What complexities arise when dance becomes a site of national identity? What kind of cultural knowledges do we carry in our bodies and perform onstage? What can scholars do to better support interdisciplinarity in their students’ work?

In episode 60 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews dancer and professor Manuel Cuellar about how queering Mexican folkloric dance lets him create the communities he wants to inhabit, how Indigenous knowledge production provides a vital alternative to traditional universities, and why embodied vulnerability and the generative power of wounds is how Manuel imagines otherwise.

Guest: Manuel Cuellar

Manuel Cuellar is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American literatures and cultures at The George Washington University. Trained in colonial and modern Latin American literatures, his research and teaching focus on Mexican literary and cultural studies with an emphasis on race, gender, and sexuality. His research combines ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and studies of the contemporary and classical Indigenous language Nahuatl. For over 20 years, Manuel has been a practitioner of Mexican folklórico dance, as an instructor and performer, and his dance history shapes his approach to the classroom and research. Manuel’s strong background in Mexican traditional dance has inspired him to explore dance’s role in Mexican national identity, indigeneity, and queerness. His current book manuscript, Assemblages of a Festive Nation: Queer Embodiments and Dancing Histories of Mexico, studies dancing bodies in public spaces and argues that movement is a crucial site for citizen formation and national belonging.

We chatted about

  • Manuel’s book project Assemblages of a Festive Nation: Queer Embodiments and Dancing Histories of Mexico (02:15)
  • Manuel’s dance background and Mexican–Punjabi dance histories (06:38)
  • Lessons that Manuel has brought from dance to his scholarship (09:40)
  • Mentoring students and encouraging interdisciplinary work (12:38)
  • Imagining Otherwise (15:32)

Bokeh image, text reads "I have a commitment not to separate my academic endeavors from building strong connections with the communities to which I belong. I also work to expand ways of relating to others--both in terms of identity and our embodied expressions. This is what dance has allowed me to do." Manuel Cuellar on episode 60 of the Imagine Otherwise podcastTakeaways

Assemblages of a Festive Nation: Queer Embodiments and Dancing Histories of Mexico

I study dancing bodies in public spaces to understand the role of movement in citizen formation and national belonging. I think of dance as a site where hegemonic representations of the nation are rehearsed in very complex and contradictory ways. I look at the period between 1910 and 1940—more or less before and after the Mexican Revolution. I contrast the monumental, static notion of Mexicanness (think of Mexican muralism for example), with female, queer, and Indigenous iterations of Mexico to show the multiple ways Mexican citizens have embodied the nation.

Dancing different nations

I’ve always danced. I danced as a child in rural Mexico when I was there, and I danced that nation when I was growing up. Then I moved to the United States—to California—where I danced a different nation. This is what led me to figure out what role dance played not only in the construction of a community but also in the construction of my own self. I started exploring worldmaking, empathy, healing, and care. I got to create the community and spaces that I wanted to habit.

Mexican–Punjabi dance histories

There’s something very powerful about dancing bodies coming together….When I was at Berkeley finishing my PhD work, I was part of a dance company called Ensembles Mexican Folk Ensemble. Together with the Punjabi company Duniya Dance & Drum, we explored the history of Mexican Punjabi communities in the early 20th century in California. This allowed me to explore a different way of being a part of a local community but also to visibilize histories that often get erased and untold.

How dance can inform scholarship

First of all, it allowed me to expand how I produce my work, how I engage my work. I’m trained as a Latin American literary scholar, and [in that field] there’s a set of conventions and rules that legitimize and make legible what kinds of knowledge are validated. But I wanted to produce scholarship through collaboration with individuals whose knowledge cannot be reduced to the academy—specifically, Indigenous communities in Mexico and the United States. When you have Indigenous communities in the United States who have come from Mexico, they bring all this embodied knowledge with them and all these celebrations and rituals. That’s become significantly important for me.

Mentoring and supporting interdisciplinarity in students

I am able to do so for my students who want to explore different aspects of communities, but they usually deal with very abstract ideas. I want them to get a sense of what it is like to interact with those communities. GW [George Washington University] attracts a lot of people who are interested in international law and public policy and these fields are not very close to what we do in the humanities. My role as a mentor has been to expose my students to different kinds of knowledge, to bring their training in public policy, international law, and health into conversation with diverse approaches….I challenge them to think beyond their disciplinary barriers.

Imagining otherwise

I have a commitment not to separate my academic endeavors from my personal aspirations in building strong connections with the communities to which I belong. I also work to expand ways of relating to others—certainly relating to others in terms of identifying with them, but also through our embodied expressions. This is what dance has allowed me to do…It has been crucial to create alternative spaces to foster intercommunal solidarity….As I continue to advance in my career and assume a different role as a professor at GW, I have been reminded of what [Sara] Ahmed tells us: Don’t become resilient just so that we can take on more. This has been a constant struggle for me, especially as a migrant. In some ways, I bought into the idea of the American dream, having come from the countryside in Mexico and then getting a degree from Berkeley and now being a professor. At times I’ve been complicit with the system, but this is where I get to push back. I aspire to expand our conditions of life while being mindful of how our own constructions of the realities we inhabit may violate other people’s ways of living and knowing.

More from Manuel

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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