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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Olivia Cadaval (Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage)

Thursday, April 12, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

In preparation for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, Olivia Cadaval (gray pants) meets with members of Banda Brillo de San Miguel Cuevas and Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas in Fresno, California, 2016. Photo by and courtesy of Sojin Kim.


Olivia Cadaval recently retired from the position of curator and chair of Cultural Research and Education at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution. Since joining the Center in 1988, she has worked extensively on documentation, Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs and other public programs, and education projects in the Latino community of Washington, DC. Olivia holds a PhD in American Studies and Folklife from George Washington University, and serves on the AFS Executive Board.


What is your current job, and how does it relate to the field of folklore? What kinds of things do you do day-to-day in this position?

I have recently retired from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) where I served as Curator/Chair Cultural Research and Education. I continue as research associate with the Smithsonian. Currently, I am collaborating in several local projects with a primary focus on Washington DC Latino communities. What I bring to these projects are folklife investigation approaches, documenting and presenting skills, and values that I have developed over the years. Working in my own backyard, I hope to explore more fully the theoretical issues that confront folklorists when involved in social justice projects. I am organizing my home archive. I was inspired to work on my archive by CFCH archivist Greg Adams who worked with me for over 4 months to archive 29 years of projects at the Center. I learned to appreciate the value of a living archive.

Briefly describe your career history, paying special attention to how you got from your very first folklore job to your current position. Did you expect to be doing what you are now doing when you entered the field? 

I first learned about folklore in 1976 when the Smithsonian hired me to be a cultural liaison for a group of Mexican musicians and dancers who participated in the Festival of American Folklife (as it was called then), which formed part of the United States Bicentennial Celebration. This and the previous years building up to the 1976 Festival were also seminal to the public sector careers of many folklore students who participated as researchers and presenters for the event. This first experience working hand-in-hand with Mexican scholars and traditional musicians and later visiting the musicians’ communities changed my perspective on my own Mexican culture. In 1978, the Smithsonian invited the same group of musicians and again hired me as cultural liaison. At that time, Jack Santino was on the Smithsonian staff and offered the first class of what was to become a Folklife program in American Studies at George Washington University. He convinced me to audit his class. I was hooked and received my Ph.D. in American Studies/Folklife in 1988.

Over the next decade or so I collaborated with what was then called the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs on several projects, including a series of conferences on “Festivals and the Politics of Culture,” and they occasionally hired me as a researcher or presenter for Smithsonian Festivals. I was also a Smithsonian intern and a pre-doctoral fellow. It was a dream when curator Phyllis May-Machunda hired me to do fieldwork on the Washington DC Latino community for the 1988 Festival program. This research built on my dissertation. She also agreed to my request of hiring two local Salvadoran community scholars for the project. This was my first experience in collaborative research. At the end of October in 1988, CFCH hired me as a staff curator where I remained until my retirement November 2017.

My entering the field and my experience with the Smithsonian are all of one piece. But, even though I had worked with the Center, I never imagined that I would become a staff curator directing fieldwork research and producing Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino programs for the Smithsonian Festivals. I also never imagined that I would speak for the Smithsonian as I developed my relationships with government representatives, organizations, researchers, and communities.

What goals drive your work? What do you hope to achieve?

My goals are driven by accountability to the collaborations I develop with communities, colleagues, and cultural artists and activists. I like to work with and learn from people. I like to help create spaces for dialogue to address difficult issues, and I like to think that through collaboration I can contribute to a better world where differences are understood and appreciated, mutual respect is developed, and cultural sustainability is strengthened.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

Establishing collaborative and equitable relationships with grassroots communities—it is also the most rewarding.

If you had unlimited time and resources available to develop a research project or public program, how would you use them? What would you hope to accomplish?

I would engage grassroots communities, provide fieldwork and presentation training and resources, encourage exchanges of all types between organizations and communities, and seed sustainable projects.


Right: Presenting. Photo by Joe Furgal, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.


How does your current work impact your community? What is, in your mind, the most important professional contribution that you make (or have made)?

My current work is focused on collaborating with my community on understanding what it is, how it got there, and where it might be going. Over the years, I have involved Washington DC Latinos in Smithsonian Festivals in presenting their traditions through festival programs as researchers, participants, and presenters, or as temporary staff in production. Today many of these individuals are leaders and scholars in their own right and produce their own projects. They also bring a folklorist’s eye to their work. This is very rewarding.

I was one of the first Latino scholars to document and write about the newly forming Latino community in Washington, DC. While my colleagues were writing about newly forming ethnic communities in the 19th century, I realized that this process of community building was taking place around me. Inspired by the Smithsonian Festival, I approached my research through the lens of a community festival. My publication on this research, Creating a Latino Identity in the Nation's Capital: The Latino Festival, now used in local universities, has served as a springboard for new research on Latino communities in the area, many by first generation immigrant scholars. It is great to see them pick up where I left off.

What sorts of issues are most pressing or urgent for your community? How do your personal or professional endeavors intersect with these issues?

My community’s pressing issues include racism, discrimination, deportation, harassment, misrepresentation, invisibility, and gentrification.  These issues are at the forefront of any project I do.

How did you come to reside where you now live? What are your favorite aspects of the area or of your local community?

I was drawn by the vibrancy of an emerging Latino community. I became the director of a Latino arts and activist organization called Centro de Arte. It was located in an emerging Latino neighborhood. I moved there to live within that community.

Tell us about your favorite foods unique to the region where you live.

I love Salvadoran food such as pupusas and the African American sauce known as Mambo sauce.

What question(s) would you like us to ask of other “featured folklorists”? Please provide your own answer to the question.

How do you present the idea of folklore to communities speaking other languages or where “folklore” is not a common word, or where it is understood as entertainment loosely based on traditions of a perceived lower class and has taken on pejorative meanings?

Throughout Latin America, folklore usually refers to more stylized folkloric music and dance performed by people not from the traditions presented. In Mexico, the term for folklore as we use it is “cultura popular.”  I found this term very useful for initiating conversations on folklore as a research topic as well as on folklore as a discipline. To avoid confusion with the term “popular culture” as used in the U.S., I clarified the term by adding “traditional.” I now use the term “traditional popular culture” in and outside the U.S. I have found this a more accessible term. However, once I establish rapport, it is much easier to address the field of folklore explaining that this is the term used in this country. 

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