[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Essah Cozett Diaz (Isele Magazine) interviews Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez, author of Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature (Northwestern, 2020). [See our previous post Decolonizing Diasporas/ Radical Mappings.]
Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer, educator, and scholar who published her first book of theory, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature (Northwestern, 2020) which won the 2021 MLA Prize in Latina/o Literary and Cultural Studies. Decolonizing Diasporas takes a transdisciplinary approach to remapping the connections across the Afro-Atlantic between Equatorial Guinea, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Her work motivates underrepresented scholars to map relations through decolonial, cultural, and spiritual analysis. In 2022, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Dr. Figueroa-Vasquez a $2 million grant to create the Digital Solidarities Lab (DSL), a multi-institutional Black feminist digital humanities partnership co-led by Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson. This interview expands on Figueroa-Vásquez’s decolonial practices, solidarity for students, and illuminations as a witness of the diaspora to shift the ways stories of overlapping diasporas are documented.
Through these new and different forms of crossings, M. Jacqui Alexander’s words are reflected in Figueroa-Vásquez’s decolonial love practice which adopts “ways of being and of relation, modes of analyzing, and strategies of organizing in which we constantly mobilize identification and solidarity, across all borders” (Alexander 265). For Figueroa-Vásquez, embracing transdisciplinary and Black feminist approaches support the ruptures in existing forms of knowledge and power while creating alternative ways of thinking. Her views of global communities allow others to identify concurrent themes of resistance and survival in Afro-Atlantic peoples.
Essah Cozett Diaz: I’ve been thinking a lot about your concept of decolonial love, the importance of solidarity, the impact of sisterhood, and how grateful I am for you and other Black women who uplift me and make space for us to thrive. Considering your position and the projects that you create, what inspires you to make space for people like yourself?
Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez: The decolonial love that I write about, think about, and try to put into practice has been so important for me as a guiding attitude in the different projects that I undertake. I think part of it is not just thinking about it through a theoretical lens, but rather as an interrelational technology, a practice of seeing one another across differences. For me, decolonial love is something that I have seen practiced within my own family and communities. But in terms of the work that I do, it’s definitely built out of the shared experiences that I’ve seen outside of the Academy.
Being a first-generation high school and college graduate, when I first entered the university system, I was both amazed and appalled at the access that I had to resources that I had never seen before. I thought about how incredible they could have been for not just me, but for my family, for my community, for other students like me that came from underrepresented backgrounds who were Black, Latinx, and who were coming from working poor communities. One of the things that I decided was that I wanted to be a teacher and I wanted to be able to spread those resources around. Later on, when I changed my trajectory from being a teacher to being a professor, I knew that an integral part of the work was to be able to connect so much of what was available at the university with communities. I also believed that it was absolutely necessary to break away from the idea that communities are spaces that can be poached for research or understood as philanthropic receptacles. No, communities are places we learn from; places that are rich with much knowledge and practices and experiences that really can shape us if we choose to engage within them in ethical ways. [. . .]
ECD: Considering your experiences with creating new forms of resistance and making spaces like the Diaspora Solidarity Lab, what are your aspirations for DSL?
YFV: This is an exciting time to be doing this work. The Diaspora Solidarity Lab is a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon to expand some of the work that we have been doing. On my end, with my co-PI Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson with Electric Marronage. We are thinking through the question of Black feminist digital humanities and ethnic studies digital humanities in the context of the Black Atlantic, and also thinking about Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and other related forms of community interests in our work.
Part of the arm of the Diaspora Solidarity Lab is working with community organizations and leaders, so we have Community Partners and annual Community Fellows that we support through the grant. We have summer Rememory Labs in three different locations with our Community Partners (Yagrumo and The Black School), and our community fellows who are organizers, artists, activists, and teachers are an important arm of this. They are non-academic, non-institutional affiliated folks. This year we have an agricultural community organization (Producir, Inc./Lissete Velez), a photographer (Chris Lopez), a visual artist (Ana Paula Lira), and a cultural curator (Soraya Jean-Louis) as part of the fellowship. Then there’s a whole different branch of the DSL! That is the branch that you’re part of which is mostly graduate students, some undergraduate students, and some post-grads/early career faculty that are doing incredible research. We have ten micro labs, each one with a different theme, each one with a different kind of set of questions of research to produce work on questions that exist, but then also to develop their own work. From Southern Digital Cultures to Afro-Latinx Lab, to questions of the Survival of People, to the one that you’re part of—the Taller Entre Aguas. We’re trying to expand the opportunities for mentorship for junior scholars, so it’s not just top-down but horizontal, across the board. That’s why we have first-year grad students together with post-docs and undergrads and non-academic researchers and professionals. We envisioned a project that would run the gamut because the mutual connections built through such relations will become important across the stages of one’s career.
Our community partners and fellows also help to instruct us in the different ways to do ethical work. It’s not only about offering Digital Humanities and community-engaged skill building through our workshops and events, but also about radically transforming what can be done at the kind of higher learning level, at the university level, at the institutional level, in terms of working with students, having them lead projects in the humanities that are transdisciplinary. [. . .]
For us, this has been a really important part of the DSL. It’s part of what we’ve already been doing with the Proyectos Palabras PR (#PPPR), which is bringing students to Puerto Rico and then bringing artists and organizers from Puerto Rico back to MSU in an intercambio, an exchange. That #PPPR project, which came together in the wake of Hurricane María, is the blueprint for our Rememory Labs. We have also pulled from some of the things that Dr. Johnson has been doing with her groundbreaking LifexCode project, where she has students working in small DH lab structures across a series of projects. Alongside this are our work in Electric Marronage, our solidarity speakers events, and the kind of work that we do with our grad students, amplifying works and ideas in progress, platforming public writing by them and by other academics, artists, and practitioners. [. . .]
For full interview, go to https://iselemagazine.com/2023/01/16/decolonial-love-as-a-praxis-essah-cozett-diaz-in-conversation-with-yomaira-c-figueroa-vasquez
Also see https://www.publicbooks.org/author/yomaira-c-figueroa-vasquez/