LADAMA Virtual Concert

Nicolette Lecy, Graduate Student Researcher

UC Merced UpstART and the Center for Humanities hosted LADAMA as the last free virtual concert of the year. UpstART director Dr. David Kaminsky kicked off the concert by introducing the band: LADAMA was formed by a group of four Latina musicians: Lara Klaus, Daniela Serna, Mafer Bandola, and Sara Lucas, after they had met while being part of a U.S. – based music residency program in 2014. Since then, LADAMA has composed and performed songs in Spanish, Portuguese, and English, drawing their musical inspiration from their home countries of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States. Combining traditional and contemporary music genres, LADAMA has shared its unique Latin Alternative sound at venues and festivals worldwide. The one-hour  performance was shot in a private recording studio. Between songs, they incorporated “listening breaks” to give the educational context of things like the origins of the musical instruments they used. 

photo by Sea Robin Studios

The concert was immediately followed by a live-streamed Q&A hosted by UC Merced’s Assistant Professor of Music, Dr. Patricia Vergara. Vergara moderated audience questions with the band members, focusing on their musical and regional influences, creative processes, experiences touring, and the unique aspects of being Latina women musicians and educators. They also described how they use oral traditions and storytelling to educate young listeners on the instruments, sounds, and culture of the countries from which the band draws their inspiration. The band ended by sharing videos and lesson plans they had created in collaboration with Teach Rock as a resource for elementary school music educators wanting to teach about traditional forms of South American music and dance. 

photo by Yanina May + Style and direction by Stephanie Peña

This concert will be shared on our “Critically Human” channel on UCTV in the near future. For more information about the band and a list of their upcoming tour dates, check out their Instagram @Ladamaproject and website link:

Donald Barclay on His Book Disinformation: The Nature of Facts and Lies in the Post-Truth Era

Nicolette Lecy, Graduate Student Researcher

Deputy University Librarian Donald Barclay gave our first and only in-person seminar talk of the spring 2022 semester on the 4th chapter of his most recent book, Disinformation: The Nature of Facts and Lies in the Post-Truth Era. This book followed his earlier book Fake News, Propaganda, and Plain Old Lies: How to Find Trustworthy Information in the Digital Age (2018), which looked at how to deal with and evaluate credible vs. non-credible information. 

Disinformation focuses on why things like fake news exist and how we got to our current place in the information world. Mr. Barclay began by looking at how various scholars viewed advancements in technology as mixed blessings with economic, social, and political complications. Opinions were also divided on whether technology determines how society operates if culture determines the creation of technology itself, and how much people can resist these technological advancements in their daily lives.

Barclay’s talk then shifted to discussing the importance and impact of the invention of moveable type on European literacy and cognition because of printing accessibility. Citing communications scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Barclay outlined historical stages of oral, scribal, print, and electronic communication and how printing changed how knowledge from being communicated orally to the listener to become an act of reading in private. From there, printing and later electronic communication influenced nationalism, individualism, consumerism, and more.

Barclay then described how communication through popular social media platforms (i.e., Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitch) fit into Sauerberg’s Gutenberg Parenthesis: “oral culture (written/print culture) secondary orality.” The Gutenberg Parenthesis is a chronological representation of the dominant mode of receiving information. Societal communication was first mainly oral then later people recieved much of their information through written and printed forms (books, newspapers, etc.). Now we are moving away from printed information into “secondary orality” where literate people gain much of their information from hearing others speak on the radio, television, and internet. Using the U.S.’s 45th President, Donald Trump, as an example, Barclay showed how Trump gained fame through forms of secondary orality, like his television show “The Apprentice” and later political momentum through Twitter.

Barclay also addressed the performativity of individuals of influence on these platforms, present-day political polarization, and the denial of science. In this era of secondary orality, Barclay described the focus is not on which is “right,” but instead, the individual decides on the facts they like best that appeal to their biases. He ended his talk by summarizing how we must stay aware of technology’s unique control and potentially divisive effect on us. 

Anzaldúing It Podcast Creators Dr. Angélica Becerra and Dr. Jack Cáraves on Creating Digital Sonic Spaces

Nicolette Lecy, Graduate Student Researcher

Anzaldúing It podcast hosts and creators Dr. Angélica Becerra (she/her/hers/ella) and Dr. Jack Cáraves (he/him/they/them/el) joined us virtually to share their thoughts on creating digital sonic spaces. Dr. Becerra is a queer, 1st generation Mexican American, and L.A. public school system alum. Aside from being a queer immigrant artist and activist, she is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Technology & Culture at Washington State University in Pullman. The podcast co-host and producer, Dr. Cáraves, is a 2nd generation Mexican American who identifies as a trans-masculine and queer Chicanx/Latinx. He is currently an Assistant Professor at San Jose State University who conducts qualitative research focusing on experiences of transgender Latinxs in the U.S. and is doing a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign this year. Dr. Becerra and Dr. Cáraves met in 2012 during their Ph.D. program in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at UCLA and began Anzaldúing It in 2016. 

original artwork by Angélica Becerra

Anzaldúing It is a Queer Latinx podcast that frequently touches on issues like navigating academia, relationships and mental health, and astrology and healing. The podcast’s name was inspired by the creators’ early exposure and personal and academic admiration for queer Chicana writer and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa. “Anzaldúing It” became a reference for code-switching and unapologetically moving between spaces, languages, and identities as queer Chicanxs.

As of April 2022, Anzaldúing It has 70 total episodes with almost 510, 000 plays from the U.S., Latin America, and even Europe, appealing to those seeking a sonic space for often stigmatized conversations about mental health and survival in relation to issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and the ivory tower of academia. Dr. Becerra and Dr. Cáraves continued by describing various Chicana feminist influences, theorizing the need for the creation of a sonic counterspace, and using pláticas (talks/conversations) as a method of knowledge production and exchange. They ended their talk by addressing why the Anzaldúing It sonic archive must be free to combat elitist practices by maintaining the accessibility of this specific form of knowledge production.

The talk was followed by a Q&A where the speakers addressed questions about technical difficulties with podcast production and scheduling conflicts. They also discussed their worries about perfectionism and imposter syndrome when starting the podcast, dealing with public-ness and hypervisibility, and the need to take breaks from podcasting during significant life shifts/events (graduating with a Ph.D., starting tenure track jobs, and living and surviving in the pandemic).

Collaborative Insights from Faunal and Human Remains from a Shellmound Site in Alameda, CA

Nicolette Lecy, Graduate Student Researcher

Sixth-year Interdisciplinary Humanities Ph.D. Candidate Alyson Caine led one of our spring 2022 humanities seminars discussing her archaeological work on fauna and human remains found at a shellmound site, which is a mound of earth and organic materials made by Indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years, in Alameda, California. This project was made possible through funding from the UC Humanities Consortium Collaborative Research Grant and Caine worked under the supervision of UC Merced Professor of Anthropology, Dr. Christina Torres-Rouff. The pair collaborated with UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz scholars and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan.

Caine described the process of working with an archaeological firm, Archaeological/Historical Consultants Inc., and within the Native American Heritage Commission’s burial regulations when performing a rescue excavation at the Alameda Marina. She also emphasized the importance of the wishes of the Indigenous community, which had opposed the planned construction at the site and worked with the archaeological firm toward the goals of identifying the most likely descendants and the protection, proper storage, and reburial of material culture as well as the 187 individuals’ skeletal remains recovered.

Caine ended by discussing the value of this research opportunity in collaborating with other faculty across the UC to gain experience in various archaeological methodologies and discussed some of the struggles of working during the pandemic. Methodologies used included osteological, isotopic, and aDNA analyses, which can assess sex, familial relationships, diet, migration patterns, disease pathogens, and cultural practices of an individual. Beyond the individuals’ health profiles, the team was also able to gain insight into burial practices, material culture, and wealth distribution through the excavation with various scholars still conducting research on cultural patterns at this site.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars Virtual Concert

Nicolette Lecy, Graduate Student Researcher

This spring, UC Merced UpstART and the Center for the Humanities hosted a free virtual concert showcasing Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Attendees tuned in that afternoon from Minnesota to Vermont, and the concert was kicked off with a band introduction by UpstART director Dr. David Kaminsky.

image source:

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was formed by a small group of Sierra Leoneans displaced in Guinean refugee camps during the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991–2002). Since returning to Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown in 2004, they have toured internationally, produced several albums, and were the subject of a 2005 documentary. 

