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Interdisciplinary Team Research Grant of the Migrations Initiative: Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Global Cornell at Cornell University

Project Overview

How is the contemporary ecological crisis an ongoing outcome of the colonial violences that have shaped and continue to shape the lands of what we call the Americas? Our interdisciplinary research team, composed of Dr. Ananda Cohen-Aponte (History of Art and Latin American Studies Program), Dr. Ella Maria Diaz (Department of Literatures in English and Latina/o Studies Program), and Dr. Jolene Rickard (History of Art, AAP, and American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program), represent three generations of women of color scholars who have asked and answered this question in our research and teaching. Now, we have come together, proposing to co-think and co-create with our students, community partners, and invited artists in an immersive learning environment that addresses intersecting histories of Chicanx, Indigenous, and Latinx place-based knowledges and ontologies through the lens of the visual, textual, and performative arts. 

Briefly, an example of the colonial violence in the histories of words like “climate,” “dispossession,” and “natural and built environments” pertains to the current discourse on invasive species—from 2020-21 news stories of “Asian murder hornets” to local concerns over toxic algae blooms in the Finger Lakes. The languageof climate change is not neutral. “Invasive species” also serves as spoken, visual, and textual shorthand for invasive others, as Miriam Tiktin reminds us that the process of “othering” impacts people, “particularly those who are crossing borders, such as migrants and refugees” (Tiktin 2017: xxl). The language of speciesism, taxonomies, and hierarchical orders of flora and fauna has deep roots in the colonial histories of the Americas, from the renaming of Indigenous cultivated plants to colonial practices of animal husbandry and their intertwined relationship with racial hierarchies; dehumanizing words like “mulato” (mule) and “lobo” (wolf)—indicating Black and Afro-Indigenous ancestry, are inextricably bound to European settler-colonialism and farming practices. 


It is also a language that it is part of our future racialized landscape as violence against Asian Americans and Asian peoples continues to proliferate amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, examinations of temporality, from western time telling to decolonial ruptures in the linear valuation of time as progress, are also an essential part of our explorations of migration (See Watt 2013; Cornejo 2017; Torres 2017; Lewis and Skawennati 2018). 


Moving from scholarly discourses, our project centers the visionary capacities of Chicanx, Indigenous, and Latinx artists and practitioners of placed-based knowledge of the Americas, whose practices of mapping, place-making, and multimodal methods of communication with both human and other-than-human beings in their aesthetic practices provide critical, yet often overlooked perspectives on the colonial legacies that inform our contemporary ecological, climate, and human rights crises of the twenty-first century. We take a hemispheric and transhistorical approach that looks at contemporary and historical records of mappings of land and the beings that inhabit it in ways that challenge colonial logics of speciesism and harness artistic production as a form of record keeping and time telling.   


By bringing together our respective courses, research, and publication projects on migration, we connect the contemporary experiences of climate change and dispossession to the histories of cataclysmic events of epidemics and epistemic violence precipitated by European colonization of the hemisphere. The records of such events, and the knowledge produced amidst colonial occupation, are chronicled in a variety of media, from visual-verbal accounts encoded in the Indigenous codices of Mexico and Central America to the geopolitical metaphoric longhouse of the Hodinöhsö:ni that spans from the Hudson Valley to Niagara Falls. These visual, sonic, and oral modes of marking land, bound in various Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous ontological relationships with natural and built environments, serve as critical forms of embodied knowledge that both complement and counter scientific analyses of land and migration grounded in Western epistemologies. Contemporary artists committed to the recovery of the migrations, dispossessions, and repossessions that have occurred on the land that we call the Americas, through their engagement with these ancient philosophies and art forms, enable us to approach the migration of both humans and other-than-human beings; it also allows us to understand migration from a metaphysical or conceptual place, as the knowledge that these artists share is grounded in dialogical and collaborative methodologies of recovery and care, as opposed to principles of extraction. 


