Beyond the entrance to "Pasos Ajenos" exhibition, the ‘Seeing Your Social Significance’ installation has three panes or mirrors where visitors can consider their identity in society and where they are in their lives. (Courtesy photo)
Beyond the entrance to "Pasos Ajenos" exhibition, the ‘Seeing Your Social Significance’ installation has three panes or mirrors where visitors can consider their identity in society and where they are in their lives. (Courtesy photo)

NMSU professors’ interactive exhibit tackles social justice issues

NMSU – Imagine standing in front of three long, glass plates. One is clear glass where we can barely see the outline or shadow of ourselves, but can’t see our features.

A second has a gold vein running through a mirror so our image appears fragmented, while the third is a standard mirror.

The installation is titled “Seeing Your Social Significance.” Two New Mexico State University professors hope this installation and 11 more will help New Mexicans find new ways to see themselves and others.

“That one’s really impactful because it’s not about the history of the borderlands, but it’s about who are you and how you see yourself,” said Dulcinea Lara, director of NMSU’s Borderlands and Ethnic Studies. “How do others see you? Do you see yourself differently than society sees you? How do you amplify that feeling and how do you derive compassion and empathy for a person standing next to you?”

“Pasos Ajenos,” which translates as “the steps of others,” includes 12 installations intended to examine regional issues of justice and inequality. The exhibition is a fully interactive experience that serves as a door to tough conversations about power, race, gender, labor, migration, border health and poverty. It opens Saturday, March 12, at the Bernalillo Community Museum in Bernalillo, New Mexico, near Albuquerque and runs through June 25. The exhibition is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, except national holidays.

“You can count us in the list of incredible courageous installations and exhibits,” Lara said. “It allows us to talk about how the conversation in New Mexico is changing. It’s courageous, it’s bold and it’s incredibly uplifting and amplifying of so many voices that have been kind of left out of the dialogue.”

Lara and Nicholas Natividad, associate professor of criminal justice, collaborated with artist Daniel Aguilera in 2017 to envision and create the exhibition, which opened first at Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces. The Bernalillo exhibition, with three added installations, is the second. The third exhibition in El Paso this fall will include an additional installation. The exhibition will then travel to other cities across the country.

“I think museums are spaces of public education and partners in how we learn so I think that our exhibit comes at a really important time where adults are wondering what is the curriculum going to look like,” Lara said. “So, I think that our exhibit really shows you in an interactive way what ethnic studies is and what it does.”

Part of the goal is to go beyond the traditional view of New Mexico as being solely about Indigenous peoples, Hispanics and white  settlers. Another of the 12 installations in “Pasos Ajenos” focuses on the role of Buffalo Soldiers in the history of New Mexico, which has many sides. Some are noble while others reflect violence against Indigenous peoples. Visitors can stand before a life-size image of a Buffalo Soldier and sing along with lyrics of the Bob Marley song.

Museum-goers also can lean over and grab a short-handled hoe called “el cortito” in another installation to imagine how it might feel being stooped over in a field for 10 hours a day as a migrant agricultural worker.

“I come from a family of farmers, and I know the corto from having felt it in my hands,” Lara said. “But if you haven’t felt that then you try it, that’s a different way of learning about agricultural work.

“People need to feel that they’re part of this conversation instead of just visitors to an exhibit in a passive way,” Lara said. “So, making these installations interactive means ‘Hey, you’re invited and you’re a part of figuring this out together as a community.’”

Three new installations have been added for the Bernalillo exhibition. One is about a controversial highway caution sign used in California to warn about immigrants crossing. Another is a banner about the toxic chemical disinfection baths officials forced Mexican workers to endure when crossing into the United States in the early 1900s. The third new installation is called “Love without Borders.” It invites visitors to write a postcard to someone with whom they have lost communication but would like to build a bridge.

“What we teach in ethnic studies is that there are not two sides to every story, but there are infinite sides,” said Lara. “I always give teachers a penny and a marble when I do workshops and I tell them there is not a right or wrong answer, a yes or no. There are as many perspectives as there are people in the conversation.”

For more information, visit the Pasos Ajenos website.


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