By: Lia Samuelu ‘20
If I could start my career at Cornell all over again, there are a few things I would change. I’d make sure to get here early on move-in day. Or I’d make more of an effort to meet with my academic and faculty advisors consistently. But the one thing I wish I could change the most is taking a class with Professor Ella Diaz earlier. Professor Diaz often teaches English and Latino Studies classes.
During the first semester of my junior year, I took English 3980: Latinx Pop Culture Matters with Professor Diaz. I’d heard of her before, and had seen her around at Latinx-focused events, but this was my first class with her. I had tried to enroll in previous courses, but I always got nervous and dropped the class because I thought it seemed too vigorous for me. After sharing this with Professor Diaz, she told me to stick with her class. So I did.
Immediately we jumped into a number of nuanced, dynamic conversations about Latinidad and what it means to be Latinx. We examined the connections between knowledge building and art, art and identity, identity and hegemonic representation. The class had a very wide breadth, but Professor Diaz tied everything together in a perfect little package, helping her students understand that the topics were incredibly complicated, but that we had the tools to understand them and further their arguments. And this is power; we have the power to understand who we are and why these topics are important. Professor Diaz often described the learning process as “drinking water.” We read difficult essays and explored theoretical proposals, but it was always accessible to us because the writing was written for us, by people like us. It explored ideas that we could directly relate to and ideas that resonated with our lives.
In essence, what the class ultimately did was help me build a consciousness that had lacked a foundation before. Ontologically, my person had already developed into something I was proud to have cultivated: someone who is socially conscious and politically aware. But I was missing the part where I see myself within that paradigm. Professor Diaz taught me the history of brown people who came before me, and how they had laid the fundamental work for students now to continue building community. Working alongside contemporary figures like Juan Ochoa and Julio Salgado, Latinx students at Cornell are raising a consciousness that helps liberate people in both body and mind.
But what was most impactful in her course was learning to think critically about social structures and how they restrict people. From thinkers like Walter Benjamin to Nelson Maldonado-Torres, ENGL3980 altered the way I thought about things. I began to perceive things more introspectively and from a position of power, whether it was an excess or lack thereof. It was like taking a philosophy class and critical theory class all in one, and it was focused on my own identity of being Latinx. I can now take these ideas and apply them to literally any other field; it brings into question the validity of certain epistemologies and the privileging of one knowledge over the other. I now think of how temporal and geopolitical context affects how we learn what we learn.
Professor Diaz not only showed us—her students—that Latinx Pop Culture Matters, but that it even exists. All we have to do is look past what we are fed in the hegemony. This notion is incredibly powerful for young students, especially when taught by a professor like Doctor Ella Diaz.