Picturing Mexican America by Marissa López F’19 Illuminates the Value of Public-Facing Scholarship in the Humanities

10/27/2020


Marissa López F’19, Professor of English and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), always felt there needed to be a mobile app connecting Mexican history to the present in an open, accessible way. It wasn’t until she learned of the Mellon/ACLS Scholars & Society Fellowship program, she realized she could create it herself.

In 2019, López was awarded a Scholars and Society fellowship for her project, Picturing Mexican America, in partnership with the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) to develop a mobile app displaying historical images and information about “Mexican Los Angeles” that coincides with the user’s location. The goal was to bring Mexican history to the public eye “in a fun way,” she notes in a project description on her website.

Now entering its third year, the Scholars and Society program allows doctoral faculty to pursue publicly engaged projects in partnership with non-academic cultural, media, government, policy, or community organizations of their choice. Projects explore questions of pressing public interest including climate change, racism, economic inequality, immigration, and other areas that effect the communities around us. The awards also provide support for fellows to incorporate public scholarship into their teaching and mentoring of emerging scholars on their campuses.

For López, the program enables her to tap into interests that may once have been too disparate to combine in her work: her love of history, desire to change what humanities professorships can look like, and interest in promoting career diversity in PhD training as a graduate student advisor.

As a UCLA faculty member, López was no stranger to public engagement. Planning conferences, speaking at non-university events, constructing public events for the university are common activities for full-time faculty. This work was necessary, yet it did not intersect with her research interests, nor was publicly engaged scholarship an important factor for review committees considering her for promotions in the academy.

“Publicly engaged work is not often valued the same as ‘pure’ research…so faculty have little incentive to pursue it,” said López. “This fellowship is an excellent first step towards changing that.”
In collaboration with the LAPL and the help of student researchers and volunteer coders, López dove into their extensive digital archive and compiled photographs, maps, and historical documents on Mexican history and life in Los Angeles to build Picturing Mexican America.

“I didn't fully understand the extent of [the LAPL] archive,” she recalls of her first exposure to the public institution. “The scope of my project expanded once I realized the depth and breadth of their visual holdings.”

At its core, Picturing Mexican America asks, “What does it mean to belong, and who gets to decide who belongs in civic spaces?” In a moment when negative rhetoric about Mexican people is sadly too common, this app is especially necessary for presenting accessible information about Los Angeles’ robust Mexican history as integral to our shared national history. “This project illuminates the past to empower people to build a better tomorrow,” said López.

A beta version of Picturing Mexican America is scheduled to be released this year. The project scope has also expanded, opening doors for new and unexpected opportunities to engage the community about Mexican history in Los Angeles.

But you do not have to wait for the next version to view the app’s collections. López has been promoting her archival findings on Instagram throughout her fellowship and hosting live chats featuring scholars and artists discussing their work.

From there, she partnered with the Los Angeles Explorers Club, to produce self-guided bike tours around the city providing historical information about each location visited.

López’s project exemplifies the mission of the Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, elevating and circulating her scholarship beyond traditional educational institutions to the public.

For future Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellows seeking to engage in public scholarship, López offers this advice: “Talk to as many people as you can; cast a wide net… Follow connections wherever they may lead and be open to the brilliance of others.”

Follow Picturing Mexican America on Instagram for Updates on the Project.

Learn more about recent Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellows.