Digital Hispanisms: Using Third World Feminism in DH

I gave the following talk on Jan. 5, 2019 at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention held in Chicago, IL.

This talk was part of a TC Digital Humanities sponsored roundtable on Digital Hispanisms with Alex Saum-Pascual (UC, Berkeley), Sylvia Fernández (U. of Houston), Nora Benedict (Princeton U), Vanessa Ceia (McGill U), Lorena Gauthereau (U. of Houston), Hilda Chacón (Nazareth College). This roundtable was designed to spark a conversation on the intersections between Digital Humanities (DH) and Hispanic Studies (HS). For all the speakers’ abstracts, please visit:

As we reflect on Digital Hispanisms in this roundtable, I want to briefly describe the types of theoretical frameworks and methodologies that emerge when engaging the digital humanities (DH) through US Latinx Studies. Specifically, I am interested in the groundwork laid by Chicana and Third World feminists. Rather than continuing to center hegemonic Anglophone theorists, I argue that by drawing from the lived experiences of Women of Color, we can shift the types of conversations taking place in the field of digital humanities. As a Woman of Color, I recognize that we cannot rely on hegemonic DH theory to acknowledge, much less accurately represent, our lived experiences and the digital stories we tell. As an example of DH discourse elaborated from the perspective of Third World feminism, I will discuss my mapping project, “Are We Good Neighbors?” and how my proposed theoretical framework highlights what is at stake in doing this type of DH: it’s a matter of humanizing a past that has all too often been silenced. Third World feminism accounts for the way that theory and lived experience meld, and stresses that the theoretical needs to be grounded in the flesh because our experiences cannot be separated from who we are.

Garcia, Adriana.  Liminal Incubation, 2012.

“Are We Good Neighbors?” is a story map that includes transcriptions of affidavits and maps incidents of discrimination against Mexican Americans in Texas during the 1940s. These affidavits are from the Alonso S. Perales Collection at the University of Houston’s Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage. Perales was one of the first Mexican Americans to practice law in the US and one of the co-founders of the civil rights organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens (or LULAC) (Olivas xi). In addition to practicing law, he was also a diplomat, veteran, civil rights activist, and author of two books: En defensa de mi raza (In Defense of My People) and Are We Good Neighbors?, from which I drew the digital project’s name. As part of his activism, Perales encouraged the Mexican American community to report discrimination and to call out, by name, the public establishments in which these incidents occurred. As a result, his archival collection includes hundreds of affidavits and letters.

One after another, these accounts tell stories of the quotidian: going out for dinner with family, spending time with friends, moving to a new house, riding the bus to school, or even going to the barber shop for a haircut. Yet, for Mexican Americans in the 1940s, these quotidian activities are marked by disgust, hatred, shame, fear, and even violence. And these negative affects are felt and worn on the body. Mapping these instances gives a materiality to the offenses, geolocating them in neighborhoods and commercial centers still frequented today. When the bodies of those who experienced this discrimination are long gone, it is our bodies that can physically stand in these places.

Framed through the lens of Third World feminists, such as Sara Ahmed, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga, “Are We Good Neighbors?” reveals the personal history of racism, one that takes place in our neighborhoods to real people, rather than distanced through abstract statistics. What becomes apparent when mapping these accounts is the personal and normalized embodiment of racism in the US. The juxtaposition of these affidavits and maps call people to be witnesses through time and affectively embed the experience in its physical location. These locations are often places that we can imagine ourselves in. Remembering injustices through this type of witnessing makes people of color visible, and is, as Ahmed writes, “about claiming an injustice did happen; this claim is a radical one in the face of the forgetting of such injustices” (2004; 200).

Take for example the affidavit sworn by Amada B. Quesnot, the mother of five-year old Eugene Quesnot. On November 13, 1941, she attempted to take little Eugene to M&S Clinic for treatment yet was turned away because of her ethnicity. Amada writes,

The lady in charge in the Social Workers Room asked me if I was Latin American and when I replied in the affirmative she stated that no Latin American children were accepted for treatment at that Clinic.

(Quesnot qtd. in Perales 204)
Quesnot, Amada , “Affidavit sworn by Amada Quesnot to Alonso S. Perales,” Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Digital Collections.

