A Conversation With 2020 MacArthur Fellows Cristina Rivera Garza and Natalia Molina

McArthur Fellows BeLatina Latinx
Left: Cristina Rivera Garza, right: Natalia Molina. Photo courtesy of latimes.com/stories.uh.edu.

During a year of trials and tribulations, obstacles, and unthinkable loss, we all need inspiration and hope more than ever. 

We need to celebrate the arts and support as much as we can. We need to honor the gifts that bring us together. We need to praise talent and diversity and give credit to those exceptional artists who create joy during a year when happiness seems hard to come by. Which is precisely what the MacArthur Fellowship is all about. 

“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration. They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us,” said Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director, MacArthur Fellows.

While this prestigious award is worth celebrating every year, it feels a bit more momentous right now. Because this group of fellows is not only one of the most talented and impressive groups of people you’ll ever encounter, it’s also the most diverse group of fellows to date with several black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) honorees, changing the world one inspirational work at a time.

There has never been a more critical time to promote, support, celebrate and read minority artists — artists who are too often marginalized by the mainstream publishing industry. If we want to create genuine inclusivity, we need to amplify the voices and experiences of communities of color. And the MacArthur Fellows program is doing just that.

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Each fellow is awarded a no-strings-attached $625,000 award as an investment in their potential. The program intends to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. According to the program website, awards are meant to be investments in “a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.” 

Two of these incredibly talented fellows, Cristina Rivera Garza and Natalia Molina, are creating powerful art, moving content, and empowering words to benefit us all. Their voices are inspirational, their words are essential, their talent is undeniable, and their stories are essential. 

In her work, Natalia Molina gives a first look at Latinx essential workers’ lives and the disparities that historically impact them. An American Historian, Natalia explores how narratives of racial difference constructed and applied to immigrant groups a century ago continue to shape national policy today.

Cristina Rivera Garza, a professor of Hispanic Studies + Creative Writing, explores culturally constructed notions of language, memory, and gender from a transnational perspective in her fiction and non-fiction work.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Cristina Rivera Garza and Natalia Molina. They both leverage their literary works to underscore the complex issues that uniquely affect immigrants, women, and communities of color in this country. 

How did you find out that you were selected as a 2020 fellow?

CRISTINA RIVERA GARZA: I had heard stories about the phone call. That phone call. Never thought it would happen to me. But it is real. One day you see a strange number on the screen of your phone, you hesitate, you pause, then, without knowing exactly why, you answer. That’s it. Your life is changed for the better all at once. 

NATALIA MOLINA: The MacArthur Foundation set up a meeting with me, and since I do a lot of diversity work and a lot of consulting, I am used to being asked for my input on organizations. And so, I thought it was just a regular meeting. I often discuss candidates for the MacArthur Fellowship, so I thought I was going to recommend people. And then they said, “actually, we are calling about a candidate, and that candidate is you.” It was quite a surprise and quite an honor. 

This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows are the most diverse to date. How does it feel to be a part of such a diverse group of honorees?

CRG: We live in a highly diverse country—one in which Spanish, for example, is not a foreign language. The 2020 MacArthur Fellows class looks very much like the communities I live in, and I am connected to. Their words, art, thoughts, discoveries are all at the heart of what we are and what will become over time. I am honored and humbled to be in their vicinity.  

NM: I am honored to be recognized by an organization that understands that they have such influence and that by selecting someone as a MacArthur Fellow, it’s not just about the money; it’s that you get this platform. You get more authority, you get more backing and you get more interest in your work. So, the fact that the MacArthur Foundation chose to use their power and their influence to raise the voices of women, people of color, people interested in social justice work, people interested in rectifying the issues of structural inequality, of environmental racism, of putting positive images of people of color out there, it really touches my heart. It really makes me feel hopeful. 

How did your family history, background, and upbringing inspire your professional path and work?

CRG: I belong to a family of migrants – my paternal grandparents walked all the way from central Mexico to the border in search of a better life. My maternal grandparents, who crossed the border early in the 20th century, remaining in the United States throughout their adult life, were expelled in 1930 as President Hoover enacted rabidly anti-immigrant legislation, very similar to what we have seen happening in this country the last four years. In Autobiografía del algodón, my most recent book, I explored these stories, highlighting what I have learned from these experiences: the practice of resilience, the faith in family and community, the connection, and respect for our natural world. 

