Travel, art and the shaping of identity
Sometimes, you have to travel far to understand.
The Center for World Performance Studies is a multidisciplinary program that offers a certificate to graduate students. CWPS collaborates with the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, Rackham Graduate School and other schools within the University. It teaches its students how to engage in theoretical and aesthetic issues that stem beyond the performing arts. As part of the certificate, students receive funding to travel abroad to do their projects.
For graduate dance student Fabiola Torralba, the program allowed her to reconnect with her culture when she traveled back to Mexico. She went last summer to the region known as the Costa Chica, which encompasses Oaxaca and Guerrero. Not only did she visit her family, but she gained the opportunity to question more about her heritage.
During this trip, she asked her grandmother, “What are we?” She remembered her grandmother saying, “We’re mestizos,” meaning of mixed race. After that, her grandmother was unsure of what to say.
“What I do remember was what wasn’t said,” Torralba said. “I wondered, ‘What about my aunts and cousins who look black?’ — not knowing that there was a name or a way to identify that. There was no word that I knew of.”
Torralba later found out that there were articles and photographs covering the people in these communities of the coastal region of Mexico. From here, she was able to gain a sense of self-identity that was lacking earlier.
“I think that as an undocumented immigrant growing up in the U.S., I didn’t have many models or many people to talk to about my experiences, and this was during the time before there was immigration reform, before it was a popular issue on a national level, before there was the word Dreamers,” Torralba said. “People didn’t really talk about immigrants in the years that I was growing up, so I looked to the stories of African-American experiences and slavery and colonialism. They anchored me in some way, and gave me something to familiarize myself with.”
Not only has this experience allowed Torralba to explore her culture, it allowed her to connect with other family members and teach them more about the heritage. When Torralba went to Mexico in the summer, her cousin, who is also a dance student, joined her.
“When my cousin first got off the bus ... she was stunned because it was the first time she saw so many people that were like her,” Torralba said.
The first time Torralba’s cousin heard the term “Afro-Mexican” was through dance itself. By learning about the story of Afro Mexican dancing, her cousin was able to learn more about herself, Torralba said. This recognition of cultural diversity within art is what has been lacking in education.
“To me this is new information, but this community has been organizing for 30 years, and that kind of shows how out of touch or disconnected I have been, and we have been, in academia, and maybe in the US in general,” Torralba said.
Another important discovery Torralba made was the injustice the community has been facing. She realized they have been hiding their research, because outside artists have come, imposed their gains and left without ever coming back.
She hopes to give back to the community, as a researcher, a dancer and as a someone that is highly committed to social justice. Torralba believes that she should use her resources at the CWPS and the University, as well as her medium of art, as a way to develop relationships with these communities and raise awareness about the existence of these communities.
While the program allows students to travel back to places of their heritage, it also allows American students to explore other cultures. This can be an invaluable experience to students for their artwork and understanding of others.
“We try to foster a sense of finding roots,” said Michael Gould, Director of CWPS. “For example, it might not be a place of direct cultural connection, but if you have a connection to another culture, we give the opportunity for people to have a deeper experience in another culture.”
Gould himself lived in Japan for three years while playing for a band. The experience informed his art making, and he wants his students to be able to see the richness in art abroad we don’t always have in the U.S.
But sometimes, the complete opposite can happen too.
Professor Anita Gonzalez teaches classes in CWPS and heads the Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies minor. Through these programs, she has taken many students abroad.
“What I’ve learned from my international experiences is that when American students travel over to other places they learn more about their own cultural roots,” Gonzalez said. “Often they’ve been just caught up in their own lifestyles, and when they travel away, or go into another cultural community, they suddenly realize more about who they are and where they came from and how they’re connected to either race or geographical space, or even to a type of family.”
When Gonzalez wants to connect back to the Cuban grandfather she never met, she turns to writing. Eventually, she made her first trip to Cuba, which allowed her to finally see the place she has so often thought about.
“Sometimes going back and finding your roots can be a life-changing experience, as it helps you see where you came from,” Gonzalez said. “And sometimes it’s a frightening experience, because you see that you’ve already been living in another place for a while, so you don’t have the connection that you would like to have.”
The intersections of art and culture are fundamental for many in understanding and reconnecting to their cultural heritages. Just as we learn about others and their backgrounds in their artwork, we often also learn about ourselves.