From a high school drop-out to an assistant professor, Dr. Jerry Flores has overcome several obstacles along his journey to academia. He is currently an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, a 2019 recipient of the Connaught New Researcher Award, a researcher and advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, and an author. The Medium sat down with him to learn more about his book, his research, and his journey in academia.
Flores states that his academic journey began with his parents who played a significant role in shaping his personality. “Ever since I was little, my mom has always instilled in me this instinct of curiosity and my dad always promoted this inspired desire to contribute to social justice and to help people.” He believes that these two attributes are what kick-started his career and encouraged him to become the person he is today.
As a child, Flores always struggled in school, which ultimately led to him dropping out and attending an alternative school instead. Flores relates that this new school provided him with the guidance he needed in areas of math and science through different learning approaches, helping him cultivate the habits of a disciplined learner and igniting a passion for learning.
Flores eventually returned to high school and completed his preliminary foundational studies. He applied to numerous Ph.D. programs but was rejected by each program. Instead, he was accepted into a master’s program at San Diego State University and later went on to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014.
Following his Ph.D., Flores worked at the University of Washington. However, he realized that he did not want to live in the United States due to prevalent racist attitudes. Flores started applying to the University of Toronto, and after three years, he finally obtained a position as an assistant professor. Flores says, “I love UTM, and not just because I work here. It is definitely my favourite branch in the U of T system—I feel like I fit in here.”
Published in 2016, Flores’s book Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration is essentially “a description for what it’s like for Latinas in Southern California.” He writes about “what their lives are like before they’re locked up, what home factors contribute to them getting incarcerated, [and] what their lives are like in a detention centre.” Alongside these issues, Flores also discusses the process of reintegration into society.
When examining the lives of Latinas, Flores explains that abuse is not uncommon. He says that abuse in forms of “physical, sexual [and] psychological” is often seen, “especially [with] family members [and] close friends.” As a result, it pushes women to run away from their homes and live a life on their own. Usually, they begin to engage in high-risk behaviour such as shoplifting or the distribution of drugs in order to simply meet basic needs. In the course of their escape, underage girls frequently develop “toxic relationships” with older men.
His book follows the lives of incarcerated Latinas and provides readers with their experiences inside and outside of detention centres in California. Flores mentions that there are, in fact, many similarities between his book and his current research on missing and murdered Indigenous women. He says that “the only difference is that in LA, the young women, when they leave home, end up being incarcerated [whereas] Indigenous women here end up being murdered.”
Flores’ current research delves into the lives of these Indigenous women and examines cases where they disappear, get murdered, or both. When asked about what motivated Flores to launch his research, he answers, “one of the main questions I’m asking is what do Indigenous people need in order to be successful. [Furthermore] in order to be safe, what do they need and how can we help.”
Flores speaks about the mistakes researchers commonly make when interviewing Indigenous women such as when researchers ask Indigenous women questions the researchers want answers to, rather than asking the women what they need and what is important to them. “I’m trying to rectify some of the mistakes academics and researchers have done in the past.”
While conducting interviews for his research, Flores asserts that one central necessity for keeping Indigenous women secure is granting them access to housing, food, and water. Indigenous women who live in remote locations, such as northern Canada, are usually in more danger than other areas due to the fact that public transit is not available. Flores states that women are often “talked or conned into extortion for sex.”
Although Flores is already working on numerous projects, he continues to have goals for the future. He describes that an ultimate goal of his is to open up a research institute here at UTM. “I think I want to call it the Institute for the Study of Prisons, Punishment, or Surveillance across the globe.” Flores’ passion for learning and teaching drives him to constantly raise awareness of the issues he advocates for. “I want to take on a leadership role at the campus where I can help promote social change and social justice.”