NAEA Museum Education
May 12 · 13 min read

Bernardo Velez Rico, Teaching Specialist for School Programs, Dallas Museum of Art

I’m gathered with my family in Arizona, en la casa de mi Tía. Reunidos aquí, behind the palm trees and desert sand, past las trocas, in the kitchen where barbacoa waits to be eaten, in the backyard where children sit on hieleras whispering English, where adults sit at folding tables playing card games, juegas de a cora pa’ darle emoción; you wouldn’t think we were in the U.S. Pero tampoco se parece a México. Estamos fuera de las fronteras del tiempo y del espacio, in a location that exists in between, where we can congregate freely, aquí no se requieren documentos para entrar. This is where we find belonging.

I’m in the living room, con mi abuelita. Ella está sentada con su aguja en mano tejiendo un corredor. I think of all the stories her needle keeps, todas las historias que cuenta a través del hilo. I ask her if she’d teach me, too. She asks, ¿apoco quieres aprender a tejer?

* * *

Seemingly inconsequential, this moment of convivencia — a word that loosely translates to “living together,” but for which no English equivalent exists — foregrounds a driving question in my work as an educator at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). How can we nurture spaces of belonging within art museums that honor alternate ways of being, creating, and knowing? Recent scholarship, conference sessions, and other forms of knowledge sharing have attended to questions of equity and inclusion in art museums, challenging museums to confront their pasts and shift the Eurocentric paradigms upon which they were founded [1]. As museums envision and carry out this work, language and its intersections must be considered.

In the chapter “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from her seminal work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa writes:

So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself… Until I am free to write bilingually and switch codes without having always to translate… and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 81)

As Anzaldúa suggests, language is central to identity, informing both how we define ourselves and how we connect with others. And for more than twenty percent of the U.S. population, our home language is one other than English. Many art museums boast collections with artworks and cultural belongings from the diverse communities to which these individuals belong, yet continue privileging academic English. In preventing the full participation of these communities by denying their language, museums are inadvertently domesticating their expressive forms while maintaining their exclusion [2].

In this article I consider how art museums might be more inclusive of linguistically diverse communities and argue that it requires moving beyond providing existing materials and programs in other languages. That mode of translation, fixated on literal reproduction, disregards the specific experiences of linguistically diverse communities and suggests that inclusion is a passive practice that can be done to them. I propose a shift towards generativity, viewing translation not as a seamless transfer but as a process through which new practices and knowledges can emerge. I argue that programming developed through generative modes of translation — ones that reconstruct programs in ways that share authority with participants’ languages and lived experiences — has the potential to shift existing power structures and reconfigure the borders of belonging within art museums. I explore these ideas through the lens of my own work at the DMA, reflecting on both successes and challenges in my pursuit of a generative bilingual program model.

I focus primarily on Spanish-speaking communities, given that thirty-eight percent of Dallas residents speak Spanish at home. I include anonymous excerpts from conversations with some of these residents; while I reflect on them in my analysis, I have written them untranslated. In doing so, I follow Anzaldúa’s refusal to accommodate English speakers, shifting the labor of interpretation in hopes that readers will examine the hierarchies we unconsciously maintain.

Positionality

I approach my work — in this article and in my role as an educator at the DMA — as the son of working-class Mexican immigrants, a member of a transnational family, an English Learner, and a native Spanish speaker. At a young age I felt shame in my mother tongue because I failed to see it included in spaces associated with knowledge and American identity — including art museums. This experience is not solely my own; non-English speakers in the U.S. are increasingly pressured to abandon their native languages in order to access social and economic goods, and even a sense of belonging. These pressures are not inherent, but rather part of the larger social and political displacement of multiply marginalized groups (Rosa, 2019; Valdés, 2015).

Bernardo facilitating a Go van Gogh program. Credit: Paulina Martín.

