It’s said that writers often write what they know; many academics are drawn to research on familiar topics. Leticia Alvarado, who joins the Brown faculty as assistant professor of American studies, draws much of her research inspiration from her own life.
“I’m a Chicana from the West Coast. I come from a large family. My parents are immigrants who migrated to the United States before I was born. And so a lot of my academic and intellectual interests emerged from my personal experiences,” Alvarado said.
Ever since her undergraduate days at Columbia, Alvarado has been drawn to a range of subjects, including Latino culture, visual and performance art, aesthetics, and issues of gender, sexuality, and race — all themes that show up in her research today. Still, it wasn’t an entirely direct path that led her to her current academic position. A double major in studio art and Latin American studies, Alvarado was convinced that she wanted to become a sculptor after graduation. Instead, she found herself pulled in a different direction.
“I really thought I needed to directly contribute to the kinds of communities that I came from — disenfranchised communities of color — before I dedicated myself to being an artist,” Alvarado said.
So she joined the NYC Teaching Fellows program. And while she enjoyed working with the students in "hard-to-staff" schools, she found her lack of formal training a disservice to her students. There were formally trained dedicated teachers eager to take her spot, so she soon moved on.
From there, Alvarado went to work as an educator at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, followed by an administrative role at Planned Parenthood and then a job as an archivist at the Museum of Sex. That last position put her in direct contact with historical artifacts and researchers, who soon made Alvarado realize that her interests might skew more toward the academic than she initially thought.
“Being there made me realize that I was very interested in research and the way artifacts, material and visual culture, are linked to a larger history and speak to the ideologies that structure everyday life. And that’s what led me to think about graduate school,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado was accepted to the American Studies Ph.D. program at New York University, entering her first semester with plans to use her degree to become a curator or some other research-based career where she could return to the museum work that she so enjoyed. But upon re-entering the classroom, this time as a teaching assistant, Alvarado knew she had finally found her place.
“I found that I really enjoyed time in the classroom and with students. There I found the conversations and political engagement that I was looking for after college. The classroom provided an opportunity to explore with students those issues that were affecting their lives and to think through them deeply with the help of the theoretical material that was being presented to them by the professor. It felt right, it felt like this is what I should be doing,” Alvarado said.
While at NYU, Alvarado continued to hone her interests, spending much of her time researching U.S. Latino artists in various archives, including the Artist-in-Residence Archives, a feminist collective in New York City housed at Fales Library. Alvarado was also awarded the Smithsonian Latino Studies Fellowship and benefited from their expansive institutional archives.
That research led to Alvarado’s dissertation, which she will develop into a book manuscript at Brown. Titled Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production, the manuscript draws from a diverse range of Latino artists, from Cuban exile Ana Mendieta and the avant-garde East Los Angeles collective Asco to Chicana artist Nao Bustamante and the performative testimonies of Latino Mormon converts to show how their use of abject aesthetic strategies provides an alternative political model that can provide insight into both contemporary and past political movements.
Like many of the subjects Alvarado studies, Latino Mormonism is especially personal. Alvarado was raised in a Mormon household. While she’s no longer a member of the Church, Alvarado remains fascinated by what she sees as the “incredible growth” of Mormonism, especially within communities of color, both nationally and internationally, as well as the infiltration of Mormonism into popular culture, where it has shown up in recent years in television and movies, most notably in the Twilight series. Alvarado hopes to study this growth as part of her next research project.
She’d also like to use the topic of her former religion as a basis for a future art project, something she’s had little time to return to since college. “I have dreams of a graphic novel. I don’t want to call it a memoir, but certainly a kind of fictionalized account of growing up in a Chicano Mormon household. The demands of my profession take up a lot of my time, but I do have hopes to, at some point, make a sketch here and there.”