Archivist Spotlight: Natalia Fernández, Multicultural Librarian, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon

Photo-Fernandez-01

Tell us about your beginnings in librarianship and archival science, what sparked your interest in the field?

I grew up in “The Old Pueblo” Tucson, Arizona, and attended the University of Arizona for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. As an undergraduate, I majored in Art History and Spanish Literature. During my undergraduate years, I began thinking about graduate school when a friend told me about the university’s master degree program in information resources and library science. I began working at the university’s main library as a shelver and pager, and I spoke to a number of librarians about their work. My first experience in a special collections and archives was during my honors thesis research process, and the type of work done by archivists fascinated me. As someone who naturally loves to organize and categorize materials, the concept of being able to do that as a career seemed too good to be true, and it also seemed like a good match for my undergraduate studies. In 2008, I became a part of the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River program, a program that focuses on community-based librarianship and archival work to serve traditionally underserved populations. In addition to the program, I interned with as many archival repositories as I could and, again, sought out advice from others within the profession. My supervisors’ commitment to using history as a means to empower communities, educate the public, and celebrate heritage inspired me greatly.

How instrumental was the Knowledge River program in your career?

The University of Arizona’s Knowledge River (KR) program focuses on community-based librarianship and partnerships with traditionally underserved communities, with a focus on Latinx and Native American communities. The program trains future librarians to have a better understanding of library and information issues from the perspectives of Latinx and Native Americans, as well as to be advocates for culturally sensitive library and information services. I am currently the Curator and Archivist of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives, as well as an associate professor, at the Oregon State University Libraries and Press Special Collections and Archives Research Center in Corvallis, Oregon. The Knowledge River program was quite instrumental in securing my position.

The KR program offers a great combination of theory, practice, and network building. As part of the program, all KR scholars are required to complete the course “Information Environments from Library and Hispanic and Native American Perspectives” during their first semester. The knowledge gained in this course was fundamental for me as I then applied a more critical lens to my other courses that did not include non-traditional perspectives. As part of the program, I worked as a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections, which has a wide variety of materials pertaining to the Latinx community. I also worked as a graduate assistant for a local tribal community’s summer early literacy program. Because of my employment experiences as a KR scholar, I obtained internships and student jobs at a variety of other archival repositories. In part, this job experience helped me secure my current position. The other piece of the Knowledge River program that was instrumental in starting my career was the network of Knowledge River scholars and the reputation of the program within the field. While at the University of Arizona, my supervisor at the time had also graduated as a KR scholar. She had worked for my now current institution and acted as a reference. Now in its 16th cohort (I was in cohort 7), it is incredible to think about the ever expanding network of amazing KR graduates.

What does your current position as Multicultural Librarian at Oregon State University, entail (types of ethnic communities you’re working with)?

In November of 2010, I began my job as the curator and archivist of Oregon State University Oregon Multicultural Archives (OMA). In 2014, I co-founded the OSU Queer Archives (OSQA). The mission of the OMA is to assist in preserving the histories and sharing the stories that document Oregon’s African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American communities. OSQA’s mission is to preserve and share the stories, histories, and experiences of LGBTQ+ people within the OSU and Corvallis communities. The majority of my job for both archives is to collect materials, from both individuals and organizations, to add to the archives. I also curate exhibits and collaborate with other organizations on special projects as well as with professors for their classes.

Talk to us about the Latinos en Oregón Oral History project, how it started, objectives, and response from the community?

As the curator and archivist of the Oregon Multicultural Archives, I develop relationships with communities of color to share information about the process of documenting their histories, the opportunity to do so, and the importance of ensuring that their stories are preserved and made accessible to current and future generations. In the summer of 2014, I took a variety of research trips across the state and spoke with museum curators and archivists about their current and future plans to document local area communities of color. One of the predominant topics of discussion was the need to connect with local Latinx communities and better represent their experiences in the historical record. According to the August 2016 report, “Latinos in Oregon: Trends and Opportunities in a Changing State”, Oregon’s Latinx population in 2014 was 12% of the state’s population, up from 8% in 2000. Various archival repositories in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, located in western Oregon, such as the Oregon Historical Society, Pacific University, and the University of Oregon, have oral history collections documenting the Latinx experiences in their areas. However, the institutions with which I spoke in central Oregon did not; they recognized the growth of the Latinx population in their local communities and the need to document the Latinx experience. In early 2015, recalling my conversations and the research I had conducted, I had the opportunity to connect with members of the Madras, Oregon, Latinx community, and I jumped at the chance. Madras is a small town in central Oregon with a population of about 6,000 people, 38.5% of which are Latinx. In the spring of 2015, I began the Latinos en Oregón oral history project in Madras, Oregon.

The purpose of the Latinos en Oregón oral history project is to document the Oregon Latinx community’s stories, from their perspectives. Through the OMA, I wanted to connect with local communities to document the stories of everyday life – the family stories, traditions, opinions, and diverse perspectives – of Latinx communities in Oregon. The project has various objectives including: creating an archival collection for public access to increase awareness of the contributions and challenges of Latinx community members in Oregon; honoring and celebrating the state’s Latinx communities; establishing and strengthening relationships with and within the Latinx community; and most importantly, providing the opportunity for Latinx communities to be empowered to share their stories and have them become a part of the larger Oregon historical narrative.

In central Oregon, the project’s first collaboration began with the Oregon State University Juntos program, a program that partners with schools to provide Latinx families across Oregon with the knowledge and resources to gain access to higher education. In collaboration with my community liaison, I developed a set of questions that were modified based on each individual’s needs; but overall, there were five main sections for each oral history interview: family/ancestors, immigration stories, life in Oregon, topics/traditions, and plans for the future. The oral histories I conducted included questions about the interviewees’ childhoods and educational experiences, opportunities to share the stories of why and how they moved to Oregon, as well as their thoughts regarding life in Madras and the connections, or lack thereof, between the Latinx community and non-Latinx community members. A large portion of each interview consisted of the interviewees sharing their thoughts on a range of topics covering a variety of life experiences: cultural celebrations and traditions, religion, values, hobbies, etc.

The community response has been amazing. In 2016, I expanded the project to Yamhill County in collaboration with the county cultural trust, the local historical society, and the Latinx community organization Unidos, along with a dedicated group of community volunteers. In Clackamas County, Oregon, I partnered with the Canby Public Library, and most recently I began a collaboration with the Hood River Museum to expand the project in that region. For each collaboration, I worked with community liaisons who have already established trusting relationships with community members and who can act as advocates for the project. Early on, I realized I needed to build project capacity and sustainability, but also that I did not need to be the only one conducting interviews. I developed a flexible project workflow where I could conduct interviews in some areas, and train local community members in others. The result is that oral history interviews are added to the Oregon Multicultural Archives, but this approach expands the scale of the project and allows for deeper engagement within communities.

How do you envision the field of Latin American librarianship (in terms of archival collection development and outreach)?

Whenever I work on the Latinos en Oregón oral history project, I am reminded of how much more there is to document, analyze, and to celebrate. Listening to the interviewees’ stories of migration and settlement, their childhood experiences and thoughts on a variety of topics and family traditions, as well as their hopes and dreams for their futures and those of their children, is truly inspiring. The oral history collection is available for the communities themselves as well as to the public so others can learn this rich history. The field of Latin American librarianship plays such a powerful role in fostering understanding that enables people to consider the positive impact Latinx community members have had in their local towns, how people have adapted, and how communities have changed as a result of their presence. Due to our current political and social climate, now more than ever it is essential that we document, share, learn from, and celebrate the stories of Latinx communities, as well as other traditionally underrepresented groups. In this way, I hope that these stories encourage people to speak with empathy in their conversations, and perhaps have a broader and better understanding of what it means to be an Oregonian, and to be an American.

Finally, what has been the most rewarding part of your career as a multicultural librarian?

