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Pablo Sierra Silva: Using primary sources to immerse students in the past

History professor Pablo Sierra Silver leads his Colonial Latin America class. He is one of the 2022 recipients of the Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The history professor leads his class back in time to analyze events that shaped today’s world.

Pablo Sierra Silva’s teaching philosophy is driven by two words: primary sources.

“It’s the foundation of any historical work,” according to the associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Rochester, who is one of this year’s recipients for the Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. “A decree, a quote, a petition from long ago—how we interpret the primary source will always change depending on who is interpreting it, and when.”

Sierra Silva’s research centers on the experiences of Africans and their descendants in colonial Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic during the 16th through 18th centuries. His immersive teaching style allows students to put themselves in the time and place of the people they’re studying.

“I make them active participants in a given historical moment,” he says.

In one example, his class was reading a petition from Spanish nobles to their monarch, requesting privileges and rights they wanted recognized. “I asked my class to consider this petition from both sides, but to also imagine the parts that weren’t drafted, the letter that wasn’t sent,” Sierra Silva says. “When you start to imagine these possibilities, then history really becomes immersive.”

And occasionally even uncomfortable. “Trying to make sense of how a slave trader 500 years ago could justify selling a family, that’s really difficult for students to step into that role,” he says. “So I tell them, ‘No, think of this in terms of a witness in the room when this bill of sale is being written. Be in the moment. The intent is not to recreate the trauma suffered by enslaved people of African, Asian, or Native descent in Mexico, but to have students understand how and why colonizers dehumanized members of their own societies. The next step is to understand how oppressed people overcame or resisted their enslavement.”

Of course, there’s more than one way to bring the past into the present. For Sierra Silva’s seminar course, The Other Atlantic, students learned how to prepare an indigenous Mayan drink made with cacao.

Boundless Possibility: Just and Equitable Societies

Pablo Silva’s research takes place in one of Rochester’s areas of distinction, identified by Boundless Possibility, the University’s 2030 strategic plan.

Learn more about just and equitable societies

Pablo Sierra Silva smiles for a portrait outdoors.
Pablo Sierra Silva. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

From Mexico to Rochester, by way of Los Angeles

Sierra Silva was born in Puebla, Mexico, but his family moved to Nashville and then back to Mexico when he was a child while his father pursued a graduate degree. The family eventually settled in southeastern Pennsylvania. Heading to Los Angeles to attend UCLA for graduate studies was a culture shock Sierra Silva welcomed.

“As a Mexican coming from Philadelphia, you’re an insignificant minority,” he says. “But being in LA, where a huge population is Mexican, was an education in itself. It really excited me about Latin American history.”

He met Molly Ball on their first day of graduate school in 2006. The two eventually married and earned their doctorates in 2013. Sierra Silva was in the final year of his PhD program when he saw an opening for a history professor position at Rochester. He was struck by how comfortable he felt during the interview process and joined the University along with Ball, a lecturer in the department. They live in Rochester’s South Wedge neighborhood with their three children.

Mexico, Slavery, Freedom: A Bilingual Documentary History, 1520–1829

Historian Pablo Sierra Silva has compiled, translated, and edited a documentary history about free and enslaved people who, over the span of three centuries, inhabited the vast viceroyalty of New Spain and the emerging nation state of Mexico. “My students were interested in writing research papers on African and Afro-Mexican populations, but they could not find the primary sources to do the work,” says Sierra Silva.

His book offers original archival documents in Spanish and Portuguese alongside modern English translations, giving students and researchers a chance to study the Black diaspora in Mexico, as well as the entanglement of the nation’s complex Native and Asian history with that of slavery. (Hackett Publishing Company, 2024)

Read more on the Department of History blog

12 new courses—with more to come

Since joining the University, Sierra Silva has created 12 history courses—with more to come. “I’m a very curious person who doesn’t like to repeat himself,” he explains. One such course was a collaboration in 2017 with Associate Professor of Spanish Ryan Prendergast (a fellow Goergen Award winner in 2019) called 1492 and Beyond: Identity, Culture, and Society in Colonial Latin America.

“I was struck by Pablo’s clear sense of how he sought to engage students,” Prendergast says. “He wanted to make sure students learned to think critically and to produce knowledge in terms of the temporal and cultural contexts in question. We made use of primary sources such as archival documents or contemporary maps and images whenever possible.”

Another new course was History of Latin America through Soccer. He is passionate about the sport, and recognized that soccer is part of the culture in many countries. Sierra Silva even designed a “wear your favorite jersey to class” day for students. When students mentioned in recent years that it might be appropriate to include other parts of the world where soccer thrives, he amended the class to World History through Soccer (1867–2014). He’s teaching it this fall, ahead of the World Cup in November.

More courses are coming, Sierra Silva says. “I’ve become very interested in the history of Haiti before the revolution,” he says. “So presumably in a year or two I’ll have a class on that era.”

Sierra Silva says he hopes his students will always challenge what they read or see. “Don’t take any text or document at face value,” he says. “What is the source? Where are you getting this from? Challenge, always challenge.”

What Pablo Sierra Silva’s students are saying

“Professor Sierra Silva taught me to find unique ways to retell the stories of disadvantaged people. His innovative way of teaching the stories of historically marginalized communities encourages students to represent these experiences through their own research and beyond into their careers.”
—Cindy Molina ’18

“As an introvert, I often felt imposter syndrome and was too timid to speak in class. However, Professor Sierra Silva helped me step out of my comfort zone and become confident in my abilities and contributions as a student. He’s one of the most selfless professors I’ve had the privilege to learn from. As a first-generation college student, his mentorship continues to play a significant role in my life.”
—Sharline Rojo Reyes ’20

“He encouraged us to keep learning, interacting with fields outside of what we are comfortable in, and improve on our skills. It is thanks to Sierra’s leadership that I am now a double major in history and computer science with the intention to highlight the history of Afro-Latinos through technology. A person that is this committed to the advancement of their students is more than worthy of this recognition.”
—Elvis Vasquez ’23

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on October 25, 2022. It has been updated and republished to reflect the release of Pablo Sierra Silva’s Mexico, Slavery, Freedom: A Bilingual Documentary History, 1520–1829 (Hackett Publishing Company, 2024).

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