This fall, we had the chance to catch up with a new professor in the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures: Dr. Carlos Santana Rivera. Dr. Rivera is a U.S.-Puerto Rico native who has been
working for the last several years at the prestigious Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York. We asked him about his first semester here at William & Mary, his research, his classes and his hopes for future work on campus and in his field.
How has it been for you W&M this semester?
I have been really happy to be at W&M because W&M and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures values innovative ideas in teaching and research. For instance, last semester I was teaching two courses on Indigenous worldview perspectives, with a focus on Indigenous philosophy and culture. And the fact that this course even exists and receives institutional support is wonderful because, to start with, it is not common for such a course to be taught outside of Anthropology. Second, because in some circles it is a radical idea that there exists such a thing as ‘indigenous philosophy’. But to put backing behind exposing these ideas to students in the classroom, and of course in my research, is amazing.
What were the courses you were you teaching last semester?
I was teaching two versions of the same topic. The first was a COLL 150, “Indigenous World Cultures”. That version of the class was writing-heavy. It was an examination of international indigenous worldview perspectives focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean. Well, to be fair, it’s an approach to indigenous perspectives, because what those perspectives and philosophies are, cannot be taught per se, if anything passed on. The other class I taught was HISP 390, “Global Indigenous Cultures”. It was focused on Indigenous philosophy (heavier in content) and its expressions in cultural production. We looked at how indigeneity has been represented in LA and Caribbean cultural production for hundreds of years through the examination of art, a novel, oral history, essays, music and so on.
What were some stand-out moments of your classes?
One positive thing about teaching the classes was that, in teaching a portion of the course online this semester (mix modality), I was able to invite three guest speakers (and this fulfilled those 5 extra hours we had to add to our syllabi. Two were from the Caribbean (from Puerto Rico) and one from Australia. The first person was a prominent writer (Eduardo Lalo, and the novel students had to read was Historia Yuké). The novel was about the significance of El Yunque Rainforest to Indigenous people in Puerto Rico (Borikén) throughout history. So, the students read Lalo’s book and then had a conversation with him. It was like a book club that led to meeting the author. And it was a great event because it started not with Eduardo Lalo speaking, but with students asking questions(you can see a video of this “Conversatorio with Eduardo Lalo”). The second speaker was the Indigenous activist Pluma Bárbara. This was also a great experience and students were really grateful for the grassroot political work that she does and both of our guest were really impressed with our Hispanic studies students and how engaged in the work our students were. These conversations were in Spanish. The third speaker was an Indigenous Australian author and he spoke about cultural appropriation and the craft of writing. After that third one, students had to produce something creative (poetry, an op-ed, or a narrative story) so they could have concrete questions about writing and navigating cultural appropriation. I have ideas about how to adjust aspects of the course in the future, but overall, I’d say students appreciated it especially the diverse array of guest speakers. In the future, I’ve considered having a poetry slam be the culmination of such a course, something I’ve done in the past and it works beautifully as a celebratory ending to the semester.
What is the focus of your research?
The area I work in is called Decolonial Aesthetics (DA) and Indigenous studies. DA isn’t a new thing. The phrase was coined some time ago by LA theorists. I’m building on their framework by analyzing works and speaking to the artists that I think are doing the work to recast indigeneity and blackness and the varying complexities of identity, history, nationalism, race and racism today, but beginning from the emotions provoked in by aesthetics.
In my PhD thesis and more extensively on my book Archaology of Colonisation: From Aesthetics to Biopolitics, I looked at the way that colonization, and its main tools (the discourses of race and racism), took root in the Caribbean and then in Latin America. I begin with the premise that racism and concepts of race are initially created not through written discourse or history, but through aesthetics, i.e. imagery including art. From a simple perspective, 80 or 90 percent of Europe during the time of colonization could not read. But you have to be able to conceptualize someone before you can justify or rationalize behaviors toward them. So, imagery had a principal role in doing this and in disseminating, perceptions, affectations, knowledge, and discourses at large about people. So, yes, I looked at the way that colonization utilized imagery in the first 100 years (1492-1599) to depict Indigenous and Black peoples.
I focus on aesthetics because we have done good work in cultural studies so far in examining the construction of race and in challenging colonial narratives in history, anthropology and so on. We have not done enough work on this using visual imagery. In other words, we conceptualize racism very rationally, but I think the heart of this work on (de)colonization is affective, and that the affective is efficiently generated aesthetically, through imagery. In other words, I think that concepts of race began in the way that Black and Indigenous peoples have been depicted visually and affectively: not in terms of beauty, but in terms of ugliness and monstrosity. In order to justify the atrocities of colonization, they had to be founded on a dehumanization of its victims, casting the ‘other’ from a frame of “the monstrous” and speak to the viewer’s emotions.
My current work also focuses on the aesthetic. But instead of using it to understand how race and racism were constructed, I am examining how the aesthetic is used to contest race and racism and how it is used to construct counternarratives to the ongoing problem of colonization. I think there is more work to be done in the realm of the affective in order to counteract that aspect of race and racism, that part that has to do with the mobilization of emotions, about conceptualizations of beauty and ugliness, and art has a lot to say about that.
What classes will you teach next semester?
I am teaching Introduction to Hispanic Studies (HISP 240) with Professor Terukina. I’m also teaching Arte y Descolonización en Latino America (HISP 250) which looks at the way that art in all of its manifestations (performance art, muralism, street art, contemporary art) has had a role in expressing anti-colonial messages. In the class, we aren’t romanticizing the art. We are also looking at it critically too to see how art produced during colonial times depicted Indigenous peoples and peoples of color at large, and to see how imagery contributed to crafting and constructing racism and the concept of race. I’m really excited about the fact that we are having at least one invited speaker. She is an artist and an expert in mural and street art in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
What would be a dream course you would like to teach?
I would do a course that has a study-abroad component that looked at formations of identity, race and colonization in art in Latin America and the Caribbean, focused in Puerto Rico. We would go to Puerto Rico and visit museums, artist workshops, galleries, festivals and other off-the-beaten track places (I know the island really well). It would be like a literal and figurative road trip, living an experience of history and culture through the art. We would be traveling around the island, but also the artists would take us through the conceptual trajectory of their individual pieces and their collective productions as well.