Along with the value of archival collections, especially oral histories, for scholarly purposes and the edification of the public, creating an opportunity for a community to tell its story can offer benefits to the community members themselves. A common response I receive when I ask an individual or family to share their stories is that they feel they have no story to tell. They may say that they consider their lives too ordinary for anyone to want to hear or that their kind of life’s story is one that is not typically told. As an archivist, it is incredibly rewarding to speak with community members about how much their stories matter, and about the positive impact that their stories could potentially have to those who listen to them. For communities who have been traditionally marginalized in both the historical record and in historiography, oral histories can be a form of empowerment, a way in which they can literally add their voice to the narrative. In addition, the process of sharing their story can be a personal opportunity for self-reflection and appreciation for the struggles they have endured and their life’s accomplishments thus far.

Advertisements

Interview with Dr. Bonnie A. Lucero, Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley

by Ana D. Rodríguez

Note: Fall 2017 Dr. Lucero will be starting a new role as Post-doctoral Fellow in Law and Society at the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University

What motivated you to pursue a career in Latin American studies? 

My fascination with Latin American studies began as a quest to explore my own identity. Even as a very young person, I was drawn to discovering my heritage and understanding the changing community in which I lived. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was surrounded with cultural, ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity, and I was enmeshed in a place thoroughly shaped by global connections. In my hometown of Richmond, California, diverse populations co-existed but remained geographically and socially separate. My family lived in working-class neighborhoods that straddled the boundaries of African-American, Latinx, and white areas of the city. As a mixed-race person, I struggled to find my place within this richly-heterogenous yet largely-segregated society. But what made it even more of a challenge were the powerful stereotypes conflating Latinx identity with Mexican and Mexican-American people, even though the community of Latin American immigrants and Latinx people in my city was very diverse in terms of national background. I grew increasingly curious about how Puerto Ricans fit into the broader Latinx category. I wanted to learn about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans to understand that part of myself. And I wanted to explore Latin America and its relationship to the United States to figure out the social and historical forces shaping migration and immigration. Most of all, I wanted to understand how I and the evolving racial and cultural landscape of my community fit into broader global processes.

These goals steered me towards a bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the School of International Studies at the University of the Pacific. My college experience prompted new questions about my and my country’s relationship to Latin America. I was surrounded for the first time in my life by a wealthy, predominantly-white student body. Navigating this new environment forced me to reckon with the profound inequalities that defined my own country. So, when it came time to fulfill the study abroad requirement of my degree, I wanted to experience a society that approached inequality as a problem to be fixed, instead of a necessary and immutable part of life. I chose Cuba. Part of my decision was informed by the island’s historical and cultural connections with Puerto Rico. Yet, I was also interested in Cuba because I had read that the 1959 Revolution set out to dismantle class, racial, and gender hierarchies. I found the possibility of a more empathetic society profoundly inspiring.

Though perhaps not in the ways I imagined, the semester I spent at the University of Havana changed my life. It cemented my love of Cuba and Latin America. It also motivated me to dedicate myself entirely to understanding how inequality functioned in the region, and how different Latin American societies had attempted to address social stratification at specific historical moments. Upon returning to my university, I researched and wrote about the abolition of slavery in Cuba, which I understood to be a key moment in which social change could have materialized. These experiences eventually led me to pursue graduate degrees in Latin American studies and later in History.

You got an M.Phil in Latin American studies from the University of Cambridge, what are some notable aspects and differences of studying Latin America from a European perspective?

One of the key reasons I applied to study at Cambridge was because the strained relations between Cuba and the United States complicated my ability to pursue my studies on the island. In fact, when I initially proposed to complete my study abroad in Cuba as an undergraduate, I was told that it was not possible because of the embargo. I actually had to transfer to a different university to make it happen. I remember the entire ordeal involved with traveling to the island for the first time. It was during the Bush years in the 2000s, and one of the first things I had to do was attend a “briefing” at the U.S. Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy. Over the course of an hour, I listened to a U.S. official justify her office’s efforts to topple the Cuban government as the only way to deliver Cubans from what she claimed to be a tyrannical police state that oppressed them. I listened to her defend a failed policy that I didn’t believe in, one that I knew only hurt Cuban people and separated families. Later, as an intern at the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., my naïve and optimistic hopes of bringing Cuba back into the organization after decades of exclusion were greeted with laughter. Both those experiences were very jarring for me as a student. I was determined to get another perspective.

