Faculty Spotlight: Allison Bigelow Puts Others First

June 14, 2023 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

When Rebecca Graham received Spanish professor Allison Bigelow as her adviser, she had no idea it would lead her on a quest to find a missing Spanish painting.

“I declared my major in Spanish, and she was the person I was assigned to,” said Graham, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2017.

Graham grew closer to Bigelow as the professor helped her add a media studies major during her third year at UVA. Bigelow was at work on a book on mining in colonial Latin America when she reached out to Graham for help.

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“She told me about how she had, in her research, found this one manuscript that had basically a paint-by-number description of a painting of a map of Venezuela at the time,” Graham said.

The map would have gone into her book, but Bigelow was unable to find it. She wanted Graham to recreate the painting.

“I was so flattered and so honored and, honestly, a little bit scared,” Graham said.

She had started to sketch the map, using the manuscript as a guide. Then Bigelow had the idea to bring Graham to Spain to look for the lost painting with her. The pair traveled to Madrid and Seville in January 2017 and spent their days in libraries and archives, searching for the painting.

They didn’t find it. They did, however, come upon another painting by the same artist, making it easier for Graham to recreate the lost painting.

Not only did Graham’s painting go into the book, it became the cover of the award-winning “Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World.”

Candid of Allison Bigelow writing while referencing a book
UVA, Bigelow says, has a tremendous wealth of resources. “How can we use our skills to share those resources with other people?” she asks. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Having the painting in the book was such an honor, but having her put it on the cover was really, really special,” Graham said.

A Modern Approach to Precolonial Subjects

Bigelow takes an unconventional approach to teaching colonial Latin American literature. Instead of writing seminar papers, students can create Wikipedia pages for Mesoamerican gods and translate manuscripts from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

“We at UVA have access to an extraordinary wealth of material. That is an amazing privilege,” Bigelow said. “How can we use our skills to share those resources with other people? And how can we learn new skills through the act of creating knowledge and materials for communities?”

Her interest in digitizing documents that some people struggle to access has become a model for her students. One student’s dissertation on Santa Muerte, a folk saint, turned into an oral history in the form of a podcast about a motorcycle group devoted to the saint.

Another student, fascinated by Indigenous peoples’ use of stones, realized there might be a connection between the descendants of Black enslaved workers and Indigenous communities in South America when he passed the Memorial to Enslaved Workers on Grounds. He then produced an oral history of people in Charlottesville and was able to relate them to his interest in Latin American studies.

Bigelow’s approach has inspired her students.

“I would like to be like her, if I ever get to be a professor,” said Sergio Silva, the fourth-year doctoral student who created the oral history of Black Charlottesville residents. “She can be a mentor for everybody. … She has this capacity of listening to what the student is bringing and creating something amazing.”

Nasser Meerkhan, now a Spanish professor at the University of California, Berkeley, credited Bigelow with the fact that he’s now up for a tenured position.

“I don’t think I would have made it this far without Allison,” Meerkhan said.

Bigelow is passionate about accessibility. Elementary school students, regardless of whether they’re in the United States or Honduras, tend to rely on Wikipedia for their homework, but Spanish-language entries on Indigenous concepts, objects and deities are lacking.

“That sends a really profound message to those elementary school students, that their experiences don’t matter,” Bigelow said.

That pushed her to have her students make Wikipedia-style entries for some of those terms. Now students abroad are using the new resources, as the Popul Wuj project get the most traffic during the school week.

Bigelow brings the same community-building orientation to Grounds, from research and teaching to her membership in the University’s Native and Indigenous Relations Community and mentoring students within and outside of UVA.

Candid portrait of Allison Bigelow in hallway
Whether they want to work in higher education or not, Bigelow helps graduate students find the path that’s right for them. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“She was in the middle of her pregnancy and just … doing everything,” Lawson said. As one of four female tenured Spanish professors, Bigelow tries to be realistic with her students about juggling the demands of a young family and an academic career.

She also facilitateded a speaker series through UVA’s Democracy Initiative that’s set to launch in the fall, co-chaired the George Rogers Clark Statute Disposition Committee, and plays in a kickball league with other UVA faculty and staff.

Being Open, Spreading Light

Jessie Marroquin had heard a lot about Bigelow from other people in the Spanish doctoral program at UVA. She felt intimidated.

Still, Marroquin went to talk to Bigelow about what she might do after earning her doctorate. She wasn’t sure whether an academic career was right for her.

Marroquin worried that Bigelow might think she was wasting the professor’s time if she didn’t want an academic career. “But she was incredibly supportive,” Marroquin said. “And from that moment on, we established this transparency where she was open to my ideas.”

That openness and support led to an internship in the Race, Religion and Democracy Lab, during which Marroquin made the podcast about bikers devoted to Santa Muerte.

Others said Bigelow brings that level of openness and respect to everyone she meets. She treats graduate students as peers.

“I was in her survey of colonial Latin American literature course,” Silva said. “She started that first session telling us that she thought of us as colleagues at different stages of our academic careers.”

The Lab Our Nation Turns To For Saving Lives On The Road, to be great and good in all we do
The Lab Our Nation Turns To For Saving Lives On The Road, to be great and good in all we do

For Liah Lawson, Bigelow’s faith in her gave her greater confidence in herself.

“A lot of times, [Native and Indigenous] voices get pushed aside,” said Lawson, a rising third-year student and the public advocacy chair for the Native American Student Union. “She really tries to make our voices powerful.”

That, in turn, has given Lawson the confidence to speak more freely about the issues that Native students face.

“Before, I was always really nervous, like maybe I was saying the wrong thing, or faculty wouldn’t understand what I was trying to get at,” she said. “Now I can advocate for myself and other Native students.”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications