Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Ray Hernández-Durán

June 19, 2020

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Ray Hernández-Durán

Dr. Ray Hernández-Durán is Professor in the Department of Art. His courses focus on the history and visual and material cultures of the Indo-Hispanic Americas from 1496 through 1898, with geographic research concentrations in New Spain/Mexico, and historical emphases in the 18th- and 19th centuries. 

What region of Latin America/Iberia do you study?

I consider myself a Mexicanist, broadly speaking. As an art historian, my general area of expertise is Latin American Art History from the ancient or Pre-Hispanic periods through the colonial period into the nineteenth century. Chronologically, I specialize in what is variably known as, the Spanish Colonial, Colonial Latin American, and/or viceregal period. Geographically, I work on the Viceroyalty of New Spain, a vast region that was comprised at various moments of modern Mexico, the U.S West and Southwest, Central America, and the Philippines. My studies have largely concentrated on the region around Mexico City, on urban viceregal society and institutions, and imperial politics; however, over the past 15 years, I’ve been expanding my focus to include other regions of New Spain and the larger Indo-Hispanic Americas that have been generally neglected by scholars in my field. Exemplifying this broadening perspective, my M.A. and Ph.D. students have conducted research on such topics as, colonial art and museography in Antigua, Guatemala; Bourbon Reforms and urbanism in early nineteenth-century Havana, Cuba; eighteenth-century images of Franciscan martyrs in the northern provinces of New Spain and New Mexico; the encounter between Bourbon Spanish officials and Northwest Coast natives in the eighteenth century; the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin of Juquila in colonial Oaxaca; and the effects of Bourbon Reforms on mission churches in eighteenth-century Texas, among others. When teaching, I begin in the Caribbean in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus and I end in 1898 with Cuban Independence. My courses tend to be more specific to New Spain and Mexico, such as, Art of New Spain during the Hapsburg Period (1521–1700), Art of New Spain during the Bourbon Period (1700–1821), and Arts of Nineteenth-Century Mexico. My research and publications have examined the intersection of art and politics in the eighteenth century, the shift from viceroyalty to nation, and modern Mexican museology in the nineteenth century. Recently, I’ve been moving forward in time into the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, and northward, into the U.S. Southwest where I’ve been looking more closely at Chicano/a/x and U.S. Latinx art, and the legacies of colonialism. 

Why have you focused on this region? 

As a Tejano of Mexican descent, I never had the opportunity growing up to formally learn about my community’s history or its traditions, which seems unbelievable having been born and raised in a colonial, Indo-Hispanic dominant city like San Antonio. The one class I recall taking that even acknowledged the Mexican or Tejano presence was a class on Texas history that everyone was required to take in seventh grade. In that class, Mexicans were framed as the enemy representing a despotic government the primarily Anglo Texians were fighting against. As someone whose family settled in Texas in the eighteenth century, that version of history did not mesh with the family stories I grew up hearing. Even as a child, I knew something was wrong with that narrative. Part of my elementary school education included a field trip to Mission San Antonio de Valero, which is best known as the Alamo. The old mission, now a racist, nationalistic monument to the Anglo “heroes” who worked for Texas independence, is a site of contention in my hometown that divides many Anglos and Tejanos. Once I got to college, I had the opportunity to learn more about, not only Mexican or Chicano history but also Latin American history, more broadly. That experience opened my eyes and it changed my life. I recognized that there was more work to be done and that my perspective as a Tejano/Hispano/Chicano could be an important contribution to the growing conversation around Latin American and Latino Art and History. In my work, I try not only to expand or refine our knowledge and understanding of how historical events are registered in visual and material cultures; I also aim to introduce new perspectives that question and reveal politically motivated assumptions and culturally biased approaches that have determined how these regions, historical periods, and communities have been studied and interpreted. 

What has been your path to becoming a professor?

