What the Foundry’s Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas loves in our culture, ballets to BTS to Bo Burnham
Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas began work in August as executive director of The Foundry community building, giving her around a year to shape what organizations and events will be inside the years-in-the-making, $30 million East Cambridge project and its makerspaces, multi-use performance space, dance studio, demonstration kitchen and artists’ studios. Navarrete-Rackauckas, a North Cambridge resident, attended Oberlin and earned a master’s degree in art history at the University of California, Riverside, working in museums in New York, California and Boston. We talked with her in September to get a sense of the cultural experiences that shaped her and, by extension, how diverse the programming might be at the Foundry with her as leader.
Her responses were condensed and edited for publication.
Tell us about a cultural experience that shaped you.
I remember being really little in ballet classes and seeing the older girls doing ballet and how much better they were than me – and being like, “Oh, that’s what art is.” It solidified for me that you don’t have to be good at something when you start. I have held on to that for my entire life, because I’m one of those folks who will try everything and anything just to see what it’s like.
What cultural experience has been important to you during the pandemic?
I picked up pottery again. I hadn’t touched clay in probably a decade, outside of working with kindergarteners. But there’s this wonderful studio called Indigo Fire in Belmont and Watertown that had all of the things I was looking for in terms of staying safe and still being able to be creative. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be out of the house making something with my hands.
What’s the culture you’re most looking forward to returning to after the pandemic?
I am very into the Korean boy band BTS and have been since 2017. By the grace of whatever wonderful universal pull there is out there, I got tickets to shows that were supposed to be in early 2020, tickets that are famously impossible to get. For the longest time, BTS kept all of their concerts as postponed instead of canceled for everyone who still held the tickets – which is huge, considering their fan base probably quadrupled over the pandemic. They finally officially canceled that tour, and everyone who had a ticket definitely wept that day. I very much look forward to one day BTS releasing new tour dates, and I will do my darnedest to get back in there.
Is there a kind of culture you feel no one else appreciates as you do?
My family’s from Ecuador, and it’s a regional food that I don’t see very well represented anywhere – even in New York City, where there’s a huge population of Ecuadorian immigrants. Every time I see it somewhere I try to introduce everyone I can to it.
Name a piece of architecture you particularly appreciate in Cambridge.
The Foundry! It’s really interesting. It’s a weird building that I walked by a ton when I moved here and was like, “What a weird old building. I wonder what’s inside?” To finally get to see it from the inside, even though it’s still under construction, and how beautiful it really is – the ceiling is almost cathedral-esque, and there’s all this light streaming. The tones are so warm. It feels very welcoming. And knowing that plans include the second and third stories all being glass, looking into the community space on the first floor so there’s this connection all the way through – I think it’s going to be awe inspiring in its own way, but not intimidating. Also, the main branch of the Cambridge library. To see this beautiful space with all of that green in front of it really struck me as “These are the things that Cambridge as a city cares about.” And then to realize it was right next to the high school? Good job.
How about a piece of visual art that you enjoy going back to?
Kehinde Wiley’s “Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps.” During my fellowship right after college I worked at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York and I remember seeing that piece, which heavily references European classical painting but elevates just an average person from Brooklyn to Napoleonic status, bringing these things together to say something new. It was a joy to look at and an absolute joy to teach. That piece was just such an easy way of walking people into the museum.
A piece of writing that has meant a lot to you?
I read Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” last year for the first time in 15 years, thinking about how deep the book is and how much there is to unpack about societal influence on young women of color, the way communities work together to both perpetuate and dismantle ideas of what womanhood is and the importance of relationships, I couldn’t imagine that I was asked to read it as an early teenager. Reading it again as a full-grown adult being, I got it. I think somewhere deep inside me, I must have remembered that stuff, but definitely not consciously. Right now I’m trying to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves,” but it’s the kind of thing I will spend too time on, so I’m currently banned from it by my friends and family. I look forward to when I have a month off to do nothing but attempt to make my way through it.
What’s your favorite comedy?
Bo Burnham has always really played with the form and the idea of what comedy is and how it works. In his first special there’s a moment in which he knocks a water bottle off a table and picks it up and puts it back, kind of embarrassed – and then a track plays saying, “You know, he meant to knock the water over.” It was one of those moments that showed comedy is also an art form that can be deconstructed. James Acaster is a British comedian who I find absolutely hilarious and also reminds that comedy and theater are not that far from each other, and that you can build and tell stories with the dramatic gusto that you see in classical plays, but significantly more accessible for people.
