Literary and feminist summer in Mexico and Brazil

By Paulina Barrios

Looking back to this summer seems so far away it is hard to think that it only happened a few months ago. The first thing that comes to mind is sunshine and walking around different cities. I started the summer at home, enjoying warm weather and dog-sitting, as I planned out the field research I would do. My general goal this summer was to reconnect with colleagues across feminist movements in Mexico and visit feminist collectives and organizations that use literature in their projects. However, I was also interested in establishing new contacts and learning more about cartoneras and decolonial thought. As a follow up on my class on Spanish American short stories with Prof. Marcy Schwartz, and thanks to her support, I contacted cartonera groups and interviewed them about their work. I wanted to understand if there were any connections between self-narrative and storytelling efforts and self-publishing. Additionally, following a recommendation from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres I applied to the summer school on Decolonial Black Feminism in Bahia, Brazil and was accepted. Although I had initially planned to do research in 8-9 cities in Mexico it slowly became clear that this was overly ambitious considering time and funds. For example, I hadn’t factored in time for transcribing and processing the data, traveling more than two or three times a month would be unrealistic. I also needed time to reach out to people and buy plane tickets that were quickly escalating in price. Therefore, in May I set up my geographic trail for the summer; between June and July I would visit five cities in Mexico, and end the summer at Bahia and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

San Cristobal, Chiapas

I loved my summer work since it gave me the opportunity to watch independent theater productions, learn how to make books out of cardboard, speak with activists, visit new places, and rethink my research project. My time in both countries added new concepts and ideas to my incipient dissertation project such as space, race, self-publishing, decolonial feminisms, and positionality. I was particularly struck by the origins of cartoneras (simply put, these are editorial groups that make cardboard-based artisanal books) and the different aspects that inspire their work: independent editing, responding to editorial monopolies, socioeconomic issues in Latin American countries, the aim to socialize literature that would otherwise be inaccessible to people, bringing literature and craft together, participating in youth-driven projects, etc. In addition to visiting groups in Mexico I was able to speak with Dulcineia Cartonera in Sao Paulo, which is located next to a recycling site. Seeing the different spaces that cartoneras work in (editor’s homes, small bookstores, rooms/offices next to recycling sites, loaned spaces, etc) made me think of the centrality of space in literary production and activism. This relates in part to the physical space of where cartoneras do their work and hold their workshops, for example, but also space as related to performance and theater.

Space also came up when I spoke to theater companies or LBTQ collectives and organizations that use theater as part of their creative and activist work. In some cases these groups choose to use public spaces and the street. In others, part of their activism involves having a space of their own for their and others’ performances and theater productions. Hence, this experience led me to rethink the concept of space, and the practical elements attached to having a physical space for activist groups. In some cases, groups do believe that having a physical space benefits their work, and in others they see their mobility as a positive aspect. Not only this, but many groups spoke about the threat of shrinking space for both cultural projects (specifically in the case of Guadalajara) and feminist or human rights activist work. Thus, space arose as both an issue and an opportunity regarding physical space and the concept of space in a less tangible fashion.

The final element of my summer, the decolonial feminism school, was a crucial addition to my research project’s theoretical framework. Held from August 6-10 in Cachoeira, Bahia (Brazil), the Decolonial Black Feminism Summer School is described on their website as “an initiative exploring Black Feminist Thought from a Trans-American perspective”. They further aim to generate a regional discussion surrounding black feminisms that have risen out of the continent, reframing intersectionality around race and inequality, as well as adding decolonial analyses of capitalism and patriarchy. The sessions focused on black feminist thought in the United States taught by Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw, Brazilian black feminist history taught by Prof. Angela Figueroa, and Latin American decolonial feminisms taught by Prof. Karina Ochoa. In addition to the academic training, the personal exchanges between participants was a wonderful experience, and I had the opportunity to meet fellow graduate students, activists, and professors. The school also included afternoon or evening walks throughout Cachoeira, meeting

Memorial das Baianas in Salvador, Bahía

local cultural and activist groups, as well as a samba presentation-invitation to participate. The spiritual element of the exchanges and learning is difficult to put into words but made this into one of the most thought-provoking experiences of my life.

The funds granted by the Program in Comparative Literature, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Off-Campus Dissertation Development Award were crucial for my work in Mexico and my participation in the summer school in Bahia. After this summer I was left with many questions, new ideas, and a conviction that academy and activism should be in constant communication and that we need more ‘South-South’ exchanges. My summer work has already extended into my second year under the PhD program in Comparative Literature, inspiring many of my classes and triggering conversations around my future dissertation project. In the future I hope to maintain a constant communication with decolonial and black feminisms, further my understanding and use of ‘space,’ as well as continue to put Brazil and Mexico into conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *