Lost in Frustration

Can we teach about Latin America not exploiting its shock-value or as a ready-to-consume entity?

Statue of a young Afro-Peruvian boy outside the Dedalo Art Gallery in Barranco, Lima. Per (Joshua Alan Davis).

The challenge has always been there. To study Latin America in the U.S. Why? How? What for? Each year Spanish, Hispanic Studies and Latin American Studies departments throughout the U.S. welcome students from Latin America into their doctoral programs. And, according to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), there are more than 5000 active professionals studying Latin America in the U.S.

I am one of them. Every time I arrive at a U.S. airport, customs officials ask me the same question: Why, if you are from Colombia, do you study Latin American literature in the U.S? And even though I have trained myself to give a straightforward and almost cynical answer–“U.S. universities have resources that we do not. It’s always about the money, right?”–once I leave the airport and rejoin academic life in Philadelphia, where I live, this question haunts me on a daily basis.

I can’t help but seek answers from our “predecessors”–the intellectuals that paved the way for today’s Latin American scholars working in the U.S. They are responsible for the debates and definitions surrounding Latin America; it was they who asked if Latin America, a diverse conglomerate of commonalities and differences, existed as a single region. And because their work emerged in distant classrooms throughout the U.S., their questions carried the imprint of a longing that was both material and intellectual. A longing that lingers in today’s classrooms and that, in different ways, comes across as frustration.

The first person that comes to mind is Pedro Henríquez Ureña (1884-1946). Born into a family of Dominican intellectuals and politicians in Santo Domingo, Henríquez Ureña became a central figure in the debates of the first half of the 20th century. He taught in the United States on a number of occasions, as well as in Mexico and Argentina. His approach to Latin America privileged a view of the region as an autonomous aesthetic and cultural site, conditioned by the tensions between its Hispanic roots and the novelty of an Americanist approach awakening in several Latin American nations through cultural movements like indigenismo, the problematic recognition of indigenous communities by intellectual circles and the state-sponsored projects that gained strength during the 1940s after the First Interamerican Indigenist Congress held in Mexico.

Henríquez Ureña’s main concerns shaped the debates regarding the region: is there a unique Latin American expression? Is Latin America always defined by foreign influences? Is there an alternative to the oscillation between dogmatic nationalisms and the adoption of European or U.S. political and cultural models?

The debate changed radically during the second half of the 20th century. The Cuban revolution, the international relevance of authors from the Latin American boom–Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, among others–and the dictatorships in the Southern Cone transformed the questions regarding what Latin America was and who was “qualified” to talk about it.

Ángel Rama (1926-1983), an exiled Uruguayan writer and cultural critic, was central to this rhetorical and political shift. Rama taught in Latin America and in the U.S. academy. He brought Jean Paul Sartre’s model of the “committed intellectual” to the fore in Latin American discussions. This meant asking what is the role of scholars and intellectuals in the material and political realities of Latin American nations. Asking this from U.S. classrooms represented a particular challenge, one that intensified the frustration that endures to this day.

If literature and artistic expressions are now understood as part of an ideological practice extended throughout the region–often times denouncing the impact of U.S. intervention in Latin America–, how can Latin American scholars in the U.S. mediate the inherent contradictions that arise between their political filiations and their institutional commitments? For Rama, his fight against the U.S. migration service heightened this dilemma, after authorities denied him a visa to continue teaching at the University of Maryland. This remains a common problem faced by Latin American scholars working in the U.S. today.

Fast-forwarding to the present, the frustration derived by the distance between the U.S. classroom and the issues lived and discussed in Latin America is felt more intensely. Frustration has become the most common, if not the only, response to the rapid corporatization of the university.

Spanish and Latin American Studies departments demand more language instructors than critical thinkers or “committed intellectuals.” And each year doctoral programs throughout the country launch shiny new professionals into the entrails of a ruthless job market and encourage them to make endless contributions to hyper-specialized publications that fill library shelves and digital databases. But how much of that work actually reaches Latin American audiences? And how much of the work done in Latin America reaches the U.S. classroom?

For the scholar coming from Latin America, like myself, this reality seems quite duplicitous. It seems that any attempts to create material links to the debates and events taking place south of the border are energized not by a coherent and prolonged critical concern for the region’s present and future, but by a succession of rhetorical and professionalizing trends that begin and end in the U.S. classroom.

What are we risking when we can go from one semester to another talking about the Chilean student’s movement, the Colombian peace treaty, or, today, the disappearance of the 43 Mexican students from the rural school in Ayotzinapa, as if they are just a succession of texts to be deconstructed?

I am aware that I may be offering an oversimplified view of the field and our practices, but it is true that our work now responds less to the changes and dialogues coming from Latin America, and more to mediatic culture and the demands from the U.S. university and its publishing conglomerates.

Looking back at figures like Henríquez Ureña and Rama can redirect our work towards effective links between the production of knowledge in the U.S. classroom and the discussions and actions taking place in Latin America. This is especially important when we realize that, even if it occurs through language instruction, we are in charge of the way Latin America is seen by U.S. college students throughout the country. This is no minor issue for a country that hosts 53 million Latinos coming from Central or South America.

Can we teach about Latin America not exploiting its shock-value or as a ready-to-consume entity?

Further Reading

El Negrito

Eduardo Galeano once described Diego Maradona: “… a short-legged bull, [who] carries the ball sewn to his foot and he’s got eyes all over his body.”