May 22nd, 2019
University of Toronto
Interview with Elaine A. Peña
Stephen Berquist: Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview, Dr. Peña. We really appreciate it. I was wondering if you could give us some background on your current project and your past work in Chicago and Michoacán.
Elaine Peña: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. My first book was Performing Piety: Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe (University of California Press, 2011). The book came out of my dissertation, which I finished with Northwestern University in the Department of Performance Studies. I was trained between performance studies and cultural anthropology. That project looked at the Virgin of Guadalupe’s transnational presence, not necessarily in terms of the mobility of people, but in terms of the spaces that Guadalupanos produce. So, I started the field work component of this book, unbeknownst to me, at the end of my first year, during Spring Quarter. My mentor, Dwight Conquergood, encouraged me to look at what was happening around the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Rogers Park.
As I note in the book, I spent many afternoons and evenings and weekends there with people in that neighborhood, and I spent my days learning theory at school. These were two completely different worlds. And I eventually figured out that the theory wasn’t doing justice to the practice that I was encountering. So that set me up to ask bigger questions and to think bigger about space production and community formation, not just in Chicago, and not to privilege Mexico City or the version of the shrine established in 1523 as some kind of origin point because it’s absolutely not.
With the encouragement of my mentors, primarily Dwight Conquergood, I started pursuing the Virgin of Guadalupe’s presence in the production of sacred space in greater Chicago. I started fieldwork in Des Plaines, Illinois at the second Tepeyac and then continued fieldwork at Tepeyac in Mexico City. Those decisions allowed me to look at the political economy of pilgrimage, the political economy of sacred space production, and also to delve into what Conquergood calls “co-performative witnessing”. I also spent a lot of time thinking through how these devotees are recognized or not by the Catholic Church proper, how they own their devotion on their own terms, in what some people would call popular religion or folk religion, how they’re creating sacred space and generating their own networks with their devotional labor; and how the devotional capital that comes out of that labor is helping them keep things together with the Virgin of Guadalupe in a particular space with a particular network of people.
So that’s what the first book is about. And I think that one of the best aspects of the book is its attention to how bodily practice generates notions and expressions of the sacred in place and in motion, primarily among the women. Embodied devotional performances also generate and regenerate Marian myth and history as well as the legitimacy and authority of wide varieties of sacred space in central Mexico. So, I brought that frame of reference, which I actually developed in central Mexico, back to Chicago. And that’s why this study is transnational. I focused on Mexican Chicago but not Pilsen. And that is another cool thing about the book. The narratives featured in the book grasp intra-city migration, primarily Mexican laborers to other ports of entry in the Chicago area, not the city’s historic “Mexican” port of entry, which is Pilsen.
Stephen Berquist: The subject matter of your book is very related to the themes of the Connaught Project and there seem to be what you might call, if you chose, different sorts of sovereignty: amongst communities, amongst families, within the Catholic Church but all operating within and sometimes against these national sovereignties. One of the things that I really liked about your work is that you show how these sovereignties are grounded in corporeality and materiality, in the textures and movements of everyday life. I was wondering though in what other ways you might have chosen to frame your work, looking back on it now and how you see the themes of Sovereignty, Sanctity, and Soil speaking to it.
Elaine Peña: Well, I think that sovereignty and authority and discipline, for example, manifest through national symbols. That’s how this kind of larger idea of sovereignty dips down, permeates, changes and is changed by the practices of these religious devotees; many of whom do not have the luxury of crossing international boundary lines with ease. So, I take sovereignty really, really seriously. One key aspect of the classical definition of sovereignty is the right of the state to protect itself from its enemies, right? If I were to think about sovereignty on the ground on this level, I wouldn’t necessarily think about it in terms of sovereignty, but as related to the sovereignty that the state is putting forth on an everyday basis through immigration policy and via a number of other avenues.
But, with the second book, which takes place at an international boundary line proper (the Port-of-Laredo along the U.S.-Mexico border), I was able to see how national symbols like flags and embodying national heroes illustrate what some people in religious studies would describe as civil religion. Those kinds of symbols do not detract from sovereignty and are not separate from national projects of sovereignty at a place where this nation state meets this nation state. It’s absolutely a part of a larger power grid. I started thinking about this when I was working on Performing Piety. I noticed how national symbols can make claims on wider playing field: the Japanese flag hanging in the background as the reenactment of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego’s apparition story is taking place at the Second Tepeyac in Des Plaines. I can see there are similarities, but I think the stakes are incredibly different.
Stephen Berquist: Could you talk a bit more about the states? I’d be particularly interested in putting your research into conversation with Nicholas De Genova’s work on the tension between the nation-state and larger diasporic communities, and how the mobility of the community exists a priori to the bordering practices that generate the sovereignty of the bounded nation-state.
Elaine Peña: Absolutely! But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what came before. What matters for my work is that somebody in Chicago, for example, has not seen their relatives in 20 years because they are in the United States and cannot return to Mexico. So, I appreciate De Genova’s work absolutely, I think that among academics we can remind ourselves of this exclusion, but I think in my experience working with people on the ground and transnationally, they just know the reality of the power of the state to prevent mobility and there is really more of a focus on the realities of immobility. They devise a number of different channels to communicate in spite of those mobility barriers. And in the case of Performing Piety, devotion becomes a form of mobility that may not be recognized by the state. It may not necessarily solve the underlying problem, but it may make coping with injustice easier.