Turned away, Amada insists upon her own legitimacy in her letter, tracing it through her US citizenship and both her husband’s and older son’s military service. She was born here, she protests. But her brown skin is read as un-American; and the brown skin of her five-year old child is read as undeserving of medical attention. Her decision to write the letter affirms her need to do something, to plead for political action. She documents a struggle, a status quo that needs to change. Her lived reality is tied to this political desire. Cherrie Moraga’s theory in the flesh makes this connection; a theory in the flesh, she writes, is a theory in which “the physical realities of our lives–our skin color, the land of concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings–all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity” (19). Echoing Moraga’s (1981) argument that theory is fused to the body, Sara Ahmed states that:

The personal is theoretical. Theory itself is often assumed to be abstract: something is more theoretical the more abstract it is, the more it is abstracted from everyday life. To abstract is to drag away, detach, pull away, or divert. We might then have to drag theory back, to bring theory back to life.

(2017; 10)

Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) mestiza consciousness then weaves these two together. It is the thread that ties the theory to the flesh. Anzaldúa imagines the mestiza putting

history through a sieve…This step is a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions. She communicates that rupture, documents the struggle. She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths.

(Anzaldúa 104)

Mestiza consciousness as an approach to DH calls us to read for the silences in historical narratives, to discard the frameworks that marginalize the experiences of people of color, and to invent new theories and methodologies that center our lived experiences.

Turning to Third World feminism in DH, then, reminds us to bring theory back to life, to bring it back to the lived experience. “Doing DH” isn’t just about the final product, but also about the process of dragging theory back and embodying it. Moreover, shifting the loci of enunciation from the center to the margin, reimagines DH not just as a site of knowledge-production, but also as a site of decolonial resistance and social justice. Our digital work does not need to be reduced to mere zeros and ones or replicate the canonical archive of dead white men’s work, but instead can be a space to reclaim lost histories, reveal injustices, and demand that our voices be heard. Allow me to end with one last Ahmed quotation in order to highlight the importance of thinking through DH via Third World feminism; I ask that you reflect on digital scholarship and digitized archives as I read this: “Your texts are littered with love. Words can pulse with life; words as flesh, leaking; words as heart, beating.” (2017; 230). Thank you.

Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, 2014.

_____. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.

Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

Moraga, Cherríe and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back.Writings by Radical Women of Color. 4th ed., SUNY Press, 2015.

Olivas, Michael A. (ed.) In Defense of My People: Alonso S. Perales and the Development of Mexican-American Public Intellectuals. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2012.

Quesnot, Amada , “Affidavit sworn by Amada Quesnot to Alonso S. Perales,” Alonso S. Perales Collection. Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Digital Collections.


Lorena Gauthereau is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage at the University of Houston. Find her online at

UT’s Digital Scholarship in the Americas series

On Friday, November 2, 2018, Recovery’s CLIR-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Lorena Gauthereau will be presenting “(Digital) Methodology of the Oppressed: Decolonial Theory and US Latina/o Digital Humanities” at the University of Texas at Austin. The lecture is sponsored by LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections and the Center for Mexican American Studies. It will take place from 12:00-1:30 pm at the Benson Library. Registration is required before 5:00 pm November 1st at

In this talk, Dr. Gauthereau draws on Chela Sandoval, Cherríe Moraga, and Emma Pérez to discuss the implications and applications of Chicana decolonial theory and affect theory for the Digital Humanities and minority collections. By focusing on the emerging US Latina/o Digital Humanities initiative at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage, she examines the structural colonial problems encountered in US Latina/o DH and the stakes of digital decolonial praxis.


UH Grad Students Collaborate on National Digital Project, “Torn Apart”


HOUSTON, TEXAS (September 27, 2018)– UH Hispanic Studies graduate students, Sylvia Fernández and Maira Álvarez, collaborated with leading digital humanities scholars on the creation of Torn Apart/Separados, a digital visualization project that emerges from the immigration crisis that started at the United States-Mexico border. Volume 1 of the project, released on June 25th, 2018, aggregates and cross-references publicly available data to visualize the geography of “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018 and immigration incarceration in the USA in general. This initial volume highlights the landscapes, families, and communities affected by the massive web of immigrant detention in the United States.

An article for WIRED magazine, “‘ICE Is Everywhere’: Using Library Science to Map the Separation Crisis,” recognized the Torn Apart model as “more than information […] a living resource, one the team hopes migrants will use to find their families and that researchers will build upon.”

