First-year students examine U.S.-Mexico border fictions in “Before and After the Wall”

Wednesday, Apr 14, 2021

By Michelle Tong

Border relations between the United States and Mexico has become a major topic for recent news. This inspired Spanish and Portuguese Lecturer Nadia Cervantes to design “Before and After the Wall”, a freshman seminar that takes a closer look at the subject through a humanistic lens.

In this course, students examined the topic of borders not from a political standpoint, but rather how borders are portrayed in literature, history, art, music, and movies. The seminar aims to develop novel ways of thinking of the U.S.-Mexico border as a geographical space but also as a discursive site where individuals reflect on dreams, (land) struggles, trans-nationalism, language, identity, and human rights.

“I was really interested in the subject matter, given that I thought it was a very interdisciplinary course (literature, history, politics, etc.) and I hadn't taken a freshman seminar before so it was really just the perfect course to explore,” said Won-Jae Chang.

Open only to members of the first-year class, the Freshman seminar program is designed to provide students an early opportunity to experience the excitement of working closely with an instructor and a small group of fellow students on a topic of special interest.

AJ Salcedo mentioned “I decided to take this seminar because I have a passion for Latin American history; I enjoy studying not only the lasting effects of European colonization on the Americas (like racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia) but also the rich and complex indigenous cultures that existed pre-colonization and continue to exist today.”

The seminar was one of few courses this semester that was taught using a hybrid model which enabled some students to attend class in person.

Salcedo also noted, “This hybrid experience has been such a pleasure for me because it's my only in-person class this semester and so I am able to connect with my classmates and professor on a much more personal level.”

Theo Knoll said, “For me the hybrid experience has been largely positive; going to class in person breaks up the monotony of taking all my classes over Zoom and gives me some scheduled times to walk around campus on my way to class.”

Lecturer Nadia Cervantes teaches a small group of students in-person for FRS 154: “Before and After the Wall”

The seminar was one of few courses this semester that was taught using a hybrid model which enabled some students to attend class in person.

“One of the goals of this course is to have students reflect on how the past informs the present, in particular, how colonial discourses on cultural difference and boundaries set the stage for the way in which the U.S.-Mexico border is imagined and represented today in art, literature and the media,” said Cervantes. “Being able to meet with most of my students in person to talk about all these issues has been a breath of fresh air and it has highlighted the importance of face-to-face interactions when dealing with difficult topics. It has created the environment of mutual trust that is necessary in order to engage in fruitful discussions, especially now that we find ourselves missing all those things that an in-person university experience usually offers.”

As a highlight of this seminar, students participated in a service project in collaboration with FUTURO, a youth mentoring program based in Trenton for first- and second-generation immigrant students, to create a collective poem that talks about bridges—a topic to help illustrate coming together and building connections.

To assist all the students involved with the project, Spanish and Portuguese graduate alumna and poet, Azahara Palomeque, Ph.D. '17, joined the seminar as a guest speaker to lead the group through a poetry workshop. Later this semester, they will be joined by the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, to host another poetry workshop and help the students finalize their poems.

“The seminar definitely brought about a lot of thinking in me. I didn't really go in expecting anything in particular, but I'm beginning to realize how much I've learned about different cultural outlooks and the different meanings of service,” said Chang.

Through the discussions that took place in the course and the engagement in a service project, this seminar provided a valuable opportunity for first-year students and inspired some to continue to explore this subject.

“I definitely think my experience in this seminar will shape my career at Princeton because I've realized how much I love learning about and researching the effects of colonization, and I would love to continue to take more classes like this and maybe even pursue a concentration in Latin American Studies,” said Salcedo.

“This class builds on my understanding of identity and I think that through understanding the identity of myself and others more profoundly, I can more thoughtfully interact with the world around me,” said Knoll. “The rare opportunity to take an in-person class this semester also offered me a close-knit community of peers that I think I will likely be friends with in following years at Princeton.”