Charlene Villaseñor Black, Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture and University of California, Los Angeles: It’s November 10, 2022, and this collaborative interview between Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture and The Latinx Project at NYU will address several questions related to Latinx visual culture studies in the academy. We begin with naming, then proceed to our personal stories, and finally our thoughts on Latinx visual culture, concluding with discussing the founding of The Latinx Project (TLP) at NYU. The second part of this interview is scheduled to appear in Intervenxions, the online publication of TLP, later this spring.
Our first question is about naming, an issue that has received a lot of attention lately. Naming politics today, both inside the academy and in the public sphere, is an important issue. So let’s talk about using the terms Latinx, Latiné, Latina, and Latino to engage identity. What does language signify and represent in your public discourse and identity?
Arlene Dávila, The Latinx Project at New York University: Yes, first of all, how awesome to be here. I want to shout out this collaborative conversation to increase visibility to LALVC and Intervenxions and writing submissions particularly around Latinx art, criticism, and original writing. But yes, about naming. Well, you know how I feel about this issue: Leave us in peace, please! Why do we feel like there has to be just one term in our community?
We are so diverse, and complex, and yet the media cannot grapple with the idea that we need to have as many terms as we feel are necessary to communicate our complexity. We’re at a moment where there’s more openness to all the identities that different terminologies allow, and we have to stop policing anyone’s language around their identities.
CVB: That’s a brilliant answer and I am absolutely in agreement. Naming is important, but it’s not the most important thing facing our community. And I think about how the names we use change all the time, or the way we identify changes all the time, and on a very concrete level and basic level. I’m an academic, but I’m also a daughter and a mother and a sister, and a friend, and I’m all these different things at different times and simultaneously. I think about my own identities and how they mutate and change. So sometimes I’m Mexican American. Sometimes I say Latinx, or now I say Latiné or Chicana or Chicano or Chicanx. So those are choices we make, and like you I’m not interested in policing other people’s decisions about how to identify.
I do like the x, though, and the journal has Latinx in its title. I like how it recognizes nonbinary gender but also, one could argue, indigeneity. You know that x can stand for the ch in Nahuatl, and there’s a long history of using the x in Chicano studies to recognize that and therefore to recognize indigeneity.
AD: Absolutely. Some of us who have been doing Latino studies for decades recognize that the moment now is very different than ten or twenty years ago—then, a lot of the research was about highlighting the making up of Latino pan-ethnicity—or what makes us “Latinos,” around the politics of unity and identity making. However, we’re at a moment where our communities are more sophisticated and looking at the intersections. Now we’re looking at Afro-latinidad and indigeneity, going beyond binary identities, and we’re looking at the x as this moment of intersectionality. These projects represent challenges to any kind of unity or unified project. The debates about our names reflect these ongoing conversations about our recognition, where we are really grappling with a lot of identities and diversities that were marginalized and not really explored the way we need to, and a lot of young scholars are pushing us to do so. Many people feel threatened, fearing this turn may represent a challenge to latinidad, but I feel centering these issues only makes the conversation richer and any Latinx project or politics more inclusive and representative. Exploring and uplifting our diversity is the only type of Latinx studies that in my view is worth doing.
CVB: That’s absolutely true. We’re moving away from these essentialized identities or these nationalist constructions. And you’re right, it’s younger folks who are pushing us in really important ways. Thank you for that history.
Our next question concerns our personal stories. We’ve both come to focus on Latinx visual culture from distinct paths. What drew you to the field? How did you come to research and write on Latinx visual culture?
AD: As you know, I was trained as an anthropologist. But I never identify as such. Instead, I think of myself more as a critic of capitalism, most specifically as a critic of cultural capitalism. I’ve always been very interested in culture industries and the racial and cultural politics involved in identity and representation, both from my previous work in museums, which alerted me to the politics of multiculturalism, to my work on marketing and advertising and in contemporary art markets.
These issues have informed most of my work, from Sponsored Identities to Latinos, Inc. to my work on shopping malls and contemporary art markets. Each has been an exploration of the way in which cultural representations are mediated by capitalism. In particular, I have always been intrigued by the demands of capital for sanitized representations and by the commodification of latinidad, and how these processes are intersected by racial politics that impact everything, from access and equity in cultural industries to the general political and cultural well-being of our community.
