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Muñoz Builds Understanding of Immigration by Sharing Migrants’ Stories

Solange Muñoz, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Sustainability, is trying to make the world a more understanding and compassionate place by telling migrants’ stories.

“I consider myself an urban geographer and a Latin Americanist. I look at housing, urban equality, the ways in which people experience the city and access resources in the city,” she said.

She received the college’s Junior Diversity Leadership Award in the spring of 2022 for helping with campus diversity and inclusion efforts.

“Promoting diversity at the university has always been important to me,” she said. “I have a lot of students who really struggle with being here. They know and feel that their voices are not represented.

“I just wish I could make other people more cognizant.”

Muñoz was born to a Bolivian father and an English mother who met in Spain. The family made their home in Michigan.

Muñoz earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American Literature and Culture, at the University of Michigan.

After graduating, she moved to Chile and lived there for six years, teaching English and working on her master’s degree in Latin American studies. The country had only recently transitioned from being a dictatorship to being a democracy. She saw how the Chileans were struggling to understand their country’s place in the world.

“That was an amazing experience,” she said. “I became an adult in this different setting, and I learned how to see the world differently.”

After returning to the states, Muñoz completed her master’s degree in Latin American studies and her doctorate in geography and the environment, both at the University of Texas, Austin. She came to the University of Tennessee in 2015.

Throughout her career, Muñoz has been trying to “use the words and experiences of immigrants to broaden the public’s understanding of what it means to migrate.”

In 2009, while a graduate student working on her dissertation research at UT Austin, Muñoz traveled to Argentina to look at housing access, with a focus on the Peruvian community in Buenos Aires. She spoke with several women who had immigrated from Peru to work and make a better life for themselves and their families. Some were trying to earn enough money to bring their children and spouses to Argentina; others wanted to be able to send their children to college.

In 2018, as a UT faculty member on a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award, Muñoz returned to Argentina to re-interview four of the women.

“They had made it, they had done what they intended to do. I was asking them to reflect on their immigrant experiences,” she said. Some of the women were happy with their choice to immigrate; others had some regrets about being separated from their children and spouses for so long.

More recently, Muñoz has been interviewing women from Central America, Mexico, and Venezuela who have immigrated to Knoxville.

Too often, she said, America is portrayed as a “victim” of immigration.

“Discussions of immigration dehumanize those who are leaving (their countries to come to America) but it does not allow us to consider why would they leave.

“It’s a huge decision to migrate,” she said. “I want people to understand, particularly if you focus on women, that they’re not going to leave children behind or won’t risk taking kids across borders unless they are desperate.”

In her free time, Muñoz spends time with her daughter, Nina, 11. Muñoz was able to take her daughter with her to Argentina and Germany for extended stays, and Nina attended bilingual schools.

Story by Amy Blakely