From Lima, Peru, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City to Florida and Washington, DC, Meredith Dyer, the department manager for the History of Art and Visual Culture (HAVC) department at UC Santa Cruz, has lived a culturally rich and fascinating life. The daughter of educators, her father was a professor on a Fulbright fellowship when he brought his young family to Lima, Peru. Meredith has fond memories from her childhood of traveling all over Central and South America, as well as excursions throughout Europe and India.
She describes how after a few years of being in Lima, her father joined the foreign service as a diplomat and they lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Copacabana Beach, for five years and then in Mexico City for about two years. “People were incredibly kind and friendly, and I got to learn Spanish at age five and Portuguese at age nine, and started studying French in sixth grade,” she says.
And she has many vivid memories of being immersed in the culture. While living in Latin America, she recalls climbing Huayna Picchu when she was just five years old, going to Carnaval and being enthralled by the local Samba groups, and watching capoeira, a martial art disguised as a dance, that had been practiced by enslaved Africans as a form of self-defense and as a way to maintain spirituality and culture.
“On New Year's Eve, members of the macumba religion (brought from Africa by slaves) came to Copacabana beach, dug holes in the sand and lit candles, wore white clothing, poured beer and chicken blood over their heads, went into trances and brought people back from the dead, and at midnight sent a boat laden with fruit and flowers into the ocean,” she says. “If they could see the boat going out into the horizon it meant the next year would be good for crops and if they saw it sank, it wouldn't be a good year.”
But her most jarring cultural experience came when her father was later offered a faculty position at the University of Florida back in the United States. The area was rife with issues around social justice and racism and her parents were worried how that would affect their children, especially after having lived a much different life in Latin America.
“Both of them were ardent social and racial justice advocates and they were very concerned that their daughters might end up being racists due to the situation in the South at the time,” recalls Meredith. “Of course, because they were our parents with their strong values, that didn't happen. I remember racing my sister to the ‘colored’ water fountain at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store because we thought one day there really would be pink, purple, or blue water coming out of it. We were always disappointed that it was regular water. Children playing outside the Piggly Wiggly asked us whether we were Confederates or Yankees and we didn't know what they were talking about.”
Other disturbing impressions also emerged as they traveled further within the area. “When I was in high school, I took a train through the South and saw burned crosses in the fields, which was truly horrifying. Those experiences and images are permanently etched into my brain and consciousness and contributed to me becoming just as strong of a supporter of and advocate for racial and social justice as my parents were.”
When she was 15 years old, another impactful change came when the family moved to Washington, D.C. It was a difficult adjustment. “People didn't seem friendly, didn't wear colorful clothing, and there were fast-food restaurants,” she says. “I lived in the Washington, D.C. area for 14 years and had a successful career there, including working at the Women's Equity Action League Educational and Legal Defense Fund, managing a food coop/natural food store, working at American University, but didn't feel like I was ‘at home’ until I moved to Santa Cruz.”
Having worked now at UC Santa Cruz for over 21 years, Meredith also worked in Washington, D.C. as a consultant for various organizations, including universities and nonprofits, to help guide them on financial, leadership, team building and diversity issues. She earned a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Louisville and an M.S. in Organization Development from American University in Washington, D.C. Her career in academics has included positions at Cabrillo College, Stanford University and UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering, before landing in the Arts Division at UCSC.
“I love HAVC. It's a fantastic department with wonderful faculty, staff, and students. My staff are truly incredible,” she says. “Their work is outstanding and they help create a friendly, harmonious department culture. The Arts division is a great place to work. I love the geography of the campus, with its beautiful redwoods and view of the ocean. I really appreciate that it, and Santa Cruz, have a culture that's similar to what I experienced in Latin America as far as people being friendly and, for the most part, being politically liberal and embracing DEI.”
As Meredith looks back at her amazing childhood adventures, she also mentions having the good fortune of being able to attend excellent schools, including schools in Rio and Mexico City. “After we lived in Peru and before we left for Rio, I attended a school associated with the university. Its goals were to design, test, and disseminate innovations in education through serving a diverse K-12 community...Students were positioned to be creative, dedicated, and resilient learners who embraced the power of diverse ideas, talents, and cultures to improve our world.”
Now, after having called Santa Cruz home for several years, she says that she loves being in a smaller city, and living near the ocean. She’s been volunteering at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter for the past eight years where she spends much of her time off, helping with just about anything and everything that needs to get done, including walking dogs and giving them lots of love.
Her enjoyment in living in this scenic area abounds. “I love watching sunsets and looking at the ocean, probably because I lived on Copacabana Beach for five years! I love driving down Highway 1, seeing the beautiful coastline, and enjoying time in Cambria, seeing elephant seals and zebras.”