Intersecting Crises and the Value of the Humanities at the U.S.-Mexico Border

In late May 2020, the Director of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry at the University of Arizona, Javier Duran, and three members of the Center’s leadership team joined a Zoom call with CHCI Global Programs Manager, Jason Rozumalski, in order to discuss the operations and initiatives of the Confluencenter in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resulting conversation not only considered the challenges of the present crises but also delved into personal experiences, community traditions, and the mission to serve populations separated by borders and resources.

Participants in this call include Javier Duran, Director of the Confluencenter and Professor of Latin American and Border Studies; Yadira Caballero, Office Manager and Senior Program Coordinator; Christian Ruvalcaba, Research Coordinator; and Leona Davis, Events and Programs Coordinator.

The Confluencenter at the University of Arizona in Tucson had prepared to host CHCI’s Annual Meeting in 2020, which had originally been scheduled for 19-23 May.

Jason Rozumalski: Thank you all for taking the time to speak with me. I am sorry that we cannot all be together enjoying the program, events, and hospitality that you had planned for the Annual Meeting, which would have just concluded in Tucson if not for the pandemic. As we begin this conversation, though, I was hoping that we could start with an introduction to the Confluencenter and some of its works?

Javier Duran: Of course, and thank you for the opportunity. I am the founding director of the Confluencenter, which was inaugurated ten years ago. As a center, we have two primary areas of work. On one hand, we provide funding through the University of Arizona for collaborative, interdisciplinary, and innovative research in the arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as other disciplines. On the other, the Confluencenter helps to generate scholarly products, external funding, and public engagement activities. Community engagement is important to us, and we have been intentional about creating opportunities for those activities. Players, stakeholders, and campus community partners include multiple colleges, museums, the Poetry Center, the School of Music, the College of Humanities, and the College of Social Sciences.

Recently, in 2018, we received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant entitled Fronteridades, which funds the implementation of programs seeking to reshape border narratives by collecting and sharing the stories of people living and working in the US-Mexico border region. I will say that before COVID-19, Fronteridades became an important driver of the activities of the center, because we are working with partners on both sides of the border and also because the theme of borders has high importance, not only in terms of the national and international conversation but also in terms of how the humanities are dealing with these issues.

Also, before the pandemic, one of the most exciting projects we were working on was the organization of the 2020 CHCI Annual Meeting in Tucson. We were excited about the possibility of bringing our colleagues from CHCI, across the US and around the world, to the U.S.-Mexico border region. I will invite my colleagues speak more particularly about how this event, and our other programs, have been affected by the pandemic, but, in a nutshell, the University of Arizona immediately changed to online instruction at the onset of the outbreak in the United States, and we have been working remotely since then.

Rozumalski: Yes, please, we have been very interested to hear about how humanities centers’ projects have been affected by COVID and how they have transitioned to the new work environment.

Christian Ruvalcaba: I think that the first thing to emphasize is how the experience of pandemic has reinforced our values as a center. Even before COVID, because of the geographical location of the University of Arizona and its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, our community engagement commonly focused on how people here are affected by border issues. That work has been structured by our values to include underrepresented voices as well, to center diverse perspectives within the university where they historically have not been included. In that context, given how the virus has been disproportionately affecting vulnerable communities, these values have been reinforced in the programs that we're continuing to develop and to adapt.

Rozumalski: Let’s talk about that. Since a lot of the work of the Confluencenter focuses on the idea of borders, since your communities and participants are on both sides of the border, and, of course, since the U.S.-Mexico border has been under immense stress in the past few years, I'm wondering how the pandemic has further complicated that work.

Duran: The complication has been real. Officially, and by mandate of the United States government, the border crossing has been effectively limited. So, legally, there are a lot of restrictions right now and only a limited number of people can cross, mostly these are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. That, in itself, has created a number of consequences. Leona can talk more about the ways in which we were trying to minimize or mitigate that challenge for specific programs.

Leona Davis: I will use the example of our Mellon-grant program Fronteridades. That project focuses on border issues. There are many pieces to this project, but part of it entails subawards to two different cohorts, one of which organizes and supports creative projects as a community-building component across the U.S.-Mexico border. We had already brought on that cohort – called Creative Scholars- in the early spring of 2020, and they have been working as three fantastic groups in Nogales, Arizona, Nogales, Sonora (Ambos Nogales, as it's called), and in Douglas / Agua Prieta on both sides of the border. They were already underway and, unfortunately, when this happened all three of these projects had to be seriously rerouted and reconceived since crossing the border, as Javier said, became much more difficult and, in many cases, impossible. Projects are continuing in creative ways, however.

The second cohort of participants was going to be more academically focused, including a visiting scholars program. However, we realize it may not be possible in the next year to have people traveling to Tucson, so we’re completely reconsidering that part of the plan.

Outside of our Fronteridades activities, we created another program that just launched a few weeks ago, called PandemiDiarios. This new initiative supports members of the community in making small, creative projects during their shelter-in-place and in response to their experiences. This project also emphasizes, as Christian said, our values of centering underrepresented narratives within the university. As we move forward on this grant, we'll be looking to create new projects that bring new perspectives and voices that you're not necessarily hearing in the media or in the dominant narratives of what the pandemic is and how it's affecting people.

Rozumalski: I certainly believe that sharing stories of experiences is so important at this moment in order to help empathize with, and connect to, one another; I think that we will all be looking forward to the development of that project. Perhaps it might be useful to some members of our CHCI network to think about the strategies that the Confluencenter has used to continue these projects, especially with mobility so dramatically further reduced. What sort of innovations have you been able to implement to continue your work?

Duran: In the past, the Confluencenter created digital platforms to expand connectivity, particularly in relation to a local human rights group, and, now, we're trying to build on that capacity. But Christian can give you a more specific example of how that is currently working.

Ruvalcaba: Sure! One of the parallel projects we have underway is the creation of a Border Lab, which essentially is a consolidation of border research both within the university and outside of the university and bringing researchers together across disciplines. We had been planning to do this in person through meetings and travel. But as that became more and more restricted, and as funds also became more and more restricted, we started to rethink how to forge these connections. We decided to create a virtual Border Lab, providing an online platform in which people can meet other researchers, share ideas, comment on forums, create profiles, and upload content whether it's pedagogical or tools for research. The goal is to foster a space to gather all of those different offshoots of research that might be moving in parallel but are conducted by people who might not know about one another. We want the lab to connect researchers with the community and with students as well. So, in that way, we're focused on trying to develop online platforms, like many other centers, to mitigate what we can't do in the context of this crisis.

Rozumalski: Have you experienced any unexpected effects from switching to a digital platform? I'm wondering in particular about what the community response has been. I know that some digital forums have experienced larger than expected participation, but there are also issues of isolation, digital fatigue, and access to digital resources.

Ruvalcaba: My feeling is that everybody is pretty Zoomed out, and we're trying to be careful with how often we want to ask people to meet. How I imagine the online Border Lab platform is that it will be asynchronous, meaning that people can post comments, and they don't have to be in a synchronous conversation. People need to take a break from Zoom, and online connection, to avoid burnout. At least that's my thought about it.

Duran: I agree. The idea of this platform is to utilize a global-networking approach with different components potentially including archives, an instructional D2L [Desire to Learn] unit, a speaker series based on the availability of membership, and so on. That was how the human rights group—which became a master's program in our university—managed projects across different regions of the globe. For us, right now, this seems to make sense conceptually, especially regarding the instructional component.

But, you’ve probably noted that there are only twenty-four hours in the day, and we're competing with a lot of online offerings right now. We're very mindful of that. We're trying to balance that while also looking to expand toward our communities, particularly in relation to the disproportional effect of the pandemic in our state and especially on Native American communities. The data about this is incredible. Our concern now is how are we going to engage with some of these communities as many are going to need a lot of resources and many different types of resources. We know they're resilient, but then, at the same time, how are we best going to continue the inclusivity that we are really trying to advocate? I am hoping that Yadira might want to say something about this.

Yadira Caballero: To follow on what Javier said, certainly some of the communities that are most impacted by the virus are also the most vulnerable populations. So, I would like to share a little bit about how this crisis has personally, and directly, affected my community on the Navajo Nation.

My families, on my maternal side, are from the Navajo Nation in a small area that we identify as Yaaitiin, which translates to "over the hill." For some context, or reference, the Navajo Nation is one of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, 22 of which are in Arizona. The Navajo Nation itself sits within the boundaries of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal communities and surrounding communities that are off tribal lands are coming together to help—that is resilience. The Navajo Nation has approximately over 350,000 enrolled citizens, but more than half live off the reservation. Families living on the reservation, and near border towns, are dealing with these impacts from the pandemic directly, particularly since the Navajo Nation is already considered a food desert. If you imagine the reservation, the land base is roughly the size of West Virginia, yet there's only about thirteen grocery stores, which results in food scarcity. That already creates a challenge. And a lot of my families have mentioned every time they travel to the nearest grocery store, over an hour away, they can't find the essential items they need.

Two of the things that have always been emphasized in Navajo traditional teachings, and by both my late great-grandmother and my grandmother on my maternal side, are to be conscious of K'é (kinship), as well as another concept T'áá hó' ájít'éegó t’éíyá (it is up to you). These two traditional teachings are the foundation of bringing us together and to help one another during this time of change.

So, during this time, my mom and I have talked about how our families back home are dealing with situations of either loss or the scarcity of essential items. One thing we have been doing together is delivering essential items back home.

That is just to introduce you a bit to the situation that is happening back home and the two traditional teachings that we are able to implement during this pandemic. We have to help one another. And this is just one tribal community. Imagine what it is like for other tribal communities here in the U.S. as well.

Rozumalski: I find that even though I try to keep informed about issues of systemic neglect and oppression, hearing stories about particular experiences is always haltingly sad. And, I want just to say that I respect the work that you and your mother are doing. I wonder if we can continue this topic in the context of the Confluencenter’s work that you have been describing in order to address communities that are under such material and bodily stress. What is the relationship between the sort of work that can be done in a humanistic frame, or humanities frame, in relationship to communities who are in states of need and neglect?

Davis: I'll share two things that come to mind. In one of the Creative Scholars groups on the border that I mentioned earlier, the whole idea is to have this cohort of women on both sides of the border who are doing weekly workshops around wellness and self-care while also learning and expanding skills within themselves and their families. With what's happening now—a lot of participants are not able to transition to virtual modes of continuing what they've been doing—they've shifted heavily toward the wellness and well-being aspect of the project. Right now, they're putting together large kits of basic supplies, as well as painting and art materials, and written materials so that people can bring the learning, and wellbeing, in their own homes. So, I think we've seen that how you make humanities applied, in a lot of these contexts, is just by shifting toward the present need.

The other thing that I am thinking about is a conversation we had with a teacher at a local high school last week, who has been doing some projects with her students about how they are experiencing a global pandemic: staying at home and having their end of the school year completely and chaotically changed. Something we talked about was how the national, especially the federal government’s, messaging right now is about getting back to normal right away, moving on. In many ways, that message is: let's ignore what’s happening. Whereas what's needed—especially in marginalized communities and communities that are historically oppressed and that have been hit disproportionately hard by this—is processing, and talking about what's happening, and grieving. The arts and humanities are important in processing complicated human emotions. So, we really see a role in centers like ours, and the humanities in general, to be part of a push against a national narrative of forgetting and moving on. Instead, let's really explore and process it, and be here in these weird, difficult, complicated spaces and feelings.

Duran: And, if I can add, the center here has been institutionally committed to establishing better working relations with Native American communities, especially those that are in the border region. As a small example, one of the trips that we had planned for the CHCI Annual Meeting was to the San Xavier mission, which sits in Tohono O’odham lands. They are a transnational Native American nation sharing membership with people on the Mexican as well as U.S. side of the border. Closer to the University of Arizona is the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which is also located in the Tucson area.

For the Annual Meeting, we were working to bring the leaders of these two tribes to be speakers, and we were really excited about the opportunity to support connections between them and the entire CHCI network. As Yadira was talking about, we believe that native wisdom and knowledge is there to be shared, to be embraced, in many different ways and that the humanities are precisely that space.

I think that globally, we have seen a very biomedical-scientific discourse overwhelm institutional conversations, and we are trying to remind people that the human element is at the forefront. That's one of the reasons that we are trying to make intentional connections with these communities both through our current programs and our future collaborations.

Rozumalski: I hope that we can facilitate those connections still. I would very much like to help support that initiative particularly as it relates to the larger CHCI network community. Since we have been talking about how to create and maintain networks and communication in the contexts of crises and underserved communities of people, I would like to take a moment to talk directly about the movement of programs to digital platforms where there's still a very serious digital divide in access to resources. How do your programs work with community members who maybe don't have access to the internet?

Davis: I mentioned one of our border Creative Scholars groups, who realized that over half of the people they're working with in Mexico have not been able to, and, to some extent, don't want to, switch to a digital platform. And so, they’ve found dropping materials off at people's homes is one immediate solution that has been effective, or at least possible. I think that is a really great challenge for all of us, right now, to be thinking about different and creative ways to work together, experiencing art and music, sharing ideas in new ways that aren't necessarily a digital, or a Zoom meeting, format.

Rozumalski: It has certainly been inspiring to see so many people creatively reaching out toward one another, and, for myself, I cannot wait to get to share art and music with people again. I am conscious now of taking too much of your time today, so, by way of conclusion, I wanted to invite any reflections about your own relation to the humanities, or the reshaping of your conceptions about the role of the humanities, in this particular moment.

Davis: I'll share one thought, which is just that it's all about being responsive, knowing that change is always happening and things are continuing to change. Being relevant means continuing to respond to the current moment and the needs of those that you're working with, as they shift and change.

Ruvalcaba: Another thing that comes to mind is a weekly research group at the university, which I have been attending. It’s brought in people from all disciplines reporting on COVID-19 research. At each meeting, researchers in medicine and public health give an overview of everything they've been doing since our university has been tasked by the state government to do mass testing in local and rural communities. One of the comments that I've heard from the public health folks is that they are trying to establish stronger community connections and have a better relationship with those communities. But an issue that keeps coming up for them is communication: not only how to generate effective communication and public messaging but also understanding the community and using’s the community’s language to communicate findings and ideas. I think that the humanities have a very important role in helping that part of communication to develop.

Caballero: I can add something that is also important. Particularly on account of our Creative Scholars program, we have learned that we need to be as flexible as possible in this time of change. Some of the groups, as we mentioned, have been hesitant about using the internet and digital technology. Others have needed alternative timelines and resources. I think, in order to be successful, to fulfill our mission while supporting others, a key aspect is not one or two solutions, but the flexibility to incorporate many.

Duran: I will leave us with a note of reminder that in considering the role of the humanities, we are tasked with thinking of them not only in a broad, general way but also institutionally. As many universities are facing financial challenges due to the crisis, we know that historically the humanities are among the first casualties of financial challenges. At our university, the Confluencenter reports to the Office of Research, and we have been very intentional at this time to participate actively in sustaining the university in crisis and connecting those efforts with our mission and objectives regarding our connection to marginalized communities. That connection provides a huge opportunity for the center to continue to be relevant and to be at the center of the mission of the university, as opposed to gravitating toward marginality.

In another way of looking at it, as the scientific discourse seems to expand, humanistic discourses rotate in different directions. It is important for all centers and institutes to continue their particular work, as Yadira says, flexibly because insofar as the biological or medical solution to the pandemic might be a vaccine or a scientific discovery, the processing, the socialization, the communication, and the overall education relating to the pandemic has to happen through intercultural tools and translation in a broad sense. As we do our work in the communities and within the university, we also need to make sure that our university leaders are aware of the reasons not only to sustain these efforts but also to reinvest in the humanities in order to move forward.

I mention this as a reminder for everybody that in as much as the financial picture looks grim in many places, we have got to continue our work because the testimonies and the works of the people are what will remain after all.