Studying at the Latin America Studies Center at Cambridge afforded me an opportunity to escape some of the antiquated Cold War thinking that plagued area studies in the United States. Moreover, it pushed me to think beyond the comparative framework that implicitly poses the U.S. as the main point of reference. In that vein, one of the most transformative aspects of my M.Phil studies was being able to engaging with Cuba and Latin America more generally beyond the Cold War politics that dominate area studies in the United States. From this perspective, I was able to see Cuba for more than just the Cuban Revolution. Studying the history of race and ethnicity with my advisor Gabriela Ramos gave me new ideas about why Cuba captured my interest. It was more than just a single moment of revolutionary upheaval, but rather a much longer trajectory of struggle. This interest pushed me towards a historical approach to Latin American studies, with an emphasis on the evolving nature of social inequality.

I began to explore social inequality through the lens of race. My master’s thesis explored the impact of slave emancipation on ideas about race in Cuba. I sought to build upon this study during my doctoral studies in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, by exploring the ways imperial transition shaped racial hierarchies in Cuba at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, as I studied the work of black feminists and delved further into the archival sources, I realized that a history of racial inequality in Cuba would be incomplete without accounting for its entanglement with gender hierarchies. My dissertation represented my first attempt to grapple with those issues. After obtaining my PhD in 2013, I devoted my scholarship to exploring the intersections of race and gender. I co-edited Voices of Crime: Constructing and Contesting Social Control in Modern Latin America (University of Arizona Press, 2016), a volume that explores how race, gender, and class informed ideas about criminality in the region throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I also finished my first monograph, Revolutionary Masculinity and Racial Inequality: Gendering War and Politics in Central Cuba, 1895-1902 (University of New Mexico Press, forthcoming in 2018), which analyzes the ways Cuban soldiers and politicians employed ideas about masculinity both to challenge and reinforce racial hierarchy. The seminar on the history of race and ethnicity in Latin America at Cambridge empowered me to bring a scholarly and historical approach to my personal and experiential interest in social inequality. It allowed me to pursue personally and politically meaningful work that I believe provides a new perspective, which has the power to produce knowledge for change.

Tell us about your current teaching role at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley

When I got the job offer to work at the University (then called University of Texas-Pan American), my first thought was that this was the perfect job for me. Throughout graduate school, I had often questioned whether there would be a place for me in academia, where the odds seemed to be stacked firmly against women of color and people from working-class backgrounds. I had also felt torn about potentially taking a job that would isolate me from communities that I wanted to serve. The prospect of working at one the largest Hispanic-serving institutions in the country melted away these apprehensions. The job seemed to offer the best of both worlds—it afforded me a place in higher education while also enabling me to serve a community with which I truly identified.

Over the last four years, I have embraced this position as an opportunity to apply my areas of expertise in ways that validate and empower my students in the classroom and beyond. Part of that vision stems from my own experience as a student who struggled to identify with curriculum centered on a wealthy, white, male experience. I want my students to feel invested in the content and to see its relevance to their lives. Thus, in my courses on Latin American and the Caribbean, I purposefully center the historical experiences of social groups that are typically omitted from the historical record. Students learn about immigrants, African-descended peoples, indigenous populations, women, LGBTQ+, and religious minorities, among others. In this way, my courses empower students to see themselves in the curriculum, explore the common humanity of people across the Americas and beyond, and think critically about what they might reveal about our own society and experiences.

As a Latin Americanist, working with a predominantly Latinx student population has been a very fulfilling experience. Because of the working-class and immigrant backgrounds of many students, I have found that my teaching on historic social inequality and struggles for justice has resonated in unique and meaningful ways. I have proudly watched as many of them apply the lessons embedded in my curriculum to create change within their communities. I have also enjoyed working with a truly bilingual and bicultural student body and a borderlands community. In this context, the student population possesses a foundation of language skills and some degree of cross-cultural competency, which provides them a distinct advantage for studying Latin America. More than that, in this unique cultural context Latin American Studies is not merely a vehicle for understanding some far-off foreign society, but rather a mirror for exploring the dynamics that have shaped and continue to influence the borderlands.

