Melissa Villa Nicholas on a Latinx History of Technology

Our faculty engage in cutting-edge research and innovative creative work, bringing new ideas to our students and communities locally and globally. We’re pleased to continue this spotlight series featuring our faculty’s work through a question-and-answer style article.

Featured book: Latinas on the Line (Rutgers Press, January 2022), by Assistant Professor Melissa Villa Nicholas, Graduate School of Library and Information Studies

Q: Can you tell us a brief synopsis of Latinas on the Line?
A. Latinas on the Line fills in the gap of Latina histories of technology in technology-based industries such as telecommunications. This book uses archives and oral history from Latinas who had been telephone operators and information workers for decades to build a Latinx history of technology. 

How does this book fit in with your research interests?
My research interests are Latinx histories of technology and contemporary practices and analysis of Latinxs around information and technology. In order to build what I consider a Latinx Science and Technology Studies, I needed to create the foundations and find out where  Latinxs were working in technology-based industries. Many Latinx people in the U.S. started in technology sectors as telephone operators, working on telephone poles, and in other information worker-based roles. I viewed this book as filling in a gap to establish that Latinxs have long had a presence in building and contributing to technology sectors. 

What surprised you when researching and writing this book?
I had had an established knowledge that Latinas were telephone operators since the early 1970s because my mom and aunts were all telephone operators. My family is Mexican American from California and had all entered telecommunications in the 1970s. But what surprised me was how many Latinas I spoke with had built their lives around telecommunications, and had built a life for themselves because of their long-established work in telecommunications. Their lives were intimately connected with the international, national, and localized politics of telecommunications. Every change in technology, every shift in these major telephone companies shifted their personal lives. Technology and the phone company were the business of Latina telephone operators, and they had decades’ worth of stories to tell. 

For those reading the book, what do you hope is the main takeaway?
My first goal is to establish that there is a Latinx history of technology. Second that Latinas have had a major hand in all of the technologies we use in our everyday lives. We can’t access the internet, our computers, or telephones without the many information workers that make telecommunications companies run. I want to make that invisible labor visible and give Latina information workers the credit they deserve in where we are today with access to digital technologies.