In fact, I see my last book, Latinx Art, as directly linked to this larger project and my ongoing exploration of the political economy of culture, centering my analysis and criticism of racial politics behind the creation and circulation of dominant representation of latinidad. I feel this type of analysis is greatly absent within art history, which is why I have always enjoyed conversations with art and visual culture scholars—and [been] curious to identify gaps and ways we can collaborate to have a richer and more interdisciplinary understanding of Latinx visual culture.
I also think of myself as an artivist and in community with activists concerned with issues of equity and representation—from my earlier work in Latinx-centered museums and institutions in the 1990s, at MoCHA [Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art] and El Museo del Barrio, to today building The Latinx Project, part and parcel of the same consistent work to expose racism in museums and cultural spaces and create and work toward alternatives, however possible.
CVB: Thank you, that’s a great answer. So, my academic path is not the usual one. It’s not one I recommend to undergraduates [laughs]. My undergrad degree was in music performance, and I was out working as a classical musician and teacher for several years, later having this awakening about how I wanted to study something else and so I changed my path. I diverged. And I think it’s important to talk about that, especially with students, because I like to tell them: It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to not know what you want to do. There’s always the opportunity to retool yourself. So, when I came back to graduate school, I was a little bit older and more mature, and so I really wanted to study the history of art. I was interested in it because of my background, and was interested in studying Mexican or Mexican American art. But I couldn’t really do that at the time so I took this course on Spanish Baroque, and I fell in love with that material, and I love that time period.
But from the very beginning of my career, I was working both in contemporary and in early modern or colonial. I was able to take a course on Mexican and Chicano muralism with George Vargas, who was visiting at the University of Michigan. That course was transformational for me. So, from the very beginning I was trying to hold these two balls up in the air, publishing in both areas. It’s only in the last ten years or so that I’ve come to understand why I was doing that, and how these two fields feed each other. I’m really thinking about current coloniality and the importance of the early modern or colonial period in the world today. So I’m still committed to working in both, and it was really my involvement in the contemporary art scene with Chicanx and Latinx artists that motivated me to keep both of these things going.
AD: Fascinating. I think that my interest in the economy has a lot to do with being Puerto Rican and being raised at the height of modernization, and colonization through consumption that dominated Puerto Rico in the 1970s, and the rise of advertising as we know it. This has always affected how I see capital and my interest in understanding how central it is to conversations around representation, because Puerto Rico has always embodied this kind of commodification and hyper-governing through consumption, being marketed as “the showcase of the Americas” and all.
CVB: I grew up Mexican American, working-class background, Catholic background. I think you can draw direct lines from those to how I think of myself as a border-crossing art historian. I am committed to crossing those borders—moving from ethnic studies to art history and back—and also crossing temporal divides. I will not respect those borders—in my activism, in my daily life, in my scholarship or teaching. I am committed to moving back and forth over them. So obviously the Catholic background also really had an impact. You know that my first book on St. Joseph is on gender politics and Catholic religious art, as well as my recent book Transforming Saints, on female saints and conversion. I’m very interested in people’s agency in the context of imposed religion and, you know, being from a working-class background also had a profound effect on me. As you know, art history could not be a more elitist place to be, and it’s something I felt very keenly from the very beginning.
AD: I’m also curious about your experience with the discipline of art history. Anthropology is one of the most white disciplines; nonetheless, I find that art history is even more exclusive. I wondered if you were perhaps the only Chicano art historian of your generation?
CVB: Yeah, wow! I hadn’t really thought about that.…I mean there are other important people before me. There’s Tere Romo, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Connie Cortez (who came out of UCLA’s program), Marcos Sanchez-Tranquilino (also from UCLA), and Alicia Gaspar de Alba, who trained in American Studies and wrote her first book on the first major show of Chicano art, the CARA show (Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation). I would say there are definitely others before me, but full professor Chicanas in art history across the country—there are very few of us. Here at UCLA it was a struggle to have any Chicano students admitted into our program to work with me. I arrived here in 2001 and I didn’t get the first Chicana or Chicano admitted into the PhD program to work with me until 2015.…and many excellent, outstanding candidates were turned away by the department here.
AD: I started at NYU in 2000, and we didn’t have a Puerto Rican student or Latina student for over a decade, for sure. It was a battle to have access to the admissions committee to be able to change that. The fact is that we have a lot of work to do. We should not be where we are based on the demographic growth of our students. That’s why I believe we need to challenge traditional disciplines—they are structurally incapable of the type of change that is necessary to really diversify and transform the university and make it as inclusive as it should be in the twenty-first century.
