Each semester, the Latina/o Studies Program hosts six informal luncheon discussions for students with Cornell faculty and administrators as “a way to bring the community together and give students the opportunity to discuss topics of interest to them,” says program Director Sofia Villenas. The program is popular, with every chair usually filled.
On March 11 Roberto Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities and professor of music, spoke to an overflow crowd of students from across the university, including many Latino studies minors. Sierra described the dramatic change in his life when he left Puerto Rico – where he was simply another Puerto Rican – for the United States, where he was identified as Latino and had to learn the dynamics of what that meant. “Now I’m entirely Latino,” he said with a laugh.
Reflecting on what it’s like to be a Latino academic, Sierra pointed out the change at Cornell since he first arrived in 1992, when he was one of few Latinos on campus. “It is a great pleasure that now Cornell looks more like what the world looks like,” he said. “Part of equality is representation, and I think the institution is striving toward that.”
Educated in the European canon, Sierra said his work as a composer has been to find the cultural context for his own music. “I want to look into my tropical memories,” he said, “and find what my own vernacular is like.”
At the same time, he noted that the U.S. has porous borders, with cultural assimilation happening in both directions. “We need to be clear about who we are and keep an open mind. Consciousness of self is important, however defined, so acknowledge it, be proud of it – but don’t close off to others who are different.”
Sierra said that the title of his new CD, “Boleros & Montunos,” reflects this type of self-reflection. He explained that “boleros” are ballads from the 1940s and ’50s, many of which have been popularized with English lyrics. A “montuno” is the section of a salsa piece where players improvise. “The title provokes the sort of introspection that is in my music,” he said.
The CD was recently released in Spain and features 13 pieces played on the piano, which was the instrument that introduced him to music, he told the luncheon participants.
Michael Kotlikoff, provost and acting president, and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, who participated in the lunch March 4, are among the most recent speakers to address the group.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts & Sciences.