Envisioning Social Justice with a "Radical Imagination"

An Interview with Jessica Lopez Lyman, Department of Chicano & Latino Studies

“How we are linked to the work we do is deeply personal. I was born and raised in St. Paul, and I spent the majority of my life growing up in Minnesota being one of the only students of color in my classes—the only Chicana for sure. In my teaching, in my scholarship, and through my creative work I investigate how Chicanxs/Latinxs subvert systemic inequalities by creating alternative narratives and spaces. Thinking about networks and relationships as constellations, along with the other artists of color I collaborate with, I am trying to create work that fosters a sense of belonging and deep connection that extends beyond the production of the art itself—work that ignites the imaginations of our community and inspires an alternative to the isolation many of us have felt. My goal is to tell stories—and work with others to tell their stories—so that another little girl who is growing up now doesn’t have to feel like she’s the only one in her class.”

Interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

My research, broadly defined, is interested in how Black, Indigenous, people of color, Latinx people create alternative spaces for healing in a really broad setting. I might look at art production, performance, hip hop, or poetry. And then I might look at alternative economies, such as, how people are using different types of cooperatives to create an economy for themselves that's sustaining. But ultimately what I'm investigating is how people take their radical imaginations and think through different areas of their everyday life to try to make it better for themselves.

How did you hit upon the phrase “radical imagination”?

There are so many studies out there that show at a very young age, children are told that they’re not good at being creative, that they’re not good artists, and that just shuts down their imagination. I think about how I can cultivate imaginations for my students, and how that will make them better in the professions that they want to get into. And in terms of radicalism, the traditions I come from, whether we’re looking at critical race theory, Chicana feminism, or Black feminism, we take the idea seriously about radical ideas that push against systems of oppression. So when we pair those together, having a type of radical consciousness with this idea of imagination, I think it really opens itself up to think about how we can build different spaces for ourselves to exist.

Walk us through a current or recent project of yours.

I’m currently working on a project that looks at 11 Latina artists in St. Paul and Minneapolis. It’s very exciting for me because, by the time it’s published, I’ll have been working on this project for more than a decade, and it’s evolved into a much larger perspective of the Twin Cities and talking about issues that are really relevant to us today. The artists I study are poets, hip hop musicians, performance artists, muralists, and sculptors. All of them are also community activists in their own ways. And so the book addresses issues around Black Lives Matter, gentrification, and environmental justice movements, particularly trying to end the Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline.

How do you design your research projects?

When I think about my research design, it’s very much guided by the community that I choose to focus on. For example, as an artist from Minnesota, I’m invested in learning about other Latina artists in Minnesota. How that project takes shape is really guided by the women I study. We don’t come in with imposed theoretical frameworks or imposed ideas that are hypotheses of where a study will end. We essentially look at these little movidas, these little movements, that the women take, and as part of my ethnographic work in following them, research questions are generated. That’s what generates the theoretical frameworks.

How does your own art relate to your research?

My art is part of my research. It’s an important strand of my research agenda because I think that creative expression really is the most accessible way for the public to understand radical imagination.
A lot of the work I'm doing around visual art right now is through arts engagement. I’ve been hired by different cities, including Bloomington and Minneapolis, when they're interested in doing policy work and trying to engage people—having some type of art, or finding a way to attract people to come take a boring survey, for example. I see my art as something that is always in relationship with people, trying to interrupt spaces, always interactive and trying to bring in the community to be part of it.

It might seem like my art is scattered in a way, but I think that it again goes back to being an interdisciplinary scholar. I'm interested in a lot of different mediums and a lot of different materials and a lot of different manifestations of that. Because I think that we are really complex humans and I like to play in the messiness of our life.

Tell us about your Luchadora mobile screen-printing cart.

I actually started doing screen printing on a whim. I was chosen with other folks in the South Minneapolis neighborhood by Pillsbury House Theater to create art for our block in this program called Art Blocks. They said, "Do anything you want." And in LA there are tons of mobile screen-printing carts. It's very popular and in Chicano studies history, screen printing has been a really important medium, especially in the movement. So when I had an opportunity to make a cart through this program, to create art for my block, it just kind of took off.

La Luchadora translates to “the fighter.” I'm really obsessed with the Mexican wrestlers. I love the masks. My students always giggle when they come into my office, because I have a line of masks above my bookshelves. I like to interrupt and play with space. I try to bring humor in life to the work that we do because sometimes it can be so serious. We're talking about concentration camps on the border. We're talking about women not having their reproductive rights. I'm interested in how we can couple those heavy things with things that can be playful—because we also have a lot of joy in our life.

La Luchadora came out of the inspiration to bring more joy to our communities. It was a riff off of two things; the Mexican wrestler motif paired with the paleta cart—which is the popsicle cart that you would maybe see somebody pushing around and trying to sell popsicles in the neighborhood. It's been so fun to go to different parts of the state and see different communities—from rural Minnesota to here in the Twin Cities—just getting used to making art with this Luchadora cart.

What makes your work unique?

I don’t think that my work is unique. As academics, we’re told that we need to have work that’s unique, but I actually come from a very long legacy of Chicana Black feminist scholars, Indigenous scholars, Native women, who have been doing this work and have been asking these questions. I am looking at a particular time period with this particular group of people, but I really like to consider my project as an extension to this long legacy of work that I’m doing. I’m creating a theory based on the women in this project that's grounded in their forms of knowledge production. That helps us look at different ways ethnic communities in the umbrella of Latina are able to exist without being flattened.