The recently released Volume 2 explores the financial landscape of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the impact of its increased investment in detention, enforcement, and deportation of immigrant families. Torn Apart’s data analysis reveals that ICE-related government contract values have increased 987% since 2014 and have almost doubled in the past year. The data shows that 16 “fat cat” congressional districts in Virginia, New Mexico, Alaska, California, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Tennessee, Maryland, and New York received 88.53% of ICE contracts between 2014 and 2018 ($8.64 Billion of the total $9.76 Billion in awards).

Torn Apart began with an intense 6-day collaboration, which brought together a collective of academics, scholars, and researchers with extensive experience in teaching and writing about histories of immigration around the world. Collaborators include the Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities and Borderlands Archives Cartography, with additional contributions from 50 participants. (Full details available on the project’s Credits page.) “The interdisciplinary and collaborative work within this digital, activist, and mobilized humanities,” Fernández reflected, “offers the opportunity to create new ways of interpreting, visualizing, and documenting the histories of communities with a profound message towards social justice and equity in this world.”

Sylvia Fernández: is a Ph.D. Candidate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston and a Research Fellow with Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage. Her research interest is on U.S. Latina/o Literature with a focus on U.S.-Mexico Border, Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies, Archives and Digital Humanities. She is co-creator of Borderlands Archives Cartography.

Maira Álvarez: is a Ph.D. Candidate and currently a Research Assistant for the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston. Her research interests lie in the study of U.S. Latino, U.S.-Mexico Border, and Latin American Literature as well as Women’s Studies, Latinx Art and Digital Humanities. She is co-creator of Borderlands Archives Cartography.




Post-Custodial Archives and Minority Collections

Last week (July 31, 2018), I had the honor of speaking at CLIR’s (Council on Library and Information Resources) summer seminar for new Postdoctoral Fellows. I was very excited to get the opportunity to meet a new cohort of fellows just as they are beginning their new positions at various institutions. (For more information on CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowships, visit their website! And keep an eye out for the next round of applications this fall/winter.)

Title Slide

My talk centered on the work we do at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage (aka “Recovery”), the importance of minority archives, and working toward inclusivity. For 27 years, Recovery has dedicated itself to recovering, preserving, and disseminating the lost written legacy of Latinas and Latinos in the United States. US Latina/o collections, like other minority collections, do not traditionally form part of a larger national historical narrative. Herein lies the importance of minority collections: the stories they tell give us a more nuanced understanding of US history and culture.

Let’s take a step back to think about the structure of archives, the inherent issues, and the questions that we—as archivists, scholars, students, and educators—should ask ourselves when engaging with historical collections. Archives help structure knowledge and history. Michel Foucault argues that history “now organizes the document” [with “document” being the archival] “divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not, discovers elements, defines unities, describes relations” (146). Thus history, or perhaps more aptly, what we understand to be or call history, cannot be distinguished from the production and organization of the archive. Furthermore, national archives help to create an authoritative national narrative. The International Council on Archives, for example, describes archives on their webpage as follows:

Archives constitute the memory of nations and societies, shape their identity, and are a cornerstone of the information society. By proving evidence of human actions and transactions, archives support administration and underlie the rights of individuals, organisations and states. By guaranteeing citizens’ rights of access to official information and to knowledge of their history, archives are fundamental to identity, democracy, accountability and good governance.

Given this defined mission of archives, we can think about what archives do or are meant to do; they define:

  • “the nation,”
  • “history,”
  • what is—and what isn’t—considered “important,”
  • “knowledge.”

I write these words in quotation marks to stress that the defining or shaping of such concepts is a construction. In this vein, archives have historically functioned as mechanism of colonialism. They have helped to structure our understanding of history and the nation in a way that also structures our understanding of what we call “civilization” and “barbarism.” In order for colonialism to thrive, imperial powers had to not only take over a physical territory, but they also had to control the shared imaginary. Franz Fanon (1963) emphasizes the total reach of colonialism and its desire to destroy the history of oppressed peoples in The Wretched of the Earth. He writes:

…colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country…. By a kind of perverse logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts it, disfigures it and destroys it. (210)

As a result of this logic, the colonial model created institutions determined to own and possess history in order to categorize it (using Eurocentric methods of classification). In many cases, history and artifacts were/are appropriated, to the extent of removing sacred items and even bodies (or just body parts) and putting them on display. Think of mummified Egyptian and Indigenous bodies, Sara Baartman (known as the Hottentot Venus), etc. Items stolen from their original communities are often displayed or archived in museums, archives, and libraries. Because of this, it is important to take the moment to reflect when we work on, interact with, curate, and teach archives or the items in them. Here are a few questions to consider:

Chained books on a shelf

  • Who determines what belongs in the archive?
  • Who defined the archive? Who determined what was archivable?
  • Who created the metadata? (Think about the traditional way of organizing things in a library, i.e. using Library of Congress subject headings)
  • Who maintains the archive?
  • Who has access to the archive or the knowledge contained in the archive?
  • Where did the material originate?
Postcustodial archives

Since, as mentioned earlier, archives have historically functioned as an instrument of colonialism, community members with personal collections are often wary of institutional archives. Even today, large, well-known libraries have disposed of or sold collections deemed “unimportant” (usually minority collections) in order to make room for “more important collections.” Moving away from an archive design that requires possession and ownership is a stance that delinks libraries from the colonial model. The postcustodial theory of archives is “the idea that archivists will no longer physically acquire and maintain records, but that they will provide management oversight for records that will remain in the custody of the record creators” (Pearce-Moses). Digital technology allows archivists the ability to return physical collections to the original record keepers and create digital copies that can be housed in an institutional repository. Furthermore, postcustodial practices offer opportunities for community engagement, as Sofía Becerra-Licha (2017) suggests. Digital technology, she contends,

…presents a significant opportunity for participatory and post-custodial approaches that seek to shift curatorial authority and access to the communities represented. In this model, archivists work side-by-side with community members to actively rectify gaps in historical coverage and proactively document the present day. (n.p.)

Postcustodianship allows us to re-think the institutional structure of the archive and promotes new possibilities for record oversight and knowledge-production. Considering the questions posed earlier and the theory of post-custodial archives, we can begin to restructure archives themselves. Personal and community archives can challenge traditional notions of “the national archive” as both a brick and mortar building and a collection of the “official” history. The goal of post-custodianship is to open up new avenues for creating knowledge. It allows the communities themselves to maintain ownership of their own histories, but also fills in the gaps of the official record by providing minority points of view.

Works cited
Becerra-Licha, Sofía. “Participatory and Post-Custodial Archives as Community Practice.” Educause Review, 23 Oct. 2017,
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox, Grove Press, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications, 1972.

International Council on Archives. “Mission, Aims and Objectives.” 2016.
Pearce-Moses, Richard. “Postarchival theory of archives.” A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists, 2005.
Further reading
Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. 1 edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Lazo, Rodrigo. “Migrant Archives.” States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, edited by Russ Castronovo and Susan Kay Gillman, 2009, pp. 38–72.
“US Latina/o Digital Humanities Reading List.” Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage.
“What Is An Archives?” Society of American Archivists, 2007.

Lorena Gauthereau is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage at the University of Houston. Find her online at

Transcribing Multilingual Documents in the Digital Age

Last month, I visited the University of Houston as part of the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s new US Latina/o Digital Humanities (#usLdh) Incubator. The scholars in this community have been working at the forefront of scholarly editing for decades by editing, publishing, and digitizing documents that are as multilingual and transnational as the United States.

In doing this work, these scholars have been forced to confront a challenge that is often sidelined in the discussion of digitization. Digitization has brought renewed attention to the difficulties of transcribing and encoding historical texts. But this work has been largely driven by Anglophone, monolingual projects.

As a result, Anglophone, monolingual textuality is hardwired into the systems and processes that we use to transcribe the historical record.

Elvía Arroyo-Ramirez has spoken brilliantly about this in the context of archival processing. We face similar problems when transcribing and encoding texts.

What does it mean for us as digital practitioners to use tools that were designed for a different cultural context? At the #usLdh Incubator, I started to answer this question by tracing a brief history of multilingual transcription. I also spoke about digital transcription options, and some of the challenges of using these tools on multilingual texts.

I’ll summarize some of the key points here, and my slides are online.

Copying Past

Transcription is always transformative, imposing new contexts onto old documents, but transformation is not necessarily deformation or defamation. Transcription can also revive or reveal a text.

The Codex Mendoza

Take the Codex Mendoza, a document believed to have been inscribed by Francisco Gualpuyogualcal and Juan González in New Spain in the 1540s. The first part of the Codex Mendoza is likely a transcription of a Pre-Columbian text, now lost. That text was then transcribed using alphabetic annotations written in Nahuatl, and translated into Spanish. [1]

Page from the Codex Mendoza shows a young man getting his education (top) and a wedding (bottom), with alphabetic Nahuatl transcription. The edge of the Spanish transcription on the opposite page is also visible.

