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Imagine Otherwise: Manuel Cuellar on Dancing as Community Building

Imagine Otherwise: Manuel Cuellar on Dancing as Community Building

retro
April 4, 2018

Manuel Cuellar wearing a magenta patterned sweater and white collared shirt, standing in a field with trees

 

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)

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.

Takeaways

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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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the 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 otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 60 and my guest today is Manuel Cuellar. Manuel 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 focuses on Mexican literary and cultural studies with an emphasis on race, gender, and sexuality. Manuel combines ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and studies of contemporary and classical indigenous languages.

For over 20 years, Manuel has been a practitioner of Mexican folkloric dance as both an instructor and a performer. In our interview, we talked quite a lot about how this dance background shapes his approach to the classroom and to his research materials. His strong background in Mexican traditional dance has inspired him to explore dances 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.

In our interview, Manuel and I chat about how queering Mexican folkloric dance helps him create the communities that 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 are crucial to how Manuel imagines otherwise.

[to Manuel] So thank you so much for being with us today.

Manuel Cuellar [01:57]: It is a pleasure for me to be with you today as part of this podcast.

Cathy [02:01]: I’d love to start by talking about your book Assemblages of a Festive Nation: Queer Embodiments and Dancing Histories of Mexico. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what that book covers?

Manuel [02:12]: Of course. Assemblages of a Festive Nation: Queer Embodiments and Dancing Histories of Mexico studies dancing bodies in public spaces. So I want to understand the role of movement in questions of citizen formation and national belonging. I think of dance as a site to rehearse hegemonic representations of the nation but the other hand, it is very complex and contradictory.

I look at the period between 1910 and 1940, more or less before and after the Mexican Revolution. What I’m focusing on in my book is that I like to contrast these dancing bodies in public spaces with this monumental, static notion of Mexicanness—think of Mexican muralism, for example—with the articulation of female, queer, and Indigenous iterations of Mexico. So that is to say the multiple ways Mexican citizens have embodied the nation.

[03:05] I certainly look at elite artists and choreographers and how they developed these festive renditions of Mexico that in a way function and the state’s pedagogical practice in the creation of national subjects. But at the same time I look at what went beyond that hegemonic construction.

So let me just give you an example. I study the role of Mexican folk dancing or baile folklórico and the work of renowned novelist and choreographer (although she’s not very well known for dance in the literary circles) in Mexico Nellie Campobello. [I study her] dance career and how she contributed, on the only one hand, to the institutionalization of dance and therefore normalized representations of Mexicanness, and paradoxically to the creation of spaces for female and queer embodiments of national subjects.

[04:08] Let me just tell you an example of this. So Nelloe Campobello and her sister started dancing in the 1930s this Mexican hat dance, el jarabe tapatío. Nellie dressed as a man who was seducing her sister through her dance. So it was a very queer representation of this nation. On the one hand, they wanted to instantiate this hegemonic representation of what was Mexico and this notion of Mexicannesss. At the same time, their very bodies led to the construction of these ambiguities and tensions that I obviously read as queer.

Cathy: I’m curious how that project has morphed and changed for you over the years, because I know it’s gone through various kinds of iterations.

Manuel: It has. So in my doctoral work, what I first wanted to do, I wanted to focus on these staged instances of Mexicanness, but I wanted to understand them more as festive practices. So I wanted to look at these festive productions of Mexico. But then I decided to focus on the role of dance in the creation of national imaginaries. So I went from exploring this notion of Mexico as a lived experience to trying to engage more of the role of the body, of the actual body.

[05:09] Let me give you an example of that. I engaged in performance ethnography. I tapped into my knowledge of Nahuatl and my background as a dancer. I set out to study a contemporary carnival celebration in a Nahuatl-speaking community in Chicontepec, Mexico. This was crucial for my research, Cathy, because as you know, I’m trained in Latin American literary studies. So it was me drawing on ethnographic fieldwork to explore the construction of indigeneity as lived experience. That is to say, focusing on it an embodied problematic.

I wanted to see how the body was crucial to understanding how we can ascribe new meanings and how the body has this capacity to consolidate but also to unsettle cultural norms. By engaging in this performance ethnography piece as a dancer and someone who could speak Nahuatl and participate in this ritual, I was able to understand how these instants help us grapple with knowledge transmission of norms but also with the construction of contemporary Indigenous subjectivities and of particular queer subjectivities that are rehearsed in this space.