Planned Activities on Climate, Dispossession, and Natural and Built Environments:

We propose a campus-wide immersion in Afro-Indigenous, Chicanx, Indigenous, and Latinx artists, artworks, and archives through interdisciplinary programming that includes artists residencies, student-centered research and fieldwork, and pop-up exhibitions of artworks and archives from a variety of Cornell repositories. We will plan and host important community-engagement events that build on these interconnected sites of research and study, culminating in a symposium that centers BIPOC voices and creative knowledge of the natural and built environments of the Americas. Topics of discussion and presentation will include the multiple migrations of humans, animals, plants, and other beings that have storied or narrativized this land, building on the place-based knowledge of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga Nation) and their traditional homelands.


The Codex Rodriguez y Mondragón (1519-2021 and counting):

In Fall 2021, visual and conceptual artist Sandy Rodriguez will join our research team through a series of virtual class and public lectures on her ongoing Chicanx mapping project that brings together several histories of knowledge (Pre-Columbian books and records, the conquest and colonization of Mesoamerica, the Renaissance, and Chicanx artistic practices) to address environmental catastrophe, the refugee crises, speciesism, and genocide in real time. Her artistic process and work resonate in each of our Fall 2021 courses in different ways. We will begin working with Rodriguez in Dr. Diaz’s 3680 course, “The Art of Telling: Chicanx, Latinx, and AfroLatinx Testimonios” and Dr. Cohen-Aponte’s “Art & Architecture of the Pre-Columbian Americas.” Dr. Rickard will also meet with Rodriguez virtually to plan their collaborations with Indigenous artists to participate in her Spring 2022 Humanities Seminar. These include a Body-Land immersion workshop with a community based organization, Rematriation and artists Diane Schenandoah (Oneida) and G. Peter Jemison (Seneca), a dialogue about place-based knowledge and the role that Indigenous languages play with Rafael Aponte (Afro-Puerto Rican), Soledad Chango (Kichwa), Ellen Gabriel (Mohawk),  Evelyn George (Seneca), Jane Mt. Pleasant, Ph.D. (Tuscarora), Spencer Lyons (Onondaga), Wayva Lyons (Onondaga), and David Shongo (Seneca) and a video-gaming workshop with Waylon Wilson (Tuscarora). Fall engagements with Rodriguez will help situate her Spring 2022 visit to Cornell as an artist-in-residence for three weeks, during which she will conduct workshops and trainings on organic colorants for map making and deliver several guest lectures on her ongoing artwork of the Codex Rodriguez y Mondragón with curatorial staff at the Johnson Museum as well as with our listed programs.


La Bodega y Casita at Rocky Acres Community Farm: 

The importance of diasporic memory as knowledge production for Afro-Latinx peoples in the built environments of New York echoes in the colonial histories of forced migration and enslavement of African peoples in the Americas. The systematic displacement of people of color from our home-places has produced a collective trauma that clinical psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove calls “root shock” (2016). How have Afro-Latinx people responded to, remediated, and healed their home-places? We will seek answers on the site of Rocky Acres Community Farm, located in Freeville, NY. 


Bringing together artist-in-residence Sandy Rodriguez, Afro-Puerto Rican local farmer Rafael Aponte, Indigenous artists, community partners, and our students, participants will gain on-site immersion in agroecological practices of remediation that are grounded in West African and Afro-Caribbean knowledge. In Spring 2022, Rocky Acres will host a series of workshops on the farm that explore different modalities of Indigenous and Afro-Latinx place-making and ecological recovery. These will include a pigment workshop with Sandy Rodriguez, Rafael Aponte, local artist Sarah Gotowka, and herbalist Amanda David that explores the various applications of herbs, plants, dyes, and remedies of Latin America and the Caribbean. 


