[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Amarilys Estrella and Meryleen Mena. This post is a part of the Embodying Reciprocity series. Amarilys Estrella is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Afro-Latinx Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She holds a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from New York University. Her dissertation research examined the role of human rights discourse in transnational activism against anti-Black racism. Estrella’s work has been recognized by several organizations for its contributions to the humanities and the study of grassroots activism. She was part of the Mark Claster Mamolen Dissertation Workshop Class of 2019, administered by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University. She was also a 2018-2019 Public Humanities Fellow for Humanities New York. In 2017, she received the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) Grassroots Development Fellowship for dissertation field research. Meryleen Mena is a Dominican American New Yorker from pre-gentrified Washington Heights and Harlem, a socio-cultural anthropologist, abolitionist, and an educator. She holds a Doctoral degree in Cultural Anthropology, and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies. For her Doctoral research, she studied the experience of women and gender non-conforming individuals in the criminal justice system in São Paulo, Brazil. She is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow, and occasionally teaches for the CUNY system in New York City. Please cite accordingly.]
In this blog post, we explore the importance of encuentros, understood as meetings or collective forums where Black Feminists throughout the Americas create spaces for intellectual and personal reciprocity that enables us to connect across our similarities and differences. As Black Dominican women and anthropologists, we examine our own encuentro three years ago as an opportunity for reciprocal forms of knowledge sharing, which led to conspiring in the development of parallel courses on Black Feminism in the Americas taught in Spring 2020. We then consider how encuentros become “productive spaces of transformation”1 within the classroom through our pedagogical practices.
During the Spring of 2017, Meryleen Mena and her colleague, Dani Merriman, put out a call for papers for the AAA annual conference held in Washington DC. The panel was called: 21st Century Resistance, Protest, and Ethnography in the African Diaspora. Mena received an entry from Amarilys Estrella and remembered someone with that name who had gone to her same Junior High School in Harlem, New York City. In addition to feeling excitement to learn that a fellow Black Dominican was also a cultural anthropologist, the subject matter Estrella was focused on hit close to home: how Black Dominicans of Haitian descent were resisting their civil deaths in light of a court ruling in 2013 that denationalized them. Estrella was excited to participate along with Mena whose research focused on the experiences of incarcerated Black Brazilian women in São Paulo. Since that first encuentro at the AAAs, we have found ways to collaborate and to support one another as we completed dissertations, transitioned to job posts as newly minted PhDs, and began the process of writing about our research for academic and activist audiences. Throughout this time, we have found inspiration in the work of Black feminists who have engaged in encuentros as a space and place in which embodied memories and knowledge are shared and created.
Encuentros: a place to theorize and explore embodied knowledges
Engaging in reciprocal forms of knowledge sharing and pedagogical practices is part of a long history of encuentros. Alvarez et al (2003) argue that regional encuentros have proven to be “productive spaces of transformation” as well as “critical sites of negotiation” providing a “new modality for transborder activism.” When we say encuentros, we reference a few significant, but by no means exclusive meetings that were critical in giving life to Black Latinx feminist scholarships and praxis. Many of these encuentros originated outside of traditional academic spaces and in cities as varied as Boston, USA, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Salvador, Brazil. Encuentros in the Black Latinx context were made possible because of the activist labor, the theorizing of Black lived experience, and the articulation of feminist standpoint theory. Black feminists in the U.S. memorialized these encuentros in their Combahee River Collective Statement2. It was also memorialized by the Network of Afro-Latin American and Caribbean women’s first meeting in 1992 held in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic that resulted in the yearly celebration of Afro-Latin American and Caribbean women held on July 25.
These ongoing transnational encuentros, as well as digital exchanges have provided opportunities for deep reflection and played a key role in the transformation of intellectual encounters among Black women. At its roots, it is the embodiment of reciprocity that shapes and maintains the exchange of knowledge that encuentros create. These encuentros provide an intricate web of relationships, which have allowed Black women to see one another through their “connected differences” (Lorde 2017). Encuentros have also led to the creation of digital spaces such as the Black Latinas Know Collective and Cite Black Women, which greatly influenced our pedagogical practices.
Encuentros in the Classroom
For us, reciprocity also speaks to the collaborative nature of Black and decolonial Latinx feminist scholarship and praxis. In our pedagogy, we were deliberate in creating a decolonized classroom atmosphere where students are active participants in their knowledge building. The brilliant essay “The X in Latinx is a Wound, not a Trend” by the Black Indigenous, queer, immigrant poet Alan Pelaez López was a foundational text that allowed us to think together through the decolonial work ahead that engages the personal and the political. To this end, we drew from Pelaez López’s work as part of a class activity (see images below) in which our students were able to explore the many “wounds” of Latinidad. We sought to engage with our students from a place of care. This does not mean that every student was on board or shifted from more traditional hierarchical forms of learning, but we did plant some seeds. In particular, we spent a great deal of time emphasizing the importance of embodied knowledge as a way of learning and knowing, recognizing the multiplicity of Black experiences. We worked with texts, such as The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, to understand the experiences of working-class Black Latinas living in New York City. Scholar and performer Dr. Omaris Zamora, who was a guest speaker for both of our classes, notes that our bodies become important sites of memory. These embodied memories can often awaken by a particular smell, sight or sound. We encouraged our students to consider how their experiences were important to their ways of knowing and learning. By having students read about embodied knowledge and then emphasize it in our lessons and classroom, we opened up the possibility for students to contribute to discussions with the understanding that they too have something meaningful and valuable to add. We both saw this play out, in particular, during our students’ final presentations at the end of the semester. We saw how they framed their subject position, how their thinking had shifted and/or how they recognized their privilege in light of Black feminist theoretical interventions applied in their research projects. Allowing for this vulnerability within the classroom also meant that the students found ways to support and learn from one another.
We also sought to connect both classes by having an open dialogue with students about the fact that the other class was reading some of the same texts and presumably having similar or at least parallel discussions on theories that for many were very new, exciting, and at times controversial. Additionally, the creation of a Spotify list where students could both sample music of the African Diaspora in the Americas and contribute their own, though not a focal point of the course, was introduced as a soundtrack to the course. We also visited each other’s classrooms and shared our experiences as activist scholars conducting research in Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
Navigating the disruptions to our own encuentros
When we first began developing the course syllabi we discussed how to possibly have a real-life encuentro between our two classes given that we taught on different days of the week and that our respective universities were located in geographically and culturally distinct neighborhoods in Manhattan–City College in Harlem and NYU in Greenwich Village. Unfortunately, like many educators around the globe, our precious in-class meetings became remote courses as part of attempts to flatten the rate of contracting COVID-19. We rushed to re-imagine a course that relies on face-to-face contact to happen, working with the students to adjust the reading materials and assignments in light of the crisis’ impact on all of our lives.
The mishandling of this pandemic also made even more evident why we must teach Black Feminist praxis and engage with Afro-Latinx epistemologies. We leaned on each other to talk through how to honor our desire to expose students to critical texts, art, and voices that reflect on seminal contemporary issues for Black feminists. To that end, we kept our last two weeks of readings under the theme of art and revolution—examining the radical ideas of rest as resistance to anti-Black oppression and the transformative possibilities of joy. We assigned accessible readings and art projects on rest as self-care in the radical meanings of that phrase Audre Lorde gave us, and put it in to practice for our students, and for the sake of our own self-preservation. Finally, we drew on the communal support of our Black intellectual networks to bring Kleaver Cruz, who joined our classes virtually, to discuss Black joy. We thus concluded our courses from a Black feminist standpoint where we chose joy despite the pain. In doing so we honored the labor and work to survive that Black people have always engaged in as a means to counteract the negative effects of our lived experience as displaced and formerly colonized people.
1 Sonia E. Alvarez, Elisabeth Jay Friedman, Ericka Beckman, Maylei Blackwell, Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Nathalie Lebon, Marysa Navarro, and Marcela Ríos Tobar. Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms. Signs, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 537-579
2 Of course, there were Black women around the U.S. contributing to similar endeavors outside of the radical space Combahee offered.
The authors wish to thank Dr. Kaifa Roland and Bailey Duhé, MA who generously shared the syllabus on Brown Studies with us during the development of our course. We also want to express our gratitude to Black trans artist and filmmaker Tourmaline for pointing us to the revolutionary work of Black Power Naps/Siestas Negras by Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa.