César Colón-Montijo, PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology
Where did you grow up?
Ciales, Puerto Rico.
What drew you to your field?
The possibility of researching music’s imbrication in broader political, social, and cultural processes—specifically, how matters of citizenship, secularism, empire, kinship, mourning, and disenfranchisement have frequently been mediated, mobilized, and contested through salsa.
How would you explain your current research subject to a high school student?
I write about how people relate to music in their everyday lives, and how music often speaks about important stuff like politics, religion, family, friendship, poverty, freedom, and oppression.
Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
I feel that there’s a celebratory attitude toward music that oftentimes does not pay attention to the political, or at least to a specific type of political questions, engagements, and geographies that I consider urgent.
What is your favorite thing about being a student at Columbia GSAS?
Working as a Graduate Student Mentor in the GSAS Summer Research Program has been a key opportunity to enhance my teaching and mentoring philosophy, and to learn more about identity politics in academia. It has also given me the chance to meet truly amazing colleagues—both fellow mentors and students—from underrepresented groups, who are all producing impactful scholarly work.
What are some of your long-term goals for after Columbia?
I want to teach. I really like teaching at the undergraduate level. I also want to do more work related to my background, which is in journalism, visual anthropology, and documentary filmmaking. My aim is to eventually combine my background as a documentary filmmaker, my research on music, and my experience teaching. Specifically, I will develop a research project in collaboration with Nuestra Escuela, an alternative pedagogical institution in Puerto Rico that, to say it very briefly, does popular education work with youths at risk, based on the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Staying grounded. Maintaining a sense of humbleness and solidarity while always being ready to stand my ground and speak my mind.
Which living person do you most admire?
My parents are the people I admire the most. But if I were to mention people I admire for their work, I’d say Amy Goodman in journalism and Cornel West as a public scholar.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
A salsa singer (sonero) in the late sixties and early seventies.
What is your favorite blog or website?
My online reading is usually about politics and sports. For politics, The Intercept, Democracy Now, and Público. For sports, I loved Grantland, but now I’d say The Ringer.
What music have you been listening to lately?
No matter how much I diversify my music library I always go back to plena, a popular music genre from Puerto Rico.
I’ve never heard plena. Where should I start with the genre? Can you recommend any artists?
A good place to start is the documentary Plena is Work, Plena is Song made in the 1980s by Pedro Rivera and Susan Zeig. For artists, a key place to start—in my opinion—would be:
- Mon Rivera: Aló quién Ñama
- Los Pleneros de la 21: Somos Boricuas.