Page from the Codex Mendoza. Image from the Bodleian Library.

Both the pictographic and alphabetic inscriptions are transcriptive. The former moves the text from one page to another; the latter, from one form to another. Both have the potential to remain faithful to an earlier copy.

But only the pictographic document can be a facsimile transcription, representing not just the meaning but its form on the page. And only the alphabetic Nahuatl would have looked like language to the royal Spanish recipients of the copied text.

The original document is lost, but we know that both Gualpuyogualcal and González changed the text as they transcribed it. The pictographic text was produced using European paper and ink, and uses a style of shading introduced by the Spanish. And the Nahuatl transcriptions are sparse and sometimes inaccurate representations of the pictographic text.

Is the alphabetic text sparse because González couldn’t fluently read the pictographic copy? Were the pen and ink chosen to impress the Spanish royalty? In transcription, we see both strategic transformation and misrepresentation.

El Título de Santa María Ixhuatán

Take another example, an alphabetic Nahuatl manuscript known as El título de Santa María Ixhuatán. The historian Margarita Cossich Vielman and linguist Sergio Romero believe that this is partially an alphabetic transcription of a lienzo, a much older document written in pictographic script. [2]

Photograph of a page from the título de Santa María Ixhuatán.

El Título de Santa María Ixhuatán. Image from the Nahuatl/Nawat Project.

But Cossich and Romero think it was written by someone who was not fully literate in pictographic Nahuatl. Where the earlier text used logograms (signs representing a word or phrase) and silabograms (signs representing syllables), the scribe read them as literal representations.

So in the Título, he writes of a place called Teohuanhuaco, “drawing of a tree, drawing of a priest.” But Cossich and Romero argue that it was more likely to be the more figurative Teowakwawnawako, “place beside the divine tree,” or Teokwawko, “place of the divine tree.”

Here, we see a scribe using transcription to revive an otherwise lost text. But we also see how his imperfect copying had an impact on our ability to associate this text with geographic locations or to compare it to other histories.

Copying Present

Literacy and legibility informed the ways that colonial texts were copied in the past. These factors continue to impact our ability to consume the texts of the past, and they can have real implications when we begin to treat transcribed texts as historical fact.

While not all transcriptions are political, in the cases that were described here, shifts in literacy and legibility are directly tied to colonial systems designed to shift power away from indigenous communities.

When we transcribe digitized texts, we enter a similarly interpretive field, and it is worth being attentive to the ways that our transcription processes engage with structures of power.

Many digital project managers use automatic transcription tools to make their scanned documents more searchable. But as I have written elsewhere, automatic transcription tools are not always ‘literate’ in historical orthographies or languages other than English, which can impact our ability to treat these texts as reliable objects of historical study. This is especially impactful when we are using transcriptions for corpus analytics.

The same is true in the case of crowd-sourced transcription. The manual transcription of documents in languages other than English can be more costly, because it requires more specialized knowledge. There is also an extra emotional cost to working with colonial documents that inscribe everyday processes of power and violence.

And what about the tools that we use to inscribe these texts? Most programming languages, command line operations, and web interfaces for transcription are written in English, and many are not configured to handle diacritics or special characters. Again, this means there is an additional barrier to entry to editing multilingual documents that is an unnatural result of systematic bias. As Brook Lillehaugan has explained in the case of the Ticha project, it is unreasonable to ask Zapotec-speaking collaborators to learn English so they can work in TEI.

Knowledge of English should not be a prerequisite for the digital editing of historical texts.


Copying Future

What can we do to address these transcription challenges? One thing is to ensure that scholars working with non-English texts (including those working outside the Latin alphabet) are at the table during the development of both automatic and crowdsourcing transcription tools.

This has been prioritized by teams like From the Pagea service for designing crowdsourced transcription projects. It is also the focus of groups like the Historical and Multilingual OCR project at Northeastern University, which is trying to set the agenda for automatic transcription of multilingual texts.

Another priority must be to think seriously about labor and citation practices. In the case of colonial transcription, historians have been working to recover the names of the indigenous scribes who wrote the documents, recovering their intellectual contribution to the historical record.

We have the same responsibility in the case of digitization. Digitization is intellectual labor which is often done by students and staff in contingent positions. Highlighting this contribution helps ensure that workers know their labor is valued, and better reflects the reality of collaborative digitization work.

It also helps our institutions understand this work, so we can make a case for better financial compensation.

It is only by consistently and publicly acknowledging the value of this work that we will be able to ensure that is taken seriously by funding institutions, hiring committees, and in cases of tenure and promotion.

And that is a necessary step in ensuring that the digitization of the historical record remains, at its foundation, intellectually sound and culturally sensitive.


Hannah Alpert-Abrams is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Find her online at

[1] See Frances Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, The Codex Mendoza. University of California Press (1992). There is plenty to say about the Spanish translations of this text, too, but I don’t address it here.

[2] Margarita Cossich Vielman and Sergio Romero. “Lienzos prehispánicos y el título de Santa María Ixhuatán, Guatemala.” Asociación para el Fomento de los Estudios Históricos en Centroamérica, 2016. Online.












Incubator: Decolonizing the Digital Humanities

This past week, I had the opportunity to give a talk as part of Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s new US Latina/o Digital Humanities (#usLdh) Incubator series. If you missed it, you can access our group notes on Google Drive or Storify. I’ve also started a Zotero Group with a growing bibliography related to US Latina/o Digital Humanities (which includes sources on DH, decolonial theory, postcolonial theory, and more). Feel free to join and contribute to the growing bibliography!

My talk and this blog post are not meant as an in-depth analysis of decolonizing DH, instead, my goal is to provide a brief overview of the relationship between coloniality and the archive as well as a discussion of decoloniality not just as a theory but also as a methodology. This is meant to serve as a springboard for further discussion on decolonial DH methodology.

Colonialism, History, and Archives

In order to begin a discussion on decolonizing the digital humanities, I think it’s important to first acknowledge the role of colonialism in creating or shaping the historical record. Archives help structure knowledge and history. In terms of the nation-state, national archives help to create an authoritative national narrative. The International Council on Archives, for example, describes archives on their webpage as follows: “Archives constitute the memory of nations and societies, shape their identity, and are a cornerstone of the information society” (International Council on Archives n.p.). Yet, the shadow of colonialism more often than not penetrates this archivization process, determining whose stories belong in the archive and how to frame the national historical narrative. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth (1963):

[C]olonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverse logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts it, disfigures it and destroys it. (Fanon 210)

Examples of distortion of history include the erasure of indigenous histories and languages, the recasting of winners/losers, the erasure of people of Mexican descent from the Texas side of the Texas Revolution, and—as recent political controversies have highlighted—the romanticization of the US Confederacy and the US Antebellum South. Colonization, complete with its indigenous genocide and African slavery robbed people of their lives, their freedom, their religion, their names, their culture, their lands, their language, and more. Marginalized archives, which contain the forgotten history of oppressed peoples (what Rodrigo Lazo calls “migrant archives”), “reside in obscurity and are always at the edge of annihilation. They are the texts of the past that have not been written into the official spaces of archivization” (Lazo 37). While not all DH projects are digital archives, DH projects do create a type of archive as they structure knowledge/history, tell historical stories, preserve parts of the archive, prioritize certain people/languages/epistemologies, and more.

Postcolonialism vs. Decolonialism

It is, of course, difficult to boil down two large theoretical fields, but for the purposes of this discussion, I wanted to provide simplified versions. Postcolonial theory critiques the formal colonial matrix of power. You can think of it as a “macro” critique. It looks at the big picture of colonialism. Decoloniality, on the other hand, tends to focus on the details, an awareness of how our quotidian experience is coded through coloniality. It attempts to delink our history (and our present) from colonial legacy by parsing out how coloniality is at work in our lives. The decolonize your diet movement, for example challenges people to become aware of the origins of dishes and to move away from overly-processed foods. An example of a decolonial DH project is The African Origins project, which reinserts the human into the history of colonial transatlantic slave voyages. This project is an effort to identify the names and origins of Africans that were forcibly transported across the Atlantic on slave ships.

Decolonial theory is influenced by Latin American Marxist Dependency theory, Négritude African diaspora intellectuals (such as Aimé Césaire), and WOC feminists. Decolonial theory is rooted in postcolonial theory, but challenges postcolonial studies for using European points of reference.

