with Latin American minor immigrants. While dealing with vulnerable groups, he empowers his interviewees to exercise autonomy. Those included in interviews have the freedom to walk out if they feel uncomfortable and can revoke consent at any time, giving them space to talk as much or as little as they want. 

“I try to teach my students to always be aware about not just the quality of the questions, but the potential harm their questions or methods can have,” he said. “What are the implications of revealing certain information about people who are fleeing persecution? What can we do to keep the research going, but at the same time, preserve them [research participants]?” 

Interacting with vulnerable youth can also be taxing to mental health due to the indirect exposure to trauma. Over the years, Escamilla García has learned how to balance his mental health by reminding himself of the purpose of his research, and by taking space to unpack and grieve their circumstances 

“You have to recognize what is happening [to your mental health], because you are a human, but at the same time, you must try to focus on the mission, which is to provide evidence-based research on a subject that is very delicate and very important. 

Famed 19th century sociologists Kelly Miller, Monroe Nathan Work, and W.E.B. Du Bois (Wikimedia Commons) 

Escamilla García is not alone in his interest in Latin American emigration. In fact, interest in Latin American emigration can be traced back to the 19th century, where Black sociologists like Kelly Miller, a quantitative researcher interested in Mexican immigration to the US, were pioneering this field of study. 

Escamilla García hopes to amplify the contributions of Black sociologists by writing a series of articles detailing the contributions of Miller and other minority sociology pioneers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Monroe Nathan Work, a favorite of Escamilla García’s. They not only pioneered research in Latin American emigration, but they also studied migration of African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

“When you read the classics of migration, you don’t read about them [Miller, Work and Du Bois]. They’re absent from the discussion, you know?” he said. “My interest has been in knowing about how [these researchers] thought about sociology, because imagine if they were able to speak equally in these academic environments. We probably would have a very different pathway in my discipline.” 

His current research on pioneer Black sociologists highlights how Work, Miller and Du Bois viewed migration differently in their respective time periods because of their empirical mindset, which means they didn’t focus on superficial analyses of African Americans that were based on race. They instead emphasized the social forces that cause phenomena like The Great Migration and its repercussions in the 1900s 

Escamilla García described Work as one of his favorite sociologists because of his creation of The Negro Yearbook, an encyclopedia containing current events and a directory of persons and organizations relating to the African American experience. The book was first released in 1912 and has published 9 editions in total. 

Work was also the first African American to have research featured in the American Journal of Sociology, authoring a paper on causes of crime in the African American community, which he attributed not to race but to the social conditions people were raised in. 

Escamilla García was drawn to Yale for its investigative and innovative spirit, plus the resources available to advance his research like the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration and the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Currently, he is working on a book proposal and finishing a manuscript entitled Negotiating Violence: Central American Youth and their Precarious Journeys through Mexico, which explores how Central American youth migrants (who are traveling alone across Mexico on their way to the U.S.) understand and respond to the constant violence and precariousness they face.  

Though the work might be challenging at times, Escamilla García stands his ground fighting for immigrant rights and diversity in the field by referencing works from minority sociologists.  

Sociology gives you the tools to explore not the root causes but the structural causes of racism, discrimination, inequality that is, for me what I love about sociology,” he said. “Sociology gives you this broad, robust understanding. When you know about the source of inequality and how it works, you see the world differently.