On October 20th-22nd, 2017, twenty-seven scholars from US colleges and universities and Colombia- and US-based community groups gathered to present their research in the first symposium dedicated to the experience of Colombians living in the United States.
The inaugural symposium was organized by the US Colombian Editorial Collective, which was formed at the Latina/o Studies Association Conference in 2016 by Maria Elena Cepeda (Professor of Latina/o Studies at Williams College), Jennifer Harford Vargas (Associate Professor of English at Bryn Mawr), Johana Londoño (Assistant Professor of LACS at the University at Albany, SUNY), John Mckiernan-González (Associate Professor, History, Texas State University), Michelle Nasser (independent scholar) and Ariana Ochoa Camacho (Assistant Professor of Gender and Latino Studies at University of Washington, Tacoma). Williams College in Williamstown, MA hosted the symposium with the generous funding of the Oakley Center, among other campus entities.
Struck by the paucity of scholarship on US Colombians in Latina/o/x studies, the editorial committee sought to use the symposium as a space for starting a new subfield. We imagined the formation of US Colombian studies to be in conversation with the three longest-standing US Latina/o/x sub-fields—Puerto Rican, Mexican American or Chicana/o Studies, and Cuban American studies—as well as the more recently formed Dominican Studies and Central American American Studies. The social and political rationale for doing so was clear. Colombians are the seventh largest Latina/o/x group and the largest South American group in the United States. Transnational ties between Colombia and the US can be traced back to the early 1900s when the US, facing a recalcitrant Colombia that refused to capitulate to US business interests, backed Panama’s revolution of independence from Colombia to construct the Panama Canal. Though some Colombian immigration to the US coincided with the early years of 20th century US intervention, larger numbers of immigrants arrived in the 1950s when a period of escalating violence in Colombia ignited the longest-running civil war in the western hemisphere. In the 1970s and 80s even more Colombian immigrants entered the metropolitan areas of New York, Miami, and Houston in search of work. By the 1990s, many Colombian migrants were fleeing a new kind of violence—one fueled by cocaine and US-Colombian drug trafficking. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Colombians who faced economic and political pressures continued to make their way into the US. The status of Colombians currently living in the US ranges from refugee, authorized, and unauthorized immigrant. A large percentage of Colombian immigrants crossed the US border without documentation or overstayed their visa. Moreover, according to data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, the population of second generation US-born Colombians is rising, a trend also visible among the top 14 largest US Latina/o/x groups.
Over the two-day-long symposium, presenters engaged in interdisciplinary conversations that elaborated on this history of migration and US-Colombian involvement. In contrast to the invisibility of US Colombians in Latina/o/x scholarship, presenters mapped out and examined the spaces of US Colombian migrants and US-Colombian corporate capital. Media and Performance studies scholars explored the representations of Colombians in the popular show Modern Family and the 2015 viral music video “Soy yo” by the Colombian electro-cumbia group Bomba Estéreo, while literary scholars discussed the common representation of exile and diaspora in several US Colombian novels. Visually engrossing presentations highlighted the ways US-based Colombian artists Fanny Sanin and Carlos Motta, among others, negotiated their identities and careers in a Euro-centric US art market. A timely set of presentations discussed Colombian voting preferences in US electoral politics and brought attention to the need for community organizing among US Colombians. Not surprisingly, considering that Colombia boasts more than 300 beauty pageants a year and is a destination for sex tourism and cosmetic surgery, and US Colombian communities are dense sites of girdle consumption, the production of Colombian beauty preferences and their gendered implications were a running theme throughout the second day of the symposium. We concluded with a conversation on the racialization of Colombians according to the contours of a US racial system, a theme that permeated much of the symposium and that is critical to the examination of Colombian belonging to the United States.
Presenters stemmed from a wide array of fields and disciplines including American Studies, Anthropology, Cultural Studies, English, Gender Studies, History, Latina/o Studies, Latin American Studies, Religion, Spanish, Sociology, Law, Performance Studies, and Political Science. Research covered a wide geographic area, including the US-Mexico border, Brooklyn, Queens, Philadelphia, Houston, Union City, NJ, Miami, Bogota, Antioquia, Cartagena, and Cali.
The University at Albany was well represented at the symposium. Besides co-organizer and presenter Johana Londoño, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino Studies, alum Lina Rincon, now Assistant Professor at Framingham State University, presented her comparative research on the racialization of Colombian and Puerto Rican Computer Engineers in US work environments. Members of the University at Albany community were also in attendance.
To continue the conversation initiated at the symposium and further build the emerging field of US Colombian Studies, the Editorial Collective plans to organize panels for future conferences hosted by the Latina/o Studies Association and Latin American Studies Association. We are committed to mentoring junior scholars interested in researching and publishing in this new field of study. Special issues for the Latino Studies journal and Revista de Estudios Colombianos, an edited book volume, and a digital project are also in the works. In the meantime please follow us on social media using the hashtag #USColombianidades.
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