By Alexandra Hidalgo and Lucy Johnson
Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias
I always enjoy attending the bi-annual Cultural Rhetorics Conference. There’s something about this professional gathering that exudes a type of creativity, energy, and sense of community that reinvigorates and inspires my work as a rhetorician. Here, in this space, we celebrate inclusion, challenge hegemony, and practice empathy, listening, and reflection.
One of the many reasons I enjoy attending and presenting my work within this space stems from my ability to organize and collaborate with my fellow caucus members. Presenting on a panel with Michigan State University PhD Candidate and caucus member, Les Hutchinson, I was able to not only think about the ways in which our shared interest of cultural rhetorics’ connectivity to social media and ethics can offer dynamic inquiry into authorship and design, but also I have the opportunity to learn from my peers. It is in this learning that I share my cultural rhetorics conference experiences with you today.
To begin, Les’s conversation centered on her ability to liken algorithms to a machine-based colonialism, reminding us that there are still bodies behind the machine, infusing their own colonial ideologies into how these algorithms function for particular default users. In doing this work, Les turned to scholars such as Safiya Umoja Noble (Algorithms of Oppression) to analyze the platform of Instagram, looking at the cultural appropriation practices of what she refers to as “Boho Chic” mothers and their symbolic cultural violence of native culture. To address this symbolic violence, Les calls for decolonial resistance (Tuck and Yang), arguing for the relevance of disrupting hashtags, carving out our own spaces for creating and preserving online communities, and concluding with a call to enact cultural sovereignty as a way to reclaim native culture and tradition in online spaces. I have been to many of Les’s panels and am always inspired and amazed at how thoughtfully and passionately she advocates for the impact of cultural rhetorics within computers and writing. Les is fiercely brilliant and deeply committed to advocating for her Chicanx gente. Also, she’s on the job market this year 😉
During my own presentation, I discussed the ways in which default users are coded into design, influencing not only the ways in which the form of symbols are imaged and prototyped, but also how they are meant to be interpreted and subsequently used as content. Looking specifically at emojis as a symbol system that has enacted a Western default user, I traced the history of smartphones, specifically their capabilities as a Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) to showcase how political economy shapes language and communication broadly. In tracing this history I argue that the push for a digital “global village” through visual symbol systems like the emoji is not a global village at all and instead flattens communication into a monoculture (Nakamura, 2012). I concluded my presentation by questioning what ethical design might look like if we were to speak with, not for, cross-cultural communication designers such as emoji creator Shigetaka Kurita, calling for a need for cultural rhetorics in ethical design methodology.
The second presentation I attended was caucus member Dr. Miriam Fernandez from CSU San Bernardino. Having gone to graduate school with Miriam, I was excited to hear about the ways in which her research has evolved since the work of her dissertation. Focusing explicitly on La Malinche–the indigenous translator for Hernán Cortéz–Miriam connected the continued evolution of the myth surrounding La Malinche to emerging political identities, arguing that epideictic rhetoric surrounds how texts have contended with using the figure within a particular rhetorical situation that helps to establish a particular political identity. Focusing on epideictic rhetoric’s role in transforming La Malinche over time, Miriam argues that the rhetorical situation becomes imperative to how a myth is created, imagined, and also repurposed. Miriam continues to research the archives of La Malinche, La Llorona, and La Virgen de Guadalupe as myths that inform political ideologies. Currently, Miriam is working on obtaining an institutional grant to develop a theory of epideictic rhetoric in contemporary society.
Overall our gente was well represented at the 2018 Cultural Rhetorics Conference. Whether it was briefly catching up in-between panels, or having drinks and dinner with friends, it is always a pleasure to catch up with caucus members and hear about where their research has taken them since the last conference. Thank you to the conference organizers for your work in putting together an amazing experience as always. While part of me is sad that we won’t return to Michigan State in 2020, I am eager to see what Boise State University brings to hosting the work we do as cultural rhetoricians.
Like Lucy, I always find the Cultural Rhetorics Conference exhilarating. Having been one of the co-chairs for the 2016 iteration of the conference, alongside our former caucus co-chair Raúl Sanchez and four other faculty and graduate students of color, I feel that my scholarly identity is tied to this conference, and what a rich intellectual and artistic community to belong to! Since I was not cochairing the 2018 conference but rather photographing it and leading its social media team, I enjoyed being able to navigate the conference without that immense sense of responsibility that comes with running an event of this magnitude.
I was able to attend quite a few presentations featuring Caucus members. I opened the conference by attending an excellent roundtable on cultural rhetorics’ approaches to archival work. Karrieann Soto Vega discussed the various ways in which she has engaged with the legacy of Puerto Rican liberation movement icon Lolita Lebrón over the years. Besides her more traditional engagement with archival research, Karrieann talked about meeting one of Lebrón’s cousins by chance at a play about Lebrón and forming a connection with her, reminding us that getting to know someone from the past is a blend of love, long hours poring over texts, and the kind of happenstance that at times seems to go beyond mere coincidence.