(Digital) Methodology of the Oppressed

Decoloniality lends itself to pedagogy and methodology in the way that it seeks to question history and hegemonic structures. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpede Monanty (1997) comment: “Decolonization has a fundamentally pedagogical dimension—an imperative to understand, to reflect on, and to transform relations of objectification and dehumanization, and to pass this knowledge along to future generations” (xxviii-xxix). One of the ways that decolonial theory approaches such a dimension is through what Emma Pérez (1999, 2003) calls the “decolonial imaginary.” It is through the decolonial imaginary that we can push back against colonial legacies that structure our lives, the decolonial imaginary, writes Pérez (2003),

… can help us rethink history in a way that makes agency for those on the margins transformative….The colonial mindset believes in a normative language, race, culture, gender, class, and sexuality….I propose a decolonial imaginary as a rupturing space, the alternative to that which is written in history….How do we contest the past to revise it in a manner that tells more of our stories? In other words, how do we decolonize our history? To decolonize our history and our historical imaginations, we must uncover the voices from the past that honor multiple experiences, instead of falling prey to that which is easy—allowing the white colonial heteronormative gaze to reconstruct and interpret our past. (123, emphasis mine)

What, then, does coloniality, postcoloniality, and decoloniality have to do with DH?

Koh, Adeline. “Why the World Needs #DHPoco, Part 2.” #DHPoco: Postcolonial Digital Humanities Tumblr. no. 32. 5 Dec. 2013.

Coloniality insists on the preference of Western ontologies and epistemologies and attempts to erase all non-Western forms of existing and knowing. It delegitimizes non-standard and non-Western languages and tries to put people and histories into strict categories related to language, nationality, gender, religion, etc. To approach DH from a decolonial methodology is to question whether your project reinforces coloniality/colonial thinking and to challenge yourself to delink your project from colonial structures.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Who?
    • Who is being represented? Who is speaking? Whose history is it? Who is making the choices? Who is working on the archive? Who can access it? Who owns the items? Who houses them? Who is given credit for the work?
  • What?
    • What sort of items are being included? What types of knowledge are considered archivable? In what format/language are they? What is the medium/tool used to present/preserve/disseminate? What are possible ethical concerns?
  • How?
    • How are these choices being made? How are these items being categorized/tagged/labeled? How are they displayed?(Does it make sense to display this way?)

Another great resource for thinking through decolonial and postcolonial DH is the Social Justice and the Digital Humanities site, which emerged from a 2015 Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching (HILT) course taught by Roopika Rosam and micha cárdenas.

You can enter into conversations about DH, decolonial theory, archives, and social justice on social media using related hashtags such as: #usLdh (US Latina/o Digital Humanities), #transformDH, and #DHpoco (postcolonial digital humanities).

Works cited

Alexander, M. Jacqui, and Chandra Talpede Mohanty. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Routledge, 1997.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox, Grove Press, 2004.
Lazo, Rodrigo. “Migrant Archives.” States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, edited by Russ Castronovo and Susan Kay Gillman, 2009, pp. 38–72.
Pérez, Emma. “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 24, no. 2/3, 2003, pp. 122–31.
—. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History. Indiana University Press, 1999.
Social Justice and the Digital Humanities. Accessed 17 Nov. 2017.
Further Reading
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. MR, 1972.
Gaertner, David. “Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities.” Novel Alliances, 26 Jan. 2017,
Gil, Alex. The (Digital) Library of Babel. Digital Humanities Summer Institute, Victoria, B.C.
Joseph, Etienne, et al. “Decolonising the Archive (DTA).” Decolonising the Archive (DTA), Accessed 8 Nov. 2017.
Kreitz, Kelley. “Toward a Latinx Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Remixing, Reassembling, and Reimagining the Archive.” Educational Media International, vol. 0, no. 0, Oct. 2017, pp. 1–13. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/09523987.2017.1391524.
Postcolonial Digital Humanities | Global Explorations of Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality and Disability within Cultures of Technology. Accessed 4 May 2013.
Risam, Roopika. Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities. Vol. 9, no. 2, 2015. Digital Humanities Quarterly,
—. “Revising History and Re-Authoring the Left in the Postcolonial Digital Archive.” Left History, vol. 18, no. 2, 2015, pp. 35–46.
Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. University Of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Storify PDF: Incubator: Decolonizing Digital Humanities

Lorena Gauthereau is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage at the University of Houston. Find her online at