At the DMA I oversee our Go van Gogh® school outreach programs, which have existed for forty years and bring hour-long experiences — traditionally consisting of a discussion of artworks in our collection and an art-making activity — to Dallas elementary schools. When I began my position, our programs were only offered in English. Yet, fifty percent of Dallas Independent School District (DISD) elementary students are English Learners, most of whom are enrolled in bilingual Spanish education programs. In nearly every interaction I’ve had with these students, any hint at my ability to speak Spanish is met with students commenting, “¡Hablas español!” which both fills and breaks my heart. My commitment to identifying the most equitable and sustainable way to address this gap was the catalyst for the research I’ve reflected on in this article. While I present my work at the DMA as an example, it is limited in scope; I offer my ideas as considerations that are necessarily contextual.

Quisieron Enterrarnos: Language, Power, and the Dangers of Translation

Prefiero no ir a lugares donde la gente solo habla Inglés. Una de dos, asumen que no hablo Inglés con tal de verme, o me hablan en Inglés y intento contestarles pero no me sale bien, luego me hacen sentir mal, como si fuera una cosa tan triste que no sepa hablar Inglés.

Antes pensaba que los Americanos tenían razón en esperar que uno sepa el Inglés. Yo decía que si uno decide venir a este país entonces debería de aprender el idioma. ¡Pero lo hacen bien difícil! Quieren que uno aprenda el idioma, pero sin saberlo los trabajos que uno puede tener no nos dejan. Tenemos que trabajar todo el dia en algo cansado solo para ganar lo mínimo. Uno no puede dejar de trabajar solo para aprender Inglés. Es como si no quieren que lo aprendamos.

* * *

In museum education, linguistic inclusion often means adopting translation as defined by Euro-American common sense, which “envisions a bilingual speaker rendering a text or phrase — written or oral — into another language,” with either interpretive materials or programs (Gal, 2015, p. 234). Yet, this practice operates from certain assumptions that must be interrogated. U.S. language hierarchies create harm not only through othering, but also by harboring a sense of culpability within non-English speakers that is often maintained through working-class conditions. This harm cannot be addressed unless language hierarchies and the burden of responsibility for marginalization shift, which the process of literal translation fails to achieve.

First, this process of translation presumes bounded languages, boundaries that are not natural but created through standardization (Gal & Irvine 1995). The standardization of Spanish places enormous pressures on Latinxs [3] whose Spanish doesn’t follow “las reglas de la academia” (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 77). As a result, Latinxs whose Spanish is somehow “deficient” may come to see museums not as places of belonging but as reminders of the vast divide between their world and the one accepted in dominant culture (Rosa, 2019).

Second, the direction and function of this mode of translation must also be considered. Often, the dominant or “original” language becomes the “[standard] of comparison for subordinated languages so that differences between them [are] taken to be absences or failures of the subordinated language” (Gal, 2015, p. 234). Translation, then, can serve as an asymmetrical practice that legitimizes the authority of the dominant language, placing its speakers at the center or “origin” of the museum’s audience — a phenomenon felt by participants in Verónica Betancourt and Madalena Salazar’s Latinx visitor study (Betancourt & Salazar, 2014; Sandell, 2002). It also perpetuates the deficit-based approach to engaging with non-English speakers that has been observed in museum education (Gutierrez & Rasmussen, 2014). Deficit language, “which focuses on what people lack,” ultimately “denies the dynamic possibilities that can occur” when museum educators encourage the full participation of linguistically diverse populations — the worlds of knowledge they carry on their tongue (p. 147).

In considering how art museums might be linguistically inclusive in ways that disrupt existing power structures, I turn towards a translational process discussed by anthropologist Susan Gal that abandons the focus on denotational equivalence. She writes:

It is widely acknowledged that word-for-word matchings are rare owing to grammatico-semantic differences between linguistic systems, but circumlocutions and exegesis are always possible. This view is not inaccurate, but it ignores different kinds of meaning, presumes that equivalence is the goal, and so fails to recognize the generativity of translational processes. (Gal, 2015, p. 233)

Gal elaborates that a shift towards generativity opens up the possibility of doing translation in a way that privileges the communicative effect achieved in one cultural and linguistic system and finds a way to reproduce it in another — usually with different means. Applied to a museum education setting, we can reproduce the goals we have for a program while reconstructing the content and format in ways that honor the assets, needs, and lived experiences of linguistically diverse communities.

