In this installment of professor interviews we present Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner — filmmaker/writer/scholar/everything who teaches in the Department of English & Comp Lit and at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Bwog’s Michael Adame sat down with her to talk cognitive channels of reggaeton, belt buckles and Ethiopian food in Morningside Heights.
So you’re originally from Puerto Rico. How did you end up at Columbia?
Well I was living in Miami with my partner and one day I received a phone call from the university. They were familiar with my film work and they said they had an opening. I said “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then I got it! And now I’m tenured, if you can believe it! It was never in the cards, never in the plan to be in academia, New York, the Northeast, the Ivy League. I’m doing everything I told myself I wouldn’t do when I was younger.
In class you’ve said you’re a big fan of reggaeton. For Latino Studies that may be a little expected. Any musical tastes that people may find surprising?
Well, first, about reggaeton, funny story: I was at a party and a friend plays me a Calle 13 song. She turns to me and says “I have no idea what he is saying.” So I listen—and I don’t understand what he is saying! So it became a puzzle. Engaging with Calle 13 presented different cognitive channels. Its Poetry of Filth. A Puzzle.
And other music. Well, I’m a big fan of opera. Oh! And Bhangra! My New Year’s resolution actually: learn how to dance Bhangra. It’s hard! With Latin dancing, the dancing I grew up [with], there’s a certain type of coordination that requires the whole body. Bhangra makes simultaneous movements not found in Latin Music. You have to rewire the body to really enjoy it. It’s great.
Personal question: one day a girl in class turned to me and said “Check out that belt buckle!” And I did—a bedazzled Madonna on your belt buckle…
(Laughs) Actually it’s a Guadalupe! And it was a birthday gift to myself one year. I picked it up from a street vendor in South Beach. And it is definitely a conversation piece. You go somewhere and suddenly — boom! Conversation.
I was at a conference in San Antonio and I met a women there who told me she knew who made it. She said it’s a particular Mexican-American designer and you can tell because there is a heart on the back. I took it off and sure enough, there was a heart on the back. Anyway, when I was there, I noticed how many Guadalupes there are. It’s got nothing to do with religion. It’s the memory and the history.
So suddenly I began collecting Guadalupes. People give them to me all the time. Artists friends have painted them for me, I have handmade little statues, kitschy items. Peruvian versions, Puerto Rican versions…I think I have 50 or so.
B: What’s your favorite place to eat around Morningside?
I love Awash! I think I was Ethiopian in a past life. It’s my favorite food. Me and my partner go so much we know the owner, the waiter, the waitresses. We get invited to staff parties!
In your seven years, have you seen any changes in Columbia students?
Well first, and maybe this may come off as flattering the audience, Columbia undergrads are among the best of the best. I have been to other universities, guest-lecturing and the like…Columbians work hard and are flexible. Students will engage in with professors. There is intellectual daring.
And the changes I have seen? Well there are three I can think of in my classes. One is the size: grown! Doubled! For classes that are not in the mainstream of the Columbia experience that is pretty big.
Also, when I first started, the classes were all Latinos. Or all Caribbean students. Now they are much more diverse. Finally, the Latinos students themselves are diverse now. At first it was Puerto Ricans. Then it was Dominicans. Now its Mexican-Americans and everyone else! I think it says a lot about the university.
Among the students you are very popular. In fact I was drawn to your class when a friend told me what raving review you received on CULPA. Why do you think that is?
I am flattered. I think part of it is that even though I am more than twice as old as these students, I identify with your age. It is an important part of life. For me, it’s about having a conversation. It’s not just academic. We should help students find their way intellectually. Help students find themselves. When I was young, there was a “sink or swim” trajectory. I wish there were other people to help think things through. So I try to help with that with my students — help them grapple and grow intellectually. If they appreciate that, that makes me feel good.
Learning should be enjoyable if it can. Intellectual life is a long-distance run. We need pleasure to sustain it. So make intellectual life as enjoyable as possible.