Josefina Báez: Dominican-York Icon, Whose Archive Is Now Housed at Columbia University

Kelly Moffitt-Hawasly writes, “This Black History Month, learn about Josefina Báez, an innovative Afro-Latina artist known first for her groundbreaking work Dominicanish.” Read the full article (with photos and several videos of performances) at Columbia Neighbors. [Shown above, photo by Giovanni Savino, 2011: Josefina Báez, pictured on the book cover of Apariciones Duets. Todo lo posible, by Ay Ombe Theatre, set to be released in April 2023.]

Even after only spending a few moments probing the recently unveiled tenth acquisition of the Latino Arts and Activisms Collections at Columbia University, it becomes clear that “multi-hyphenate” is too small a word to use to describe the Dominican-York icon that is Josefina Báez. 

Poet. Storyteller. Dancer. Dramatist. Writer. Teacher. Director. Performance Artist. These words only begin to scratch the surface of Báez’s repertoire. 

“Creative alchemist,” is perhaps the most fitting way to describe Báez, who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic, and has spent her artistic life transforming the concepts of inner and outer identities of migrants into public explorations of language, culture, and community. Throughout her career, Upper Manhattan has been a key part of Báez’s work, including performances, workshops, classes, as well as readings held in neighborhoods like Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. 

This Black History Month, we’re taking a deeper dive into this trailblazing Afro-Latina’s life, accomplishments, and what can be found in her collection, housed in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Information on how to set up an appointment to view the collection can be found here. 

“The inclusion of the Josefina Báez archive is a watershed moment for the Latino Arts and Activisms (LAAS) collection,” said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, founding curator of LAAS and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. “It is impossible to tell the story of twentieth and twenty-first-century Latinos in New York, global Black thought, and performance history without Báez, an innovator in method, form, and language. Her archive is also our tenth collection, and the first of an Afro-Latina and Dominican artist at Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Báez collection signals the growth of the archive, its increasing diversity, and rising importance to researchers, students, artists, and community members.”

Here are five important things you should know about Báez, compiled with the help of Jhensen Ortiz, archival advisor to Báez, who knows the collection inside and out:

1. Báez devised the creative method called “Performance Autology.” Performance Autology is a unique approach of art-as-research that includes gathering personal narratives of participants across their lifespan and physical training to help the doer experience “organicity, alertness, wellbeing, and ‘radical joy.'” [. . .]

2. Her Dominican, immigrant identity is central to her artwork. [. . .]Whether storytelling, dance, theater, or poetry, Báez finds a way to explore and examine the experiences of Dominicans living in a global setting. She frequently extends the conventional boundaries of Latinx American Theater, combining intersecting identities, including U.S., Black Caribbean, and Latin American.[. . .]

3. Three major works of Báez’s you should know. Báez is a consistent creator, and here are three major works of hers you should know, all of which have significant connections to her collection at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Overarchingly, her works provided vivid description of the concepts of inner and outer identities, especially within the experiences of migrants.

Dominicanish (2000) is a groundbreaking exploration of Dominican immigrant life in the urban United States, delving into the complexities of the Dominican-York identity through a non-linear language, tapping into unofficial stories, and undocumented history. [. . .] 

Comrade, Bliss Ain’t Playing (2008) is a performance poem on a grand scale, exploring the inner layers of a woman’s journey, from sound to silence and the many contradictions and certainties along that path. [. . .] 

Levente no. Yolayorkdominicanyork (2011) is a performance text that blends “Spanglish”/”Dominicanish” looping into the experiences of female migrants who find themselves between the Dominican Republic and New York. [. . .] 

4. Established in 1986, Báez founded Ay Ombe Theatre. Ay Ombe Theatre has emphasized hyper-personal stories of participating artists for 30+ years. [. . .] 

5. Báez is also a children’s book author! One of the most surprising parts of Báez’s collection is the inclusion of the complete visual creative process that led to her first and only children’s book “Why is my name Marysol?” [. . .] following the wanderings of a curious girl from La Romana, Dominican Republic (where Báez was born) as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery. [. . .] 

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