Assistant Professor of Spanish Amanda Petersen, PhD, has received the prestigious Graves Award in the Humanities. Petersen will use the award expand upon her research, which examines gender, violence and the ghostly voices of contemporary Mexican literature. The Graves Award honors exceptional faculty from private liberal arts colleges in California, Oregon and Washington. Recipients are selected every two years.
Dr. Petersen, you have received a Graves Award to support your research on gender and violence in contemporary Mexican literature. Tell us a little more about your studies.
I am both honored and humbled to be the first USD professor to receive the Graves Award in the Humanities. I’ll use it to expand my research on the representation of gender and violence by female Mexican authors to include the authors from the Mexico-US border region. My research discusses violence in terms of the female social body and looks at female bodies as ghosts because they barely exist, both in the texts themselves and in the Mexican national context. That’s why I call them bodies in ruins: because they manifest present and past traumas and are fragmented, literally or figuratively. These narratives reveal the bodies of the invisible, voiceless, absent and suppressed.
The research made possible by the Graves broadens my project by allowing me to examine works that depict conversations with absent bodies along the border. These texts portray one-sided conversations with those who have disappeared to ‘the other side’ (the US) or have been victims of the femicides in Ciudad Juárez. Often the narratives have the dead or absent as the protagonists’ interlocutors and shine a light on the violent absences created along the border. I suspect that my analyses will not only show violence that silences, but also divulge the ghostly voices that haunt the borders of Mexico’s national imagination.
How did you become interested in this topic?
Gender studies have always been on the forefront of my research interests, but I became interested in violence when I took a graduate seminar on violence in 19th century Mexico. In the texts we studied, violence was often used in an idealized way to create a sense of Mexican national identity. After that course, I began looking for ways I could study similar topics in relationship to gender in contemporary works. The violence I study is not as literal as many of the 19th century examples because sometimes the violence is more symbolic (like being forgotten or ignored), but there is representation of very real violence as well. These texts don’t tend to idealize the violence; they tend to denounce it and try to shock the reader out of his or her complacency.
Is violence in Mexican literature a reflection of current events?
Representation of violence in Mexican literature has a very, very long history that has nothing to do with today’s current events, which can probably be said about most cultural and literary traditions. The representations are a way to process violent events that seem unfathomable and impossible to assimilate either as an individual or as a society. For this reason, at any given moment in history, depictions of violence can be examined to reveal how such events were being incorporated into the greater public memory or, perhaps more frequent in my research, being ignored or suppressed.
How does your research challenge perceptions about border violence?
In some ways the texts I study show violence that is not the most obvious—unlike the kind we hear about in more sensationalist news media on the "drug war" and narco-related violence. There are texts that talk about the violence of the desire to “secure” the border and tighten immigration laws; there are also texts that show the violence of tourism to border towns, especially for motives like drugs and prostitution; and there are also texts that speak about the violence of US industry taking advantage of Mexican employees in ways that would be illegal in the US. I think that most people have the perception that violence along the border has only recently been an issue because that’s what we hear about in the news, but the reality is much more complicated, as these texts reflect.
Your Spanish courses offer much more than language studies. How do you encourage your students' intellectual engagement with the border region? How will your grant facilitate student engagement?
While all of our classes work on improving students’ language skills, after around the fifth semester, our classes are focused on content—similar in many ways to English literary or cultural studies classes—and students’ language skills are honed by reading, writing, and thinking critically about the topics in the target language. From medieval to contemporary studies, we offer many fascinating courses centered on a wide variety of themes. These are just a few topics in our recent course offerings: crime in Italian literature; trends in contemporary Arabic literature; contemporary French women authors; human rights in Latin American literature; music and literature in the Caribbean; and prostitutes, housewives, and feminists in Spanish literature.
Part of my research project for the Graves Award involves enriching the department’s offerings on border related topics. Specifically, I will design a new version of a class I gave in 2011 (and will be offering in the fall of 2012) called Ghosts of Mexican Literature. This course was designed to cultivate students’ critical thinking by examining dominant national and cultural discourses throughout Mexico’s history and to analyze how historical moments and figures have been reinterpreted as the needs of the dominant powers (like the government) have changed. The ghosts the class discusses are both literal and metaphorical, and are frequently re-interpretations of marginalized figures. This focus helps students cultivate their understanding of important concepts such as hegemony and narratives of national identity, and what these narratives exclude.
What can students expect from your new class?
The Ghosts of the Mexico/US Border class, which I plan to offer in 2013, will talk about similar themes all in relationship to the border—its geography, history and current state and how that shows up in the literature. Although many professors in the Spanish program bring topics relating to the border into their classrooms, I think this will be our first class that centers on the literature of the Mexican border. Teaching a class on the border at USD is such a privilege because we have the amazing resources of the Trans Border Institute and its affiliated faculty. They sponsor engaging intellectual and political events about Mexico and the border on our campus every semester. Yet, for a lot of people in San Diego, in our day-to-day lives, the border is a geographic ghost because we can easily ignore its presence, even though it’s an essential part of understanding our city. For this reason, the students in this new seminar will literally engage with the border and participate in programs established by USD and the TBI in Tijuana.
- Anne Malinoski ‘11
Dr. Petersen is pictured with the mural of Coatlicue in Chicano Park. The Chicano Park Coatlicue mural is an image she uses in her research to introduce the notion of symbolic and literal violence on the female body. The mural was vandalized, but the artists, Michael Schnorr and Susan Yamagata with oversight from the Chicano Park Steering Committee, incorporated the vandalism into the mural. In Petersen’s Intro to Hispanic and Chican@ Literatures, students discuss the mural to learn about the Aztec goddess Coatlicue and read several short stories about Coatlicue by Chicana and Mexican authors. They write about the goddess as a way to question the traditional roles of women.