AHA Member Spotlight: Lissette Acosta Corniel
Lissette Acosta Corniel is an assistant professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. She lives in New York City and has been a member since 2016.
Alma maters: BA, William Paterson University, 1998; MEd, William Paterson University, 2005; PhD, SUNY Albany, 2013; postdoc., CUNY Dominican Studies Institute (DSI), City College of New York, 2014
Fields of interest: women, slavery, Caribbean, Latin America, digital humanities
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
It is complicated. I like poetry and storytelling and I wanted to write stories about my country, the Dominican Republic. I started college when I was 16 in 1993 after being in the US for three years. My first year in undergrad, one of my professors said, in front of the class, that I should drop his class and also drop out of college and go learn English because I needed to learn the proper use of prepositions, even though my exam’s answers were correct. Other professors added that there was really no audience for Spanglish literature. But one day that same year, my Justice and Racism professor waited for me outside of the classroom and asked me to facilitate the class. He said that he sent me an intercampus letter with the request. At first, I thought I was in trouble. The topic that day was “racial identity in the Americas.” The previous class I had started a debate about it. I told him that I did not speak English well and he said, “I think we understood you just fine in the last class.” I graduated and became a public-school teacher and later a resident director at my alma mater. In 2005, I ran into the professor twice on campus and the second time, he paused and congratulated me because he thought that I was teaching at the college. When I corrected him, he said that I should become a professor.
I enrolled in a PhD program and, at first, I wanted to focus on racial identity in the Dominican Republic. I wanted to write about our identity departing from the colonization process, slavery, and nation-building. I encountered several challenges in the program but a visit to the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute opened many possibilities, such as writing about topics that have been understudied in Latin American history, like Spanish women in colonial Hispaniola, for instance. And, because there is not much scholarship about this topic, I said manos a la obra.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I like the people and that there is so much to do and yet you can also go to one of our great parks and sit and do nothing. I also like that it is easy to visit my family from our airports. About work, I like the fact that we have students from over 150 countries. This is reflected in the classroom and is not just a statement to show that we have a diverse student body.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am editing a collection of essays titled Transatlantic Bondage: Slavery and Society in Spain, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico for the Afro-Latinx Futures series with SUNY Press. It highlights Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico’s history of slavery, especially Santo Domingo as it was the first port of entry for the transatlantic slave trade. I am also working on a manuscript titled Bad Women, Contested Freedoms: Feminist Behavior in 16th-Century Hispaniola. It examines gender norms and how women from different social strata and race fought against patriarchy and slavery.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
Before graduation I became a research assistant at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute and was assigned to work on 16th-century documents about African slavery in Santo Domingo, which is also an understudied topic. Most scholars have been chasing sugar and not focused on the people causing it to alienate Santo Domingo, in my opinion. Working at the CUNY DSI, I found information about free and enslaved Black women in the archives. Colonization and slavery were fundamental in the nation-building process that has led to Dominican identity today and women, all of them, were part of it.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
A 1,450 pages judicial case with lots of details about 16th-century society in Hispaniola.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
History is the door to knowledge. You can write about any subject from a historical perspective.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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