Both knowingly and unknowingly, diversity has been a defining characteristic of my entire life. This has been true ethnically, culturally, intellectually and academically.
Ernesto, my maternal grandfather (the son of Chinese/Bengalese and Chinese/Portuguese parents), was born in Shanghai in the late 1920s. His wife, Lourdes, was born in Brazil to an Italian family. My paternal grandfather, Miguel, was born in Brazil to Latvian parents. His wife Miriam, also born in Brazil, was the daughter of a Turkish mother raised in Egypt and a Chilean father who was the descendant of a German Jew and a Mapuche Native American Indian. My parents were born in Brazil, each to a ‘Brazilian’ family. I was born in New York City.
From long before my birth, I was to become a product of seemingly impossible outcomes and the fruit of delicately woven hopes and dreams, endlessly entangled in languages, cultures, perceptions and ideals.
My family got its start in the U.S. through the vision and tenacity of my young Brazilian parents, who decided to make a life for themselves far from their roots. Our early years were spent in the home of my father’s host-family (from his time as a high school exchange student on Long Island, NY). My ‘American family’ was instrumental in providing the stability for us to establish a life in the U.S. However, even from my earliest memories, I was acutely aware of myself as the child of poor Brazilian immigrants—an awareness that was heightened by the fact that I grew up amidst wealthy peers.
Although I grew up lacking for material possessions, my parents fought hard to provide their children with access to an educational upbringing equal to that of the community’s richest youth. So that I could attend the best private elementary school in the area, my mother worked as a school bus driver in exchange for tuition remission. Similarly, so that I could learn the violin, my mother traded my lesson fees for her work as an early childhood music instructor. So that I could learn gymnastics, she became an instructor at the local gym. So that I could learn to swim, she became an instructor at the local pool. Through sheer force of will—based in an unwavering appreciation for a broadness of knowledge, culture and awareness—my mother built an infrastructure through which I gained access to a life and world that typically only money and social status can buy.
My parents’ aspiration to broaden their children’s knowledge, perspective and worldview continued to pervade my life. Nearing the end of my fourth-grade year we moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where my father took a job at the Inter-American Development Bank—an institution dedicated to social and economic development throughout Latin America. In D.C., my mother continued her lifelong pursuit of providing cultural and educational access to those in need.
Among numerous such endeavors, she helped to create the Sitar Center for the Arts, whose mission is to offer arts-based education that transforms the lives of underprivileged youth born into a world of unequal access and opportunity.
Fast forward several years: initially unsettled in my undergraduate path of study, I eschewed freshman advisors' skepticism of narrowing my studies and embraced the challenge of making my diverse interests mutually inclusive. I graduated five years later—having spent a year studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain—with three majors (Music, Philosophy and Cognitive Science) and two minors (Spanish and Western European Studies).
Beyond my personal dedication, these various cultural and academic pursuits simply would not have been possible without the financial support and academic opportunities afforded to me by the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program—a federally funded TRIO program by U.S. Department of Education that seeks prepare underrepresented students for the successful admittance-to and completion-of doctoral degrees (a program in which UMBC is a participating institution). As a McNair Scholar, my academic aspirations became financially viable and my intellectual curiosity was nourished and cultivated.
During the summer of my junior year I won an NIH grant to participate in Indiana University’s Summer Research Opportunities Program in order to conduct neuroscience research with world- renowned faculty (and with whom I subsequently co-authored a paper that was published in Neuroinformatics). I spent the following summer studying the problem of free will with a specialist on the faculty at Yale University. As a result of these experiences, I presented several paper and poster presentations at undergraduate research conferences across the country and solidified my intention to pursue graduate school.
Although I subsequently chose to pursue graduate degrees in music, the exploration of my other intellectual interests continued and, ultimately, coalesced. As a visual artist, I was the winner of the 15th Annual Photography Exhibit at the Inter-American Development Bank (2009) for a set of photographs taken in the city of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil that explore the inherent conflict between the aesthetic beauty of urban decay and the endemic racial and socio-economic inequality from which such beauty emerges.
In August 2017, I was an artist-in-residence in Tatuamunha, Alagoas—a rural village in a historically impoverished region of Brazil’s northeast. Through painting, I deepened my exploration of art as a means of discourse to address issues of endemic inequality, and as a way of giving voice to individuals who are invisible-to (or blatantly disregarded-by) corroded institutional structures.
In 2018, I was the winner of the 9th Annual Patricia M. Sitar Juried Art Exhibition, for which I was awarded the opportunity of a solo show in February 2020. It was fitting that the first public display of the paintings from my residency in Tatuamunha—which pay homage to the genuine hope and humility of local residents in the face of structural discrimination—would be at an arts and educational center wholly dedicated to providing access to similar such citizens in Washington D.C.; the very center that my mother helped to build from the ground up; the center which I have seen flourish over the past two decades and which, in many ways, I grew up in.
As a self-trained visual artist with formal training in music, philosophy and cognitive science, I have always been fascinated by the complex dynamics through which we construct concepts of meaning and beauty in art. In 2011, I was the recipient of one of Peabody Conservatory’s most prestigious awards—the Presser Foundation Award—for which I received $10,500 in order to produce a multimedia performance event of newly commissioned works in music, dance and visual art. The culminating concert and exhibition sought to address questions about the underlying dynamics of meaning and beauty through the interaction of these various media.
In January of 2017, I created a 3-week intensive seminar for the JHU Intersession (“Expanding Time, Space and Meaning in Visual Art & Music”) as a way to give undergraduates of any discipline a taste for a graduate-level seminar that explores syncretism in the arts. Beyond my interest in the topics themselves, the purpose of the course was to help students cultivate an ability to engage critically with any material; to show them that the unrelenting questioning of a critical mind needs not—and should not—be restrained by institutional categories such as “field of study.” Given the breadth of the underlying questions, my course included topics in Music History, Art History, Literary Criticism, Cognitive Science, Phil. of Mind, Phil. of Language, Semiotics, Aesthetics and Phenomenology. In the Spring of 2018, I developed the material into a full-semester course, which I have successfully taught nearly every semester for UMBC’s First Year Seminar program (FYS 107 “Time, Space Meaning, Art & Music”).
Although my doctorate was in Classical Guitar Performance, I chose to pursue the Peabody Conservatory’s extended dissertation track, for which I conducted an experiment in collaboration with a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. My dissertation “Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation, Music and Creativity” explored emerging neuroscientific approaches attempting to uncover the neural correlates of creativity—for which I received the Mollie G. and Joseph L. Forscher Music Cognition Award during my graduating Commencement ceremony.
In these many ways and more, diversity—in nearly every sense of the word—has been a foundational element in my life. I have been a target of cultural ignorance that attempts to undermine and suppress diversity, but I have also been a major beneficiary of individuals, programs and institutions that promote and nurture it. As such, my life and my choices have inherently been sculpted by the essence of diversity and the innate multiplicity of understanding that it engenders. For this reason, I give thanks to those who have helped me live it and—as a musician, artist and scholar—I hope to continue cultivating a diversity of mind, curiosity and knowledge for my students, my colleagues and those who come in contact with my work.
At UMBC, I see a community and institution that champions diversity not merely as fodder for its own self-promotion, but as an indispensably meaningful component of progress that needs to be nurtured and developed. As such, UMBC not only encourages and supports the kind of person I believe myself to be, but it is a place that would genuinely appreciate and cultivate the many qualities I have to offer and that I wish to contribute.