(Issue 16) Art & Politics Feature: Dr. Margarita Lila Rosa

Dr. Margarita Lila Rosa: A Multifaceted Woman, a Beautifully Audacious Life by Laila E. Dreidame

When my path crossed with the undeniably brilliant Dr. Margarita Lila Rosa at the start of the year, it was clear we were going to be friends. She carries herself modestly and with a joyful youthfulness so refreshing in the academic and art fields. After learning more about Rosa’s approach, interests, and fanning over her social media content, I knew I had to share her on this platform so that more people would be as inspired as I am by her spirit, mind, and overall vibe. Let’s dive in…

Laila E. Dreidame: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, especially since you are as busy as ever! You are taking on academic writing, art criticism, and now curation—your career is truly multifaceted. What has been the most meaningful part of your professional journey thus far?

Dr. Rosa: Thank you so much. I have received a lot of support from other women throughout my career. From the academic mentors who cultivated me as a historian, to the women who have supported my practice in the art space, I have had divine mentorship. When I was first considering launching a professional practice in the art world, I was looking for examples of the kinds of things I wanted to do. I found out about the amazing work that Chela Mitchell is doing and had the idea to reach out to her. Chela was gracious enough to give me a meeting, and afterwards even e-mailed me a free ticket to an art fair in Los Angeles. That’s how I started traveling for art. I literally printed business cards, grabbed my notebook, and got to work. It felt liberating, honestly. I was in the middle of my first year as a university professor, and Chela’s example pushed me to foster a pure sense of authenticity and purpose.  Soon after I launched a practice in the art world as a writer (and now a curator), I was afforded incredible opportunities to work with Nicole Calderón, Aimee Friberg, Karen Jenkins Johnson, and did review for an exhibition at Nicola Vassell Gallery. Artists Sahana Ramakrishnan and Veronica Fernandez have also been super supportive by answering my questions about what artists need—they have been a generous sounding board. It’s been wild to think about the level of support I have received as a writer and creative, and how much that has to do with the support from women. 

LED: How did you end up at Stanford University?

Dr. Rosa: I barely made it to college, and few people from my high school in Jersey City, NJ., ever went. I grew up by Lincoln Park on West Side Avenue, and although I wanted to go to college, I didn’t even know how to apply. Growing up, it seemed that college was not in the cards for me. I was class president, the editor-in-chief of the school’s arts magazine, and the co-captain of the cheerleading team—even with those leadership roles my profile didn’t meet what colleges were looking for. I eagerly wanted to go to Columbia University and was crushed when I was rejected, along with every other school I had applied to. Then, recruitment officers from our state university, Rutgers, came to my high school and they admitted me on the spot. That’s how I ended up going to college. Coming from Jersey City, I had this “I’m not scared of anyone or anything” personality, and in a lecture hall of undergraduate students, I stood out. By my junior year, two professors had offered me seats in their graduate courses. Having older colleagues challenged me to step up, and so I did. My papers began to win awards within the university, my newspaper column was widely read, and professors were inviting me to conferences and academic events. By the time college graduation arrived, my mentors advised me to apply to graduate school so I could become a professor. I had previously studied education but was frustrated with the history curricula I was being asked to teach. So, I felt that teaching at the college level would be the best way to make the impact I sought. I didn’t know anyone in my personal life who was a professor, so I decided that I would only take the risk if I got into the best graduate programs. I applied to Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, and got into all three. I went to Princeton and now I teach at Stanford. High school me is really proud. 

LED: What do you teach at Stanford? And what does your job entail?

Dr. Rosa: I am a historian of Black women’s histories across the Caribbean, the United States, and Brazil. I research how Black women experienced slavery, maroonage, motherhood, and forms of state violence. Being a ‘historian’ involves traveling to archives and searching for primary documents. I am currently working with archives in Santo Domingo, Havana, and Rio de Janeiro to write a book about motherhood and rebellion in Black Atlantic history. It’s really exciting. This summer, I spent one month in Cuba and another in the Dominican Republic doing research. While I love doing research, teaching is really important to me and the best part of being a historian. In my courses, I try to give students the tools they might need to do archival research. I’m currently teaching a class called Rebelión, titled after Joe Arroyo’s salsa hit of the same name. In this course, I am teaching about Caribbean history from the perspective of rebellion. We are looking at everything from the Haitian Revolution, to the troops led by Antonio Maceo for Cuban liberation and the emancipation of slaves, to contemporary working conditions and labor demands on the island of Ayiti, including in Dominican bateyes. I have the best students and they are becoming amazing researchers!

