Ricardo Nazario-Colón, chief diversity officer at Western Carolina University, says the region has always reminded him of his youth spent in the mountains of Puerto Rico.
But his association between the two regions, he notes, goes beyond topography. “I went to the Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee, and they had all these kinds of equipment,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘This is what my grandfather used to use in Puerto Rico. And these are my grandmother’s pots!’”
More recently, Nazario-Colón took the oath of office as president of the Appalachian Studies Association for the 2022-23 academic year. According to the organization’s website, its mission “is to promote and engage dialogue, research, scholarship, education, creative expression and action among a diverse and inclusive group of scholars, educators, practitioners, grassroots activists, students, individuals, groups and institutions.” Nazario-Colón represents the first Latinx individual to hold the position in the association’s 45-year history.
Along with his professional career, Nazario-Colón is a co-founder of the The Affrilachian Poets, a grassroots group of poets of color living in the Appalachian region. His love of poetry, he explains, stems from his family. “My grandfather was a poet. My uncle was a poet. My mother loves poetry. It’s been part of my entire life.”
Xpress recently sat down with Nazario-Colón to discuss his new appointment, how his work as a poet influences his professional life and what Appalachian studies looks like today.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What does it mean to you to be selected as the president of the Appalachian Studies Association?
It means a lot to be able to work with people who have been engaged in the study of culture, of politics, of geography and how that interacts within this space that we call Appalachia.
So many people travel Appalachia and don’t even recognize that they’re in it. If you want to go from inland and drive to the beaches on the eastern coast, you’re crossing Appalachia. You got to go through the mountains. You got to stop in these small towns. Many people don’t even pay attention to that.
This place is so dynamic. It is diverse in many ways. And I think that people miss those nuances and experiences.
What do you see as the significance of being the first Latinx person to hold this position?
It’s significant because, for the uninformed, it lets people know that there are people of Latinx background in the region. It lets people know that we need to begin to interrogate and understand differently what we mean by Appalachian culture. How has it evolved? How has it blended with other groups that are now making the region part of their lives?
When people speak about Appalachian culture, they’re often speaking about a very specific cultural experience. And we need to ask, what does that mean? Are we talking about Appalachian culture in the context of the past — and thus limiting the potential for it to grow and evolve? Or are we talking about Appalachian culture in the context of today? What does it mean to have people of Latinx backgrounds, of international backgrounds, of Asian backgrounds living within this predominantly binary space of black and whiteness? What are those interactions? What new things are being created that Appalachian culture can claim?
Is there an example that comes to mind of a newly created genre within the region?
One example is [Duke University assistant professor of music] Sophia M. Enriquez‘s dissertation, “Canciones de Los Apalaches: Latinx Music, Migration, and Belonging in Appalachia.” The entire focus is on the fusion of Latinx music and Appalachian music and those new sounds that are being created by musicians of Latin American background who now make Appalachia their home.
Now, will people say that new music is not Appalachian culture? That’s the dialogue — that’s the interrogation — that we need to engage in. I think there is a very bright future for Appalachian culture, but we have to allow it to grow and evolve.
You are also a co-founder of The Affrilachian Poets. How does your work as a poet influence your approach to these leadership roles?
Poetry is about observing. It’s about sensing the world that you are living in. As a poet, I feel like I am an exposed nerve ending. Everything that I come in contact with can be a potential poem. Every experience, every conversation can become a poem. I think that has allowed me to be a better leader. Because I’ve learned to listen, I’ve learned to experience, to watch, before I make decisions. I have to understand the nuances for individuals.
What do you think would be surprising for people to learn about Appalachian studies?
It is not about just living in the past. Appalachians are very much in the future. Oftentimes people forget that. History has led us here, and we have a very unique way.
Part of the role that Appalachian studies plays is to preserve that history. And in doing so, it gives us a foundation we need as human beings. That’s why we have all of these historical societies that preserve things from the past; we need to be connected to something in order to be tethered together, before we’re able to go further out. The stronger our rope, the further we will venture. It’s like having a safety rope and being able to say, ‘I can go out into the ocean further, because I know I can pull myself back in.’
The role of the Appalachian Studies Association is one of tethering us to an experience that allows us to be able to evolve and grow, discover new things, interact with new things and create something new. And I think that if we look at it in that context, people can be pleasantly surprised about the role that Appalachian studies plays. Not only here in the region, but also for the rest of the nation.