Students will also consider and compare the experience of place-based knowledge through exposure to the Cayuga Share Farm, Gakwi:yo:h Farm SNI-Seneca Nation of Indians, and the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network. Finally, the farm will host workshops and teach-ins that trace the migration of Caribbean vernacular architecture such as bodegas and casitas. The casita has origins in the nineteenth-century rural countryside of Puerto Rico, and in the late twentieth century, casitas fostered place consciousness for Puerto Ricans and other diasporic peoples in New York City, as they held cultural celebrations and community meetings (Sciorra and Cooper 1990: 156–57). The Rocky Acres bodega and casita will provide an important field site for students, faculty, and community members to understand migrating people, foodways, and ecological-aesthetic practices through hands-on learning and collaboration. 


Guided Research and Collections Encounters on Campus (leading toward) Symposium

In collaboration with our migration-themed courses that we will teach in Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and Fall 2022, we will facilitate student research on collections tied to histories of Chicanx, Indigenous, and Latinx resilience, survivance, and resistance. These include Indigenous and Latin American material culture in the Anthropology Collections; Chicano codices by Enrique Chagoya at the Johnson Museum of Art; contemporary Andean and Guatemalan textiles in the Fashion + Textile Collection; and the Huntington Free Library Native American Collection in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at the Cornell Library. When brought into conversation, the artworks, books, manuscripts, ephemera, and material culture found in these repositories take students to the taproot of colonial histories in the Americas, affording a nuanced view of the deep legacies of structural racism from a hemispheric perspective. We will invite several Haudenosaunee artists including Melanie Printup-Hope (Tuscarora), Samuel Thomas (Cayuga), and Terry Jones (Seneca) to create temporary exhibits across Cornell’s campus that demonstrate meaningful engagement with these historical collections. While our migration-themed courses will serve as the principal vehicle for coordinating these activities, we plan to partner with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, Latin American Studies, Latina/o Studies, American Studies, AAP, and other interested collaborators to co-sponsor these events, which will be open to the Cornell community and the public. Community engaged events will be planned and coordinated in conjunction with the Spring 2022 series of events listed here.


Potential Outcomes and Impacts

Our three-semester immersion in migration, dispossession, and place-based knowledge in the Americas will culminate in a symposium at the Johnson Museum of Art in which participating faculty, community collaborators, students, and staff will present their research to the public. Depending on Covid-19 protocols, we will schedule the symposium for Fall 2022. We envision the following outcomes and impacts at the end of the grant period: 

  • A collaborative publication showcasing collaborative research by undergraduate students, community partners, and faculty that centers digital tools and online access. 

  • A series of co-authored articles and essays by Cohen-Aponte, Diaz, and Rickard that draw upon the research conducted over the course of the grant period.

  • A digital mapping resource documenting the activities carried out by our artists-in-residence and community partners during the grant period to showcase Afro-Latinx, Chicanx, and Indigenous modes of marking the lands from which we live and work.

  • This grant will serve as an important testing ground and pilot program for developing and securing external funding for an Institute on Cornell’s campus dedicated to the Arts of the Americas, akin to both NYU’s Hemispheric Institute and the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell.

Below, we also offer the course descriptions for Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and Fall 2022 that are integral to our interdisciplinary research plans and partnerships.


Classes Associated with Research Grant:

Diaz: ENGL 3680 / LSP 3680 / AMST 3681: “The Art of Telling: Chicanx, Latinx, and AfroLatinx Testimonios” (Fall 2021):  Testimonio is a genre of prose that offers eyewitness accounts of world-changing events—from forced migration, detention, and genocide to the violence of war, both at home and abroad, often caused by circumstances beyond a person’s control. Testimonios are created across geographical, linguistic, and cultural differences, and, subsequently, involve more than one person who records, translates, and shares an eyewitness account with broader audiences. Originating in Latin America, testimonio has become a powerful space for Black, Brown, Native, and Mestiza voices to tell stories that are representative of whole peoples or communities. Because of this, testimonio is questioned and debated for its truth, historical accuracy, and literary quality. We will explore the debates by asking what testimonio does to western constructs of literature. Does testimonio change history, challenge norms, and spark social change? We will answer by reading, listening, viewing, and creating testimonio—experiencing its simultaneous textual, visual, and performative modes. 


