Gustavus Adolphus College senior Ian Shay ’13 has certainly made the most of his four years as a Gustie. A Spanish major from Rice Lake, Wisc., Shay is the Principal Tubist in the 65-member Gustavus Wind Orchestra and a Spanish composition tutor. He has been a part of organizing the College’s annual Building Bridges Conference, studied abroad for a year in Lima, Peru, and was the first ever editor of El Tintero, the College’s new online Spanish literary and film journal.
On top of all that, Shay decided to enrich his educational experience this year by collaborating with Assistant Professor of Spanish and LALACS Angelique Dwyer on research focused on Mexican-American singer Lila Downs. One-on-one research opportunities between Gustavus students and faculty members have increased dramatically over the past decade thanks to grant money, better resources and equipment, and a highly engaged faculty body.
Shay and Dwyer decided to focus their research on Downs after Shay was introduced to the singer in one of Dwyer’s classes. Dwyer had completed previous research on Downs as part of her doctoral dissertation and had always wanted to continue conducting scholarly research on her.
“I invited Ian to collaborate with me because I know he is considering attending graduate school in anthropology and the work that we are doing is filtered through performance studies, a field highly influenced by anthropology,” Dwyer said. “Being the very intellectually engaged student that he is, I figured I could give Ian a glimpse into scholarly research as a way of preparing him for grad school work.”
“I was interested in researching Downs because her music intersects many of my interests including Spanish, music, transnationality, anthropology, and activism,” Shay said. “She has a brilliant voice and up until this point, very little has been written about her from a scholarly standpoint.”
Shay and Dwyer began their project together on a more informal basis during the fall semester when they had multiple discussion sessions, attended the Latino Midwest Symposium at the University of Iowa, attended two of Downs’ concerts, and also met and spoke with her briefly. Since the beginning of the College’s January Interim Experience, Shay and Dwyer have ramped up their efforts as their schedules allowed.
“We research and write sections of the paper and meet to discuss them a couple times a week,” Shay said. “College life during the semesters can often be rushed, so it’s exciting to devote a January Term to one research project and do it well.”
The title of Shay and Dwyer’s research paper is Lila Downs: Performing Panlatinidad Through Folklore. Dwyer says that through the songs in her current tour, Downs claims the three roots of Latin American ethnicity: indigenous, African, and Spanish. Through the lens of performance studies, Shay and Dwyer are analyzing three songs (Xochipitzahua, La iguana, and La Llorona) that make explicit reference to these roots.
“Downs has a background in anthropology, and manages the presentation of her identity in very intentional, didactic ways,” Shay said. “On one hand, she presents herself as very Mexican. She talks about Mexican folklore in a very personal sense and cultivates an air of authenticity. But on the other hand she integrates a dizzying array of ethnic signifiers, not only from Mexico’s Spanish, African, and indigenous roots, but also from all over Latin America and the U.S.”
Ultimately, Shay and Dwyer are arguing in their research paper that by appropriating these ethnic signifiers and mixing them, Downs is performing a panlatinidad, greatly influenced by the Midwest, broadening Latino identity as perceived in the U.S.
Shay will present their research at the College’s Celebration of Creative Inquiry in the spring, but before that, they will both travel to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and co-present the paper at the International Conference of Hispanic Literature. Understandably, both Shay and Dwyer are excited about not only the process of their collaboration, but also the predicted end result.
“I never imagined I would be doing research like this as an undergraduate, so I’m very thankful to Professor Dwyer for making this happen,” Shay said. “She has been very encouraging though the entire process, and she strikes a good balance between providing guidance and leaving me space to explore.”
“Ian is the kind of student every professor hopes to have. He is a model Spanish and LALACS student because his expert linguistic production in Spanish is evenly matched with his high intellectual ability,” Dwyer said. “I don’t think there is a professor at Gustavus who has had Ian as a student who doesn’t think highly of him. It’s wonderful that he is motivated to engage in scholarly research with me and so far the process has been seamless.”
After he graduates this spring, Shay says he intends to work for a couple of years and then go to graduate school for either anthropology or race studies. He hopes to find a career where he can use his skills as a force for change.
“I think one benefit of my education here at Gustavus is that it has given me a broad base of critical thinking and writing skills that will be useful anywhere I go,” Shay said. “I have deepened my faith and my sense of social responsibility, and I’d like to think I’ve become a more open-minded person through my Gustavus education.”
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