For this reason, I have dedicated myself to rebuilding the Latin American Studies program at my institution. One of the initiatives I am most proud is Global Latin America, an Interdisciplinary Lecture and Engagement Series I founded in early 2016. As director of the series, I curate an enriching array of cultural and academic programming on the global connections defining the region and its borderlands. Some of the academic talks have focused on Mexico’s African heritage, Chinese Cubans, and this coming semester, Islam in Latin America. Because the Rio Grande Valley has remained geographically and politically isolated from the centers of elite knowledge production in the US, I envision Global Latin America as an important step towards connecting students and community members with internationally-recognized experts. Global Latin America also bridges classroom and community by recognizing the lived experiences of the borderlands as a valuable intellectual pursuit and forging connections between current and future generations of Latinx leaders. I see the series as a strong foundation for an academic certificate program, a minor, and eventually a major. Within an increasingly neoliberal academy and corporatized university, ensuring that students—particularly students of color in one of the most impoverished areas of the country—have access to this kind of liberal arts education is, in itself, a revolutionary act.

Which is your current research project?

Currently, I am finalizing my second monograph and looking forward to starting a new book project. My current book, titled Geographies of Power and Privilege: Urban Racial Segregation and Colorblindness in a Central Cuban City (under contract with University of Alabama Press), examines the gendered mechanisms of urban racial segregation over Cuba’s long nineteenth century. I explore how racial segregation was constructed and perpetuated in a society devoid of explicitly racial laws. By the late nineteenth century, Cuban law did not even recognize race, let alone prescribe racial segregation in the way Jim Crow did in the United States. Scholars have searched for indirect mechanisms of racial inequality, concluding that class was the principal mechanism of racial exclusion. However, the singular focus on class has perpetuated a male normative perspective, which obscures the myriad ways racial exclusion was bound up with gendered relations of power. Consequently, we have an incomplete understanding of the ways race functioned in Cuba and other supposedly-colorblind societies across the Atlantic World.

In the book, I argue that the key to understanding racial segregation in Cuba is recognizing the often-unspoken ways ideas and practices of gender shaped the historical production of race. Through a microhistorical case study of the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos, my research demonstrates that laws governing processes previously understood as neutral and ungendered—for instance slavery, emancipation, migration, urbanization, and property ownership—in fact shaped urban society in distinctly gendered ways. For instance, in mid-nineteenth-century Cuba, enslaved women in rural sugar districts cited their legal rights as mothers and wives to achieve freedom in larger numbers than their male counterparts. Many of these newly-emancipated women migrated to the city, where they found opportunities for wage work, which allowed them to take advantage of their legal right to own land independently from men. The way these women navigated urban space in turn shaped the city’s racial landscape. Most black women migrants settled on the cheaper and less regulated land located on the urban peripheries. But the relative autonomy of these black women property owners drew the scrutiny of local white male elites, who expanded policing and imposed new regulations to preserve urban order. Heightened state surveillance in turn helped institutionalize de facto racial boundaries. The gendered implications of the law were instrumental in producing and perpetuating urban racial segregation, without ever mentioning race outright.

My second project is a new book manuscript tentatively titled Malthusian Practices: A History of Pregnancy, Abortion, and Infanticide in Cuba. I became interested in this subject when I discovered over 300 newly-declassified abortion cases, mainly involving poor women of color, from the early years of the Cuban Revolution. This set of records seemed to contradict the revolutionary discourse of women’s liberation and racial justice. Thus, I began to wonder how laws regulating women’s reproduction perpetuated racial and gender inequality even in moments defined by intense social change. To address this question, I employ a reproductive justice framework to explore evolving interpretations of laws governing pregnancy and fertility control, and their consequences for women of African descent in Cuba. My intersectional approach to women’s health, bodies, and sexuality addresses a critical lacuna in the scholarship on Cuba—and much of Spanish America—by considering the way laws regulating women’s reproduction impacted the status of entire social and racial groups.

