“Nadie te quita lo bailado.” (No one can take from you what you’ve danced.)
For Federico Ardila, this Latin American expression characterizes his approach to life and mathematics. It’s the driving force behind the parties he DJs in venues across San Francisco Bay Area, where people dance till morning to the beats of his native Colombia.
The dance floor is a place “where you have your freedom and you have your power, and nobody can take that away from you,” Ardila said.
He taught the expression to his students at San Francisco State University, where he is a math professor, after giving them a punishingly hard exam. San Francisco State has a highly diverse student body, and Ardila, who just turned 40, is a prominent voice in the mathematics community about how to make students from understated groups— such as women and people of color—feel that they belong. But on this occasion, as he looked around at his students’ dispirited faces, he knew he had missed the mark.
“Nadie te quita lo bailado,” Ardila told his students.
“I think that’s a very powerful message—that nobody can take away from you the joy that you’ve had doing mathematics,” he told Quanta Magazine in an interview last month. “And people can give you grades, but that’s not going to take away the freedom that you felt and the contentment that you felt.”
I had never heard of MIT, and it hadn’t crossed my mind to study abroad. I was already enrolled in the local university. But my classmate told me MIT had awesome financial aid and said the math there was really good. I wanted to learn more Math, so I decided to play along and apply. Said Ardila.
At that moment I was failing most of my classes in high school. It was not clear that I was going to graduate. I had a little bit of an attitude problem as well. I was very interested in a lot of things but I did not like being told, “Read this” or “Think this way.” I just kind of wanted to do things on my own terms.
It’s not that anybody did anything to misuse me or to doubt me or to clearly make me feel unwelcome, but I definitely felt very different. I mean, my mathematical education was outstanding and I had fantastic access to professors and really interesting material, but I only realized in retrospect that I was extremely isolated.
There’s a system in place that makes certain people comfortable and others uncomfortable, I think just by the nature of who’s in the space. And I say that without wanting to point fingers, because I think you can be critical about the spaces that “other” you, but you also have to be critical about the ways in which you “other” other people.
So when I try to create mathematical spaces, I try to be very mindful of letting people be their full human selves. And I hope that will give people more access to tools and opportunities.
I believe in the power of music, and so I got each one of them to play a song for the rest for us at the beginning of each class. At the beginning it felt like this wild experiment where I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was really moved by their responses.
I love working with students and I love sharing the joy of discovery with them. Most of my students are master and undergraduate students, because San Francisco State doesn’t have a PhD program. I think that has driven my research to things that are more immediately accessible. But still, I need the questions to be very deep.
I’m very excited about my research. I think I’m doing the most interesting research of my life right now. People tell you at 40 you start declining, and I feel like I’m getting good now.
Original story was published in Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.
Featured Image: Quanta Magazine/Federico Ardila’sLove for Math & Music