Cecilia Ballí is a cultural anthropologist, magazine writer, and research and communications consultant, who focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border and Latinos in Texas. A writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, she is currently conducting a project on Latino voters and nonvoters in Texas. Before joining a November 2019 Zócalo event titled “What Can Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border Teach America?” and held at Cross Campus in downtown Los Angeles, Ballí spoke in the green room about finding ways to use her degree outside of academia, her favorite plant, and what keeps her up at night.
What museum do you admire the most?
I have to say the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The story of the Indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica, of all of Latin America, really, to me are incredible. And it just reminds you that the heart of the Americas is this place that was alive and thriving before there was even Spanish conquest. I feel like that museum really just opens up all the riches of this continent that we're all part of.
When are you at your most creative?
Late at night.
What is your favorite plant?
My favorite plant. Wow. I love the agave plant.
Oh—do you ever put it in drinks?
I love it in drinks. I love agave spirits, I have to say.
Before you turned to writing full time, you were an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas. What advice do you have for people thinking about going into academia today?
It's a tough time to go into academia because the job market has gotten so difficult, so tight, and people are struggling more and more to get full-time positions at universities. But I also think it's the most indulgent, self-rewarding thing you can do for yourself in your life—give yourself the time to spend years reading and thinking about things that you care about. And I’ve now discovered that there are other ways that you can use your degree. It's not so obvious on the surface if you have a degree in the humanities or social sciences how you would use it outside of the academy, but I’m actually doing that. I’m doing anthropology in journalism and for clients, so it all worked out.
What year, past or future, would you time travel to if you could?
I love the history of the border region. You can tell I'm an academic; we dig deep into the issues we care about, and all of our references go there. I would love to be back on the border at the time when my families were initially in that region in the 1700s. And then [in the 1800s] when a war was fought against Mexico that created the present-day border. I just think all of that period is fascinating.
What's your go-to karaoke song?
Oh, I'm too shy to do karaoke. I’m very self-conscious. But what would I do? I would probably do a Selena song if I had more courage.
What are you reading right now?
I just started Eduardo Galiane’s Memory of Fire, which is a book that's a classic, and I've never gotten to. So I’m literally a few pages in, but I feel like these days it's really hard to get any reading done because of all the news. I spend way too much time reading news. Gonna try to work through it over the holidays.
What's one thing that the average person should know about the U.S.-Mexico border?
It's not a dangerous place. It's not a threatening place. It’s a beautiful place with deep history, deep culture, that has a lot to teach the rest of us. It's a place where people know how to move between worlds and know that you can inhabit multiple spaces and identities, and that that's not a threat. I love that about the border.
What keeps you up at night?
Everything, big and small. I'm a worrier. I'm worried about where we are right now as a country. I mean, that doesn't literally keep me up at night. But I feel like we're in this really interesting moment. And I've been talking to people for a research study, voters and nonvoters, and I’m spending a lot of thought these days about where we go from here. But by and large, I'm sleeping way better than I did when I was writing about violence on the border. So I'm in a better place.