Documenting Other Histories: Art, Orality, and Our Communities

Interview with Fernanda Espinosa by Thania Muñoz Davaslioglu.

Fernanda Espinosa is an Andean immigrant based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently a MA candidate at Columbia University’s Oral History Program and holds a BA in Anthropology and in Latin American Literature. Her work celebrates and documents local knowledge systems through oral history and cultural organizing. She has also worked for different public health initiatives in New York City, as well as in translation and interpretation dedicated to social justice. Fernanda is a member of the group People’s Collective Arts/Colectivo de Arte Popular who were a recipient of the 2015 Rauschenberg Foundation Artists as Activists fund. She co-founded Cooperativa Cultural 19 de enero (CC 1/19), an art and oral history collective recipient of The Laundromat Project’s 2015 Create Change commission arts award, and was one of twelve 2016 national Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies fellows. 

Promo postcard for Hogar de la Distancia exhibition at Columbia University. Photo taken inside the home of one of the narrators of the project. Image by Fernanda Espinosa.

1. Who are you and what do you do? 

Thanks for your questions! Let me just start by stating that as the person usually seating on the side of the interviewer, being the one answering the questions made me reflect quite a lot on being willing to share who I am, as well as the meaning and generosity on behalf of my narrators (folks I interview for oral histories).

To answer your first question, I am still exploring who I am and I think this exploration will last my entire life. I like to think that I am what I dedicate my actions and ideas to. I would say that first and foremost I am an immigrant woman in the United States, originally from the Ecuadorian Andes. This is important because that’s the identity that has been the most influential in all of the work I have done and the projects I’m currently working on.

2. Can you describe the type of work you do?  

The types of work I have done have been very different in nature throughout the years and depending on the needs I’ve had at the moment. For example, when I first migrated to Georgia with my family my choices included serving at restaurants and selling peanuts at concession stands for football games and other all-American events in Atlanta. In New York, I have mostly worked with other immigrant populations in community health, and also as a social justice-focused interpreter and translator.

At this moment I feel very fortunate to be able to bring together all of these experiences which have certainly shaped my perspective about the use of oral history and visual art as effective tools to understand and share experiences that are hard to come by in public or shared spaces.

During the last couple of years I have been working with my partner Raul Ayala who is a visual artist often working in public spaces through murals.  We have come together to work on projects that involve oral histories as the basis that inform or take precedence over the image to share the histories we can’t find in books or other dominant media. When we work together on these specific oral history and visual art projects, we work under the name Cooperativa Cultural 19 de enero (CC 1/19).

3. Your work centers on “oral histories”, why do you think this type of history is important in the U.S.?  

I think oral histories are important because they can document experiences within a historical context, allowing different and less filtered perspectives that are often left out of documents and dominant communications because they might not be perceived as “legitimate information.” To me, being able to reclaim our own standards of knowledge systems includes documenting and sharing oral transmissions without necessarily having to put it into text. Documenting and sharing oral histories using the voices of those who lived those experiences is an important method in contesting systems that don’t reflect our needs or cultures and forcing them to witness, and hopefully, understand the different realities that are part of the same shared space and that have been silent or even strategically silenced (not to be confused with absent).

4. What is the history behind, Hogar de la Distancia (Home of Distance)? What made you start such a project?  

For Hogar de la Distancia I thought long and hard about a kind of project that would allow me to explore different ways of using oral history and that would be in Spanish or Spanglish, or other non-dominant uses of language within the oral history or public art worlds in New York (people who don’t speak English, have accents, etc.), while also trying to contribute in some way to these communities. Right now, people of color in the United States are going through especially difficult times in terms of the ways we are portrayed in media outlets. This has been happening for very long, but is now more visible because people are organizing and are pointing it out. In the 2000s multiple hate crimes were committed in New York against Latinxs, including a number of attacks against Ecuadorian immigrants such as Marcelo Lucero and José Sucuzhañay. These kind of deadly attacks continue to take place and are fueled by a lack of understanding and listening on behalf of the groups and institutions holding the power. With this project, I was hoping to reach the ears and hearts of those who are not exposed to these kind of stories, visually and aurally, while honoring the experiences of people who have been told they don’t deserve to be on the record.