Cathy [06:23]: You mentioned your work as a dancer and a performer, and I know you’ve also taught dance in various ways. Did you do that before you started your academic research or were those things developed simultaneously?

Manuel [06:38]: I’ve always danced. I danced as a child in rural Mexico while growing up there and I danced the nation, if you will, when I was growing up. Then when I moved to the United States, to California, I danced a different nation. This is what led me to try to figure out what role it played not only in the construction of a community but also in the construction of my own self.

I started exploring the sense of worldmaking, the sense of empathy, healing and care, if you will. It became very crucial because I got to create the communities and spaces I wanted to inhabit. Obviously I did so collaboratively, but it certainly dance allowed me to explore this and expand the kind of world I was being part of.

[07:28] There’s something very powerful about bodies coming together to create these communions. A great example of my experience as a dancer is when I was in Berkeley finishing my PhD work, I was part of a dance company during my whole PhD program. I was part of this company called Ensembles: Mexican Folk Ensemble. Together with another company, a Punjabi company called Duniya Dance and Drum Company, we collectively explored the formation of Mexican-Punjabi communities in the early twentieth century in California. This allowed me to explore a different way of being part of a local community but also to visibilize these histories that often get erased and untold.

Cathy [08:09]: What was that history of Mexican–Punjabi dance history? I’m not super familiar with that. That sounds really fascinating.

Manuel [08:16]: Oh indeed, it is. So at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were many Punjabi males who were working in the fields in central and southern California. They couldn’t bring their wives. So who were the women working in the fields? It was Mexican women, many of whom had an Indigenous background.

Our companies came together to put on a show that traced this history of the Punjabi and Mexican communities coming together. We called it Half and Half: half Mexican, half Punjabi. Needless to say, the claims of discrimination they faced. But I think it was wonderful to bring Mexican and Punjabi communities and the Mexican-Punjabi communities in places like Fresno to witness the celebration of an invisibilized heritage.

For me, it was a completely new experience. I, as a folklórico dancer, had to learn how to dance Bhangra. You realize the ways in which your body learns, literally learns how to move and the ways that are natural or not. This is fascinating.

Cathy [09:24]: Have you found that there are certain lessons or habits that you developed as a dancer before you got into academia that have been particularly useful in your scholarship?

Manuel [09:37]: Absolutely. First of all, it allowed me to expand how I produce my work, how I engage my work. I think it’s important to emphasize the fact that I’m trained as a literary scholar in Latin American literature. So there is a set of conventions and there’s a set of rules that legitimize and make legible what kinds of knowledge is validated.

I wanted to engage in a kind of scholarship that promoted collaboration with individuals whose knowledge cannot be reduced to the academy, specifically that of indigenous communities both in Mexico and the United States because when you have Indigenous communities in the United States who come from Mexico, they bring all this embodied knowledge with them and all these celebrations and rituals. That’s become significantly important for me.

[10:33] I also think this notion of rehearsing that is fundamental for any dance company or any other embodied expression—think of music—this idea of rehearsing these creative interventions became crucial to understand how I approach certainly the objects of study but also how I approach teaching.

Teaching, at the end of the day, is a form of rehearsal for the kinds of experiences your students are going to have in the classroom and outside the classroom. I think it also allowed me to re-center the experience and knowledge of the bodies of my students.

I’m very much invested in community-engaged teaching and scholarship. I recently was able to design a new course for students to engage in service learning. I think it’s crucial for them to have and cultivate this experiential learning.

This was very important for me, especially, because when discussing Latino communities in the [Washington] DC area, we often deal with Central Americans. But the fact of the matter is that they still remain very invisible in terms of their literary production, their cultural production. As a Mexicanist and as a Mexican who now the lives in DC, surrounded by Central American communities, I have made it a point for my students to get to interact with them and obviously with me. I think I get all of this, this sense of awareness, from dance. I want to translate that into the classroom.

