Maria Cotera has an extensive knowledge of Chicana feminists’ contributions to American history and is sharing it through a project she co-founded in 2009.
Cotera, associate professor of American Culture and of women’s studies, is one of the founders of the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Project, a digital archive for documenting Chicana artifacts.
“We tend to think of digital humanities and digital platforms as products of the post-2000s,” she said. “But a lot of women of color in the 1970s were working in this field.”
Cotera received her Bachelor of Arts degree in the Plan II honor’s program from the University of Texas, a degree that allowed her to take classes in any concentration.
She eventually obtained her Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Texas, and later her Ph.D. in modern thought from Stanford University.
After completing her undergraduate career, Cotera worked several jobs, including assisting the Chicana Research and Learning Center, a nonprofit organization her mother established in the 1970s. The organization sought to compile records of Chicana history to draw attention to the necessity of including Chicana studies as a part of the Chicano Studies and Women’s Studies curricula.
“My mother wanted the center to provide things like workshops and assertiveness training and political development workshops in the community,” Cotera said. “So the idea of the Chicana Learning and Research Center was always to be a kind of central nodal point for feminist Chicana research but directed toward the community, in addition to the university.”
Cotera’s parents were both movement activists, and she was exposed to their political involvement from an early age. However, it was not until she was studying for her master’s that she directed her focus to Latinx studies, and archival work in particular.
In 2009, Cotera launched the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Collective, an oral history and archival recovery project that aims to preserve records of self-identified Chicana feminists by conducting interviews and digitizing artifacts in their personal collections.
The repository has collected about 150 oral history interviews and about 10,000 digital items from Texas, New Mexico, California, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.
“For me, the process of working on this project has always been the main goal rather than the end product,” Cotera said. “This is because the women of my mother’s generation tend to have very large archival collections in their homes.
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“They haven’t been written about by historians to any great extent and I really felt, having grown up in my mother’s home with all of these archival things around me, that not everybody has an appreciation for the history that surrounds them. And I really was concerned that this history would be forever lost as these women pass.”
Cotera’s forthcoming book centers around her work with the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Collective. She also works with students to provide them with opportunities to contribute to the archives.
“This emancipatory archive speaks to students from so many different locations because this history kind of inserts a feeling that revolutionary thought and action is possible,” Cotera said. “I want them to know that they have agency in shaping history. They can take what they’ve learned from this project and start their own.
“I want students to know that they need to make history that is alive and to change the now, not just to record the past.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
I guess the most recent one was last semester. I taught a really huge class in women’s studies (Introduction to Women’s Studies) with 300-plus students. I decided to make the final project for the course a zine (short for magazine). Students formed small teams to produce these zines, and their zines had to engage material and concepts from the course. Instead of a final exam, we had this amazing pop-up zine fest in the Michigan League Ballroom.
What can’t you live without?
Exercise. And wine. I know, it’s a paradox.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Is it wrong to say my office? I have a view of the Michigan Union and the U-M Museum of Art.
What inspires you?
The past. In my research I focus on women in my mother’s generation who did absolutely incredible things. They invented the field of Chicana feminist studies, collaborated on journals, wrote books that they self-published, taught classes before there were materials to teach with. They are my sheroes!
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading lots of books and articles on photography during the movement years (1965-75). I’m currently writing a chapter on Nancy De Los Santos, a Chicana filmmaker and photographer whose images are in our collection. She is a fascinating woman who took beautiful pictures of all kinds of political events in the 1970s.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My mother, without a doubt.