WGSS News and Activism

Finding Voice and Comunidad: Reflections on the

AJAAS Conference

 

On October 6-8, 2017, the Association for Joteria Arts Activism and Scholarship (AJAAS) held its third conference at the University of Minnesota and El Colegio High School. Although it is hard to translate the experiences and the impact of an AJAAS conference unless you attend, in this dialogue-style essay, Angelica Paz-Ortiz, Marisol Mora Cendejas, and Eddy Alvarez share some of their reflections on the conference. They have collectively designed questions to provide a glimpse into their experiences. The student voices are privileged while Dr. Alvarez provides context for conference and the organization overall.

 

What were some of the spaces you were immersed in at the conference? How did this participation impact you as an individual, a student, scholar, artists or activist?

 

Angelica: The WGSS Travel Award for Undergraduate Research helped me cover costs associated with conference attendance. Thanks to this award, I had the opportunity to present my work on reading characters in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street as they inhabit “queer time.” I felt immediately immersed and welcomed into the community at the conference. I was able to attend workshops, talks, social events and just generally get to know folks that are a part of AJAAS. AJAAS provided an outlet for me to think through my own positionality as well as issues and systems beyond me. In particular, AJAAS gave me a unique space to be intentional and critical.

Marisol: Like Angelica, I participated in the AJAAS conference as a presenter with the help of the WGSS Travel Award for Undergraduate Research. I was able to present my poetry twice, once during a specific panel session titled Counter Cultural Forms, Experimental Media, and Queer Bodies and the second time at Noche de Jotería,, a night dedicated to the Conference’s selected poets. Some of the spaces I immersed myself in were panel sessions like Jotería Cinema: Critical Films for Awareness and Liberation, which analyzed films as liberatory art passages for Queer Bodies and Experiences, and Queer Epistemologies, which used Queer critiques to establish new bodies of knowledge. However, the most transcending space I immersed myself in was the Abrazame Muy Fuerte: Storytelling for Liberation plenary. I was moved by Maya Gonzalez’s journey of healing as she used children’s books to let her soul speak, I was amazed by the light and love Yosimar Reyes created with his humorous and candid stories of growing up in the hood and being undocumented, and I was moved to tears as Adelina Anthony took the audience through a spiritual ritual where she called on her ancestors and recounted the way her ancestors had manifested in her own life. This plenary impacted my work as an artist and as an individual because I felt my energy replenish in ways I had not known I was hungry for, and I felt my work take on an urgency that had not been as potent as before.

 

What impacted you most about the conference?

 

Angelica: The immediate sense of family that was present at the conference was unlike any other conference I have participated in. I felt more seen and respected by these folx I had barely met than some students and professionals I have known for years. It was beautiful to be in conversation with people who were respectful and invested in learning from one another.

Marisol: What impacted me the most from the conference was the experience of getting to share my poetry and my voice with an audience for the very first time, and the experience of feeling a sense of community, home, and collective magic I had never felt before. Getting to share my poetry, my vulnerability, and my craft with other scholars, writers, poets, and individuals and being accepted and praised was euphoric because I left the conference feeling valid and evermore vitalized to continue to write. Being in a conference where I was surrounded by the magic of so many Brown, Queer authors allowed me to realize that my writing was not simply something that I could pursue alongside my future career, but rather something I could pursue as a central part of my career. Before AJAAS I did not know as a Brown, Queer woman it was possible for me to center my career on my writing; I had not been exposed to this community of authors or been told by anyone that this was an achievable reality. Along with taking away this epiphany and newfound drive-which by the way finally led me to begin a draft of my first memoir--it was also incredibly impactful to feel a sense of I finally found my people. When I was first coming out, the most difficult part was not having any Queer Latinx representation that could hold me and make me feel visible and whole; and living in Portland it has also been a struggle to find other Queer Latinx folx, so to be in a space full of Queer Latinxs was a fruitful and inspiring delight; I felt seen and hugged every second of the conference.

 

Was this your first time at a conference like this one? How did the conference compare to other women’s studies or queer studies conferences? Who were your favorite speakers or artists?

 

Angelica: AJAAS was not my first queer or women’s studies conference. The focus on jotería at AJAAS made it completely different from any other gender or sexuality studies I have attended in the past. The prioritization of comunidad or building and sharing community also felt unique to the magic of AJAAS.

Marisol: This was my first ever conference through WGSS; I had not attended any previous conferences in my higher education experience. My favorite speaker was Candi Brings Plenty; it was so empowering to not only hear about her experience as the leader of the Two Spirit Nation Camp at Standing Rock, but to watch footage of her activism and resilience that took place as she fought to protect the right of Indigenous peoples to access clean water. She spoke with strength, wisdom, and an energy that filled the room with tangibility, and the footage of the Standing Rock movement and campers that highlighted their courage and light made me feel so privileged to have been able to watch.

 

Would you recommend WGSS and PSU students to participate in an AJAAS Conference?

 

Angelica: Without a doubt, I would recommend participating in AJAAS to students affiliated with PSU and otherwise! AJAAS gave me a unique space to learn and care, that continues to be impactful to my scholarship and activism.

Marisol: I would definitely recommend PSU students and WGSS members to attend a future AJAAS Conference! Not only is it full of education where you can learn about the meaningful research and published academia other WGSS/Queer scholars are working on, but you also get to experience a conference that is largely focused on art as knowledge, activism, and liberation-- and as art is frequently discounted in academic settings it is important to be aware of the way art is a form of academia and is valid in this space. (Plus, homemade rice, beans, and tamales?? Who could say no!)

 

How has your work with AJAAS transcended into your own academic work as a scholar, artist, and PSU professor?

 

Dr. Alvarez:  My involvement with AJAAS has been life-changing and has shaped who I am as a scholar, artist and activist. My scholarship and creative writing are inspired by the work of jotería who have come before me and whom I have worked besides. Similarly, in my pedagogy I try to instill the values of AJAAS and jotería studies, a field we are building together.

As an organization AJAAS was born out of a need for more inclusive spaces in academia and one that incorporated the voices of activists, academics and artists, and building on the legacy of previous cultural workers. Tired of the traditional academic conferences and conversations, we wanted to create an alternative space. It hasn’t been easy and we have had lots of painful bumps but continue to work towards a space we imagined together and which we continuously shape and forge as we learn. Currently, I am the co-chair along with Yovani Flores, a Chicago raised Afro-Puerto Rican muxer, poet and cultural worker based in Phoenix, Arizona. We are both learning what it means to be leaders, collectively of this important organization. For more information about AJAAS you can visit our website. We are fortunate to have a substantive representation of AJAAS members in the Portland/Corvallis/ Eugene area and look forward to our next conference in Portland in 2019.

 

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At PSU, we are thankful to the support of the WGSS department, University Studies, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Sally McWilliams, chair of WGSS, Maurice Hamington, Director of University Studies, and Darrow Omar our Office Coordinator. At a national level, none of this could have happened without the efforts of the AJAAS conference site committee, the University of Minnesota Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, El Colegio High School, and many others who dedicated their time to creating this space.