Last summer Mari Ortiz ’13 and professor Adriana Estill collaborated on a research project that examined how Hollywood and the American press influenced perceptions of Latina beauty in the ’20s and ’30s
As she neared the end of her summer research project, Mariveliz (Mari) Ortiz ’13 decided to present a gift to professor Adriana Estill, her mentor and collaborator, that would reflect their shared interest in the connections between Latina beauty and cultural identity. Ortiz chose a business card holder that features a colorful map of Mexico.
She didn’t notice that it also bore the image of a woman who resembles Mexican actress Lupe Vélez, one of the main subjects of Ortiz’s research. “Adriana didn’t notice the map at all. She was like ‘Oh, it’s Lupe,’ ” says Ortiz, with a laugh. “We complement each other pretty well.”
For Estill and Ortiz, the willingness to learn from each other and the ability to have a comfortable exchange of ideas made for a synergistic collaboration. Their project was one of nine student research assistantships funded last summer by the Carleton Humanities Center, which was founded in 2008 and is now housed in the Weitz Center for Creativity. The student assistantship program pairs students and professors on projects that enhance a faculty member’s scholarship and provide students with valuable mentoring and research experience in preparation for both careers and graduate school.
“Although student research happens everywhere at Carleton, this program is high intensity and focused,” says Susannah Ottaway, director of the Humanities Center. Since the program’s inception in 2009, 54 students have been research assistants in the humanities and the social sciences; typically 5 over winter break and about 10 over the summer. Faculty members apply to work with particular students—usually rising seniors who are known to be top-notch—and the center’s advisory board selects the projects to sponsor. “There’s a lot of demand,” says Ottaway. “We have twice as many applicants as we have funds to support them.”
While many professors in the sciences assume they’re going to be working with student researchers, it can be more of a stretch for professors in the humanities. “It’s really tough to give over control of a fundamental part of your project to someone else,” Estill says. “Mari made it easy for me because she has all the skills that I would want someone to bring to this project. Her ability to categorize and catalogue was tremendous.”
An American studies major from Chicago who’s fluent in Spanish, Ortiz spent 180 hours examining beauty-related advertisements in Hollywood studio press books, as well as articles, columns, and reviews from U.S. newspapers serving Hispanic-American populations, to see how they portrayed Vélez and Dolores del Río, two Latina actresses from the 1920s and ’30s. She also assessed how these portrayals compared to those of white actresses in the same period. Ortiz would then meet weekly with Estill to talk about her progress and share interesting discoveries—like the fact that Latina actresses in the ads were often barefoot.
Both Vélez and del Río successfully transitioned from silent films to talkies, but their sexuality and femininity were represented differently; Vélez was known for her “Mexican spitfire” films, while del Río was considered more refined because she looked more European. (Estill and Ortiz point out that these tropes still exist in the media today.)
Ortiz collected and organized these characteristics into a “monster archive”—a 1,000-page document and coordinating database—that will be used by future students and by Estill as she continues her larger project: writing an article on the growing power of American films in the 1920s and 1930s to influence perceptions of Latina beauty, and how mainstream American and Hispanic-American audiences responded
to these images.
After the solitude of the library research, Ortiz says she looked forward to discussions with Estill. She also enjoyed sharing her experiences with the other Carleton students who were participating in the research assistantship program. Some students read and edited scholarly work and established bibliographic materials as part of the process of traditional humanities research. Others built websites and conducted Internet surveys, which are essential new methods for scholars involved in the digital humanities.
Ortiz became vested in the project and grew close to her mentor. She describes Estill as her “mom on campus” and says she had a tough time letting go of the archive at the end of summer. “This is the most substantial work I’ve ever done,” Ortiz says. “Knowing that I put so much time into this and that there will be a finished product at the end is important to me.”
Before the project, she felt uncertain that a career in academia was a possibility for her. Now, Ortiz is considering applying to graduate school in a few years to study linguistics and cultural identity. Estill says the Humanities Center’s program is aimed at juniors and seniors because it can provide a formative experience at a time when they are making important decisions about what to do after they graduate.
“My goal for Mari, even if she doesn’t go into academia, is for her to recognize that she has research skills—and that she’s brilliant,” Estill says. “She’d make a fabulous academic and scholar in her own right someday.”