In the context of my work with Spanish-speaking students, this has taken the form of bilingual programming that is facilitated in Spanish to ensure understanding, but that allows for code-switching — the switching between languages or codes of expression — to relieve pressures of standardization and allow participants’ language to be defined on their own terms (Anzaldúa, 1987; Poplack, 1980). In the following section I further define the role of generativity in this approach to bilingual programming, then offer examples of its implementation at the DMA.

Sembrando Semillas:A Generative Approach to Bilingual Programming

¿En qué partes de mi vida veo arte? Pues, en todas partes. Veo arte en las pinturas y las esculturas, en los altares que construimos para nuestros difuntos, en las ollas de barro que se hacen y decoran a mano, en las artesanías que venden en el pueblo, en las plantas que crecemos en el huerto, en la comida que aprendemos a cocinar de nuestras mamás y abuelas, en las tortillas hechas a mano, en la salsa de molcajete. Pues casi en todo.

¿Que me imagino que existe en un museo de arte? Pues… cuadros.

* * *

This reflection mirrors Betancourt & Salazar’s (2014) observation that in many Latinx communities, “creativity is not separate from daily life and is passed down from generation to generation,” (p. 188) and illustrates precisely the kind of knowledges and experiences that form part of a participant’s museum experience, and that a generative approach to bilingual programming should consider. Historically, linguistically diverse communities have not played a role in the creation of U.S. museum education content; in allowing these experiences to inform the content and format of a program, we can attempt to course correct.

Students participating in a collaborative story-writing activity. Credit: Paulina Martín.

In the context of my work at the DMA, adopting a generative bilingual framework has meant building an alternate Go van Gogh® model designed for bilingual education classrooms, which was piloted this year. Go van Gogh® programs, which happen in elementary classrooms, were the perfect format for this pilot because they make space to build trust. The creation of generative bilingual programming, as with interpretive materials and programs reproduced in other languages, does not guarantee museum participation by linguistically diverse communities. These audiences, who have been historically excluded from the intended audience of museums, have no reason to trust us at the sight of programs advertised as relevant, because trust takes time to build. By visiting students in their classrooms, we have the opportunity to show students that we are listening without requiring them or their families to take that first step.

While facilitated in Spanish, the program builds on several existing strategies for working with English Learners, including the use of multi-sensory activities, opportunities to activate students’ personal experiences, and amplification of student input [4]. The opening of the program introduces a set of activities that draw on Theater of the Oppressed; these practices, grounded in the vision of shifting audiences from spectators to spect-actors who are co-creators of content, parallels the program’s goal of centering participant knowledges and experiences so as to counter deficit thinking. Students then discuss select works of art from the museum’s collection; in the pilot lesson plan, retablos, a Latin American art form that depicts and expresses gratitude for a miracle. This portion also includes collaborative story-writing activities that allow students to develop their own interpretations in their language(s) of choice, centering their voice without the expectation of translation or standardization. The final portion of the program consists of a printmaking activity designed to activate memory that was developed by visiting artist Karla Garcia, whose own work explores the concepts of memory and home.

Students participating in a printmaking activity designed by Karla Garcia. Credit: Paulina Martín.

The pilot has received overwhelming support from teachers, who appreciate it for allowing students to participate fully. Yet, there have been challenges and opportunities for growth worth highlighting. Because the program centers Latinx cultures, it runs the risk of playing into homogenous understandings of Latinx identities; for example, ones that disregard the diversity of races and countries of origin within Latinx communities (Beltrán, 2010; Dávila, 2009; Zentella, 2007). This challenge has implications for both content and pedagogy. In terms of content, it has meant outlining lesson plans that are mindful of centering diverse art forms and continuing to partner with local artists. Pedagogically, it informed the decision to shift from a didactic to a facilitator model that encourages student exchange. Students, in using their own varieties of Spanish, promote a broader understanding of the language, and in being encouraged to activate their personal experiences can collectively (re)define their identity. Through these practices, the aim is to counter deficit ideologies that require students to take on the labor of translating their language or identity to fit the expectations of a space — this is their space. They are not being told what it means to speak Spanish or be Latinx, they are participating in the ongoing resignification of these identities (Beltrán, 2010).

Students gathered during a small group discussion. Credit: Paulina Martín.