Cathy [11:53]: So you and I originally met back in the day because you were part of our Grad School Rockstars mentorship community. One of the things that you and I talked about and that the broader community talked a lot about then and now still is the importance of mentoring spaces and practices that are specifically for interdisciplinary people. Because there are a lot of great spaces for the people in the disciplines but not a lot for people whose work and whose bodies cross all kinds of boundaries. How you’ve approached mentoring or forging those kinds of supportive community spaces now as an assistant professor?

Manuel: I think one of the first things that I got from that experience is to provide a sense of validation—that sense of validation that I certainly got from being part of that program. Now, I’m able to do so for my students who want to explore the different aspects of the community. They usually deal with very abstract ideas and I want them to get a sense of what it is like to interact with these communities.

[12:56] George Washington [University] attracts a lot of people who are interested in, for instance, international law, in public policy, in these other fields that are in a way not very close to what we do in the humanities. I think my role as a mentor has been to expose my students to different kinds of knowledge, to bring into conversation with their training in in their fields—so public policy, international law, health—these diverse approaches. [This is] especially when we create together and I challenge them to think beyond their disciplinary barriers when we are to create together these kinds of interdisciplinary projects.

[13:42] Let me give you an example because I’m rambling here. For instance, if they’re interested in human rights and they look at the increase of femicides in Argentina, we certainly look at the statistics, or migrants crossing the border from Central America. But we’ll also look at these other interventions, either poetic interventions or performance. For instance, last year there was a performance initiative in Argentina that is called Femicidid es Genocidio, Femicide is Genocide. There was a public intervention denouncing the increasing femicides in Argentina. For them it was very powerful to look at the statistics and think of the numbers and think of different policies—this comes with their training. But look at what art and culture can do and the kinds of different questions these other manifestations allow them to do and the kinds of questions they can ask .a

Also I think, and this became very important, is a sense of accountability for the kinds of things that we have and the things we can share. I want them to be very mindful of our own positionalities vis a vis the spaces we occupy. This is something that I don’t take for granted anymore, especially now as a professor but also especially at an institution like GW [George Washington University] in DC in the Trump era.

Cathy [14:55]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, which gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do and the heart of, the impetus behind, this podcast. So obviously this is called Imagine Otherwise and one of the things that I like to ask I guests as a closing question is, how do you do that? What is the world that you are working towards when you step in front of a classroom, when you perform as a dancer, when you do your research, when you make these kinds of community academic activist, artistic connections? What is the world that you want? It’s a giant question, I know.

Manuel [15:28]: [laughs] This is a certainly also my favorite question of the podcast, but certainly very difficult to answer on the other end.

Cathy: And now you’re on the other end of it! [laughs]

Manuel: I aspire to be very consequential with this commitment not to separate my academic endeavors from my personal aspirations, and building connections with the communities to which I belong. I also work to expand ways of relating to others, and this has become crucial, certainly relating to others in terms of identifying with them but also through our own embodied expression. This is what dance has allowed me to do and this is why I’m very much invested in it.

[16:20] I recently joined a dance company that was just created here in DC. There was no such company before, a folklórico company. I think this has been crucial to create these alternative spaces, to fostered intercommunal solidarity. Most of us are of Mexican descent, but we have a Syrian refugee and someone from El Salvador. [I value] this space to foster solidarity and also healing-conducive practice.

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: not to become resilient so that we can take more. This has been a constant struggle for me, especially because as a migrant, I bought into the idea of the American dream. I certainly benefited from it, having come from the countryside in Mexico and then getting a degree from [the University of California,] Berkeley and becoming a professor. I think at times I’ve been complicit with the system, but this is where I get to push back.

[17:23] I aspired to expand how we can transform our conditions of life and be mindful of how our own constructions of reality may violate other people’s ways of believing and knowing.

I think the most challenging thing that I have experienced in recent years, especially since I became an assistant professor right at the moment when Donald Trump won the presidency, I have learned to occupied this wounded space and draw strength from it. In so doing, I try to heal. I take this from [Gloria] Anzaldúa’s reflection in “Now Let Us Shift […Conocimiento…Inner Work, Public Acts].” She’s become very important for me on how sometimes it is through wounds that we can wrest certain forms of knowing and relating to others. I’m trying to become more vulnerable to liberate me and try to find a space of healing.

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing how you imagine otherwise.

Manuel: Thank you, Cathy. It was lovely.

Cathy [18:28]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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