In conversation: Andrés Bustamante ’15 on making the most of Yale’s undergraduate fellowships

For Andrés Bustamante, Yale’s network of undergraduate fellowships has enabled him to tell the stories of his past while he pursues his future goals.

(Photo by Ruoxi Yu ’15)
(Photo by Ruoxi Yu ’15)

The Yale senior, who is pursuing a major in history, has studied archival research in Mexico and in France as part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, a research program intended to support the work of students whose background is underrepresented in academia or in the professorial profession. Bustamante is also a 2014 Beinecke Scholar — the first at Yale since 2008. The Beinecke Scholarship Program supports graduate education in the arts, humanities, and social science.

Bustamante learned of these fellowships through Yale’s Center for International and Professional Experience, which provides guidance to students to help them clarify their goals and identify hundreds of opportunities in the United States and abroad.

The Yale senior recently met with YaleNews to talk about how these fellowships have given him the opportunity to explore his cultural heritage, connect with mentors both here and abroad, and gain a “foothold for the future.”

You have been able to do some fascinating research during your time here at Yale. Tell us about it.

As a Mellon Mays Fellow, I have been researching cultural nationalism and the repatriation of art. My research has focused on repatriation in Mexico after the revolution. In particular, I have been looking at the ways in which art repatriation serves as a form of nationalist mobilization.

During the colonial era and the early national period of Mexico, there were times when it was either easy or it was facilitated for people to purchase, export, or loot pieces that would now be considered very important archaeological objects of value as national patrimony. Since the revolution, there has been an increased push to get those objects returned to Mexico. I’ve been exploring how those objects — and the arguments formed around why they should be returned — serve as ways of engaging with moments in the national past when there has been weak sovereignty. During this period, Mexico wasn’t able to control its borders or resources. In this case, the archaeological past was considered a resource.

I am studying a manuscript that was taken right before the French intervention in the mid-1800s. What’s interesting in this case is that the object was not actually stolen or looted — rather, it was purchased legally. In 1982 a Mexican journalist went to the National Library of France and became very acquainted with the librarians there. He was there doing research for a couple of weeks and then one day just disappeared. As it turns out, he smuggled the pages of this codex under his jacket. When Interpol found him two months later he said he had taken the manuscript to start a nationalist movement for the return of codices that have been held outside of the country. Of course it is unclear whether that was his actual intention. This coincided with the catastrophic economic crisis in Mexico in August of 1982, which led then-president José López Portillo to nationalize the banking industry. López Portillo has this fascinating quote in what would be the state of the union address where he said, “They have looted us but we will never permit them to loot us again.” There is this intermingling of cultural looting and economic looting in the rhetoric. The overlap of the two events lent itself to a public reflection on national sovereignty. That is what interests me the most: how the past is used as a parallel to understanding what is going on in the present.

How did you decide to focus on this topic?

This story is something that I heard from my father when I was a child. As a result of the economic crisis, my father came to the United States from Mexico in 1982, and this was one of the last articles that he remembers reading. When I was applying for the Mellon Mays Fellowship I decided that this story would be an interesting one to explore, and now I’ve had the chance to research it, which has been really, really wonderful.

Can you give me another example of how something in your past that has prompted your current research?

My family celebrates Day of the Dead, which is an important Mexican tradition. On Nov. 2, we gather together to honor the people in our family who have died. It’s not a morbid celebration, in fact, it’s very joyous. Part of the tradition is that you display photos of your loved ones and tell stories about them. There is a saying that if you tell someone’s story they are never truly gone.

Through this celebration, I have heard a lot of these stories over the years and wanted to learn more. When I was a teenager my great uncle who had started working on a family tree passed away. I picked up where he left off and since then it has been a hobby of mine to ask my grandmother and my great aunts and uncles to tell me their stories. I just love collecting these little pieces of memories that are scattered and putting them together. That’s what really appeals to me about history: Anything can make a great story, and a good story can become the foundation for scholarship.

What advice would you give to a freshman at Yale about pursuing research scholarships?

I would say that their first foray into research does not have to be something that is very intensive. Start off as a research assistant so that you get trained in methodology. You will also learn about the different resources that are available to you and that will give you a great foothold for the future. Many students are terrified of writing a grant proposal because it may seem as though there is a secret formula. My advice would be to take that chance early on because it’s really worth it. One of the reasons that I have been more successful later on is that I started early and got the practice that I needed. I have been very fortunate that the people around me — including in my residential college — have been able to guide me.

Why do you think studying humanities is important?

I think studying history in particular is important because of what it teaches us about the present. What we think is normal and structured and timeless about the present day is really historically constructed. There is also a social justice component because we learn that things are not timeless and that it is possible to change them. If you understand the historical forces that created the present, you can understand how to change, revise, or even work against them. I think that is vital to denaturalizing the present.

How have the scholarships that you have been awarded prepared your for your future?

You have to learn how to articulate why as a candidate you meet their mission. You may be applying for a fellowship that is interested in history but maybe Latin American history isn’t the focus. You must be able to explain why your project is important and relevant to people who may not have originally thought that this type of project was what they wanted to fund.

For the Mellon Mays Fellowship, I write a monthly journal. Being able to take stock every month of what I have done and what the next step is, that sort of reflection is really helpful in terms of planning long term and thinking about what have I accomplished and how am I going to build on that. I have also built a network of mentors and advisers. This has made my path that much easier because they tell you about things that you otherwise would not have known were available to you. They can also help you avoid roadblocks.

What will you miss most about Yale after you graduate?

Oh so many things! Talking about a sense of community has, in some ways, become a platitude, but finding a place where you feel at home and where your curiosity is encouraged and supported is tremendously valuable. I will also miss all of the beautiful spaces on campus. Everything is right at your fingertips here. It is not something you can replicate.

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