UTEP Event Flavors History with Dash of Humanities

When The University of Texas at El Paso’s Meredith E. Abarca, Ph.D., professor of English, began to research the history of the Paso del Norte region, she decided to use a universal language: food.

Abarca will serve a portion of what she and her student researchers cooked up during “A Living History Archived in Food Practices and Memories” at 5:45 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2019, in UTEP’s Blumberg Auditorium on the first floor of the University Library. This event is free and open to the public.

Part of the presentation will be the unveiling of the research team’s website that includes photos, recipes and videos of El Pasoans from all walks of life in their residential, commercial or temporary kitchens who talk about themselves and their family history as they prepare a dish that has special meaning to them. Every dish stirs up a memory.

“The old saying is that we are what we eat,” Abarca said after a recent hectic morning where she and her student researchers recorded the 27th “cook” to add to the website. “I think what we eat describes who we are historically, culturally, politically and socio-economically as a community. This project is a living history told in tastes, smells and flavors. Regardless of our differences, food stories highlight the things we have in common.”

The presentation, which will be informal and informative, is the latest activity organized by the Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP. The partnership is the result of a three-year, $2 million grant awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to UTEP and El Paso Community College to promote the study of the humanities.

Abarca, one of the first two UTEP professors selected as Humanities Collaborative faculty research fellows, said she and her team – a former UTEP graduate student who will start his doctoral studies at the University of North Texas this fall, and two EPCC students – have learned a lot as they engaged people whose ethnic roots stretch around the world.

While the focus of her research is historical, Abarca said her secondary goal is to introduce her students to more complex research methods that also involve culture, history, marketing, philosophy and anthropology.

“Each personal detail is tied to a bigger story in history, and those stories are told through the lens of food,” said Abarca, who added that she felt privileged that so many people trusted her team with their histories.

Since the fall 2018 semester, collaborative members have organized 15 events that highlight the value of humanities, which includes art and music history, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics and literature in English, Spanish and French.

One of the recent collaborative activities was Discovering the Humanities, a student-led conference conducted April 26, 2019, at EPCC’s Little Temple next to the Rio Grande campus. The conference involved presentations made by UTEP and EPCC student fellows.

Among the lead organizers was Carmen Ordaz, a graduate student in English and American Literature. The El Paso native graduated from Socorro High School in 2011 and earned her bachelor’s degree in English and American Literature with a minor in history from UTEP in 2017. She has been a Humanities Collaborative graduate fellow since fall 2018. She works with two faculty mentors from EPCC in philosophy and English.

“The main thing about a humanities degree is that it expands your knowledge,” said Ordaz, who spends most of her time researching Shakespeare. Her professional goal is to be an academic in higher education. “I’ve learned a lot by working in other fields such as philosophy. Humanities helps you to connect the dots.”

While the focus is on the humanities, the graduate student said the collaborative has strengthened the bonds between the two institutions, especially among first-generation college students who may have been a little afraid of higher education. Part of the focus of the Mellon grant is to encourage the EPCC humanities students to continue their studies at UTEP.

“My hope is that this collaborative will create confidence within the students in our orbit and direct them into specific humanities fields,” Ordaz said. “It’s a great experience.”

Brian Yothers, Ph.D., professor of English and the principal investigator behind the Humanities Collaborative, said that humanities graduates are flourishing in careers beyond academia. He said he has enjoyed reviewing their work at the different collaborative events.

“Our goal is to allow students to share their humanities research, which comes in a variety of forms, and to enhance and support new and/or existing programs,” Yothers said. “These activities are community focused and give a voice to that community.”

Events slated for the next academic year include activities tied to indigenous El Paso, he said.

People can learn more about the partnership via this link.

Author:  Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications