New to Stony Brook University’s campus and Long Island, New York, Assistant Professor Joseph Pierce drinks his mate (pronounced ma-tay), an Argentinian herbal tea, from a small gourd at his desk. He is well dressed in a tailored-to-fit houndstooth suit and his tame shoulder-length hair makes him the ideal subject of hair envy. But he is more than perfect hair.
Pierce received his Bachelor’s in International Studies at Trinity University then moved on to the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his Master’s in Latin American Studies and his Ph.D. in Hispanic Literature.
“I try to understand the way kinship affects communities in a broad sense,” Pierce said of his job at Stony Brook University. “For example, when [friends] say, ‘we are brothers,’ what does that mean?”
During his first semester this past fall, he taught Cosmic Blood: Scientific Discourses in Spanish American Prose and Spanish Conversation & Composition, both upper-level division classes in the Hispanic Languages & Literature Department.
Hailing from Corpus Christi, TX, a city a few hours from Mexico’s border, Pierce grew up in a predominantly Mexican community. “It’s even where the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was founded,” he said. “Wherever you are, you have to be in contact with [the culture].”
In graduate school, Pierce knew what he wanted to focus his studies on. “I was always interested in mechanisms of culture and power that marginalized certain groups and not others, like women undergoing structural barriers toward fulfillment and post colonial family structures,” he said. However, Pierce didn’t expect what happened next.
In 2005, his friend Alejandra Zambrano founded La Poderosa Media Project, a community-based visual arts and study abroad program for local youths and North American university students. La ponderosa means “the powerful one.” For a few years, Founder and Executive Director Zambrano and Curriculum Director Jorge García ran trials in Panama, the Dominican Republic, North Argentina and Ecuador. Four years later, she asked Pierce to join her.
“I’m the only non-Latin American in the organization, but it’s not about where I’m from, it’s about the experiences I’ve had,” Pierce said. “And I did study abroad.”
He believes that the truth about studying abroad is that it does not always engage students with the community. “You can do it in a way that’s a little bit touristic, and that’s ok, or you can do it in a way that’s more fulfilling,” Pierce said referring to La Poderosa.
A typical day in the program consists of classes on language and culture in the morning and film technique lessons in the afternoon. “Even the faculty is a part of the learning, we aren’t just standing up in front of the class watching,” Pierce said.
In Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, a coastal town east of the Pacific Ocean, the community waits for La Poderosa Media Project’s return. “Over the past five years we’ve had the program in Ecuador, but you can’t just arrive, you have to establish relationships and earn respect and be humble; you have to ask and listen; you need sensitivity – a dialogue rather than imposition,” Pierce said.
Now, the locals welcome them because the project’s impact has been positive.
“It’s an important concept we work with the marginalized,” Pierce explained. “They feel they don’t have anything to contribute but we help them to produce and finish something. […] It feels empowering, and empathy — not so bold as to think you know what its like to be someone else — works toward that.”
He continued, “They have lots of things! They have poetry, vision art and culture, but no one ever tells them they can.”
After working with La Poderosa Media Project, many of the locals continue their education in college. “The first film school opened in Ecuador and one of our students was a part of the first class,” Pierce said. “Some students went on to be creative artists and musicians with tangible skills to build from.”
Though Pierce has no trinkets to show for it, he brings something back with every trip he takes. “I don’t have a token but that seashell,” Pierce said, pointing to a small conch on his bookshelf, “is good because you have to listen to it and hear the differences. My ultimate goal is to help people understand each other.”
La Poderosa Media Project has produced 30 short films and documentaries since its conception in 2005. This summer the program plans to return to Ecuador for the sixth consecutive year and Pierce will continue to act as the Communications Director. “A good word to describe the project is ‘incremental,’” he said. “We move gradually, hoping to establish ourselves even at Stony Brook.”