CVB: I’m hopeful, though. I think things are starting to change.
Let’s move onto our next question: What is the purpose of Latinx visual culture studies in the American academy today? Or perhaps we can begin with, What is the role of Latinx studies?
AD: Sadly, as we know, there’s still a dearth of tenure-track Latinx studies scholars in American universities who are able to mentor new generations of scholars. Many of us are segregated in ethnic studies departments, with limited ability to mentor at the graduate level, leaving disciplines totally whitewashed. The fact is that Latinx studies scholars should be hired in every single department and that Latinx studies scholarship should be a key part of any scholarly field of inquiry. This scholarship is necessary to be fully educated in US history—frankly, to be fully educated. So we must fight for the inclusion of Latinx studies as a key element of all departments and disciplines, at the same time that we also cultivate our own vibrant spaces for Latinx research and for public-facing scholarship. And here the visual culture element is key because we live in such a mass–mediated, image-centric world, where visual literacy is critically necessary.
As I said earlier, my introduction to visual culture came from my interest in cultural economy and the political economy through my research on advertising and marketing as a key space for identity making over and beyond, for instance, traditional structures like nation-states. Yet more and more visual literacy is really about how we communicate, how we translate our work to broader audiences, and how we can engage newer generations, teach our students, and ultimately how we challenge and expand our understanding of the world—in sum, it is essential for all.
CVB: Yeah, thank you. You’re right—we live in the most visual world that’s ever existed because of the internet, and visual literacy couldn’t be more important. I sometimes worry about our students, but then I also learn from them, too. They’re much more adept at social media than I am. I’m thinking about this from the position of art history and visual culture studies, and thinking that we do have an opportunity here to change the academy. I’m thinking about how important it is to shift away from a Eurocentric curriculum, a Eurocentric bias that really upholds white supremacy. And I think we need to call that out. We see it in course offerings, we see that in museum exhibitions, in museum studies. I think that from the position of Latinx art, which I think of as this hybrid practice that engages migration, diaspora, and coloniality, I think we actually have a position from which to say something really important. I actually think we can really change discourse in the academy.
I am noticing at my institution less interest in art history and more growing interest in ethnic studies. So, for example, the intro to Chicano studies can have up to nine hundred students in it, every quarter here at UCLA. The intros to art history are not enrolling at that level, and I think it’s because students want to hear something new that pertains to their lives, something that matters to them today. But also, you know, I think it’s so important to challenge this disciplinarity.
AD: I agree. I know that there’s a need for more Latinx art historians who are trained within this field. But it’s important to never lose track of the reality that art history, not unlike all disciplines, is a made-up, constructed field that in fact is very narrow, and that Latinx studies and ethnic studies scholars have been doing visual cultural studies forever. And that interdisciplinary spaces such as American studies and ethnic studies have been filling in the voids of art history and advancing rigorous visual studies scholarship not only in regards to performance and visual arts but also more broadly in regards to other types of media. So, I feel that art history has a lot of catching up to do.
Whenever I see art historians upholding the boundaries of their discipline as the only one equipped to do art historical analysis, I immediately say “gente, please come on, get over yourselves.” I think back about how at the height of cultural studies in the 1990s, anthropology defended its continued relevance by claiming it was “the only discipline equipped to do ethnography”—and the only ones who could do “culture stuff” or ethnography the “right way”—holding on to this methodology to prove its existence at a time when everyone in cultural studies was turning to ethnographic analysis. Sometimes I feel art history is similarly holding on to art and visual analysis, projecting an exceptionalism of what only art historians can supposedly do, when the fact is that art historical and visual analysis is a technique and an approach that many interdisciplinary scholars have been engaging with for decades. Now, what I would love to see is art history hiring those interdisciplinary scholars into their departments, because that’s the key element. So many departments have been hiring across the disciplines; Spanish and Portuguese have hired art historians. Likewise, some anthropology departments have hired historians; it is time art history begins to hire interdisciplinarily. This is the only way this discipline is going to ever diversify: hiring scholars that didn’t graduate in the discipline because the discipline never trained them.
CVB: And I think of my own work as bridging art history and ethnic studies. Everything I do in art history is absolutely informed by what I’m reading in ethnic studies, and I think most of my students that I’m training right now are doing that same thing.