Stephen Berquist: That’s great, I was actually hoping that you would push back against that a little bit because I could see that implicit in your work and was interested in drawing that out a bit. I’m also very interested in the tension between official secularism and religious praxis. How would you say that these sorts of popular religion are juxtaposed or in tension with the state and whether this happens in explicit opposition or whether you see it being formulated as something separate and distinct from state power? Or perhaps neither is the case and you see a more complex relationship.
Elaine Peña: Well, I think I need something concrete. I can understand what you’re saying in the abstract, but there really isn’t there a separation in politics and religion or power and the things that people do. You know what I mean? It’s not something that I like to silo or compartmentalize for the sake of analytical clarity.
Stephen Berquist: Well, as an example of what I mean we could take the way that the Church or specific Catholic groups might be working with undocumented workers and the sorts of actions that they take on their behalf. What I am interested in pursuing is the way that such actions might either be conceptualized as in opposition to this state or not, as something that is instead simply done out of necessity and out of care and out of a sense of purpose, but that is not necessarily done explicitly in resistance to powerful institutions.
Elaine Peña: Well certainly I think that resistance may be the wrong word because I think that the Catholic Church itself takes a position that is communicated by their head of state. I mean we can talk about all the ways in which institutions like the Catholic Church have played their hand when it comes to immigration policy. But I think one of the more interesting ways that I can answer your question is recalling Pope Francis’ visit to the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border in 2017 when he officiated mass at and across an international boundary line. He was speaking to two publics, to two different publics that were separated by the nature of the soil that they were standing on.
I don’t think what Pope Francis did exemplifies resistance. It was an act of communication—communicating a message that is different from the stance that state actors and institutions are taking on the issue. So maybe a more interesting way to think about it is that if Pope Francis is recognized as a leader, does his authority as a leader of said institution translate or even overlap or have any kind of political traction?
Stephen Berquist: It’s an interesting question. I don’t know if you’re interested in Bruno Latour’s work but he released that book a few years ago looking at different networks as he saw them and the ways that they played out in the world. He separated religion from politics and suggested that religion could serve a sort of redemptive function. How much of redemptive function do you see in religious practice, personally and politically? How much of that are you able to co-witness and access during what seem like quite arduous pilgrimages?
Elaine Peña: Well, there isn’t an immediate payoff. The Pope Francis example is a spectacle with a message. But does that change anything? Are people thinking about their devotional practices differently? About how much time they devote to citizenship, activism, or immigration activism? I’m not sure, but I think there’s something very, very appealing about those moments even if they don’t give you an immediate payoff. Their redemptive quality, perhaps, is that are immortalized through images and media content; they stay in the collective memory of the press and stories of that experience circulate among the people who were there and their interlocuters. The redemptive potential of that moment is being refined with this exercise (this interview), with our curiosity about the ties that bind religion and sovereignty.
Stephen Berquist: That seems like a good point to transition to your current project.
Elaine Peña: So, this second book, which I’ve just finished, is called The Festive Border: Ritual, Infrastructure, and Cooperation at the Port-of-Laredo (forthcoming, University of Texas Press, Fall 2020). The Festive Border takes the tradition of commemorating George Washington’s birthday at a port of entry along the US Mexico border. In this case, it’s Laredo, Texas, United States of America and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. I look at the ways in which borderlanders festively repurpose port infrastructure (the international bridge) with ritual to maintain lines of communication and maintain a sense of border control in nonviolent ways. That cross-border coordination requires the participation and input of state actors from the U.S. and Mexico, but it does not undermine their authority. I argue that focusing on the Washington’s Birthday Celebration’s annual abrazo ceremony—the long-standing tradition of delegations from both sides of the border meeting in the middle of their internationally co-owned bridge as part of the festivities—narrates a more comprehensive border story. The Festive Border, for example, highlights the economic gains that can be made when lines of communication are maintained with the expectation of ritual (the act of meeting in the middle of the bridge), especially during times of crisis.
But also, as I suggested earlier, this border enactment can communicate a big political message without the usual backlash. In this context, the abrazo ritual shows border control, an efficacious way to keep border trade, immigration, and security on track. So, this seemingly whimsical kind of celebration with George Washington’s birthday, which has its own history, to me, was the perfect way to get at the gaps in border studies, especially US-Mexico border studies that emphasize illegality, violence, and pathos. It’s a very personal project as I was born and raised at the Port-of-Laredo. In fact, a very nice article called “The Border Ball”— was published recently about the research and my role in it.
One of the questions I often get is why do people continue to commemorate George Washington’s birthday at that port of entry every single year since 1898? Why celebrate George Washington there at all? What is that investment, what some may call inventing traditions, about? But I think the more important question is how do those invented traditions persist and speak to contemporary political problems as well as shared global challenges? And here I’m not speaking only from the US perspective, but also from a Mexican perspective. How we can look at these border enactments and not push them away, or put them aside, or not factor them in because they don’t count, because it’s ritual, because its people playing, et cetera? So that’s one of the main interventions this book makes, buoyed by substantial archival and ethnographic research on both sides of the border.