Skip to nav Skip to content

November 10, 2020

By Dr. Stephanie Saunders, associate professor of World Languages and Cultures

Breaking Down Walls Through Scholarship

I would like to thank you for attending this talk today. You have contributed to the evolution of my research through vivid discussions and mutual exchanges of scholarly writings. I am grateful for such fellowship. The previous recipients of this award have been guiding influences on my own scholarship, as I am certain they have been on yours. Capital’s intimate size facilitates interdisciplinary dialogue and sharing in the most beneficial of ways.

First, I must confess that I wrote much of this address last January, a few months before life as we knew it imploded. At first glance, this talk “Breaking Down Walls Through Scholarship,” sounds questionable during a moment in which walls are everywhere. We are living in a time of closed borders, homes with walls crouching towards us as we shelter in place, and masks, necessary, tiny barriers on our faces that shield us from unseen invaders while challenging our unique, defining armors of non-verbal communication. Yet, I am hopeful that this message will feel relevant, during this historical moment that has simultaneously shut us in and forced us to overcome self-imposed technological obstacles, among other gleaming examples of professional and personal perseverance during the pandemic. 

Last semester in my Hispanic Migration and Identity class, after navigating the turbulent historical and political underpinnings of Latin America’s heterogenous past, we looked to a more contemporary issue perplexing Latin American and Latinx identity as well as our own: “The Wall.” Before grappling with this polarizing thematic, we first changed the definite article to an indefinite one and reflected on “a wall.” What images does “a wall” evoke? I shared my own experience growing up in rural Arkansas. Without access to national newspapers, the first breaking news story that I remember is at age 9. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, all those excited participants sledgehammering away at crumbling concrete. The memory is inexplicably exhilarating for me. I was inspired without fully understanding why. For me “a wall” feels frightening. In professional life it is exactly what we strive to knock down. All those invisible dividers of incomprehension and misunderstanding that separate us from other cultures and peoples. All those distinct ways of approaching life that might shatter and rebuild our own identities and ways of living.

Answering my simple question, one student explained that for him, a wall evokes a lack of visibility. One simply cannot see the other side. We must make a change, a physical manipulation, in order to obtain visibility, to continue movement. For this brief lecture, I would like to expand on this metaphor as one that captures scholarship’s unforeseen role in sculpting our own dynamic identities.

My own trajectory with scholarship has been tinged with ironic tones. For example, upon entering college and being placed in an obligatory Spanish class, to my surprise I found it exhilarating. Its structure was fast-paced and bathed in the target language. At the same time, I was in a challenging Western Literature class, steeped in the Greats: The Odyssey, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, William Faulkner. The list goes on. I remember them all because the application of literary theory felt as foreign as the new language I was acquiring. Upon asking my Spanish professor what a major would entail, I included, “there is not much literature involved, right?” The pious, saintly man who devoted his entire existence to the language responded, “No, there isn’t.” He lied. As simple as that. Within a year, curriculum including reading the Greats from cultures other that my own: from Mexico’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to Spain’s “the Miguels”: Miguel de Unamuno, Miguel de Cervantes. From colonial to 20th century literature. What a lie he told me. And in the process of such deceit, I fell in love with literature and history. A Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies later, and here I am. Thankfully, at the time I couldn’t see over the other side of the wall or I would have ceased my journey as an hispanophile. When I relate this anecdote to our students, I assure them we will not deceive them, but sometimes we must embrace scholarship’s beautiful unknown, and it can be life-altering.

For me, it was also not visible how learning another culture’s literary traditions would nurture a love of my own. After delving deeper into Spain and Latin America’s canonical and non-canonical works, I craved revisiting the Western novels that had provoked such anxiety. In the process I discovered authors such as Maya Angelou, Frank Stanford and CD Wright, to name a few, who grappled with the same angst involving Southern identity that I also was experiencing as I continued to resist roots while simultaneously longing for their false security. 

Yet this love affair with literature is not a linear one. A few years ago, I had the typical “identity crisis” that many of us humanities folk encounter.  In my case, all this navel-gazing, writing about literature instead of writing literature or affecting policy was getting to me. During my doctoral hooding ceremony, my dissertation director leaned over as a colleague from the Sciences was receiving his honors, “He’s going to cure cancer,” she said, “what are you going to do?” Good point. I couldn’t see over the wall. What difference can one make as a doctor in Spanish, as my hometown refers to me? “You can’t even practice medicine,” many chide. 