The one-hour performance was shot primarily in an intimate outdoor setting in Freetown. The concert was immediately followed by a live-streamed Q&A hosted by the University of Florida’s Dr. Sarah Politz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology focusing on creative practice in African and Afro-Diasporic Music. Politz moderated audience questions with guitarist, keyboardist, singer, and composer Jahson Bull and discussed the band’s influence from West-African baskeda rhythms to their ability to raise awareness about humanitarian causes through their lyrics. Bull ended by letting the audience know that Spotify was the best place to find their music. The recorded concert will also be shared on our “Critically Human” UCTV channel in the near future. For more information about the band, check out their website.


Shiraz Noorani, Graduate Student Researcher
Center for the Humanities, UC Merced

For the second year in a row, a two-day Summer Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship was hosted by the University of California Merced, with the support of the Center for the Humanities and with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation. The aim of both the Summer Institute and ongoing Luce funding is to develop an innovative graduate education initiative that fosters humanities research through community engagement. The program supports summer fellowships that allow graduate students to work in teams led by faculty with community partners.

Summer Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship Participants

Participating in this summer’s Institute were two teams of graduate students led by UC Merced professors. The team led by Yehuda Sharim is titled, “Talking Freedom: How State and For-Profit Prisons Impact Central Valley Communities,” and involves a full feature film and collaborative research project reflecting on facets of everyday life in Coalinga, Merced, and McFarland, California.  The other team led by Dalia Magaña is working on a project with Healthy House related to breast cancer narratives. Healthy House is a cultural and linguistic non-profit organization with a mission to promote the well-being and health of all people in a multi-ethnic community with a focus on Merced County. Regarding the impact of the Institute, Dalia said, “Our team…appreciated the space the institute provided to learn together and interact with each other. During our interactions, we shared personal stories about each other that gave us a glimpse of what drives our commitment to community-engaged scholarship.”

Yehuda Sharim’s team

The opening remarks for the program were delivered by Robin Delugan, associate professor, and Anne Zanzucchi, Associate Dean for Student Services and Academics in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, who are both leading the overarching Luce grant project over the coming years, which supports different faculty and graduate student teams each year. In their remarks, they mentioned the activities and achievements of the project since it started adding that each year’s summer institute creates training opportunities, space for teams, and networking across fields and communities. Workshops on the first day included:  “Community Engaged Scholarship Foundations,” “Telling Your Story,” and “Beyond The Archives.” The second day featured the remarks by Sean Buffington, Vice President at the Henry Luce Foundation. He talked about the beginning of UC Merced’s cooperation with the Luce Foundation and the Foundation’s commitment to continue working with UC Merced. The second day of the program featured workshops on Informed Consent and the Ethics of Community Research. 

In conclusion, during the Summer Institute, a total of six workshops were held for two teams of graduate students, faculty, and a community partner. Ekta Kandhway, a doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Humanities, shared her experience participating in the Summer Institute: “The workshops helped me situate our Luce summer project within the larger vision of UC Merced that is aspiring to become an R1 university through its special focus on community engaged scholarship.”  

Dalia Magaña and Healthy House team

Graphic History: COVID-19, Speculative Fiction, and Illustrating the Archive

By Ivan Gonzalez-Soto, Doctoral Student, UC Merced

Prior to COVID-19, I used critical race and ethnic studies, history, and environmental studies to frame my research on water, racialized labor, and agrarian capitalism in the 20th-century US west. Recently, I’ve added another lens through which to understand my research questions: the graphic novel. Allow me to illustrate.

During the Spring 2020 semester, I enrolled in a graduate seminar titled “Race, State, and Power” and met once a week with peers to discuss books on global insurgencies, racial capitalism, and the nation state. Unbeknownst to me then, our course readings—which paired critical history with speculative fiction—would set two creative projects in motion which helped me cope with the state of the world while pushing the limits of what I thought reflected a good/traditional dissertation project.

Over the past months, I’ve used art and speculative fiction to cope with declension narratives and doom and gloom statistics that envelope the present moment. Fiction by Octavia E. Butler, Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, and Fernando Flores have shown me how to interpret the past, present, and future in ways I had never imagined. Their stories, albeit odd, offered respite when I needed it most. Most importantly, their novels helped me hang on to a future in which things eventually do get better. I imagined I could be, as the non-profit online magazine Grist eloquently writes, “working toward a planet that doesn’t burn, a future that doesn’t suck.” 

The closure of archives during the pandemic resulted in unexpected changes that challenged me to brainstorm other research methods for my work. All the while, I searched for opportunities to broaden the scope of my work through creative perspectives. This has manifested as a creative outlet wherein I illustrate scenes from the archive. Examples, like my illustrations below, merged mid-twentieth century black and white archival photographs in the public domain with colorful renditions that brought the archive to life. The sample illustrations below are creative drafts in which I incorporated storyboards, dialogue, and historical references to emphasize key elements in the histories I’m exploring for my dissertation. 