5. In Hogar de la Distancia (Home of Distance), you use different mediums to document stories by Ecuadorian immigrants in New York; can you tell us more about these mediums and why did you choose them?  

I chose to work on projects that involve visual and audio elements because I find these tools to be more effective in transmitting certain experiences and touching more senses. I also noticed that audiences are not used to dedicating time to listening, but they are used to being constantly bombarded by images which don’t require them to speak a specific language or have an expected level of literacy in order to swallow the information. In short, pairing the visual with the audio portraits keeps people’s attention so that they also listen while they watch, and it creates different layers of meaning expressed through both images and sound.

6. You describe yourself as a “cultural organizer”, “language justice advocate”, and “oral history artist” can you describe how this comes together in your work? 

I think I describe myself with these characteristics sometimes in an effort to create new vocabulary that creates space for my practice and other practices that don’t fit into clear-cut fields. I don’t often say I am an oral historian because that limits the ways in which I am using oral history and it’s a very academic way of looking at this practice, which in turn limits the public I am speaking and listening to.

In terms of the others, cultural work and language justice describe some of the focus and avenues through which I think about the different projects I embark on. For example, the interviews I conduct are not the final goal. Though I see the interview as a sacred space and special moment of reflection and human connection, I think what drives the work is thinking about how to share those stories either through specific events or through online or shared-spaced platforms so that people can connect to them and to others who share the experience. In this context, language is something I’m always thinking about, perhaps because I know what it means to have to be silent and not able to participate in certain aspects of society just because you don’t speak English.

7. Can you share with us how being an immigrant woman in New York has shaped the type of art and activism you do?  

I participate in different spaces of work in New York and I’ve seen that when the activism does not revolve explicitly around immigrant issues or inclusion language and cultural equity is seldom acknowledged or invested in. Coming from this reality as well as having access to organizing spaces by English-only speakers, puts me in a position where I can bring always these questions of access, language, and cultural hierarchies to the table. In working with arts and activism this is how being who I am shapes those conversations.

8. You work with immigrant communities in New York City in many art-related projects, what has been your experience with these communities? How do they respond to artivism? Can you share with us a specific example or an experience?

In an effort to share the work with the people who are the inspiration for the work, I think about specific events that can be accessible to project participants too. This is not easy because sometimes even traveling to a different part of the city for an event is a luxury that many can’t afford. On the other hand, several fellow immigrants who have been able to witness the work from Hogar de la Distancia through the traveling exhibitions, shared they felt like they were listening to their grandmothers and parents. I’m very honored to hear such high praise because those are the kinds of voices and knowledge that we remember and respect in life; the abuelitxs who shape who we are as adults

I continue to think of better and more accessible ways to share this work, as well as putting more thought on the other practical aspects. I think the point of activism is to activate people who have been systematically denied access to spaces and time for creativity and to change normalized systems of oppression. In this sense, some of the questions that guide this exploration are: How are these pieces contributing to people’s lives? Will the audience feel more connected to the realities of the people telling the story? Will the audience understand, even if just a little bit, in order to re-shape their views?

Hogar de la Distancia installation for LASA pre-conference on Ecuadorian migration at Immigrant Movement International (IMI) in Corona, Queens on May 26, 2016. Image by Dominique Hernández.

9. What are you working on right now?  

At this time I am finishing some audio installations for a project titled Sowing Homes//La siembra del hogar a public art project I worked on with Cooperativa. I am also working with the Language Justice Project, a group I helped initiate at Mayday Space, an organizing hub in my neighborhood, where the collective I’ve been building with for the past two years shares space (People’s Collective Arts//Colectivo de Arte Popular).

In the Fall I will be traveling with Cooperativa dedicating some time to researching other arts, oral history, and language justice initiatives in California and Mexico and I will continue working on projects for 2017.

Dr. Thania Muñoz Davaslioglu is an Assistant Professor of Spanish, Latin American and Latino/a studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Latin@ Literatures.