LED: Where do you feel most at ease to fully embrace your creative self?

Dr. Rosa: This is such a great question. Curation has honestly been a space that has demanded quite a bit of creativity. I am really excited to be working on a couple of shows with people I deeply respect and find to be dope individuals. I love thinking about how I can bring something new and even absurd to the art space, something that people aren’t used to seeing. I have loved building authentically with the artists I work with and thinking of how we can push the bar. I am having fun being able to be completely myself! I think I’m in the unique position to move a kind of cultural needle, and I want to do it. I’m a professor who teaches about women who defied respectability politics all the time, so I want to demonstrate that you can be it all. I currently see no limits to how I can contribute to culture, and that feels wild to me, but exactly where I worked to be. 

LED: Who are the artists you are most intrigued by right now and why?

Dr. Rosa: Right now, I can’t take my eyes off Ambrose Rhapsody Murray and Didier William. The way they manipulate color and dimension is just wild to me, and William’s carving on wood is just unbelievable. Murray’s use of Black femme sensual imagery from the archive is something I have brought into my graduate courses. Bony Ramirez is my childhood dream come true. He addresses topics that I feel like I have faced my whole life, living within my body. In Bony’s work, I see my body within the world. The gaze planted on the figures is the gaze I feel planted on me. Seeing that on a gallery wall feels like a part of my narrative is legible now. Being able to work with Bony and theorize around his work has been the experience of a lifetime, especially because Bony is so genuinely sweet. I look forward to seeing the projects come into the world. I trust and love Bony’s vision.  I also love literature and integrate it into my practice. I think that the writings of Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi and Vietnamese author Ocean Vuong have a lot to do with how I consume and interpret art. I recently got to do an art review on visual artist Frida Orupabo, using the novels of Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, and that was one of the most thrilling projects I’ve ever worked on. 

LED: Do you have a word of advice for people who may identify with you and want to be active participants in the art world?

Dr. Rosa: You literally can start participating in art and culture all the time. In my view, I am still participating in the margins as a full-time historian. And in my case, I have been building relationships with particular communities of artists and galleries. I really gravitate towards projects that speak to one part of my journey as a Dominican girl from Jersey City. The first artists I reached out to were Bony Ramirez and Raelis Vasquez, two artists whose works felt super localized to my experience. I had been going to shows just to see their pieces. And from those art shows, I was introduced to the work of artists across the country who addressed the things that I had seen in my life. My priority now is cultivating community with the artists and galleries I am working with and uplifting them. I am always seeking artists who are pushing the bar, culturally, and I am grateful to now be in a position where I can help push the bar. 

LED: What sort of impact do you wish to leave through your work?

Dr. Rosa: I really want to leave a mark for young girls in my home country, Dominican Republic. I think a lot about the little girls who walk up the hills of Tenares in chancletas. The girls who get on the back of pasolas to ride to school. As someone who was born in the countryside of Tenares, I believe I have a responsibility to these young women and girls. I want them to know that one can be a university professor and also be part of the cultural conversation around sexuality, presentation, and respectability. I want them to know that they can be it all, and that time is on their side. 

Learn more about Dr. Margarita Lila Rosa: 

Dr. Margarita Lila Rosa was born in Tenares, Dominican Republic, in 1993. Raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Rosa received her B.A from Rutgers University, and her Ph. D from Princeton University. Dr. Rosa is a Lecturer and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, where she teaches courses on gender and rebellion in the Black Atlantic. She is also an art writer and curator specializing in Black and Latinx art. Dr. Rosa is based in Oakland, California. 

Website: https://www.margaritalilarosa.com

Instagram: @margaritalilarosa

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