Byline: Staff writer, OLS.
Cynthia Tobar is an artist, activist-scholar, archivist, and oral historian at Bronx Community College, who is passionate about creating interactive, participatory stories documenting social change. She has led projects including performances, presentations and talks in public spaces and academic spaces to tell stories of people excluded from issues that pertain to them and people denied recognition in history. She sees the ability of the arts to impact individuals, to galvanize them to make their own changes in their communities. She emphasizes the importance of having a space that serves both as a creative outlet for marginalized communities and a medium for social change. We spoke with her about her numerous projects. The interview is edited for conciseness.
Question: You record narratives to give a crucial window into the history of communities left out of mainstream archives. What drew you to this work?
Tobar’s Answer: The non-hierarchical nature of documentary work is what intrigued me. There’s an inclusivity in community-based archiving as a form of history-making. The work I do is to promote social change, person to person, on a community level in academic spaces and in public spaces for people excluded from issues that pertain to them—education, housing, and the viability of making it in the city. My hope is to activate those spaces, where people can engage with one another, express themselves, and advocate for themselves.
Question: How did you get involved in community-based archiving?
Tobar’s Answer: What I want to do is to foster this idea of increasing people’s sense of agency and empowerment to implement social change around us and, for me, obviously, having been a first-generation Ecuadorian American, a student and mother who’s been on welfare, I had a lot of stigmas placed upon me. It wasn’t until someone had taken the time to inform me on what my rights were and that I could speak out—that I should speak out—that I was able to activate myself and do something through legislative advocacy groups I was involved with as an undergraduate. Getting involved sparked my interest in public service and as a librarian that’s what appeals to me the most.
Question: Tell us about your Hall of Fame project at BCC and why it is important.
Tobar’s Answer: The areas that I focus on directly have to do with documenting student activism, which has a rich legacy at CUNY, and providing a space for counter-narratives of historical exclusion in public art and debates in monument culture. This is a very big issue at Bronx Community College. On our campus we have the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a public monument that centers on who gets to determine what is great and what gets to be included or left out, which mimics what we encounter in the archival field. A lot of my work amplifies stories of community care and power by centering the stories of those who get left out of mainstream history. These are mostly people of color, immigrant communities, the working-class communities that help the city run, and underserved communities. When I think about memory work, I think about incorporating narratives of Americans who live in the shadows of national myths and monuments. When you validate their narratives, you’re presenting a dynamic view of history-making and correcting disparities in mainstream representations of American history.
Question: Your memory work incorporates art in socially engaging ways.
Tobar’s Answer: I’m open to working with all forms of art that will get the message of inclusive memory work out. The best way to achieve that is to build a sense of empathy, to listen to one another, and so, how do we reach across all these divides currently in our society, in our city, and in our country? By creating moments where we can create shared joy, we can create community where social reckoning is also possible, for us to realize we need to be mindful of who’s being affected by our decisions.
Question: Tell us about some of the new directions your work at BCC has taken.
Tobar’s Answer: At BCC, I’ve been interested in documenting responses to the Hall of Fame and creating a space for students and Bronx residents to share their experiences among monuments that fail to reflect the diversity of their local community. This was the inspiration for “American Icons,” my latest project which I got funding for through a 2021 Social Practice CUNY Faculty Fellowship program. This program, housed at the Graduate Center, funded American Icons which explores counter-narratives of historical exclusion in monument culture and public art. I will be creating a new form of commemorative art by interweaving oral histories of a BCC student and a local Bronx resident with music that reflect on the lack of diversity in the Hall of Fame. I’m partnering with Julliard musicians who will set these stories to a score. We’re hoping to have the piece ready by this May for a public performance.
Question: How did you begin documenting student activism with community-based archival projects?
Tobar’s Answer: At BCC I first got started with “Raising Ourselves Up” which documented first-generation college students at BCC by and for first-generation college students. We trained six BCC students in oral history methods and came up with some wonderful interviews. When students have agency, there’s an authenticity to the project. When people feel listened to and heard it has a significant impact. It starts with us making space for one another.
I am also working to build collaborations with other groups to find new ways to enhance community engagement with stories that reflect instances of resilience and community building. Along those lines, amidst the height of the pandemic in 2020, I partnered with Mutual Aid NYC to create “Community Care during COVID”: Oral Histories of Mutual Aid in the Bronx.” This project, which was funded by the Metro Library Council, developed a digital library and archive of mutual aid organizing tools and oral histories-created for, by, and in collaboration with mutual aid organizers in the Bronx. So, it went from, we’re taking a self-reflective moment as a campus and documenting our experiences, to how are the neighboring communities in the Bronx dealing with Covid?
Question: What are some other projects you’d like us to know about?
Tobar’s Answer: My latest project ¿Dónde puedo ir? Searching for Home is a collaborative musical project created around recorded oral history that captures the immediacy of displacement facing Latinx residents in Bushwick where I live. From the summer until November, I collected eight oral history interviews, and I worked alongside my musical collaborator Luis D’Elias, a Venezuelan musical composer and guitarist. The primary funder was Brooklyn Arts Council. We’re going to just keep on releasing the products of that collaboration, but our hope is to bring awareness and collective healing to our communities. I can’t wait to share the music with the public.
Latest project updates will be posted at ¿Dónde puedo ir? Searching for Home at