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Elaine A. Pena Faculty Member


Like many of my colleagues in American Studies, my training, research, and pedagogy are interdisciplinary. My work, primarily ethnographic, also draws on archival research, spatial analysis, and performance theory to speak to scholars across Latina/o/x Studies, American Studies, and Latin American Studies. What sets me apart is my deep commitment to using my training in Performance Studies and Anthropology to pinpoint how the production of different types of infrastructure—social as well as physical—reveal underlying transnational ties and challenge nation-as-container thinking. As a specialist in the study of religion, I use ritual, be it religious or civil, as an optic to examine Latina/o/x labor as well as the politics of cooperation and exclusion at international boundary lines. Both of my books—Performing Piety: Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe (University of California Press, 2011) and ¡Viva George! Celebrating Washington’s Birthday at the U.S.-Mexico Border (University of Texas Press, 2020)—exemplify my interdisciplinary training. ¡Viva George! draws attention to the Port-of-Laredo and the ongoing tradition of commemorating George Washington’s Birthday (est. 1898). Modeled as an extended case study of the celebration’s annual International Bridge Ceremony staged between Laredo, Texas (U.S.A.) and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (Mexico), ¡Viva George! examines the festive repurposing of border infrastructure during times of crisis (e.g. natural disasters, immigration hysteria, and national security challenges). Building on seven years of ethnographic and archival research as well as access to uncatalogued documents in the U.S. and Mexico, it shows how festival coordinators use the “expectation of ritual” that precedes the bridge ceremony to circumvent federal immigration restrictions with a free bridge policy from 1957-1975 (The Drama Review 61.2), for example, and to sustain cross-border communication while coping with the unsettling proximity of drug-cartel violence. ¡Viva George! argues that the International Bridge Ceremony is more than a goodwill gesture or an exercise in identity-consolidation; it is a repository of cross-border memory, a negotiation platform, a reconciliatory course of action, and an efficacious mode of border security. ¡Viva George! focuses on instances of cross-border cooperation during times of crisis to calibrate academic and popular analyses that disproportionately emphasize pathos and illegality at the U.S.-Mexico border and among Latinx communities in particular. But it is careful not to validate romanticized notions of cultural contact. After all, celebration-goers still “play Indian,” but they also, as I argue in the book, have never stopped “playing Colonial” and “playing Mexican.” The manuscript draws on previous research to unpack how class, citizenship, gender, and religious affiliation along with the erasure of indigenous identity on both sides of the border dictate who can celebrate, when, where, and to what extent (e-misférica 3.2, American Literary History 26.1). It also benefits from thinking about borders and boundaries with performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña (Routledge 2005 and Routledge 2020). ¡Viva George! has been well received since being published in November of 2020. In addition to excellent reviews written by leading scholars in History, Performance Studies, and Anthropology, I have been invited to talk about my research with Texas Public Radio, Frontera Radio, GW Today, Texas Highways, Texas Co-Op Power, The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon (Ford Evening Book Talk), the National Museum of American History, History Summit 2021 as well as (virtual) undergraduate course visits in English and Spanish. I look forward to promoting the book nationally and internationally once we get a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic. Moving forward, I am excited to continue expanding my work on ¡Viva George! with colleagues in the U.K. and Europe. I am currently a co-PI on a research project funded by the British Academy that focuses on border festivals and practical governance in West Africa. In addition to gaining invaluable comparative research experience, we are planning to pursue additional funding in the U.S. to co-edit a comparative border studies reader focused on festival. Contributions will highlight how non-governmental actors use or repurpose cross-border traditions in response to global challenges. The point of the volume is to show how tackling border problems requires more than state-sanctioned plans. Encouraging the broad-based participation of multiple stake-holders, making full use of on-site knowledge sources, and recognizing the utility of bi-national communicative acts should not figure as cultural afterthoughts in crafting border policy. My third book project will build on my work at the Port-of-Laredo (Material Religion 13.4) but it will develop new pathways for research at Mexico’s southern and northern borders with a particular focus on migration and religious practice.  I plan to conduct fieldwork to examine the construction, renovation or neglect toward border infrastructure along the Guatemala-Mexico border at Ciudad Tecún Umán, Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, México. Acknowledging its importance as a major thoroughfare for economic migrants, refugees, and unaccompanied children traveling northward via la Bestia, this project will examine if and how border infrastructure shapes migration pathways and waiting plans, determines the pace and practice of religious expression, generates labor opportunities, and informs the allocation of foreign investment and security monies.

Research Areas

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