I started as a Pre-Med student at the University of Texas at Austin in 1983 and had planned on going to medical school for Psychiatry. In my junior year, I changed my major to Architecture and it was then that I took my first Art History class. I wound up graduating with my B.A. in Liberal Arts with concentrations in Psychology and English, and remained at UT Austin two additional years to complete requirements for a double B.F.A. degree in Studio Art and Art History. As an art history student, I took courses with the late art historian, Jacqueline Barnitz, a pioneer in the U.S. in the study of Modern Latin American Art. Professor Barnitz took me under her wing and mentored me. With her help, I applied and was accepted to five Art History graduate programs around the country. My intention, at the time, was to continue working on Modern Latin American Art. I decided to do my M.A. work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in order to study with a Latin Americanist I was told had just been hired. After accepting the offer of admission and relocating to Madison in 1990, I discovered that this scholar had declined the job offer, which meant I had to find another advisor or transfer schools. With no other specialists of Latin American Art on staff, I took the opportunity to study with the African Art Historian who was on the faculty so I shifted my focus to the Arts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the African Diaspora. I conducted research in West Africa and Haiti, and wrote an M.A. thesis on ritual objects and performance in Haitian Vodun; however, I decided to return to my original Latin American interest for my doctorate. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, I started in Pre-Hispanic Art History and began to explore a dissertation topic that examined the relationship between Aztec sculpture and ritual hallucinogenic consumption. My dissertation advisor encouraged me to move into the colonial period since he felt, at the time, i.e. 1995, that the field of Colonial Latin American Art History was going to grow and that there’d be more employment opportunities, in addition to the need for work in the area. My research interests as a student of colonial art led me to the eighteenth century; however, given questions I had about the field’s development and disciplinary methodology, I chose to write a dissertation that was historiographic and examined the origin of colonial art history studies in Mexico, a topic that took me into the nineteenth century. After a three-year stint as a MacArthur Fellow in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, I resumed my studies and moved to Mexico City in late 2001, as a Fulbright Hays Dissertation Fellow, to conduct research and write my dissertation. It was while living in Mexico that I learned about and applied to the Art History job at UNM. I was lucky. The UNM position was the first and only job I ever applied for and I got it while still a student. I arrived in Albuquerque in August 2003 and joined a program that possessed a long and esteemed history of research in Latin American Art and known for its Art of the Americas emphasis. It was an ideal place for someone with my interests and skills. I got tenure in 2011 and last summer 2019, I was promoted to Full Professor. I have been a faculty member in the Department of Art going on 17 years now. I’ve had several opportunities to leave UNM since arriving but I love my department, like and respect my colleagues, adore our staff, and am invested in my students. My time at UNM has been exciting and productive so I’ll probably remain here until I retire. 

What motivates you in your current work/research?

My intellectual and professional interests have been shaped by my experiences and worldview, as a U.S. born and raised, brown, queer Tejano from the working class. In spite of the longstanding presence of Mexican/Chicano communities in what today is national U.S. territory, Latinxs and Mexicans, specifically, continue to be framed as aliens to the U.S. American experience. Given the Anglocentric historical imaginary we are all saddled with living in the U.S., the country’s master narrative regarding its Protestant foundation and development continues to be tied to the British colonies and the westward movement of European immigrants, popularly identified as, pioneers. This historical framework effectively displaces older Indigenous and Indo-Hispanic populations from the main story. We, as Latinxs or Hispanxs, are part of an older, parallel, colonial complex in the Americas that originated further south and extended northward; these different, even competing, imperial presences collided in the Southwest and West, resulting in a territory that has presented challenges to the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny and Anglo-American Exceptionalism. Although immigration has dominated most recent discussions around Latinidad in the U.S., it should be noted, consequently, that not all Latinxs are immigrants to this country. Many of our communities were already here when the U.S. was founded and northern European settlers began to arrive. Historical Indo-Hispano communities tend to be ignored or placed in a peripheral position in national consciousness and national expressions, a strategic maneuver that continues to reinforce the perception of all Latinxs as recent arrivals and thus not a significant part of this country’s history or national identity. Recognizing historical and ongoing U.S. imperialistic practices, in tandem with the racist anti-Indigenous, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Black attitudes that shape racial conversations, as well as longstanding anti-Catholic sentiment, I should add, we begin to understand how we as a population have been, if not relegated to the margins, then generally left out of positions of authority and institutional sites of cultural production in this country. That said, I do not romanticize Mexico either. It, too, has serious problems with race and class, among other things. As a brown-skinned Latino, my experiences in Mexico and in Latin America have been vastly different than that of my white counterparts due to the vestiges of colonial ideas about race, class, and nation that non-white people continue to be subjected to today. As someone from a region that exists between the Anglo-dominated yet racially diverse U.S. and Mexico with its own hierarchical society, a society that has, for the most part, not addressed its racialized colonial history, I am familiar with the challenges we face, in terms of how we are regarded by all sides and how the value and significance of our experiences and our voices have been misrepresented or disregarded. I, like my immediate departmental Americanist colleagues, see the work I do in an elitist, Eurocentric field like Art History, as a series of needed correctives and thus, as a form of activism. I understand that, in spite of academia’s pretensions to objectivity, especially in the Humanities, its bodies of knowledge and its practices have been shaped by centuries of Eurocentric cultural politics and human bias, variables that have not favored us, overall. As I conduct my research, I am very much aware of my own limitations and biases but I focus on the potential contributions I can make in the study of visual and material cultures as someone who is a part of and thus invested in the traditions, cultures, and peoples I research and write about. We need more brown and black voices in the academy and I am now in a position where I can help diversify perspectives and approaches through my work and by mentoring and helping others accomplish their academic and professional objectives.   

