A Digital Space to Imagine What is Possible: An Interview with Frances Negrón-Muntaner
This is part of our special feature, Diversity, Security, Mobility: Challenges for Eastern Europe.
I am thrilled to interview Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University for EuropeNow. The many discussions I had with Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner in the context of her classes on Latino studies and Film Studies, the space she created to fully express my views and the commitment she has to empower those from marginalized communities were pivotal in envisioning the Roma Peoples Project at Columbia University.
–Cristiana Grigore for EuropeNow
EuropeNow What are your earliest memories of Roma people?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner As someone who grew up in Puerto Rico, a former Spanish colony, and has visited Spain many times, I have always been aware of the Roma people. It is impossible to think of Spain without thinking of Roma, and one of the regions that I have most visited is Andalucía, which has the largest community. Over time, I also developed a strong affinity to flamenco, which I consider one of the world’s most stirring musical traditions for its intricate formal elements and capacity to convey a wide range of emotion and knowledge about struggle, pain, survival, desire, and love.
When I migrated to the United States, I also noticed how in some contexts people viewed Puerto Ricans as a kind of “Gypsy,” given our history of mass migration that has resulted in most of us living outside of Puerto Rico. Some Puerto Ricans also identify with the Roma experience due to a common history of genocide, enslavement, subjugation, stereotyping, and expulsion from our homes.
EuropeNow What did you know about Roma studies in the academic world before we met?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner Until recently, I had met few people working on Roma studies, except in relation to the Holocaust. As a scholar of visual culture and popular film, however, I knew of work about Roma representation, particularly in relationship to stereotypes, as these are very similar to those associated with Puerto Ricans: lazy, criminal, superstitious, unassimilated yet inherently seductive. A classic example for Roma is Georges Bizet’s renowned opera Carmen, and for Puerto Ricans, the Broadway show and film West Side Story about rival gangs in New York, still considered one of Hollywood’s most important and successful musicals.
EuropeNow Can you share with us some of your thoughts on Roma after our initial discussions?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner Well, I remember that I would mention or send you references on the Roma experience in Spain and Latin America, and you would do the same for other parts of Europe, particularly Romania. I realized that there was so much that we did not know, in part due to linguistic differences and also lack of access to a wider range of sources. I thought that the project could foster dialogue among different communities that would lead to new ideas and collaborations, much in the way that we were already doing.
EuropeNow What made you suggest a Roma Digital Archive for Roma?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner I thought that a digital space that was not very expensive to build, free to access, and available anywhere in the world would provide a resource that could contribute to telling the global stories of the Roma in multiple languages. I also saw that the digital space would lend itself well to creating a transmedia experience since the site would include not only print documents but also items that related to music, visual culture, dance, and other ways of knowing. Of course, one challenge is that some Roma communities do not have access to digital technologies and internet, but I believe this is going to change at a rapid pace in the years to come.
EuropeNow What is your interest in creating archives?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner My own interest in archives is deep and began early. My father was a nineteenth century historian of Puerto Rico, and I became his research assistant. So, I spent a good portion of my adolescence inside archives, looking at nineteenth century documents on slavery in Puerto Rico. Over the last few years, I have also been researching a book on Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican man who became one of the world’s most important collectors of Africana materials in the first half of the twentieth century. Which reminds me that one of Schomburg’s closest friends, the Jamaican writer Claude McKay, once described his appearance as that of “an Andalusian gypsy, olive-complexioned and curly-haired…” In 2014, I founded an archival collection focused on Latino Arts and Activism in New York at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Given all these experiences, I became aware of the role that archives have played for minoritized groups in the United States, including Latinos and African Americans, as sites for community-building, collective memory, and the production of new knowledge and complex stories.
EuropeNow Can you tell us about the dynamics of creating an archive in the digital space?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner For some, an archive is a place where physical objects are on deposit. In my mind, an archive is a practice that can take virtual and ephemeral forms. For example, every time a person writes a new blog or Facebook entry, he or she is also creating a digital archive that may also be lodged in memory. More generally, in the digital space, one is continuously archiving and curating, that is, gathering, organizing, selecting, and engaging various types of texts.
Also to me, a critical archive practice is more important than the sum of the objects as what is and is not there is equally important to think about. In sum, for me an archive is an active practice of imagination and not simply a collection of things.
EuropeNow How do we preserve the Roma oral tradition and artistic expression while moving toward the literacy necessary to access digital archives and other written material?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner For marginalized communities, becoming educated is often a violent process since the available education is Eurocentric. If you consider what is on the reading list for most college students around the world, you will find that what and how they read generally upholds Eurocentric values and modes of knowing. In this hierarchy, writing and the sciences are at the top while the arts and oral traditions are at the bottom.
Roma communities have a very robust oral tradition, which includes stories, history, and philosophical thought. So, in addition to providing sources, the project can also work towards a broader epistemological change by elaborating a critique of Eurocentricity, avoid the politics of respectability that promote “assimilation,” and insist on the value and importance of multiple forms of knowledge.
EuropeNow What do you see as the potential value of the Roma Peoples Project?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner Among other things, the Roma Peoples Project offers the possibility to think, narrate, and relate the particular yet diverse experiences of a people whose very humanity has at times been denied. In this way, the project will allow us to learn about the specific ways that the Roma have, and continue to, live and love; but, also, about the persistent forms of injustice that characterize the modern world. Ultimately, it is my hope that the project will engage, inspire and transform, and become a vibrant space where stories can be told, information can be shared, and different futures can be imagined.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a filmmaker, writer, curator, scholar and professor at Columbia University, where she is the founding director of the Media and Idea Lab and also founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive at Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Among her publications are: Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture and The Latino Media Gap. Her most recent films are War for Guam (2015) and Life Outside (2016). In 2008, the UN’s Rapid Response Media Mechanism recognized her as a global expert in the areas of mass media and Latin/o American studies. Negrón-Muntaner also served as director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race from 2009-2016.
Cristiana Grigore is a research scholar and the founder of the Roma People’s Project at Columbia University, an initiative that spotlights Roma peoples and expands Roma studies. Upon arriving in the United States in 2006, Cristiana found a more conducive environment in which to express her previously concealed Roma identity. She is currently writing a book that explores how her immersion in American culture enabled her to grapple more fully with her Roma/Gypsy ethnicity. Her experiences have been featured by The New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera America, PRI, and Voice of America, among other outlets. A Fulbright Scholar from Romania, Cristiana graduated from Vanderbilt University with an MA in International Education Policy and Management in December 2012. She earned her BA in Psychology from the University of Bucharest in 2007.
This part of our Campus Spotlight on Columbia University.
Published on December 6, 2017.