Ella Diaz is from Northern California and emphasizes that by “northern,” she does not mean the San Francisco Bay Area. Much like Central New Yorkers, Northern Californians are particular about their region and its distance from major cities. Northern California encompasses the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains that move across the northeast corner of California into Nevada, the ocean towns of the pacific west coast, and the bountiful Sacramento Valley where several rivers meet, producing abundant and diverse eco-systems. Roughly forty minutes from Sacramento, California, the “foothills,” as the region is locally referred to, encompasses blond fields, oaks and pines, as well as Indigenous communities and their histories including the Maidu (in what is now Auburn, California), the Nisenan in the Sacramento Valley, and the Miwok, located throughout Sacramento’s river valley basin.
When she is not explaining where Northern California is when asked where she is from, she is busy living her life in Ithaca, New York, and working as an assistant professor of English and Latina/o Studies at Cornell University. Early in her life, Ella had a passion for reading, writing, and making art, particularly line-drawings that matured into mixed media collages of ink and watercolor on paper. While she studied American Literature as an undergraduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz and pursed an M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Ella continued to create visual art as she read, wrote, and studied American literature and twentieth century U.S. history.
The gift of hindsight for Ella is that her pursuit of Chicano/a art history, cultural production and literature was deeply shaped by her own creativity, passion for self-expression, and humanist leanings. Ella was unaware that art shaped the majority of her academic choices and yet, in retrospect, art played a key role in all of her scholarly work as well as community outreach. When Ella returned to California from Virginia, for example, she began to seek out community art spaces and cultural centers, first in San Francisco, California, and then in Sacramento. In 2005, Ella took a leave of absence from her Ph.D. program at the College of William and Mary, stopping her dissertation “clock,” when she moved back to California as she was unsure if she would finish her degree; but within one year of living and working in San Francisco, she was drawn back to academia through the arts. A dean at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and canonical African American artist, Reneé Green, encouraged Ella to apply for a lecture pool at the art school and teach courses that reflected her training and expertise on historical U.S. civil rights movements for the SFAI’s urban studies program. For the next six years, Ella developed and taught her brand of interdisciplinary courses to emerging artists and cultural producers. So, it was art that led her back to her Ph.D. work and she completed her doctorate in 2010.
While lecturing at the San Francisco Art Institute, Ella led an SFAI student exhibit at the annual Festival de la Familia in Sacramento, California, as she also coordinated the entire festival’s art exhibition in a warehouse space on the state’s fair grounds. She helped coordinate an academic symposium on the state of Latina/o art at the SFAI and the exhibition of major Latina/o artists at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA), a historical arts center in the Mission District. Moving to Sacramento in 2006, Ella served on the exhibit committee for La Raza Galería Posada for several years and helped plan the historical center’s art shows.
Working on community projects and art exhibits deeply impacted the trajectory of Ella’s scholarly work as she completed her dissertation on a historical art collective that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s U.S. civil rights era and, specifically, through the Chicano Movement. Called the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF), this group was native to Sacramento, California, and implemented numerous community-based programs that fostered a rich and vibrant art and cultural scene in the capital city. In many ways, she was not only studying and theorizing the RCAF but she was also practicing it and experiencing the tools of consciousness-raising that the RCAF and other vanguard artists of color of this era espoused.
As a Cornell professor of five years, she has taught and mentored many undergraduate students, facilitated cultural events and programing at Latina/o Studies, in which she holds a joint appointment with the English Department, and completed her book on the Royal Chicano Air Force, a goal of hers that spanned nearly two decades—from the start of her graduate studies, through her term as an adjunct lecturer, to her tenure track position at Cornell University. Her chapter “What’s It All Meme?” in this book responds to the theme, the human as scholar, for the 2016-2017 Mellon Diversity Seminar. Playful in her tone, Ella looks seriously at what so many people disregard as a “doodad” of twenty-first century digital technology and mainstream culture: the meme, which is typically a recognizable image from a popular film, T.V. show, or some sort of cartoon, with brief text written on it. Every other year, Ella teaches a course on Latina/o Popular Culture and explores both the current and historical representations of people of color in the U.S. mainstream culture. The chapter, then, is both an opportunity to teach readers how to think about the visual representations that they encounter in their everyday lives and the historical layers of meaning in our evolving mainstream culture of imagery that we often encounter as meaningless and without consequence. Both perspectives are critical to how we think of ourselves and others as human beings.