NM: My mom is second-generation, my dad is an immigrant, and all of my family are immigrants. I grew up speaking Spanish as my first language; I didn’t even learn English until I went to school. And I was inspired by the fact that you didn’t study Latino immigration in your typical US history class. That was really surprising to me, especially when you study 4th grade history in California – I grew up in Los Angeles – and you study something like the mission system, and you study Spanish, but you don’t really talk about the fact that there was a Mexican period in California; you don’t really talk about the US Mexico war. I was always looking for where we could find stories. On top of that, I come from a family of great storytellers. And I wanted to tell my own stories and my own histories that reflected these kinds of diverse, immigrant voices that we don’t usually hear about in history books or our classrooms. 

As we wrap up 2020, a year overwhelmed by the global health crisis, civil unrest, racial inequality, and dehumanization of immigrant communities, how do you hope your work will provoke thought and provide perspective to others?

CRG: Writing is a community-making practice. When we write, we write with others. We always write with materials that are not our own. We borrow and, therefore, we are indebted. That debt is writing. I explore a range of topics and enigmas in my writing but always try to go back to that basic moment: this language that I am using belongs to many. Let’s make sure there is a way to go back to these many and take part in the unique communion that binds readers and writers together. 

NM: I wrote down a quote, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This is a quote people often say when they want to show the importance of history. But this quote encourages us to think that history is in the past. My work shows how history, especially as it pertains to the stories we tell about race and the policies we develop around race, is still very much with us today. If we understand the many historical factors that shape where we are today, then we have the power to reimagine where we can go from here. I think what I would want to underscore is that when people study history, they think it’s a study of the past; they believe that you are learning things that already happened. But really, you’re exploring tools to understand how power works and how and why society looks like it does. Therefore, if we want to change society, if we want to change our culture and change power dynamics if we want to change structural inequalities, then we need to have those tools that history can give us. 

Cristina, how has writing helped you reconcile the nation’s state regarding immigration and acceptance of immigrants, especially in border communities? 

CRG: Leaving a place behind is never easy. Whether by choice or (especially if it is) by force, moving from one place to the next involves a trauma that is difficult to put into words. By removing ourselves from one place and while trying to inscribe ourselves in a new context, we come in close contact with the forces of erasure. Reading the words of other migrants, learning about the ways in which entire communities have not only survived but thrived against all odds, sharing the most intimate aspects of their strife, have illuminated and given sense to my own experience. I very much hope that my books may provide that meeting point to the experiences of many others. You are not on your own; that’s the message. We are in this together. 

Natalia, how do you hope your work will better help people understand the “expendability” of Latinx workers and this systemic inequality that has existed for decades and continues to exist today?

NM: I find it interesting when people talk about Latino immigrants. It’s almost as if they just arrived. In some ways, sure, some immigrants did arrive more recently. But especially when you’re talking about Mexican immigrants and other Latinx groups that have proximity to the US, they’ve been arriving in regular intervals and many people deemed immigrants have been here for decades. They have had their children and even had grandchildren here. And yet, we treat them as if they’re this new problem to deal with. We don’t understand that we’ve been facing the same issues around immigration for over a century now. How do you treat people who don’t have citizenship rights? Do you just take their labor and then kick them back to their country? Whether it’s because we make it difficult for them to become documented or it’s because we only allow them to come on a Visa for a certain amount of time. We need to realize that we’re constantly using and relying on this labor but not providing the kinds of resources that will enable them to live full lives. So, I really want people to understand that when we talk about “how are we going to deal with the immigration problem today,” it’s not a problem that is a recent issue; we’ve been talking about immigration issues for over a hundred years in the United States. 

What do you plan to do with your $625,000 MacArthur stipend?

NM: I think one thing that this award has really forced me to look at is something I was doing before, which is thinking, how can we make academic work more accessible to the public? How can we make it more public-facing, especially for people who won’t get to go to a university, particularly now during the pandemic? There’s been lower enrollment of Latinos at 4-year universities. So, I’ve been thinking about digital platforms, public humanities, and the ways in which we might share this work. I’ve been thinking about things like story maps and how we can map neighborhoods and show the urban anchors –  that mom and pop store, that bodega, that little market, that restaurant, the places that are meaningful to us. I’m also writing a book on the 1950s, and 60’s Los Angeles called Place Makers, and it’s based on this premise of understanding the neighborhoods not as city planners designed them but as immigrants use them. The basis for that project is my grandmother’s restaurant in Echo Park, on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s and ‘60s. I’m interested in telling the stories of the under-documented, not the undocumented. Those whose stories we don’t see in the textbooks, but we can’t find them in the archives either, so we need to piece together information to show how immigrants made their mark in the United States. 

CRG: Time is such a scarce commodity these days. And writing requires time. I am thinking of projects in which I can share this newly funded time with others. We’ll see.