Finally, the piloting process has raised an invaluable opportunity for undoing deficit thinking about adult Spanish speakers. While pilot sessions have been facilitated by bilingual staff, most of our Go van Gogh® programs are facilitated by volunteers. Preparing to introduce this program on a larger scale has meant evaluating the requirements unconsciously placed on the volunteer role — namely, English fluency. This realization has meant creating volunteer calls in Spanish that explicitly do not require English fluency to facilitate bilingual programs, allowing adult Spanish speakers to contribute their knowledge and experience on their terms and relieving the labor of translation. These calls have already generated interest from community members who are eager to involve themselves in the art education of our youth.

La Cosecha Vendrá

Ultimately, what I hope emerges as a takeaway from this article is a critical examination of the ways in which institutions approach the inclusion of linguistically diverse communities, as well as the understanding that inclusion is necessarily a generative, not passive, process. Museums’ abilities to implement generative multilingual programming will vary across institutions, depending on staffing resources and the specific linguistic makeup of their surrounding communities. Nevertheless, it is important for us all to realize that the work of creating belonging is always ongoing. Scholar Juana María Rodríguez writes that “how we are seen, or even how we define ourselves, is never all of who we are” (p. 18). The most important thing we can do is continue to reflect critically on how we can transform the spaces we occupy into ones that expand our definition of “we.”


Bernardo Velez Rico

Bernardo Velez Rico creció entre el valle de San Fernando, la área de Dallas-Fort Worth y Guanajuato, México. He is the Teaching Specialist for School Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art and a recent graduate of Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Art Practice and Chicanx/Latinx Studies. You can contact him via email at bvelez7@gmail.com or on Instagram @bernardovelez.


Endnotes

(1) See, for example, recent recommendations by the NAEA ED&I Taskforce and the AAM DEAI Working Group.

(2) I use “domesticating” to mean the mainstream circulation of cultural material from marginalized groups, packaged as “authentic” while kept fundamentally incommensurable with the dominant culture.

(3) I use Latinx as a gender non-binary label for U.S.-based persons of Latin American descent.

(4) See Veronica Alvarez’s Good Teaching is Good Teaching: English Learners and Museums (published earlier in this issue of Viewfinder), and PJ Gubatina Policarpio’s Engaging Multicultural Students: An Educator’s Guide.


References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera. The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Beltrán, C. (2010). The trouble with unity: Latino politics and the creation of identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Betancourt, V., & Salazar, M. (2014). Engaging Latino Audiences: Visitor Studies in Practice at the Denver Art Museum. In J.B. Acuff & L. Evans (Eds.), Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (pp. 181–196). London, England: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dávila, A. (2008). Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race. New York: New York University Press.

Gal, S. (2015). Politics of Translation. Annual Review of Anthropology, 44, 225–240.

Gal, S., & Irvine, J. T. (1995). The boundaries of languages and disciplines. Social Research 62(4), 967–1001.

Gutierrez, S., & Rasmussen, B. (2014). Code-Switching in the Art Museum: Increasing Access for English Learners. In J.B. Acuff & L. Evans (Eds.), Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (pp. 145–160). London, England: Rowman & Littlefield.

Poplack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish Y TERMINO EN ESPAÑOL: Toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics, 7(8), 581–618.

Rodríguez, J. M. (2014). Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York: New York University Press.

Rosa, J. (2019). Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad. Oxford University Press, USA.

Sandell, R. (ed.) (2002). Museums, Society, Inequality. London and New York: Routledge.

Valdés, G. (2015). Latin@s and the Intergenerational Community of Spanish: The Challenges of Curricularizing Language. International Multilingual Research Journal, 9(4), 253–273.

Zentella, A. C. (2007). “Dime con quién hablas, y te diré quién eres”: Linguistic (In)security and Latina/o Unity. A Companion to Latina/o Studies (pp. 25–38). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Viewfinder: Reflecting on Museum Education

Welcome to Viewfinder, an experimental publication about museum education from the National Art Education Association's Museum Education Division.

NAEA Museum Education

Written by

National Art Education Association Museum Education Division

Viewfinder: Reflecting on Museum Education

Welcome to Viewfinder, an experimental publication about museum education from the National Art Education Association's Museum Education Division.

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