I will still write my dissertation in the academic prose expected of doctoral research. However, the graphic novel component I’ve envisioned has the potential to reach an entirely new audience that may not have an interest in reading standard, double-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman, linear text. Together, the traditional dissertation and artistic renditions offer an innovative form of storytelling. 

In line with the creative aspect of this work, I’m using graphic history to share my work while imagining alternatives for a better future through speculative fiction. That is, I’m blending history with imaginative fiction to think of how problems of the past can be addressed and abolished in the future. In this way, I am able to explain past issues while imagining alternative futures in which things get better. Themes such as labor exploitation in agricultural fields, environmental degradation due to toxic pesticides, and the expansion of prisons and militarized border walls can be written out in the speculative futures I’m writing about. This helps me find hope through abolitionist alternatives to get to the world I want to be a part of. And while it may seem idealist, the pandemic has reminded me that I must imagine alternatives with a better future to stay hopeful.

By Ivan, spring 2021. Digital drawing over an online Library of Congress photograph.

Unlike the archival photographs that captured Imperial Valley farmworkers as nameless and faceless subjects (see original photograph here), my illustrations help breathe new life to the workers’ struggle by centering their lives in local history. This approach speaks against dominant discourse and regional histories which alienate and render workers invisible to the land. This erasure is a trend in mainstream history, but I believe the workers’ stories in the Imperial Valley are out there—even if their stories aren’t necessarily preserved in the traditional archive. As a creative project, I’m formulating the past through speculative historical fiction to center the agency of Imperial Valley’s working class alongside a brighter future. Indeed, the workers have a story to tell; they’re there—even though the archive suggests otherwise.

Other illustrations, like the special collections box below, have the potential to communicate the research behind my work. While I couldn’t take my readers to the archive reading rooms, I can illustrate what and how I saw the archive in ways that a footnote simply could not. There’s hope in the dissertation-research-turned-graphic-novel approach because it helps the public visualize the past to shape a better and more just future. In the process, the speculative approaches in this work might help speak more just futures into existence.

By Ivan, fall 2020. Digital drawing over personal photograph taken at UCLA archives in 2019.

Because many archives closed temporarily or were shuttered completely, I was forced to adapt my research into something more accessible. And to cope with declension narratives that enveloped this last year, I’ve turned to art and speculative fiction to make sense of my research through new angles. I’ve since collaborated on a reader-friendly environmental justice comic book on the right to clean drinking water based on a fictional town in California’s Central Valley. It explores my research through fictional characters in ways that bar graphs, charts, and conference presentations could not. That little comic book is now a resource for rural communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley and it’s publicly available through eScholarship.   Projects like these are the result of finding ways to cope with the pandemic while getting creative in the process, and I hope to connect with others out there interested in similar work.

By Ivan, 2020. Early draft of a storyline I was crafting for a comic book based on a segment of my research.
By Ivan. Graphic rendition of my dissertation: “Water is King—Here is its Kingdom: Race, Labor, and the Environment in the Making of California’s Imperial Valley, 1900-2000.”
By Ivan. Graphic rendition of my dissertation: “Water is King—Here is its Kingdom: Race, Labor, and the Environment in the Making of California’s Imperial Valley, 1900-2000.”

Plan B: Recruiting Latino Immigrants for a Qualitative Study… From Home

by Fabiola Perez-Lua, Public Health Doctoral Student, UC Merced

I joined the COVID-19 and Latino Immigrants in Rural California (CLIMA) Study in the summer of 2020 and I was ready to leverage my background as a young, Latina student, born and raised in the Central Valley, to recruit Latino immigrants living in Tulare and Merced Counties for this important study. I had been away from the community for seven years, but people knew me, and I knew where to go to find them. I imagined myself posting CLIMA Study flyers in laundromats as children ran around behind me, or being greeted by the sweet smell of pan as I entered the panadería with a recruitment flyer for the señora in the apron behind the glass counter that housed colorful arrays of pan dulce. I made lists of the places I would go – Orosi, Lindsey, Exeter, Selma – the places where I had spent my weekends as a teenager working with my dad, sipping a warm cup of coffee, and conversing with the vendor next door. My dad, excited to have me back in town, would offer to visit farmworker friends and tell them about our study. Nostalgia and excitement filled me as I imagined the conversations in my head:

“Haven’t seen you around?”

“Just moved back… working on this study…”

Solo dame el número para llamar, mija. Nosotros te ayudamos con tus entrevistas...” (“Just give me the number to call, sweetheart. We will help you with your interviews…”)

Then, Governor Newsom announced the stay-at-home order. Flea markets closed. Grocery stores flooded with panicked people. Breaking news headlined every channel on TV. Schools closed, one after another, like falling dominos. In-person contact suddenly became a near-death experience.

“Novel virus!”

“Six feet apart!”

“Wear a mask!”

“Work from home if you can!”

Work from home. Suddenly I had to work from my small apartment in Merced, where the only social interaction I was allowed to participate in was through a screen. It was in this virtual space where our CLIMA research team began to design a “Plan B Recruitment Plan.” It was a recruitment plan that did not involve posting flyers in laundromats, going to the panadería to advertise the study, stopping by vineyards, or recruiting old vendor-friends at the flea market. Plan B was outlined as follows:

  • Step 1: Identify local and national organizations that serve your study population

Google search local and national immigrant-serving organizations. Create an Excel sheet that lists the names and information of these immigrant-serving organizations and any others you know of or have worked with in the past.

  • Step 2: Contact organizations

Decorate your excel sheets with bright colors that keep track of who needs to be contacted (red), who has been contacted but hasn’t responded (yellow), and who has provided numbers of individuals who are interested in becoming participants (green). Make a total of three attempts to reach each organization: the first attempt should introduce the study and ask for their assistance with the recruitment process. The two follow-up emails (or calls) should be sent a few days apart as reminders. Don’t worry if organizations don’t get back to you – it’s a pandemic!

  • Step 3: Contact individuals

Compile a second excel sheet that includes the names and numbers of individuals who are referred to you by the organizations who are assisting with the remote recruitment process. Decorate this sheet with colors indicating who needs to be contacted (red), who has been contacted but hasn’t responded (yellow), and who is scheduled for an interview (green).

  • Step 4: Snowball sampling

Before the interview ends, ask the participant to refer you to other individuals they may know who may also be interested in participating in the study. They may distribute your name and number to friends and family.

The plan was simple enough. But the execution? That was a whole different story. Immigrant-serving organizations were busy functioning above capacity to support their communities during these difficult times. Reaching Latino immigrants by phone was challenging; folks worked long hours, many were taking care of children at home, and phone numbers changed often. On top of that, voicemails weren’t always set up and calls dropped in the middle of conversations. These were just a few of the issues we were experiencing with “remote recruitment.” I so badly wanted to drive down to Lindsay and stand outside of the Mercado Sol del Valle and talk to people. I wanted them to see my face, to trust that I was a young student, an aspiring researcher, born-and-raised in the community and interested in supporting Latino immigrant health. But instead, I was a “researcher at the university who will give you a call with information about the study.”

So, how did we adapt? With patience, outreach, and trust. We made peace with the fact that the recruitment process was going to be slower than expected. Rather than occupy our minds with worries about the project timeline, we used the time to reach out to community leaders in our region and develop trusting relationships. These new relationships led to the creation of a Community Advisory Board that brought diverse perspectives about the various issues that faced immigrants in the community as we conducted interviews and gathered qualitative data. Together, we produced a policy brief with our findings and disseminated it to a far wider audience than we could have reached alone. The need to adapt to a new research environment under COVID-19 highlighted the importance of community engagement and collaborative approaches to research that acknowledge and employ the expertise of community leaders. We are continuing to stay connected with, and expand, our new network of advocates to support Latino immigrant health. While it was unfortunate that my first year as a graduate student researcher experience did not unfold as I had imagined it, I have learned to adapt quickly, build community in the face of disaster, and reach rural Latino immigrants in innovative ways that will only enhance my ability to conduct Latino immigrant health research in the future.

Ripe for Change: Adaptation, Care, and Environmental Studies

By Shiloh Green Soto, Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Student at UC Merced                                                 

I’ve experienced a deep bout of imposter syndrome since the first day of graduate school, and this largely has to do with the fact that I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family attempting to exist in the academy’s definitively not-first-generation, affluent environment. Unlike many in the academy, I don’t have relatives to teach me the etiquette for how to speak or do academe, so I’ve largely relied on generous intel from other working-class graduate students who have paved the way. Yet, my anxiety about being found out as a fraud led me to overcompensate in my efforts to be the graduate student I thought I was expected to be. I applied to too many conferences and overtheorized my project which led to a state of early burn out because I didn’t know enough about the academy to be able to gauge what level of effort was enough. As a result, I spent too much time trying to form my project into something I thought would be impressive to colleagues, faculty members, and future hiring committees. My personal goals collided and conflated with objectives I thought I was expected to own.