A podcast you enjoy?
I’m very interested in comics or graphic novels and really enjoy Dungeons & Dragons. I’m very nerdy in that way. I listened to quite a few real-play D&D podcasts, one called “The Adventure Zone” in which three brothers and their father play together. They did this wonderful three-year arc and then were able to turn their stories that they made up on the fly into actual graphic novels.
You mentioned dance before. Is there any piece of dance that’s a touchstone for you?
Being little and doing ballet, the Nutcracker is such a huge deal. It’s the first time you as a little ballerina get to see people move year-to-year through the roles and earn that level-up. And “The Nutcracker” is just always delightful. It’s such a fun little story, and it always works.
Is there a fashion or trend that has meaning to you?
Hoop earrings. All of my aunts wear them and my cousins, and I had my ears pierced when I was as tiny as you could possibly be – a very cultural thing. I had these little gold hoops and as I got older, I got to wear bigger gold hoops. They’re fun, and I have these huge ears, so I could really go big! When I started private school in New York City, wearing these large hoop earrings really othered me, along with some other things: being one of the only people of color in these predominantly white spaces and my level of family income. Starting as a professional, I was told over and over you have to be very careful about your appearance and jewelry, and I remember being very sad about having to put the hoops away for a long time. At a certain point, I realized bias is legit, and if someone is really determined to find something to call you unprofessional for, they will find something to call you unprofessional for. I decided to give up on that, and I’ve been wearing my hoops ever since.
What are your go-to films?
My comfort films are all very, very weird and sad – Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Lord of the Rings” – wild stories of outsiderdom and saving the world. I really love fantasy movies, and these are the things I find myself turning to. If I had to think of an intellectual response: I find myself getting into rom-coms for the first time in my life. I never would allow myself to watch a frivolous rom-com, and now I would love to watch two people fall in love and it for all to be very problematic and weird and have that be okay for just 90 minutes. “Crazy, Stupid, Love” was the first.
Since we already talked about food, what’s a more specific thing you’ve been eating?
Two things anyone can put in front of me that I will never say no to is New England clam chowder – I’m incredibly lactose intolerant and yet I do it anyway – and chocolate-covered strawberries. These two things bring me such immense joy in two totally different ways.
What’s a food item or cuisine that you haven’t had the chance to try but intend to?
Every time I see someone next to me eating koshari, I’m like “I should do that tomorrow.” It’s this Egyptian mix of lentils and greens and chickpeas, and I believe there’s garlic involved, which is always a winner. It has that ease to it that feels like you can like throw together a bowl and call it a day, but it’s so nutritious and hearty and filling, and it looks comforting and smells amazing. There’s a place that sells it called Koshari Mama, now on Somerville Avenue on Spring Hill.
What are some go-to media?
I’ve subscribed to a million RSS feeds and don’t know where anything I read comes from anymore, but I apparently spend a lot of my time on places like LifeHacker and Jezebel. But also Inside Higher Ed was very interesting to me for a long time, and ARTnews and Colossal.
How about a music recommendation?
I’ve recently been very interested in the idea of affirmations music. Daily affirmations are a way to help you feel confident and embody the things you’re saying, like, “I am calm, I am successful.” I remember thinking “Someone’s smart and must have turned this into music,” because people are too lazy to look at themselves in the mirror every morning and do it. And it exists.
What television means a lot to you?
The genre of telenovelas has always meant a lot to me and my family. Even though I don’t do any kind of personal watching, whenever I’m visiting I will cuddle up on the couch with them and just have no idea what’s going on. I’m like 18 seasons behind on whatever long-running show they’re on, which airs for an hour every Monday to Friday.
And a key theater experience?
I’m really into musical theater and remember seeing “In the Heights” when it was off Broadway, when I was in high school. It was huge for me to see stories about places I know, where I have family, and about the struggles that I’ve felt – a musical about Latin American folks, and modern Latin America. Years later, everyone was like, “Oh, Hamilton’s the best,” and I’d be like, “Have you seen ‘In the Heights?’” I don’t think many people would agree with me.