Q&A: Charlene Villaseñor Black on Latino studies in the world — for the world

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Charlene Villaseñor Black floats her two UCLA offices as possible places to meet — “Dodd has nice art, but Bunche has an amazing view” — making the decision a complicated one.

She was recently appointed to chair of the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies, which is housed in Bunche Hall. But the promise of art in Dodd prevails. It’s not every day one gets to see the space of a faculty member whose scholarship spans art history and ethnic studies.

In Dodd Hall, this intersection is on full display. The dark burgundy-colored room, which serves as Villaseñor Black’s office when she’s teaching art history in the building, is filled with predominantly Chicana/o and Central American art.

The professor, who is Mexican American, specializes in the art of the early modern Iberian world as well as contemporary Latino art. In recent years, she’s focused on how Chicana/o art can influence viewers’ thinking about immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border — a topic that’s garnered renewed attention amid changes in U.S. policy and a new border wall.

Villaseñor Black spoke with Newsroom about her vision for the departmemt of Chicana/o and Central American studies, as well as UCLA’s Hispanic Serving Institution designation and why language is important when observing Hispanic Heritage Month.

As the new chair, what is your vision for the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies?

On the ground, I’m thinking about building on 30 years of historic leadership in a department that was founded by a hunger strike. I’m incredibly conscious of that legacy. We’re also in the wake of the pandemic and the academic workers’ strike. Our graduate students need to be brought in right now, and our faculty need to work with them to rebuild our sense of community.

My global vision is to see Chicana/Chicano and Central American studies as being part of the world — not just important to us as Latinos and not just important to our communities — but global recognition that these fields are important to all. I’m thinking about all of this attention focused on the way our system is unjust to migrating families, as well as climate refugees. These situations are replicated in other parts of the world, particularly at this moment.

I’m also thinking about the way people in Latinx studies are starting to confront anti-Blackness, which is really important. The way we’re thinking about Indigeneity would be another really important thread.

What challenges do you see facing ethnic studies?

In California, it looks pretty positive. Ethnic studies graduation requirements are now in effect at LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) schools, for example. But look at places like Florida or Texas, where there are attacks on educators who speak openly and freely about the very history of the United States. It almost feels retaliatory to me — or that these responses are rooted in reaction to the gains that various minoritized populations have made. These are difficult things happening across the country, but I’m hopeful that justice and truth will prevail.

Are there different concerns for Chicana/Chicano and Central American studies?

In terms of Chicana/Chicano and Latino/Latinx studies, the challenge is how to encompass the full variety — the multiplicity —of who we are as Latinos, because there’s not one model that fits all. Latinos are of European descent, they’re Black, they’re Mestizo, they’re Indigenous and they’re mixed with other immigrant populations. My approach to this is to be honest about where I’m coming from and what my training is: ‘I’m Chicana from Arizona, trained in Chicana/Chicano studies and learning about Central American studies.’ I think it’s an openness to learning about other people’s experience being Latinx that’s really the most important thing.

What are your thoughts about where UCLA is at in its effort to become a Hispanic Serving Institution by 2025?

We’re almost there. We are one of the last UCs, which is an unfortunate thing given that we’re in L.A., where I think almost half the city speaks Spanish. But on a more positive note, I’m thrilled and can see the supports being put in place around campus — like through all the hires of Latinx faculty to enrich the teaching of Latinx studies. That’s amazing.

I lived in the residence halls for 11 years as faculty-in-residence, and one of the things Residential Life did was to establish a living learning community for Latinx students. That’s just one way UCLA has tried to support the increasing number of students. I was one of the advisors to the floor, and it’s just a really vibrant center where Latinx students can share their culture with other people.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?

I am happy that we’ve set aside this month to recognize the contributions of Latinx people and the culture of various Latina/Latino cultures across the United States. Do I wish we were recognizing the contributions and culture all year? Yes, I do. Also, the official name ‘Hispanic Heritage’ makes me uncomfortable, because Hispanic is a federal term that came into being during the Nixon administration to try to identify people of Latin American descent in the U.S. But Hispanic means Spanish, and that’s only one piece of the story.

My concern with using this term is that it valorizes Spanish-ness, or European-ness, at the expense of Blackness and Indigeneity. I don’t want to celebrate the colonization of the Americas, but instead recognize that there was resistance and pushback to it from 1492 on. That notion is really important to me in my work. So, I say ‘Latino Heritage Month,’ and am always trying to find more inclusive terms.

Can you explain how the work of Chicana/Chicano artists can influence viewers’ thinking about immigration issues along the U.S. southern border?

Visual art speaks to us immediately, in a visceral way. It speaks to our emotions in a way that text can’t. I think for that reason, art has the potential to evade censorship in some ways. Thinking about the migration issue, I’ve published on and have been working with Chicana artist Sandy Rodriguez, and she did a brilliant, moving series of seven portraits of Central American children who died in ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody while they were migrating here. What I realized by working on those images was the way artists can humanize migrants — can humanize the so-called “other.”

What was so powerful to me about Sandy’s work — and that of other artists, like Judithe Hernández — is that they can humanize nameless people in the news in a way that we’re able to understand their lives and empathize with them. In my mind, that’s the power of the visual arts.

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