Then 2020 happened. My students suddenly experienced loss of family members, and other students had to single-handedly financially support their chronically ill parents. Some students dropped out of school entirely because it was all too much to handle. Cities, near and far, urban and rural, erupted in agony over the murders of George Floyd and numerous Black and Brown folks. People took to the streets in a stand against white supremacy, racial capitalism, and police brutality, with Black women and femmes largely at the helm. The West Coast was on fire for several months, producing the most expansive wildfires in multiple state’s histories. At the same time, folks campaigned to turn out the vote for a renewed chance at democracy. 2020, in sum, was a chaotic, anxiety-inducing, never-ending rollercoaster.

I spent quite a few feeble months struggling to cope with what felt like a crumbling society. At the same time, I knew deep down this moment shouldn’t be wasted—that these months of “down time” could be put to good use. In addition, I possess a certain amount of privilege (as a white person, someone with relatively decent health, someone with university support, someone with stable-enough income, and so on) that allows a silver lining in this crisis. Through this recognition, I decided that feeling helpless was no longer an option. If I wanted meaningful change like I claimed, I needed to get to work. Motivated by newfound energy, my outlook was suddenly ripe for change. Inspired by efforts people all over the country made to remedy our collective situations, I harkened back to the environmental justice work of my past.

My undergraduate years were filled with action, care, and community; and fulfillment was a regular reality—one need not search for it. My past activist work and Environmental Studies training enables me to think through the parallels of a larger system that overpowers the environment, People of Color/Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, non-human animals, and so many Others for purposes of capital accumulation. Initially, my dissertation was planned to be a postwar development story of Southern California’s Irvine Ranch region through an examination of immigration law, environmental movement, and policing. Yet to uncover this history, I would need access to Orange County’s archives, most of which remain closed into 2021.

In the wake of the pandemic, as schools, businesses, and archives closed, I reorganized my methods to craft an original project through oral histories, personal archival collections, and digital sources. My dissertation project has also taken on an even greater interdisciplinary approach than previously planned. With creative adjustment in mind due to myriad limitations on traditional historical work, I am punctuating the interdisciplinarity of my project through cultural analysis, political and legal analysis, media analysis, spatial analysis, and oral history methods.

I also expanded the geography of my research to include Northern Orange County as a means to not only compensate for dissertation length, but also because I cannot tell a development story without thinking about its regional costs. To supplement this work, I began volunteering in 2020 with Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ), an organization that addresses pollution in Santa Ana’s predominantly low-income Latinx communities. As a member of OCEJ’s Soil Lead Committee, I am working beside local residents, community activists, and UC Irvine researchers to locate sources of soil lead pollution, develop community outreach and education about OCEJ’s findings, and highlight possible routes for remediation. We’re also contextualizing the history of the city’s soil lead pollution through a review of greater Orange County historic development. Predicated on participatory-action research, I get to work alongside OCEJ to better understand environmental pollution in Santa Ana. My work with communities in Santa Ana informs a major portion of my research, especially as it relates to understanding the costs of development in Southern Orange County (Irvine) and its impact on Northern Orange County (Santa Ana).

At this point, as I descend upon exams, I can confidently say I’m glad to be where I am. I’m thankful to get to work with inspiring people and to do a project that means something to both me personally and to other working-class people. It also feels good to have returned to my first true passion: environmental justice. Things have come full circle for me and, though it is unfortunate that it took a crisis to force reflection, I’ve adapted my research plans, cultivated a project of care, and focused on what matters most. This last year was debilitating, but if there’s anything it taught me, it’s that once we do the work that matters, the sooner those echoes of imposter anxiety start to fade. They’ll never fully disappear, but we can learn to turn the volume down, if even for a little.

