Writing Latinx Environmentalisms

This week in North Philly Notes, Sarah D. Wald, David Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, co-editors of Latinx Environmentalisms, tell “A Story of Inspiration and Acompañamiento.”

Latinx Environmentalisms is a collection of original essays and original interviews that explores the challenges and possibilities of bringing the environmental humanities and Latinx* studies together. The collection seeks to account for the variety of ways in which Latinx cultures are often (although certainly not always) environmental, but hardly ever identify as environmentalist. In this book, we argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other forms of creative productions redefine and broaden what counts as environmentalism, even as they sometimes reject the term entirely. Part of how Latinx artists redefine these terms is by pointing out the racism inherent in some of the assumptions of environmentalism. We argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other creative works hold the potential to make visible key aspects of the exploitation of the Earth, and in particular the ways in which colonization and capitalism exacerbate it. Latinx creative works often offer deep and significant insights about environmental issues, environmental ethics, and the intertwining of environmental ills with the social ills of racism, capitalism, and colonialism.

Latinx Environmentalisms_smAlthough the book seeks to build new bridges in environmental humanities and Latinx studies scholarship, it is just as much a story of building collegial and friendship bridges between the editors and contributors. In this post,we share how the book is also a story of collaboration, of how academic life looks and feels behind the pages of our scholarly products. We might even say that we offer this collection as a product of “acompañamiento.” Anthropologist Mariela Nuñez-Janes describes the concept as a process of creating networks of support and solidarity in a way that extends notions of kinship.

The story of this collaboration begins at a couple of different conferences in 2013: both the First Biennial Latina/o Literary Theory and Criticism conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) held at the University of Kansas. The four of us had known and admired each other for some time. We met to discuss the idea of producing an edited volume together. Although each of us knew about pockets of environmental humanities work that considered Latinx literature and culture, and a very tiny group of Latinx studies scholars who thought about the environment, we kept talking about how much there was to say about literary authors such as Helena Maria Viramontes, Ana Castillo, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua, visual artists such as Ester Hernandez, and filmmakers such as Alex Rivera. Our initial conversations got us to realize that there was a huge and largely untapped archive of material that had unique things to say about the environment.

We also realized that there was a growing body of scholarship in Latinx studies that was already doing some of this work. Scholars such as Kamala Platt and María Herrera-Sobek had pioneered thinking about environmental themes in Chicana/o/x literature. Social scientists Laura Pulido and Devon Peña were also early leaders in thinking about Chicana/o/x environmentalisms, as was Robert Melchior Figueroa in the discipline of philosophy. We looked to some of our contributors, such as Randy Ontiveros, Gabriela Nuñez, and Jennifer García Peacock who identified their work as environmental, and others such as Paula Moya and Richard T. Rodríguez, who didn’t identify as doing environmental work, but who were clearly engaging with important ecocritical concepts.

Our question then became: how do we put these people into conversation with one another in order to highlight the innovative environmental thinking they identified in their works? 

Our collaboration was aided by some key developments in our individual scholarship. Priscilla wrapped up her book project, Writing the Goodlife (Arizona UP, 2016), which made an important intervention in how Chicanx/Mexican American cultural production is treated in the environmental field. Rather than focusing on texts where mainstream environmental ideas appear in Mexican American writing, Writing the Goodlife asks us to redefine “environmental” to see long-standing traditions, identities, cultural sensibilities, and forms of resistance as environmental, and to interrogate the exclusion of these expressions in the mainstream environmental canon.

Sarah D. Wald’s book, The Nature of California (Washington, 2016), was also just coming out. In it, she examined the ways writings of Japanese American, Filipino, and Mexican American farmers and farmworkers contested their exclusion from national identity through depictions of nature and land. Like Priscilla, she was redefining where and how we look for environmental ideas and what environmentalism may entail.

David, too, was realizing that much of his interest in urban literary expression and Latinx identity had environmental resonance, but only if we redefined what that meant– not only “wilderness” but also a sense of space, negotiations of ecological costs and benefits, etc.. David became particularly interested in how some communities bring a keen sense of “environment” to how they inhabit places, particularly in laying claim to cultural ownership over urban neighborhoods like New York’s Spanish Harlem.

And Sarah Jaquette Ray’s research in The Ecological Other (Arizona UP, 2013) on how environmental discourse can define immigrants as threats to American national security vis-a-vis its borderland ecosystems also situated her work as pushing this intersection.

All told, the four of us found each other through this research on Latinx environmentalisms, which kept landing us in the same places, such as the John Jay Latinx Literary Theory and Criticism Conference, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Executive Council meetings (on which Priscilla and Sarah W. both served as Diversity Officers, Sarah R. served as Vice President, and Sarah R. and Priscilla as executive council members), the American Studies Association conferences, the Latino Studies Association conferences, and David and Sarah W’s home institution, the University of Oregon, having conversations about where the field might go, and laying the groundwork for working together.

We are so grateful to these conferences and professional organizations for providing the infrastructure for us to have these early exploratory conversations.

In other settings– especially in our classrooms, communities, and committees– we sensed a great interest in this intersection of Latinx and environmental concerns, but knew there was a dearth of scholarship on it. We were particularly struck by the enthusiasm our students shared with us. For example, in David’s courses on Latinx Sci-Fi and Environmental Thinking and Sarah W’s Environmental Humanities 203 courses at the University of Oregon, students were wildly enthusiastic about analyzing canonical authors like Leopold and Thoreau through lenses of race and ethnicity, as well as reading authors that had not been in the environmental canon through environmental lenses, such as Viramontes and Castillo. Both of the Sarahs and Priscilla led a 2015 ASLE workshop on Latinx Environmental Pedagogies, which reinforced our sense that students were pushing these boundaries.

We landed on the notion of “recovery” as a correction to the “diversity” approach of second-wave environmental literary criticism–which just adds more seats to the environmental table without challenging the very structure of the table –and had lots of ideas about how our project might take up these questions. Early in the process we recognized that some of the most sophisticated analysis of Latinx environmentalisms occurred within the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry of Latinx writers, especially among those writers who identified as Chicana feminists. This led us to talk directly to many of the Latinx authors whose work was foundational to our own inspiration.  Even more gratifying was the reception we got from scholars whose work was already pushing these fields in exciting directions. Quite simply they started to come out of the woodwork as we were beginning these conversations. That’s how the project started. Many of the insights in our Introduction to the book came from the various conversations that we had at conferences in our field and on panels with our contributors.

What is not obvious is how a project like this builds over time–in our case, five years of working together– and the details of collaboration. We learned how to step up and step back based on our strengths and weaknesses, and filled in for each other when our personal lives became distracting; we learned how scholarship never happens without tragedy, celebration, frustration, generosity, heartbreak, and mundane intrusions (like sick pets and home maintenance issues) on the intellectual process.

We met several times as a group to just sit in silence and write together. We became more acquainted with Google Docs and Dropbox than we ever thought possible. We spent what amounts to about 50 hours together on four-way Skype conference calls, watching each other’s lives carry on in the background– children growing up, family members moving in and out, seasons and health issues coming and going, the material realities of life moving through different places and stages.

The boundaries between our academic, friendship, and personal lives became increasingly blurred, and each editor would probably say that the book is a reflection of both collegial synergy and personal friendship. The work of pulling something like this together is both dramatic and unglamorous, intellectual and material, urgent and slow. To us, the process has been as illuminating as the product.

It is a true honor to share this book with audiences that are interested in not only these topics, but also the story of what academic life is about, what it means to produce scholarship in collaboration with others, and the thrills and concerns of pushing the boundaries of our disciplines.

Less than mapping these intersections, our hope is that the book opens a door for more thinking and more imagining of what could be. We want to lift voices, but also to scrutinize the liberating, and also oppressive, cultural work of environmental discourse. We continue to think about these issues, but also want to push it further to ask, for example, what implications do these conversations have for the other work we do at our institutions, such as our work with students and our efforts to create structures of inclusion and equity? 

We hope that others will not only carry this project in ever more diverse directions, but also be moved to embark on a similar kind of collaboration, where intellectual and personal worlds merge, and both are profoundly changed in the process.


*A note on terminology: We define Latinx studies as the comparative study of race, identity, and culture in U.S. communities with roots in Latin America (for example, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, or Central American communities). We use the term Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino in solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities. We also use the “x” to mark the indigenous peoples and knowledges that we will never know due to the conquest of the Americas. We also note that in using the term Latinx, we are deliberately operating from a comparative, interethnic perspective. What this means is that the essays and interviews we include focus on multiple Latin American-origin communities in the U.S. (Mexican American and Dominican American, for example), and that we compare and contrast the environmental ideas that emerge from these disparate communities. 

 

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