This past summer, I worked as an undergraduate assistant for The 2019 Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico, under my mentor, and this year’s director of the institute, Dr. David Kazanjian. The conference is dedicated to opening a respectful, genuine dialogue between academics, professors, and graduate students throughout the Americas around critical issues and points of contention in the Americas. This selected topic for this year’s institute was “Bodies of Water: Flows, Wars, Floods, Wakes.” As such, much of our discussion in group sessions centered around power of water as both a driver of peace and prosperity as well as one of destruction and colonialism. Many of these stories have roots in the slave trade and the colonial era, and many more continue to be told today.
Prior to participating in these conversations, Dr. Kazanjian and I prepared for the conference by discussing the assigned theory readings once a week for about eight weeks. These meetings were helpful in that I felt better prepared going into the conference having talked about ideas and themes I had extracted from the theory readings. It also provided an opportunity to learn new things about the history of the Americas that I had not been previously exposed to. As the conference approached, he and I (along with other members of the Tepoztlán Collective) met in Tepoztlán in order to prepare logistically for the arrival of about 70 participants and some of their families. Paired with a graduate assistant from Penn’s English department, Nick Millman, we carried out numerous tasks depending on the needs of the conference. This included making signs, putting up posters around Tepoztlán, and arranging nametags for the participants. In this part of the process, I learned a lot about what goes into making a conference sail smoothly, and got to know members of the Tepoztlán collective in the process.
When the conference began, I participated in daily discussions among other academics and graduate students about theory readings, participant papers, and their relationship with the theme of the conference. In two such discussions, I was assigned for the role of “dominatrix,” in charge of mediating conversation, making sure everyone is encouraged to speak, and ensuring no one person dominates the conversation. In other sessions, I was tasked with translating between English and Spanish for those who needed it.
Beyond the knowledge I soaked in from the institute, perhaps the most important part of the journey was the exposure to academia and the experience of engaging in both professional and casual conversations with professors and academics. Tepoztlán, I was told, is a non-traditional conference in that it is meant to create such an atmosphere for all who attend, despite your level of research or education. I was compelled by the conducive setting and rich content, and I am excited to continue studying some of the important issues that I learned about in Tepoztlán.