I do believe in the power of the disciplinary tools of art history—as long as we decolonize them. But can they be decolonized? Is visual analysis intended to uphold the supremacy of the Italian Renaissance, or nineteenth-century French art? I’m thinking about my current graduate seminar in Latinx art, which has been canceled because of the UC strike [which began November 14 and ended officially on December 23]. I think most of the readings are not from art history, they’re from cultural studies and from ethnic studies. So that’s a really important reminder—maybe art history is going to fade away if it doesn’t diversify itself and think more critically about its tools.
AD: I don’t wanna alienate my art history colleagues, but I want to call them to change. I feel the same about anthropology because anthropology has failed—it has especially failed to diversify. In all, I really think that we need to talk back against all the disciplines. Here I recognize that newer generations may still feel they can change their disciplines, carve spaces for us, and all that good stuff. It may take a while, but I am telling you: do not waste time trying to fit in or change all these disciplines that are so steeped in white supremacy—from sociology, political science, economics, philosophy, and art history too. But this is another conversation.
CVB: This year I was fortunate to co-author an article with Tim Barringer from Yale in The Art Bulletin calling for a rethinking of art history. So, I’m thinking about this kind of manifesto for the field to change itself. There’s definitely more to say on this—perhaps in another interview.
I wanted to make sure we talked about your intention in founding the Latinx Project at NYU—so important. How is it going, and how have your mandate and operating philosophy shifted in practice? And what do you envision in the future?
AD: At NYU, we have been trying to establish an Institute of Latinx Studies for over twenty years and have engaged in all types of efforts from letter writing campaigns to meetings with deans and provosts, to no avail. The level of institutional gaslighting was deep. So as a senior Latinx studies scholar, when I had the opportunity to negotiate some funds, I felt it was my responsibility to go into action to create the institute that we should have had for over twenty years. One sad fact is that the name The Latinx Project was due to our inability to use the words center or institute in our name—university administration would not let us, they really wanted to keep us small—hence our name The Latinx Project—which I also love because it’s fresh and vibrant. Still, everything we’ve done for the past five years has been through fundraising, thanks to the support of foundations who saw the value in what we were building. Our strategy was to become so big that the university could not ignore us—and you can see how our presence on Instagram and social media is in fact more substantive than most of the institutes that have been at NYU for decades. The good news is that we’re about to share some great news along with our fifth-year anniversary in March, and we hope our news will inspire and influence more grassroots, bottom-up initiatives to emerge and take over as much space as possible within our universities.
On this issue of being grassroots, we have been working through open calls where faculty across the university, students, and our general community can become involved, and where anyone who wants to pitch projects and events is always welcomed. The big difference is having resources. Because prior to the Latinx project, Latinx Studies had only five thousand dollars for programming at NYU. This may sound unbelievable but not when you consider that Latinx Studies was contained within an interdisciplinary department and lacked university-wide support. Whereas now, compared to where we were at, we can practically say yes and support any good idea in any small way—and this is transformative because our faculty, especially junior faculty, should not have to be pushed to compete against each other for limited resources. We should all have the opportunity to collaborate to enrich each other’s ideas and projects.
So I think that we’re at a moment of growth and excitement because, as I’ve always said, we need to be as big as we need to be, because our community is diverse and expansive. It is not enough for Latinx Studies to be grouped and ghettoized in ethnic studies or Latin American studies departments—we need our own spaces that bring about visibility for the rich work our scholars, artists, and students are doing.
Finally, the focus on the arts is imperative. It has been foundational to promoting, mentoring and uplifting independent curators and artists but also for creating truly interdisciplinary conversations. Finally, I am very excited about the work we’re doing with Intervenxions—fostering more criticism and original writing. There are so few media outlets focusing on criticism, and Intervenxions fills a huge void, which I hope will fuel more of us to write about Latinx art, culture, and scholarship in a public voice that translates academic research and makes it relevant to larger audiences.
CVB: Yeah, you’re doing so much. It has absolutely transformed things in the last five years. It has been absolutely transformative. We’re so lucky to have your vision and to have this project; and yes, social media is so important.
AD: Thank you, Charlene, for this collaborative conversation and for all the work you’re doing, especially for your careful and committed editorial work!
CVB: Thank you, Arlene, for this stimulating and fruitful conversation. I appreciate you and your ideas, and the opportunity to work with TLP.
Find part 2 of this collaborative interview in Intervenxions, the online publication of The Latinx Project (https://www.latinxproject.nyu.edu/intervenxions).