Please describe a Latin American/Iberian role model that inspires you. This can be a historical or contemporary figure or someone you know.

There are various individuals, historical and current, scholarly and lay, I’ve looked to as my career took shape. One such person, who is pertinent to my field and has inspired me, would be Manuel Toussaint y Ritter, the first professional art historian in Mexico. Toussaint, who was born in Coyoacán, Mexico City in 1890, was the first scholar of colonial Mexican art to apply an art historical method in his work. As we see in other cases, before Toussaint, the men who wrote about colonial art were men of means, such as, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and politicians, wealthy individuals who normally had their own art collections and were interested in Mexican art but who were not professional scholars. Toussaint’s work is thus considered foundational for art history as a modern discipline in Mexico. Toussaint dedicated his life to documenting and writing about colonial art in central Mexico as a way to preserve it and argue for its value as national patrimony. In 1934, concerned over the destruction of colonial art, as a result of the Indigenismo movement, he founded the Laboratorio de Arte at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which became the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Mexico’s premier research center for art history. In the early twentieth century when Toussaint was conducting research, mobility and access were extremely challenging; he would drive, take trains, ride burros, and walk long distances to village churches where he identified previously unknown master works by colonial Mexican artists. His two books, Arte colonial de México and Pintura colonial de México, continue to be the standard as far as surveys of colonial art go. Toussaint’s brilliance, his adventurous spirit, and his dedication have been a constant source of inspiration to me as I’ve successfully made my way through the political minefield of academia.   

Please describe one piece of advice you have for young scholars in the field of Latin America/Iberia.

I believe that travel abroad is an important part of one’s education, generally speaking. As a graduate student in a Latin American field, travel is necessary. You need to spend a good amount of time not just researching but traveling in Latin America to get the lay of the land and to make connections. Before undertaking a field trip, however, you need to prepare. You need to develop mastery over your field and cultivate a high degree of fluency in Spanish before you go, as well as proficiency in other languages you may need to do your work. Also, reach out to scholars and institutions ahead of time. Once there, live with those communities, participate in their cultural practices and societies, as much as you’re able, form relationships with locals, and familiarize yourself with local institutions and scholars so they can get to know you and your work. These people will not only be able to provide assistance; they will become valued colleagues and even friends who you will interact with for the rest of your career. Be informed, be curious, be adventurous, but always be open-minded, kind, and respectful when a guest in someone else’s country.   

Is there a specific project/topic you’d like to speak on?

Over the past two years, I have been looking more closely at race, institutions, and the Black presence in New Spain and Mexico. In 2019 through early 2020, I was invited to give a series of presentations on race and the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico at symposia and conferences held at various institutions, including, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador; the College Art Association Conference, New York City; the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference, Denver, Colorado; the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK; the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; and most recently, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.