Could you tell us a little bit about your background? Did you always know that you were interested in history? Or was there a moment when you realized you had a passion for the past?
I had what one could consider to be a somewhat unusual upbringing back in Mexico. One of my aunts is an archaeologist and, since I was a kid, I grew up among beautiful Mesoamerican imagery, pottery and excavation reports, roaming around the pyramids and archaeological sites in summer, and listening to the stories of exploration and historical wonders my aunt used to tell me. At the same time my parents, being physicists, encouraged me to experiment and question why things were the way they are, and I spent much of my time in the amazing labs of the Institute of Physics at the national university. I think this led me to the realisation when I was becoming a young adult that I really loved two things: the past and technology. I’ve been lucky enough to combine both through Digital Humanities.
You work connects archaeology to a relatively new field called digital humanities. Could you tell us a bit more about digital humanities and how it can transform our understanding of the past?
In short, digital humanities, or DH as we usually call it, is the application of theories and methods from computer science to solve research questions in the humanities (e.g. in history, archaeology, or literature, among others). This is to say that we can make use of really interesting computational approaches, such as Artificial Intelligence, to help us in the analysis of the past. For instance, in my research, I’m ‘teaching’ the computer to automatically identify historical concepts of interest to me in very large historical collections, analysing patterns in a Big Data style. What this means in practice is that, for the very first time, we are able to explore and identify information that can help us with our research in a fraction of time, looking through thousands of records that otherwise would take us a lifetime to explore. And this is only one of the innovative uses of technology in history that we are developing. Virtual reconstructions, 3D scanning, and advanced spatial technologies are some of the things we do at Lancaster.
Have a look at some of the projects taking place at the intersection of DH and history:
What's the topic you most enjoy teaching? What makes it special for you and your students?
Within DH, I specialise in the study of landscape, space, and place using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). You can think of GIS as a Google Maps on steroids. Technologies such as this one can be really important to learn because history and archaeology are spatial in nature. This is to say that we are interested in questions of ‘when’ and ‘who’, as much as in issues of ‘where’ - or how geographies might play a role in historical events. GIS is a powerful technology that is used in many industries, so I truly love when my students realise that they are acquiring an important skill that can help to land them a job! In addition, I encourage my students to be highly creative in their use of technologies. This year, our students had brilliant GIS projects. For instance, one of them explored the narratives of American Psycho, while another looked at the possible uses of mapping to investigate the presence of black Africans in Early Modern England!
You also work on the history of Mexico, especially its indigenous culture before and after the Spanish colonization. Why do you think it's important for students to study this topic?
Because imperial knowledges - and related exclusive and oppressive views - are still embedded in the modern world, studying subaltern and alternative accounts in History is of utmost importance. Acknowledging and understanding the existence of different world-views and epistemologies is what might lead us someday to more equal societies. The arrival of the Spanish brought a great deal of destruction and oppression, as well as a different world-view to America (and by America I mean the continent!). Traditional and colonial understandings of history have taught that the Spanish ‘conquered’ in technological, social, political and economic ways the Indigenous civilizations. However, these 'conquered' peoples were not the passive actors that they have often been assumed to be. Most of accounts have considered the Spanish side, but there is a wealth of information produced by Indigenous societies that has barely been explored, and it has been only in the past few years that other interpretations have started to emerge.
I’m interested in the events of the 16th century because this is the time when the contact between these two very different world-views take place. The Indigenous societies certainly adopted and adapted western conceptions and technologies, but they also contested and challenged them. It takes just a look at the incredible maps of the Relaciones Geográficas (the Geographic Reports of New Spain) to get a sense of how Mesoamerican civilizations used and combined European and Indigenous understandings of space, creating new discourses that are alive still today. Historians and archaeologists have the power to bring these alternative narratives to the forefront, but also to provide a better understanding of past dynamics and how to change them.
#decolonise #blacklivesmatter #brownlivesmatter
We'd love to hear more about your journey into history. What would you say is the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get where you are today?
At an academic level, the biggest challenge for me was to find people I could dream ‘crazy’ projects with. This is to say, to imagine research that could combine unusual views and approaches that have never been attempted before. I started to encounter like-minded people during my postgraduate studies, but I found these really creative and unusual partnerships when I first started working at Lancaster as an Early Career Researcher.
At a personal level, I think my biggest challenge has been to overcome damaging ideas about my own self. Growing up I felt great pressure to do well at everything I attempted. There is in me a sort of Latin American mentality that states that in order to ‘make it’, you have to work harder than anyone else. Although one might think that this can be an advantage, it actually provokes a constant state of anxiety for ‘not being good enough’, which was really difficult to shake off. That’s why I love to engage with students not only in academic terms, but also at a more human level. I know the anxieties and expectations that being at university can bring, but also how, with the right support, you can thrive.
And what's the thing you love most about your research?
I think there are two things that immediately come to mind. The first is the process of discovery. I enjoy immensely taking an idea, a hypothesis or a research question and attempting to solve it, whatever the answer might be. The second is interdisciplinarity. I love to work with people that bring different perspectives to my own. To learn from others is one of the most rewarding things about my research, and the process of building knowledge together is really exciting to me.