Interview with CUNY BA Alumna and Author, Celeste Escobar

Celeste Escobar giving a presentation

By Labanya Unni, CUNY BA Doctoral Fellow

In this conversation, Celeste Escobar shares insights into her latest book Ñai’ũpo Rape: A Dialogue of Ancestral Ethnoknowledge. We delve into the creative process behind its development, exploring her sources of inspiration, research methodology, and the legacy she aspires to leave for future scholars in her field.

How did the idea of the book project germinate in your mind?

This is not my first book, written and published. Anything I can do with my work in terms of promoting the cultural and linguistic value of my native, indigenous language, I do. I use any means I can, whether it is teaching other native speakers, writing texts, or using multimedia materials through the web platform I developed and launched last year, or through presentations when I am invited to be a guest speaker on a panel. My academic and research work involves promoting the value of cultural and linguistic resistance with a language that is alive within the context of colonialism.

For my fellow native speakers, there is stigma and discrimination because we speak our ancestral language in hegemonic power spaces. My aim is to visibilize and show that these languages are worthy of respect like any other language and culture of the world and show the richness of human diversity.

It’s challenging thinking of your position as a native speaker of a minority endangered language – it means you must make double or triple the effort to get the message across. I didn’t have to learn the communicative skills of Spanish, which is a hegemonic language in our context. On top of that I had to communicate in English, which is another hegemonic language. So, there were double and triple barriers, but still, it was necessary to do that.

Maybe what I’m doing is a grain of sand in a vast space, but at least I am trying to show alternative ways in which we can see and be in this world and that is also a message for my people who are the younger generation: Do not to be ashamed of the language that you speak as your mother tongue.

This is your third book. How has the process changed across the three books that you have written?

For me, it has been a very human and enriching process of growing up and understanding the scope of humanity, because it is such a responsibility, the way that I represent my language, and my culture. It is important to work collaboratively and recognize the co-authorship in the book writing process (here it was narrative). It is the responsibility of documenting a historically oral culture and transcribing that to written language which is new for the people I am working with. Being able to be in the two worlds of the living oral world and writing in hegemonic languages and translations within academic and political spaces is a huge social responsibility. I need to recognize the privilege that I already have and not take advantage of people, by making my audience who don’t see these communities (and don’t want to see them) recognize that they don’t need to feel superior. I’m also showing that other types of epistemologies are possible, and we can co-exist with diversity and respect for other knowledge systems. My role is to be a bridge between cultures.

Not forgetting my roots, and where my family comes from, and through that how I represent and make their voices heard in a correct way that is appropriate and respectful of their lives and their stories – that’s my responsibility. Methodologically and ethically speaking it is a lot, but it pushes me as well, not in the sense that I benefit in this world of writing and academia, but also because it keeps me grounded. The people who raised me and who gave me my native language were those people, that’s my origin and I have to honor that for the rest of my life because thanks to that I have an alternative and more diverse way of looking and being in the world and can pass on my heritage to my children.

This mindset you are describing might have really helped in establishing a connection and rapport with the participants of the study, am I right?

Yes, in the book launch, for example, it was important for me to be connected virtually to my home country. At the beginning, they were the first ones to open up the event, it wasn’t me, it was them. That for me was representative politically, symbolically, and ethically of showing respect and that just because I am in a different place, I have not forgotten about them. Through technology, we can do that now.

Another thing that made me proud when I saw the poster was that my native language was the biggest and boldest thing on the poster. That made me so happy and proud of my identity and heritage and also seeing the picture of the hand and the clay pot, was also a connection to nature, earth, and how our culture gives form to nature. You go to the desert, swamps, mountains, lowlands – wherever the culture is located geographically speaking -- the community looks at the surrounding nature and says, OK, so how are we going to live here and make a living here? It is a collective process, and their cultural particularity is going to develop, grow, and take its own path. Every culture on the earth didn’t happen up in the air, it always was grounded in our earth, no matter the different geographic landscapes. It is the interaction between culture and nature that makes our identity unique and rich as human beings.

When I saw my language spelled out in bold, and the picture of the black clay and the hands – it synthesized for me language, the place where I come from, and the culture of my people.

And also, another level of the image is your own project which is coming into being – it’s symbolic of so many things.

Exactly. In the world of totems, my favorite animal totem is the turtle because it is wise and doesn’t rush. It paces itself, and it pauses when it must pause, it moves when it must move. Sometimes remembering the pace of the turtle might go against the rhythm of modern times, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that.

Maybe we sometimes look at the world in an apocalyptic way, but not everything is about massification, industrialization, homogenization, modernization, globalization. My work is to show that we have grounded roots that are alive and have to be respected and recognized.

I was wondering if you encountered any unexpected challenges while doing fieldwork and talking to participants, and how you overcame them.

Sometimes being a woman researcher out there has been dangerous and that means that I had to have full awareness, not only of the responsibilities of representing people but also when I am out there documenting, and doing fieldwork, that there might be some danger that it entails. For me, the push and motivation behind it transcend the fear or the risk. It is almost a spiritual drive. If something happens to me, I know that if I die today, I know I did what I had to do.

I even had two traumatic accidents. When I was preparing for one of my fieldworks, I had a bad car accident two years ago. There was even a risk that it might render me handicapped, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to walk anymore. Life pushes you to unseen risks.

When my people say thank you for my work, and they say this is something my children can see, that is for me my legacy.

The project is intrinsic to who you are and your belief system in the world. I’m sure you carried that zeal with you when you were a student. I hear that now you are setting out to pursue graduate studies? 

I was accepted into the linguistic program at the Graduate Center. I accepted the offer and am very happy. It’s like a homecoming for my education. My first home was CUNY BA, then I went to do a Master's in a different country, and now I have come back to CUNY. I feel so secure and happy with this move because the networks that I have built as a BA student continue. Even though I was away for many years, now that I have come back, it’s like my nest continues here – you know, when little birds try flying and then they come back to the nest after getting some skills and training. Now they are back, and they want more time to rest before they take off completely. I came back and the CUNY nest continues here, with my old professors and the administrators, and it’s so great because I don’t have to start from scratch again.

It's wonderful to hear about how supported you felt by CUNY and CUNY BA. I have a final question – how do you feel your research will contribute to the broader field of cultural studies and ethnographic studies and the preservation of ancestral heritages? Do you have recommendations and advice for future researchers in your field? 

Yes. The double challenge of remaining in this world -- of academics -- and being a bridge to another world, and being present in both, takes a lot of responsibility, seriousness, and ethical work. Be true to your work, and your people. Don’t lose contact with the native communities. Try to do more than just academic work, see it as humanitarian work. It is not just about publications, tenure, and the rest, don’t forget that the other world also needs you. Don’t just be extractive.

A lot of information has been taken from my people and not returned, and they never saw the researchers again and had no idea how this information was used. We must change the face of disciplines – physical sciences, humanities, social sciences. This should not be forgotten. It must be true to who you are and where it comes from, no matter how high you go academically.

It’s also about giving back to the communities

Unfortunately, the history of colonialism has not been that. But now, if we take the scientific work into our own hands, we must make that difference. We must show that just because they are in an oral stage of language, we can’t just use them for our ends. We need to respect different knowledges, cultures, and ways of communicating.