Later on that afternoon, I attended a performance in which our Caucus co-chair Christina Cedillo joined a group of women of color and queer women as they used poetry, memoir, and images to work through some of the most harrowing topics currently facing women today, elaborating in particular on issues that affect women of color and poor women. Christina focused on how unarmed migrant women are mistreated and at times killed by American law enforcement when crossing the border into the US. In an emotive poem that she performed in Spanish and then in English, she powerfully memorialized a young migrant woman who was, for no reason, shot and killed by a policeman hours after crossing the border.
In my own panel, I screened some scenes from my in-production feature documentary The Weeping Season, which tells the story of my father’s 1983 disappearance in the Gran Sabana, a region of the Venezuelan Amazon. Besides screening the scenes, I discussed my journey applying to and at times being awarded grants in order to collaborate with members of the award-winning Venezuelan production company La Pandilla. In spite of the stress that I feel as I try to get funds to cover the cost of collaborating with these gifted filmmakers, I believe their participation in the project is vital because this Venezuelan story needs to be told by Venezuelan filmmakers. The plunge into the land of film grant writing has been a steep one but I’m glad to be able to collaborate with talented Venezuelan artists and to fairly compensate them for their work.
On day three of the conference I also presented on a roundtable looking at feminist editorial publishing practices. The roundtable focused on Peitho and on constellations. I co-founded the latter peer-reviewed publication and recently became its editor-in-chief. I discussed working alongside constellations’ original editor-in-chief Malea Powell to develop a publication model that values the mentorship of authors and editorial staff. I also argued for the importance of bringing queer people and people of color into the review and editorial boards of our field’s journals in order to make sure the gatekeepers understand and value the scholarship of diverse scholars who submit their work. I ended my presentation by discussing strategies for using consensus when our editorial team makes its decisions so as to create a more egalitarian and diverse journal.
That afternoon, I was fortunate to attend a panel run by Kelly Medina Lopez and her two undergraduate students Ilene Gómez and Sonia Olmos. Ilene, who is originally from Guatemala, discussed how Mayan women used their weaving of huipiles in their homeland as a way to support themselves and resist the government’s violent repression of Mayan culture. She talked about meeting Concepción Ramírez, a Mayan woman, who as a young girl was placed on the 25-cent Guatemalan coin only to have her father and husband later murdered in the Guatemalan Civil War. As Ilene explained, Ramírez is now a leader of the resistance against government suppression of Mayan culture.
In her presentation Sonia Olmos provided a beautiful account of the Salvadorian folk figure La Siguanada. She blended La Siguanada’s story with her own family history and the sacrifices they made in order to assure that she could live in the US. Whenever she shared the stories that her family had told her about their own Siguanada sightings, she turned to Spanish in order to preserve their voices. The presentation was a personal and powerful performance of hybrid identities.
Kelly Medina Lopez’s presentation looked at the complexities that come with selecting labels for ourselves as Latinxs when we want to step outside colonial influences. She provided a thoughtful history of the ways in which the terms Hispanic and Latino/a/x have deep roots in racism and colonialism. While I was familiar with the racist history of Hispanic, I was dismayed to learn about the history of Latino/a/x. Kelly didn’t have an answer for an umbrella term we could all use, but she invited us to be thoughtful and creative with the ways in which we identify ourselves and to keep in mind the history of the terms we choose.
I then attended a panel on how to navigate racism by James Sanchez, Sonia Arellano, Ana Milena Ribero, and Genevieve García de Mueller. James presented footage from his new feature documentary, Man on Fire. The film, which is screening on PBS this month, is a look at the racist culture of his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas. He showed interview clips from the film and then analyzed how each of the participants displayed different techniques that the inhabitants of Grand Saline use to silence any kind of critique of racism. He explained that through these techniques, they attempt to keep the towns’ racist beliefs intact.
Sonia Arellano and Ana Milena Ribero took turns reading sections from an essay they wrote together on the practice of Comadrismo when it comes to how Latinas can support each other in academia. Based on their close friendship, which began during grad school, they made a powerful argument for the value of creating bonds that resemble those that are formed when we select or are selected as a comadre, which is a Spanish term for the close, almost familial relationship between two women when one one becomes the godmother of the other’s child. They theorized how recreating that kind of closeness, support, and valuing of Latinx culture can help Latinas help each other thrive in academia.
Genevieve closed the panel with a thoroughly researched examination of the ways in which racist views on Latinx immigrants have seeped through Republican and Democrat legislations alike, with both parties making decisions that end up tearing families apart and dehumanizing Latinx immigrants. She also made a great argument for how important it is for constituents to write to their representatives in Congress when she showed how some of today’s most notable immigration policies descend from letters that citizens wrote to their representatives decades ago.
I went home feeling very fortunate to have a job for which one of the things I’m expected to do is attend conferences like this one, where I can learn from my brilliant colleagues and share my work with them. As always, I am in awe of the work we produce individually and collectively. I can’t wait to see the magic unfold again in Boise 2020, when our own Dora Ramirez will be hosting the conference.