Intro: In the first workshop of this year’s series, Maria Cotera spoke about her work with students within the academy to create an interactive archive decidedly outside of the bounds of the academy. In this piece Valerie Fendt wonders aloud what the future relationship might be between institutions of learning and a pedagogy built up from outside them.
The inaugural talk of this year's "Oral History and the Future" series featured Maria Cotera: professor, director of the Latina/o Studies Program at the University of Michigan, and developer of the digital archive, Chicana por mi Raza. As the daughter of a radical Chicana activist and intellectual whose work was rarely credited, collected, or acknowledged within the halls of the academy, Cotera has long been aware of just how exclusive the process of archiving has been and how the limitations of the archive inform and retain the exclusivity of what is valued and taught within the academy. Her work, both with the digital archive of CPMR and her community engagement with El Museo Del Norte in Detroit, intentionally undermines the entrenched system of top-down determination of what is valuable, as well as who gets to participate, in knowledge production. In her talk at Columbia, Cotera discussed what inspired her to create an archive based on a "praxis of collaboration," how that archive works in practice (it is not open access), and what keeps her up at night (in terms of the ephemerality of all digitally based archives). What she did not address, at least to my satisfaction, is her long-term vision of how she imagines the relationship between community based/generated knowledge and the academy.
Cotera began the evening with crediting her mother as the inspiration and genesis of the Chicana por mi Raza project. In fact, the two goals she acknowledged in envisioning the memory collective were finding a home for her mother's archive and not perpetuating what she referred to as "the feedback loop" of a closed archive that keeps power and knowledge the domain of a select, certain few. Along with the goal of making information more easily accessible comes the more mundane yet critical reality of maintaining a digital archive. With that aim in mind, CPMR is not simply open to whoever may be inspired; it requires a login and commitment to contribute to its continued survival and growth. On the sign-up page there are a number of suggestions for how one might do that; almost all of which perpetuate a relationship between this publicly generated archive and educational practices, be that through incorporating CPMR materials into curriculum, developing a class to collect oral histories, or proposing a research project, to name a few. This is what makes Cotera such an interesting figure to me: her radical ideas of knowledge production and her continuing commitment to working within the academy. Not only does Cotera center this archive on the women who participated in, contributed to, and in some cases, led a Chicana feminist movement, she points to their collaborative practices as the model for how the memory collective functions as a site of "encuentro" and exchange. For Cotera "encuentro" is used as a noun as well as the first person singular of the verb meaning, "to find." As she said during her talk, "I archive as encuentro—from students work to collection practices, to the distribution and access." Undoubtedly this an archive whose life, vibrancy, and anti-authoritarian politics are affirmed with every interactive use.
Although she spoke only briefly about El Museo del Norte, it is clear that that idea of "encuentro" is strongly embedded in the exhibits hosted there, as well. According to Museo's mission statement, "we want to document a history of Latina/os by Latina/os in a space where the stories of our grandparents are honored and new stories are generated from the old." Here, too, we see the centering of a community's history, the stories of its elders, valued and made accessible from the past to the present, that together lead to the imagining of a more inclusive and liberatory future.
For those historians like myself who believe that the present has been created through actions in the past, that we are participating every day in the creation of a potential future, the importance of imagination and vision cannot be understated. Maria Cotera worked with her elders, her students, and her community and envisioned an archive that advances the political and ethical praxis of those who inspired it. Maybe the point isn't for her to share her vision of what the future holds for the intersection of the academy and bottom-up pedagogy. She and her collective have shown that this power relationship does not need to stay the same. It is up to us, to our creative work, to envision answers to the questions of towards what, and how, that relationship could be transformed.
Valerie Fendt is a second year OHMA student whose other job involves the digitization of Columbia’s Time Based Media archive. She is interested in the liberatory potential of education and often finds herself asking “but who is the archive for?”