The study begins in the early eighteenth century, when colonial officials established the island’s first foundling asylum to care for abandoned infants and curb infanticide. By the early nineteenth century, precisely as Cuba transitioned from a white settler colony to a predominantly-black slave society, white Cuban elites excluded women and infants of African descent from accessing the asylum to ensure the institution could save white babies. I end with the consolidation of the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s, when the state again intensified its policing of women’s reproduction. The racially- and class-specific application of anti-abortion laws reinforced the racialized-gendered subordination of poor women of color within patriarchal family structures, while permitting expanded public roles of white women as symbols of revolutionary progress. Over all, this project illuminates how the regulation of women’s reproduction served as a key pillar of racial hierarchy, a continuity that endured through moments of social upheaval and revolutionary change. I am looking forward to engaging with and contributing to the growing body of scholarship on women’s bodies and reproduction in Latin America.

How do you envision the panorama of Latin American scholarship in the future?

One of the aspects of Latin American Studies that I particularly value is how deeply embedded the notion of intersectionality has been in much of the recent scholarship on the region, even if the theoretical influence has not been explicitly named. Latin Americanist scholars have long recognized the ways gender, class, and race have functioned as entwined system of inequality. In the field of Cuban Studies, Verena Stolke’s pioneering 1974 book Marriage, Class, and Color in Nineteenth-Century Cuba, created a strong foundation for future intersectional work. Recently, a new generation of scholars including Aisha Finch, Tiffany Sippial, Karen Y. Morrison, Camillia Cowling, and others have contributed some inspiring research centering women and gender in historical studies of social inequality in Cuba. As I move into my new role as Post-doctoral Fellow in Law and Society at the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University, I look forward to contributing to this growing interdisciplinary collaboration between scholars of Latin American Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career teaching Latin American studies?

There are many rewarding aspects of my career as a scholar and teacher of Latin American Studies. I think one of the things I have enjoyed most has been the ability to produce knowledge that has a direct bearing on the experiences of ordinary people and on struggles for social justice today. So much of my research and teaching has been dedicated to exposing the implicit and indirect ways race has operated in Cuba’s supposedly raceless society. In some ways, this research is specific to particular moments in the histories of Cuba and Latin America. However, I also see important parallels for the shifting landscape of race in the United States. Over the course of my life, colorblindness has become the unequivocal and unquestioned foundation for prevailing discussions of race in the United States, even as racial inequality and violence have not only persisted but grown worse. I see important parallels to Cuba; the consolidation of racelessness as a key pillar of national identity marked not the end of racial exclusion, but rather its mutation. Some of the worst episodes of racial exclusion and the most genocidal acts of racial violence occurred under the veil of racelessness. By understanding the way race operated in this context, my research potentially offers insights for combatting these abuses in the United States.

Translating these insights into the classroom and beyond has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.  Like my research, my courses expose the implicit, unspoken, often unconscious ways in which racial difference and other axes of inequality are constructed in specific historical and cultural contexts. Discussing the implications of concrete historical examples across the Hemisphere, my courses empower students to see the United States, Latin America, and the borderlands between them in a new light, as they learn to question, analyze, and critique dominant narratives and find their own voice. I have watched as my students apply their new knowledge and critical thinking skills to create change in their communities, whether by engaging in discussion with the spouses or children, by conducting original research, or by emerging as local activists.

In discussing these intersections of race and gender, I have had the privilege of seeing other women feel validated in their lived experiences. I have particularly enjoyed mentoring several very talented women students of color on original projects that grew out of my courses. One of my masters’ students is doing a fascinating project on the forced sterilization of Mexican- and Mexican-American women in the Rio Grande Valley. And another student is conducting research on the experiences of women of color in higher education. To me, there is nothing better than empowering students to produce original knowledge that is meaningful to their own lived experiences and has the potential to create positive social change in their communities.