Cohen-Aponte: ARTH/LATA/LSP/ARKEO 3566: “Art & Architecture of the Pre-Columbian Americas” (Fall 2021):  This course introduces students to the arts of the ancient Americas from circa 2000 BC to the Spanish invasions of the 15th and 16th centuries. It covers the arts of indigenous Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras), the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and the Greater and Lesser Antilles), and Andean South America (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile). Students will become familiar with the history, archaeology, and visual arts of the earliest cultures that populated these regions up through the Inca, Aztec, and Maya cultures that encountered the Spaniards. We also explore the legacies of pre-Columbian cultures among contemporary Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x artists in the U.S. 


Rickard SHUM Rural Humanities Seminar: Radically Indigenous (Spring 2022):  Based on the principles of the foundational treaty agreement between the Haudenosaunee and early settlers, the Tekaniguswentah* or Two Row Wampum will set an Indigenous framework for our shared responsibilities to place. Radically Indigenous disrupts colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization by following the trace of entangled histories of Indigenous, arrivant and settler peoples. Moving across the geo-political and metaphoric Haudenosaunee longhouse, space, territory, and time will be mapped with knowledge holders through song, stories, archives, and water as a living text. Co-creators will use the methodology of research-creation when developing multilayered sustainable practice as markers connecting the past to the future as Radically Indigenous. *(Deh-gah-ni-gus-wen-tah)


Cohen-Aponte and Rickard: ARTH/AMST/ LSP/ENGL 4556/6556: “Decolonial Poetics and Aesthetics: Art of the Americas” (Fall 2022) Exploring a genealogy of Afro-Latinx, Black, Chicana/o/x, Indigenous, and Latinx theorizations of modernity and identity, the course asks, what is the decolonial? Is it a space between the colonial and post-colonial? Is it a creative process, an intellectual theorization, or a historical period? Is it a performance, intervention, or embodied experience? Tracing a historical trajectory of the decolonial in poetry, performance, installation, and visual art, the course examines decolonial modes of making and being from the sixteenth to the twenty first century.


Cohen-Aponte, Diaz, and Rickard: Launch of a Capstone Class on the Art of the Americas (Fall 2022):  This capstone seminar brings together undergraduate and graduate students who participated in the previous courses and programming. It examines place-based knowledge and aesthetic practice in the Americas at the intersection of Chicanx, Indigenous, and Latinx histories, taking a trans-historical, hemispheric approach to the arts of the Americas that builds on our respective expertise. The seminar will also serve as a testing laboratory for the eventual launch of a Cornell Institute for the Arts of the Americas.


Works Cited

Kency Cornejo, “Decolonial Futurisms: Ancestral Border Crossers, Time Machines, and Space Travel in Salvadoran Art,” in Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas. Riverside: UCR ARTSblock. (2017): 20-31. 


Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts American, and What We Can Do About It. 2nd ed., New Village Press, 2016.


Jason Edward Lewis and Skawennati, “The Future Is Indigenous.” Leonardo 51 (4) (2018): 422–23.


Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On Metaphysical Catastrophe, Post-Continental Thought, and the Decolonial Turn,” in Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago. Ed. Tatiana Flores and Michelle A. Stephens. Los Angeles: Museum of Latin American Art, 2017. Pages 247-259. 


Joseph Sciorra and Martha Cooper, “‘I Feel Like I’m in My Country’: Puerto Rican Casitas in

New York City.” TDR 34:4 (Winter 1990): 156-168.


Miriam Ticktin, “Invasive Others: Toward a Contaminated World.” Social Research: An 

International Quarterly, 84: 1 (2017): xxi-xxxiv.


Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!) Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 2, No. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.

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