Juntxs: How to learn from the communities of care that helped us survive the COVID-19 pandemic

By Alma Alvarado Cabrera, Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Student, and Semajay Cleaver, English Major at UC Merced

As a child, my mother would tell me stories of when, in her youth, she left her small village to work in the tomato fields in Sinaloa, Mexico. It was a short yet impactful time in her life. The stories that she would share with me are about how a group of older women took care of and mentored her. My mother profoundly cares about friendship and providing care for her children, godchildren, and anyone she encounters. Yet, she struggles with what we call self-care, among other things. 

My mother gave me that first mode of care. Let us call this model the señora system: a group of women, usually older, sharing useful information, resources, and care among themselves and those they see mostly need it. After meeting Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison through their writing, I expanded my mother’s model to include self-care, or as these authors redefined it, “self-preservation” and healing. This señora and poetic model of care has been helping me navigate graduate school and the COVID-19 pandemic. A daily manifestation of this model is a text message group called the “Ph.D. Squad,” which has been around since the Fall of 2019 and is composed of four beautiful, resilient, and caring women: Jamie, Camille, Karla, and me. 

Image created by Alma Alvarado Cabrera

Physically, we have not seen each other for almost one year yet are in constant communication through text messaging and social media. Our conversations touch on graduate school life but are not limited to our student or educator lives. Before and throughout the pandemic, we speak of our need to heal multiple personal traumas or academic-specific traumas like impostor syndrome. We remind each other of the importance of rest, setting boundaries, and eating dessert! As expected during our sociopolitical climates, we also vent and complain in the group. And memes are frequently shared! 

“Working in Isolation,” photo by Alma Alvarado Cabrera

When coping with physical isolation, the Ph.D. Squad is a reminder that we can be with each other. It is a reminder that we can practice listening, caring, healing, and grieving together without being in the same physical space. It is also a space that reminds us of what could be once we can be in the same physical places. It is an invitation to dream and imagine a classroom, offices, or community spaces where healthy communication and care continue to be centered. Shouldn’t care and healing always be a priority when working with underserved communities? 

I am inviting you to pay attention to the communities of care that help us cope with the challenges of the pandemics we experience. What makes them communities of care? What makes them sustainable? Let us take note of what makes these communities of care so that we can replicate them. What can we learn from them? And how can we ensure that they continue thriving? We will eventually return to our work or gathering in places. Do we want these communities to continue? Systems of care were not perfect before the world was shocked by COVID-19 and other socioeconomic pandemics. The violence that these pandemics exposed will not go away with the vaccine. 

Conversations surrounding care, the active practice of allyship, and highlighting students’ agency should continue by providing our students with a flexible syllabus and reminding them of their agency. To imagine this future, I collaborated with Semajay Cleaver, my friend and former student. We virtually met amid the pandemic when I was a Teaching Assistant for English 102, a class under Dr. Felicia Lopez’s leadership. The conversations on care and healing have continued beyond our class discussion. We have been experiencing the pandemic alongside our students, and I hope we can invite them to speak of imagining new models of care. Semajay Cleaver is my brilliant and creative collaborator, who wrote this poem to encourage our commitment toward a continuous conversation about practicing care: 

I care,
Dreaming that we can bring comfort in the communities we share,
My well-being is like a jewel hidden at the bottom of a systematic pyramid guarded by traps,
I’ve tried all I could to get back,
To our roots.
Of comfort, love, hope, and understanding
It’s time we start planning, to provide a safe space
A place,
For all, no matter the gender, size, or race
It’s time to make the people in charge aware,
That underserved communities deserve their care… to be highlighted,
A place where all are invited,
Plenty would be delighted, to be reminded, that they matter.
No more acting as if you’d be indicted for focusing on your mental and emotional stability
Focus the mind, relax the soul, and allow tranquility
Centrémonos en el cuidado mental y emocional
Y lo haremos tradicional
Imagine all that we could be,
More than just you and me,
Heal and rebuild the self-care community
Growth is a result when there’s care
Longevity spreads through the air,
As if a seed has been planted at the base of your fingers and sprouting from the roots of your hair
I care,
I will no longer allow you to suppress yourself in the darkness of any kind,
You shine,
Listen to these words of mine,
Eres una estrella, brillando intensamente, se dirige lejos
You are loved.
Selfcare should come above… anything you believe matters more.
There’s always a closed door,
But there’s also an open window waiting for that leap of faith,
And if you’re still unsure, take a chance, close your eyes, and I promise you’ll soar.
I care,
For you, and so many more,
In hopes that we can return,
Love and appreciation into ourselves
The self-care community is screaming for help.

I Care 

“Flying,” photo by Alma Alvarado Cabrera