Then, one morning while living in Chile, I met a friend to watch the sun rise over the Andes. While sitting in a vehicle at a gas station, prematurely sipping my coffee and munching on bread, a sledgehammer began to dismantle my self-inflicted, self-loathing wall. Someone had to write about Shakespeare, about Cervantes. Academics continue to further their legacies and strongholds on our identity journeys. My scholarship focus had tipped its hat at the Greats, but strived to diversify the cannon. I believe in what I write, in the people I write about, their histories, their stories. For example, one of my research obsessions has been Pedro Lemebel, a cross-dressing, queen, as he liked to identify himself, who railed against the atrocities of Chile’s seventeen-year dictatorship. His writings and provocative performance art jolted the country like the jaunting earthquakes that often make Chile crumble and dance. Much to his resignation, Chilenists, an identifier that still represents a part of me, insisted on circulating his works. In times when history feels repetitive, as if we refuse to learn, I can look back and remember when I saw change. Lemebel and teams of writers and artists pushed forward, despite the tyrannical dictatorship and the cultural oppression that loomed over the slinky country like thick smog ensconcing the Andes, and changes plunged forward. Divorce was legalized, LGBTQ+ identity decriminalized, AIDS education prospered. The wall toppled. Humanists had made a difference.  Collaboration among economists, politicians and scientists flourished. Change was possible. When Lemebel passed away in 2015, Santiago’s streets were lined with mourners from all socio-economic positions. In a land where he had once been ridiculed, beaten and imprisoned, watching his loved ones “disappear” and endure disturbingly creative torture tactics, such mutual respect from divisive groups reminded me, change is possible. 

When I arrived to Capital, as I had expected in part, my bubble of scholarship was shattered. I could no longer bask in my comfortable research zone of Chile’s wonder. The first step was the need to become a Generalist. We are small, and I had a zealous, energetic, firecracker of a colleague, perhaps you have met her, Dr. María José Delgado, who refused a wall between us. She wasn’t the Peninsular Scholar and I the Latin Americanist. Instead, I was encouraged, alongside her, to teach it all. Venturing into the pedagogical unknown resulted in a scholarly trajectory that spans place and timeand somehow, in terms of identity, I feel more like myself. 

Likewise, interdisciplinary walls had to go. Capital has encouraged me to explore outside my self-imposed research parameter, sometimes far from my literary background. In some instances, I have found a way back to my undergraduate degree in psychology. Collaborations with international research teams of renowned psychologists exploring Spain’s financial and migration crisis, as well other projects with political scientists and doctors grappling with the linguistic and cultural implications of healthcare in Ohio, lead me back to methodologies in qualitative research and the social sciences. 

Other research collaborations have been less plausible. Biologist Dr. Alan Stam’s encouragement to participate in international service-learning projects informed my current manuscript. Collaborations with Music theorist and fashionista Dr. Dina Lentsner have pushed us to connect unlikely threads between diverse populations such as the relation of Gothic undertones between American composer George Crumb and Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Most recently, we reconsidered the structure and function of narration across geographic boundaries in Latvian composer, Erik Esenvalds’s Northern Light symphony and Argentine novelist, Cesar Aira’s short novel, The Seamstress and the Wind, to explore the reconsiderations of national identity in the face of natural phenomenon.

Scholarship allows me to cultivate my own identity in unusual ways. For example …

I am not funny, but I recently published an article on humor, gender and film in an anthology exploring women Spanish directors at the precipice of the #MeToo movement. 

I am not fashionable, yet I write about the political, cultural and environmental implications of fashion. 

Recently, I was contacted by the Oxford Encyclopedia of Latin American History to write an article on the role of Digital Scholarship on the study of Latin American Fashion. With the help of our amazing library colleagues, who aided in negotiating free access to an expensive database, I examined The Berg Fashion Library, a digital lynchpin for research involving fashion and dress. 

For historians, garments possess an ethereal nature, namely those fashioned before the Industrial Revolution, when the labor-intensive constraints of textiles and clothing encouraged the modification, inheritance and exhaustive usage of garments—contrasting directly with the disposable mindset of clothing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Digital humanities platforms such as The Berg Fashion Library safeguard against two of the major deterrents regarding the study of fashion and dress: time and space. Greater exposure and interconnectedness springs forth across disciplines. This project allowed me to thread the needle of Latin American history through the fabric of textile and fashion traditions while grappling with new questions regarding authority of Latin American fashion. 

What IS Latin American fashion? Does it have to be ethnic, bolstered in indigenous pasts? Can it contribute to Western traditions without “selling out”? What upcyling measures are creating new traditions across national lines? Last week I engaged in the tenth anniversary of IXEL moda, an international conference located in Cartegena, Colombia, a country in the last two months whose own racial and social reckoning has taken to the streets as violence has enveloped the cities versus the war-ridden sierras. All of this seems far from the recent peace treaties that once calmed a battered nation. With this virtual platform, students and I are exploring the familiar tinges of nationalistic tones that rang throughout 20th century Latin America, as this time artists and politicians promise local, creative industries known as the “Orange Zone” will be key players in sustainability and saving the region from the multi-layer devastations of the pandemic. The region feels ones again burned by its Global North’s responses to their pain. 

Pre-COVID-19, such widely attended conference participation in a southern land, would not have been possible. Yet, in these digital spaces, with avatars in some platforms and in others clothed in our Zoom shirts and questionable bottoms, we may bolster each other, searching for ways to construct both art and dialogue when industry and culture as we know it have been deconstructed. 

Sewing is another unlikely research topic because as a young girl, I was bored by this necessity. After waiting for what seemed liked hours in crowded fabric stores while my mother patiently studied various patterns, plotting out yardage and fabric composure for her latest sewing endeavor—always made for someone else to enjoy—boredom forced me into my own head. My mother stitched every dress I wore until my early adolescence, yet, at the time I just secretly wished for a trendy tee-shirt. 

Despite my disinterest in the needle and thread, my mother’s burning of the proverbial midnight oil taught me of the physicality involved in garment construction. I began agonizing over the environmental and human rights abuses involved in contemporary clothing production, plagued by “fast fashion,” a frequent business model that relies on a “fast” model from start to finish—from production to distribution—and ensures stores acquire new merchandise or new “seasons,” in as little as every ten days. Whereas four fashion seasons used to drive the market, we now have as many as fifteen a year. 

In the face of this mindset of consumption and a culture of disposability, I refer to French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky who argues that we have now entered a hypermodernity. Instead of hyperclothing ourselves, I maintain we should revisit the slow. In the process I wrote a book involving sewing to be released in the UK in April of 2021. Perhaps through scholarship, in part, I find the ability to cultivate a part of me, of my identity, that on the surface appears non-existent. 

In the aforementioned manuscript I explore the knotted-up process of garment production, the seemingly impossible task of retracing origin and the global interconnectedness in the textile market. The same verbiage of “interconnectedness” can also refer to the intrinsic nature of teaching, scholarship and service. I am particularly inspired by the work Xicana feminist theorists who apply Gloria Anzaludúa’s multi-genre, binary-shattering work, The Borderlands, to the reconceptualization of our roles in pedagogy – a “borderland, an in-between, third space.” In other words, our instruction surpasses the parameters of our courses. In my classes and research involving migration, I often relate my initial experiences with service, beginning as an undergraduate when I volunteered with the budding Mexican community at chicken factories, hospitals and churches in rural Arkansas. Those friends shared Thanksgivings in my home, invited me into theirs and unknowingly shaped my future career. Now I am energized as I watch our students engage in the high impact practice of service learning. 

Last semester, my students were involved in a number of initiatives across the city. Some have spearheaded English as a Second Language courses at local churches. As one student reflected: “Although it was difficult at first, now I know that I am doing what I should with my life. Now I’m not scared of making mistakes. I know that we learn together. We are a team and we teach each other mutually.” Through Dr. Nate Jackson’s connections, we have also had the privilege of working with an undocumented migrant from El Salvador, Miriam Vargas, who resides in sanctuary at First English Lutheran Church. After hearing Miriam’s story firsthand, students envisioned ways to get involved, some in fundraising, others in legal representation. 

One student revealed: “I am not a religious person, but after meeting this group, I can understand the sense of community and spiritual connections. It is a brilliant representation of good will and the best of people. Because of this experience I have changed aspects of my personality because there are more risks and difficulties than I can understand as a student who never worried before about the immigration system. As a result, I think more before making decisions because now I prefer deliberating too much rather than not enough.” I am fortunate for the ways that the interwoven threads of service and scholarship have translated into a fulfilling life, constantly allowing me to grow from professional and personal intersections.

A Capital student who was born in Latin American and moved to the United States at age four recently entered my office, “Profe, I think there is something wrong with me. I feel like two people. With my family and other Latinos, I am one person. With gringos I am someone else.” “You should see me order a café in Spain,” I replied. Addressing the student’s perplexed expression, I continued. “You all know me as a self-proclaimed introvert. Put me in Spain and I can aggressively elbow my way up to any counter.” 

Diverse cultures, languages and research experiences allow for multiple identities that trickle into fluidity. I see this throughout Capital, beautiful manifestations of scholarship, oftentimes fed by students’ interest and needs, other times driven by interdisciplinary exchanges or increased access to technology.  Whatever the case, in a cultural milieu when countries and royalty are exiting, dividers are emerging and hopelessness can prevail, in a time in which we grapple with our local, national, institutional and individual identities, may our hunger for free inquiry and scholarship break down any walls that may confine us. 

We are at a precipice to reconsider historical moments that serve as looking glasses into our unforeseen present. Institutions as we know them are crumbling. Racial and social injustices are being called out, demanding visibility and justice. Before us, alongside our students, colleagues and community, we share unchartered territory on which we can collaborate, weave new scholarship endeavors that strengthen our community. I am honored to navigate these waters alongside you.