If there were only one thing you would like people to understand about your work, what would it be?

As a Chicana feminist scholar, we talk a lot about subjectivity and how subjectivity through an intersectional lens is very messy. We are not just looking at race, we are not just looking at how something is gendered. We are accounting for all these things, including language, geography, and nationhood. And so because of these multiple identities, because of these intersecting identities, when we do our research and studies—for example, a Latina artist, we understand her and her complete wholeness, which could be very contradictory—there has to be a lot of ambiguity.

Can you describe the relationship between your research and your teaching?

I love teaching. I think it’s such a privilege that we have to be in the classroom. For myself in Chicano/Latino studies, I have the privilege to work with a lot of working-class students, first-generation college students, and students who might be international students or have migrated to the US at certain times in their life. And I have learned so much from my students.

I really try to create a one-on-one connection with students, even just by getting to know their name, which doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when you're at a big institution like the University of Minnesota, it's huge. I do this even if I have a hundred-plus students in a classroom. Also, I try to learn a fun fact about them. I joke that I might not know your name, but I’ll know something random about you, like you're allergic to mangoes, which two students were last semester, which is weird.

As a young, multidisciplinary artist, did you always have an academic destination in mind, or did you adjust your path along the way?

I have always loved education. When I was in first grade, I would go home and my little sister would be there, and I would flip over a laundry basket to use as my “desk” and try to teach her everything I learned. So I felt very strongly from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher.  When I was an undergrad, I majored in education and English. I got licensed in the state of Minnesota to teach fifth- through twelfth-grade communication arts literature. I had the opportunity to work in a St. Paul public school and do my student teaching in a high school.

And I loved those students. They were fantastic. But I also knew I could not teach high school every day; I just knew that that would be a very challenging environment for me. And at that time I had no idea you could become an academic. I should have; I was an undergrad and I had professors, but I never thought that that could be my trajectory. It was only upon graduating from undergrad where some of my professors said, "Why don't you go to grad school?"

I remember getting accepted into my graduate program, and learning that you couldn't just pick where you wanted to work. My dream job was always working at the University of Minnesota in Chicano/Latino studies. I thought I could just go back home and get a job. And then I realized that there are all these complex things like FTEs and tenure-track lines, and my heart sank because I wanted to be a professor in my home state. A lot of events circulated, and I guess the universe has a way of working things out, because I was able to come back here as a professor in Chicano/Latino studies. I really feel strongly that I have my dream job.

What are some milestones on your journey to where you are now?

Going into graduate school, going into the profession, in academia is so much more than just a job. It's really heart-work; it's your vocation, it's not glamorous always. So you have to really love it and dedicate yourself to it.

A milestone in my career was choosing my PhD program in Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, which at that time was the only Chicana/Chicano Studies PhD program in the nation. It might not have been the most prestigious to some elites. It might not have been the most established since it was brand new, but for me it was joining a long lineage of community leaders—of artists, of mothers, of fathers, of siblings—who put their bodies on the line. It was these people who wrote “El Plan de Santa Barbara” in 1969 to envision what they wanted the department to look like—work that continues to this day. And so choosing that PhD program was very significant because it changed the total trajectory of how I think about the academy now. And then another large milestone was coming back to do work in Minnesota.

What keeps you up at night?

I’m the chair of Academia Cesar Chavez board of directors, which is a partnership between the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies and this charter school, which is on the east side of St. Paul. It was founded by Ramona Rosales who, in 1968, was a student at the University of Minnesota and protested with other folks in the group Latin Liberation Front at Morrill Hall. Because of their work, the Department of Chicano Studies was established in 1971, the first class was in 1972, making it the very first and, still today, only Chicano studies department in the Midwest. (There are programs, but not departments.)

What keeps me up at night right now is thinking about our families in the Latinx community, many of whom might be immigrants or first-generation, who work multiple jobs and are having a really hard time making sure that their children receive the education that they deserve in distance learning. I want to make sure that Latinx students in Minnesota, particularly at the young grades, pre-K through eighth grade, have the resources that they need so that we can close the opportunity gap.
Just in 2014, Latinx students had the lowest graduation rate in high school in Minnesota. And that was the lowest in the entire nation. And how this impacts me as a college professor is when you look at the whole K-12 pipeline, I want to make sure that Latinx students are able to be in the class at the college level. It starts young. It starts at pre-K.

And so I'm up feeding my daughter in the middle of the night, thinking about how do we make sure we can get Chromebooks to students, how do we work with the state of Minnesota so that they can create alternative educational assessments, because we know that standardized tests do not capture the knowledge of our students necessarily because of language barriers, for example. And so I don't necessarily have any solutions, but I'm trying to build relationships with people that do or can think creatively about how we overcome these challenges.

How does your work reflect, confront or otherwise call attention to problems facing our society?

In our discipline as Chicano/Latino studies scholars, we are committed to social justice, and that can be understood or interpreted by scholars in a very broad way. Some people might be making historical interventions, and some people might be looking at contemporary work. For myself, as a Chicana feminist scholar, I’m deeply invested in thinking about how we critique our current systems that definitely have levels of injustice, whether we’re talking about the interpersonal or the systemic.

To see more research stories like Assistant Professor Lyman's take a look at what other CLA professors have been doing in respect to research and creative excellence.
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