Chican@, Reimagined

This year, I worked on a research project for the University Archives Diversity Research Fellowship, through the Special Collections Research Center at the Gelman Library, and it was the perfect project for my first year at GWU. The goal of the fellowship was to search the George Washington University archives and find the voice of minority experiences there. Naturally, my focus was on finding other Chican@s in the history of the university, and knowing that I had institutional support behind me as I searched for my community meant the world to me, even when ultimately, I had to reckon with the fact that Chican@ experiences in Washington, D.C. and at GWU were not archived, and may not have existed at all.

I’m no stranger to being one of a handful of latin@ students on university campuses. During my freshman year of college, I entered as one of only two latina students in my class, and it’s not hard to look around my classrooms now that I’m in graduate school and see only a small number more than that. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to build a community for myself on my current campus that does not depend solely on shared ethnicity, but after growing up in a neighborhood and a city that is predominantly hispanic, I miss that feeling of mutual experiences, and I look for that aspect of my personal history at every institution I become a part of. Like Ravon’s last post said, our voices will save us, and I’m constantly looking for mine.

In the George Washington University archives, looking for my voice meant a lot of paperwork, up to my elbows in old inter-department memos and course syllabi from so far back, the American Studies department was still called American Thought and Civilization. There’s a separate project to be done about tracing the history of American Studies in and of (and sometimes against) itself, because as a field it is increasingly more self-critical all the time, but during this project, it was hard not to see the accomplishments of white male after white male being archived, while the voices of others, which statistically must have existed at the time, were invisible. Even despite the knowledge that the institution as it currently stands was behind my project, they’d given me a whole fellowship for it, it was hard not to feel my morale sink. I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to find some kind of shred of Chican@ existence until I didn’t find anything.

But I’m far from the first or the only Chican@ to come up against this sort of archival existential crisis. Corky Gonzales, the fist of the Chican@ movement, one of the leading minds involved in the People’s March on Washington, and gaping point of silence in the GW University archives, was vocal about the inability, or deliberate refusal, of the “gringo establishment” to create space for Chican@ narratives. He advocated for the mythic Aztlán, a new nation that would be home to the displaced descendants of Spanish imperialism. Founding a new nation was a bit far-reaching for my project in the archives, but the aspects of Aztlán that reject Western notions of temporality, literary history, and fact-based truth could all be used in my new pursuit of recreating the missing Chican@ voices in Washington, D.C.

The Chican@ view of time, as many people recognize from the magic realism novels that make up the bulk of Chican@ literature, is cyclical rather than linear like Western temporalities. Rather than a set of single-point cause and effects, moving in one direction from past to the present, Chican@ time is a spiral, with connections that leap across the coil through time and place, and conclusions that often end up back at the beginning again. For a population that already must exist in negative spaces, there is an urge to preserve what we can, and draw from shared experiences as much as possible. Being Chican@ means rejecting imperialist notions of a fact-based history as a whole, and leaning into the oral-tradition cultural truths that can’t be erased because they were never archived in the first place.

The political project of Chican@s at large is to create a space for ourselves, whether by discovering lost histories, or reimagining them in the places where archive fever has erased us. When I presented my negative findings (and my gratitude and feeling of support from the Special Collections as I participated in the Chican@ political project), I got a great question from the audience about the mistranslation of Derrida’s “archive fever” — le mal d’archive, the pain in the archive, the pang of absence in the archive — and those alternate versions resonate so deeply with me. To be missing a sense of history is a real pain, like pressing on a bruise, and although there is a great community of scholarship within my department and cohort, those bonds will never replace the feeling of belonging and of legacy that come from Chican@ history, present in a time and in a geographic place.

Being Chican@ in a school, a city, a nation, that neglects our history is like a constant feeling of homesickness. I know that I am not the first Chicana to feel it, otherwise the large project of reimagining ourselves would not exist. Chican@ truths exist in communities we make and places we imagine, and the project I completed for this fellowship has been archived in the same collections I searched through. It will document my reimagining of history for future Chican@ students on this campus, in this city, who are looking back in time for me just as I’m looking forward for them.

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2 thoughts on “Chican@, Reimagined

  1. Dear Ms. Figueroa,
    I am reading your blog with great interest because you state with such clarity what it feels like to have little representation- ” never archived in the first place”.
    I am ED of Museo Eduardo Carrillo, an online museum devoted to this artist’s work and legacy. He was the founding faculty at University of California, Santa Cruz’s Oakes College. We also are committed to curate exhibitions online of lesser known mid career artists, over half our shows are of Chicano/a artists. As an online museum we are committed to youth education and to that end we are creating a series of broadsides of contemporary Latino/a artists work and words about their careers, education and comments to the next generation.
    Please visit us, we are always available at http://www.museoeduardocarrillo.org. Let me know what you think.
    Warmly,
    Betsy Andersen

    1. Hi Betsy,

      Thank you for your comment! It is always exciting to find others who want to preserve Chican@ contributions to the art world. Digital spaces are a great entrance into the museum world not only for curators and collectors, but for the larger public as a whole who don’t see themselves represented in the physical spaces of museums.

      I hope you’ll keep BGMB in mind as you unveil new online exhibitions. I would love to feature your work on the blog, so please reach out as things happen!

      Amanda

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