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Faculty Spotlight: Irina 'Lotti' Silber, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership (incorporating the Colin Powell Center)

Faculty Spotlight: Irina 'Lotti' Silber, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Lotti SilberIrina 'Lotti' Silber is an associate professor of Anthropology at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. She is also a prize-winning poet, creative and risk-taking scholar, and a devoted teacher. Prior to teaching within the Colin Powell School, Dr. Silber was director of graduate studies at CCNY's Division of Interdisciplinary Studies. 

Her book, Everyday Revolutionaries: Gender, Violence and Disillusionment in Postwar El Salvador (2011) received the 2013 International Latino Book Award in the category of Best First Book, Nonfiction. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology said that Everyday Revolutionaries is "...notable for its honesty and openness." 

Lotti Silber is committed to engaged research and to pursuing various enthnographic genres. In this faculty spotlight, she talks about the research behind her award-winning book, her interdisciplinary interests and approach to anthropology, and upcoming projects that take on more intimate subjects.

You do a lot of work around the impact of violent political revolutions in Central America on a variety of communities. Can you talk about the evolution of your focus on this aspect of anthropological research, including your experience writing Everyday Revolutionaries?

Everyday Revolutionaries was the result of 17 months of research in El Salvador and later in the United States, and it sought to intervene on theoretical and political questions about reconciliation and the possibilities for a deep democracy after a civil war, from the perspective of those everyday Salvadorans who were not at the negotiating table. In doing so, my work challenges the view that El Salvador is a success story for negotiating a revolution. While I foreground Salvadorans’ collective organizing and search for a dignified life, which did win them some political gains, I believe it is equally important to analyze and make public ongoing injustices.

As I always tell my students, our anthropological work is empirically grounded but it is also positioned, and the questions we ask come about in particular moments. Throughout my research for Everyday Revolutionaries, in everyday ethnographic interactions to more formal interviews, I was seen by most folks as what I’ve termed a “South American Gringa”—born in Argentina, but raised in an immigrant home in the United States. This positioned me in particular ways with the folks I worked with as I carried out what we now talk about as engaged or public anthropology.

I’m especially interested the larger political, economic, and sociocultural forces that affect everyday life. So I listen to the narratives that circulate in the everyday—the talk that happens on the way to the store, while tilling the land, while running a literacy workshop, vaccinating cattle, commuting on a bus to the capital for a demonstration, or flipping burgers in a fast-food chain restaurant in the United States—these are the contexts, building from the work of scholars such as Philippe Bourgois and Paul Farmer, that reveal the structural, symbolic, gendered, and everyday violence in the midst and aftermath of war. 

Can you talk about your current research interests and projects?

I’m at an exciting place in my research agenda. I am very much, one could say, a “Latin Americanist,” with a specialization in Central America, political violence, collective memory, and gender. However, my work is deeply transnational. This year I was a faculty fellow at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center, where I was able to continue ongoing research on Salvadoran migrants in the United States and with their communities in the countryside of El Salvador. A portion of this new project was just published in the “Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology.” 

I’m also looking at unanticipated postwar trajectories—less common migratory paths from El Salvador to Europe. I’m developing research with Salvadorans in Italy, where we find the largest number of Salvadorans in Europe. This is an understudied topic and one that I believe has much to contribute to the growing interest in Europe around the study and the policy prescriptives around migration. The comparative dimension of this work is full of possibility. 

During 2014-2015 I will be a Mid-Career Faculty Fellow with the Mellon Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center. I am thrilled and honored to be selected and will be working on another major project entitled “Luminous.” In “Luminous,” I am pursuing a sort of “intimate ethnography” on children born with a rare genetic disease. This research is multi-sited, and incorporates the everyday life of children and adolescents as they engage in a range of institutions (medical, education, community). Because it also will study alongside their caregivers, family activists and the hope is with teams of health care specialists—from geneticists, to transplant surgeons—this project will contribute to conversations in science studies, medical anthropology, disability studies, the anthropology of childhood, and public anthropology. My goal is to develop a framework for understanding ideas about injury, trauma, bodies in crisis, and importantly, living in chronic states. In doing so, I also hope to bring real attention  to how disability is indeed a foundational aspect of the human condition. 

My ongoing projects with the Salvadoran diaspora are possible because of my long-term relationships spanning generations. This new project on children with a rare genetic disease also involves negotiating degrees of intimacy, as I am a parent of a child with a rare genetic disease. For me, this project is at once personal and academic.

Are you drawn to research projects, such as this ‘intimate ethnography,’ that are somewhat hybrid in nature?

I find it important to be constantly learning and pushing my writing in new directions. In Everyday Revolutionaries, I experimented with what I called “interstitials,” writings that fall between more conventional ethnographic chapters. I have several original poems in my book that are personal reflections built from fieldnotes that help to highlight a particular topic, such as the hard lives of children during war. I continue to write ethnographic poetry on El Salvador, on motherhood, on injury, on containing loss, and I know that “Luminous” will be a hybrid text in this way. In November 2012, one of my poems, “Nanita,” won first prize from the Society of Humanistic Anthropology, which is a section of the American Anthropological Association, and in 2013 Everyday Revolutionaries won the Mariposa Award, a first book prize from the International Latino Book Awards. I see my work in this way as taking productive scholarly and creative risks. 

You taught in the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies before the Colin Powell School’s department of anthropology. Are there any major differences in your teaching approach from that division to the social sciences?

It has been a privilege to teach CCNY students in both divisions. I learned a tremendous amount while developing curriculum and teaching in the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies under the leadership of Dean Juan Carlos Mercado. Yet, anthropology is inherently interdisciplinary, and given my areas of interest (i.e. El Salvador, political violence, diaspora), I have always had to cross over and build upon diverse literatures. I am committed to pushing myself and my students to disrupt assumptions about the way our world is organized and how people build meaningful lives, and I do this through an array of different texts such as ethnographies (the heart of anthropological work), history, fiction, poetry, and film. I bring energy from my days at DIS—where we’d teach 3.5 hour long classes—to my teaching today and try to always run rigorous seminar sessions with active student participation. This asks a lot of my students in terms of engagement with the course topics and materials, and also keeps me on my toes. It is truly an exciting time to work with my colleagues in the department of anthropology at the Colin Powell School during this visionary time with Dean Vince Boudreau. I am inspired by the commitment to public scholarship and the place for an anthropological perspective at the college, and how I can help educate the next generation of critical scholar activists.