Meet the 2021 MacArthur Fellows Who Are Changing the Conversation About Borderland Communities

2021 MacArthur Fellows BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of BELatina.

The MacArthur Fellowship is all about recognizing the original work of pioneers with vision and promise and supporting their work through unrestricted, no-strings-attached stipends of $625,000 for the fellows, who have displayed “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” 

If you ask Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director of the MacArthur Foundation, this year, we need to celebrate these diverse, talented, unique, and ambitious innovators more than ever. 

“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 MacArthur Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible. They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries. It happens in all fields of endeavor, among the relatively young and more seasoned, in Iowa and Puerto Rico,” Conrad said. “Once again, we have the opportunity for exultation as we recognize the potential to create objects of beauty and awe, advance our understanding of society, and foment change to improve the human condition.” 

While all of the fellows are incredibly impressive in their own way, two of the immensely gifted Latina MacArthur fellows are being recognized for their work to explore the histories and complexities of borderland communities. These 2021 MacArthur fellows are using their voices, perspectives, personal histories, and talent to investigate the Latinx experience in the United States. 

As a documentary filmmaker, Cristina Ibarra is creating compelling narratives about Latinx families living in borderland communities. Largely inspired by her own upbringing in El Paso, Texas, Ibarra has a unique ability to tell multi-layered stories that expose and explore the very complicated existence of those living in borderland communities and how these complexities can lead to violence, tension, and division.

Monica Muñoz Martinez is a public historian investigating racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border. Through various work, including her award-winning book, public history nonprofit, and digital humanities initiative, she works to seek justice for lives lost along the border by sharing their stories. Her goal is to help people better understand the past and how different racial and ethnic groups have been dehumanized in the past to address the border tension and violence that still exists today.

These impressive Latina MacArthur Fellows are exceptionally forward-thinking individuals who are considered innovators in their fields; their groundbreaking work is helping educate the public about what it is like to live in a border community in this country while empowering people around the world to think differently about what it means to be Latinx in the United States.

We sat down to talk with Cristina Ibarra and Monica Muñoz Martinez to hear about what inspires them, how their experiences growing up in borderland communities have influenced their work, and what’s next for them now that they have been awarded their MacArthur Fellowship stipend.

Cristina Ibarra, Documentary Filmmaker

Cristina Ibarra is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has been creating eye-opening films for 20 years, all influenced by her roots growing up along the Texas-Mexico border. Her docu-thriller, The Infiltrators, which tells the story of undocumented activists on a secret mission inside a detention center, won the Audience and the Innovator Award in the NEXT section at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. She is currently working on a feature-length work that documents her family’s history in the border community of El Paso. 

Ibarra is constantly inspired by the work of other pioneering Latinas who have come before her. “I am inspired by the work of my cohort, but I am also looking at the past fellows. I am following in their footsteps, and I hope my work is in dialogue with these visionary Latinas.” And she does not take the opportunity to express her true self lightly. “Within that possibility, we can find more equitable solutions and make connections that wouldn’t be possible if the silenced voice had kept quiet. The MacArthur Foundation continues to amplify risky, creative voices through this profound recognition.”

How have your personal experiences while growing up in El Paso and your family’s experiences influenced your storytelling?

Being Chicana, the stories that resonate most with me are the ones that reflect my culture-clashed identity, growing up along the border between the U.S. and Mexico in El Paso, Texas. Like many others with family on both sides, I have questions about culture, nationalism, and identity that guide me towards certain projects. I look to the border to explore how the cinematic language can create this sense of home for myself… I want to keep creating a hybrid, cross-genre, border cinema.

The U.S.-Mexico border is my home. It is a ‘third space’ where you learn to live with contradictions. It is both English and Spanish, Indigenous and colonized, surreal and ordinary. Despite attempts to control them, the borderlands are porous, non-binary, and in a constant state of movement. In my films, I try to work with the form in that same way. In my films, I consider the border as more than geography; it is a perspective. I offer this way of seeing to any of us searching for a way to rebuild, reimagine and update the narratives of our day.

The border has become a symbol of division and controversy… I see another possibility. The border is also inventive and playful. We speak Spanglish, we are mestizo, and we are bi-national. We come together in this ‘third space’ in resistance against a legacy of systems trying to tear us apart. There is a lot for us to learn from this model of hybridity. The border can teach us how to come together despite our differences. 

How do you hope people might think differently about the Latinx experience after experiencing your work? 

We know that our communities – often depicted as ‘alien,’ ‘disposable,’ and ‘criminal’ – are, in reality, beautifully nuanced and deep and powerful. I hope my work can transform the stereotypes about our communities into renewed recognition of our history and identity. There is a problem in the United States where the Latino narrative is largely invisible. People don’t know who we are because our history has been ignored and devalued. I hope that when people experience one of my films, there is a sense that change is possible, and we can all contribute toward a more just and equitable future in this country.

What advice do you have for young Latinas who have a voice and a story to share but worry there is no clear path for them?

I urge young Latinas to take a deep interior dive into the most uncomfortable parts of our identity. Then, take a serious look at the systematic racism that tells us we don’t matter. Resist the temptation to ‘fit in’ and instead speak to what is most true to you. This is advice I give myself every time I start a new project, and I have to continually remind myself of this as I struggle to stay on the path.  We are going through an urgent crisis of representation. 

When you look at Hollywood – only about 4% are Latino directors. And within that, most of the Latino directors did not grow up in the United States.  Latina directors are virtually non-existent. We are grossly under-represented. Stories about us need to be authored by us. But let’s not wait around for that to happen. Instead, make your film, even if it means scraping it together, by any means necessary. We may not have access to the most sophisticated tools in the industry, but we always have our voice. Let’s not give that up.

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

Making films has been a privilege that I do not take for granted. I have worked hard for over twenty years, but each film has been a slow process, with one film every five to seven years. This award allows me the time to think about how to scale up and work faster. I have a slate of undeveloped projects, from television, documentaries to fictional screenplays. With this fellowship, I can pause the ‘hustle’ and think about a strong and sturdy re-organized workflow so that I can accelerate my pace. 

My company is ready to grow and impact the film industry by producing beautiful, well-crafted, urgent stories that center Brown lives in creative, elevated films and television. I hope that this tremendous vote of confidence by the MacArthur fellowship creates new opportunities for venture capitalists, political leaders, thinkers, and activists to invest in my vision. Overall, I hope that this recognition leads to new partners ready to take bold, creative risks with me that impact our culture in deep, new ways.  

Monica Muñoz Martinez, Public Historian

Monica Muñoz Martinez is an award-winning public historian, author, and seasoned educator who is using her voice to address racial violence and injustice but also find solutions to present-day issues. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in racial violence and policing on the US-Mexico border and Latinx history, women and gender studies, public humanities, and digital humanities, and restorative justice. 

Her 2018 book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Harvard University Press, Sept 2018) explores the period of state-sponsored racial terror inflicted on ethnic Mexicans in the Texas–Mexico borderlands from 1910 to 1920. Currently, she is working on a project called Mapping Violence to build a digital archive informing everyone about various forms of violence targeting different racial and ethnic groups in Texas in the early 1900s. Her $625,000 stipend from the MacArthur Foundation will help support this latest project. “I have so many ideas. The award will provide important seed funding for projects. I’m glad to have some time right now to plan ahead for scaling projects like Mapping Violence and projects with Refusing to Forget.” When it comes to the future, Muñoz Martinez’s mission is simple: “I hope that people can learn from the long struggles for justice and be inspired to make social change in their communities today.”

As a Latina, how does it feel to be a part of such a diverse group of MacArthur fellows? 

I am honored to be in the esteemed company of the other MacArthur Fellows in my cohort and previous fellows. Some of my intellectual heroes, writers, and historians, are MacArthur fellows. I am beyond honored to be in their company. The fellowship also feels like an acknowledgment of the collective effort of generations of people in Texas who preserved histories to prevent them from being erased. I am so moved that the MacArthur Foundation has acknowledged the importance of recovering and preserving histories that have been neglected or disavowed.

How did your family history inspire your professional path and your work? 

My mother was only six months old when her parents migrated to the United States from Mexico. My father’s family has lived in Texas for generations. They both taught me to appreciate everyday people’s stories, learn from histories that have been marginalized or neglected, and ask questions about why inequality and injustice exist. I also learned from my mother, who worked in public education for 40 years, about the transformative possibilities of being a teacher and the need for public access to quality education. I love teaching university students, but I also love public history because it allows me to share important histories with people outside the classroom.

What advice do you have for young Latinas to help them on their journey? 

Write your thoughts down and be intentional about when and who you share them with. It is easy for someone to be dismissive or discouraging. Find the people who believe in you and who hear your voice, and seek out encouragement and feedback. In my career, I had experiences with teachers and professors that didn’t understand my work or didn’t think it was important. Taking their advice would have been a mistake. I’m glad I listened to the people who offered advice and support and said: keep going.

How do you hope that bringing these stories to light will help address current discrimination and violence at the border and hopefully prevent future anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiments?

Efforts to confront the past must be intertwined with current efforts for social justice. Some people try to relegate histories of violence or racism to the past, but we live with those histories’ legacies today. Anti-Mexican rhetoric and violence from 100 years ago, for example, shaped institutions, policing practices, and even how people think about immigration, the US-Mexico border, and human rights today. We have seen that the continued use of racist rhetoric leads to violence and inhumane policies. I hope that the more people understand the long consequences of violence, the more likely they will intervene against the kinds of violence, criminalization, discrimination, and inequality that continue today.  The US-Mexico border, the people who live in the border region, and people seeking refuge in the US today have been misrepresented for centuries. It will take a big collective effort to see humanity first and not be tricked by fear-mongering.