The Word Made Flesh

January 25, 2017
Mayra Rivera Rivera
HDS professor Mayra Rivera / Photo: Justin Knight

Professor of Religion and Latina/o Studies Mayra Rivera cares about bodies: bodies sent to war, where they are harmed; bodies relegated to slums that are unhealthy or workplaces that are unsafe; bodies that are the place where flesh and blood meet spirit.

“My research looks at the way that seemingly abstract concepts like transcendence, flesh, and glory shape our perceptions of the world—and how those perceptions in turn shape our morals, our values, and our behavior.”

Rivera approaches theology in a way that integrates both the philosophical and the literary. She says that the poetic nature of the Christian texts she studies not only conveys information, but also enables the reader to have an experience that goes beyond words.

“Religious texts entice readers to see and feel differently,” she says. “They use stories, parables, poetry, and metaphors in a way that’s often startling. That’s why I find it essential to incorporate literary approaches in my examination of religious texts—and to consider the ways that the strategies of religious writings enrich literary analysis.”

Through her focus on Latina/o studies, Rivera straddles the intellectual traditions of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean to bring the literary together with the metaphysical. It’s a stance that is methodological, but also deeply personal and political.

“I learned the history of my own country first through literature, when history texts were unbelievable,” she says. And later, under the influence of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edwidge Danticat, Nicolás Guillén, Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, I relearned to take seriously seemingly fantastic stories, and to attend to the political impulse undergirding poetic writing.”

In her recent book, The Poetics of the Flesh, Rivera wrestles with the legacy of colonialism on the bodies of people in the Caribbean, including her native Puerto Rico.

“When I think of the legacy of colonialism in Puerto Rico, I tend to think about material practices—medical experimentation, testing of Agent Orange in the rain forest, the contamination of land around military bases, and restrictions in sustenance agriculture,” she says. “And thinking about such material practices, I am also painfully aware of the marks they have left in our bodies—for many generations.”

Through her theology, Rivera moves beyond technocratic debates about social structures, laws, and economics to the very real impact that history and policy have on the flesh and souls of human beings.

“I was interested in ways to change our perception, to help us sense the connections between ideas and materiality, between words and flesh,” she says. “In Poetics of the Flesh, I sought to offer a way of thinking, envisioning, and sensing bodies that would take seriously how they are shaped in relation to social arrangements—which are always, also, material arrangements—and to take them seriously by understanding them deeply, and reflecting on their ethical implications.”

—by Paul Massari