By María Isabel Molestina-Kurlat
I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of the expression: It’s a small world after all. In popular culture, it’s known as part of the lyrics of a song with the same title. Written by Robert B. Sherman and produced by Disney, the song is described as the most-played, most-translated and most-hair-pullingly-catchy tune on Earth and has been an anthem for children for decades. The world of rare books and manuscripts is just as small, but also very special. Not only because of the books and manuscripts (those are obviously amazing), but because of the people. The countless librarians, archivists, curators, historians, writers, independent researchers and many others that come together to explore and discover remarkable things inside the archives. Due to this commingling of minds and ideas, a magical event called networking often takes place and that’s how I e-met Prof. Armando Chavez-Rivera – through my dear library school classmate and esteemed colleague Ray Pun (big shout out to Ray who is awesome too!). It was via email that Ray connected Armando and me for the first time and shortly thereafter he visited the Morgan’s Reading Room to consult material related to his research on Cuban culture, literature and history and Cuban writers and intellectuals in NYC since XIX century. With this introduction, Armando and I began a conversation about the Spanish Language and possibilities for future joint projects.
Check out the fruit of our first collaboration in the interview below and learn more about Prof. Chavez-Rivera’s passion for libraries, archives, and most importantly el idioma español.
Tell us a bit about yourself; what sparked your interest in the study of the Spanish language, and Lexicography in particular?
An experience that proved to be decisive was finding forgotten and lost manuscripts written by Spanish American and Cuban intellectuals. These manuscripts revealed their authors’ interest in making an inventory of its own voices and idioms. Some of these documents were prepared as stand-alone documents, but I found others that were drafts, unpublished manuscripts or travelers’ notes. In all of those documents there is a constant idea: that identity and national culture are closely linked to the development of a regional variant of the language.
Would you please describe in detail your role as Assistant Professor of Spanish and Director of the Spanish Program at the University of Houston-Victoria and your trajectory to this position?
My work as a professor and director of the Spanish Program takes into account the geographical proximity of the border with Mexico/Latin America, the migratory flow, and the presence of multicultural communities in Texas. These circumstances determine the backgrounds and expectations of the students. Therefore, I work to strengthen their knowledge and appreciation of the Spanish language and the Hispanic culture in the USA among Anglo-American students, as well as encouraging the Hispanic students to achieve a better knowledge about their origins. I show them the fascinating history of Spanish and its expansion throughout the world. In addition, I strive to liberate them from the stereotypes about Hispanic culture and language.
Can you share with us how living in different countries (Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, your native Cuba and now the USA) has shaped and contributed to your research on language?
Traveling through Spanish America over twenty years allowed me to become aware of the different dialects and variants of the language and has helped me to understand each society. When I travel, I activate my linguistic radar in order to detect the richness of specific words and idioms of each place and associate them with crucial aspects of the local identity, but also with specific social situations. In my research, I never underestimate economic, political and historical circumstances that influenced the emergence of voices and idioms loaded with strength and color.
What are your thoughts on the connection between language and memory?
I am interested in testimonials, especially when this genre is elaborated from a dialogue or a conversation using a colloquial or familiar style that allows the emergence of quotidian and supposedly insignificant details, which prove to be very revealing. I am also interested in the work of bilingual intellectuals; their pristine evocations about their childhoods are tied to the first language of each one. In addition, I am attracted to books by foreigners who visited Spanish American territories and then left works in which each society is recalled through its own voices and expressions. I am interested in that perspective of the foreigner who, from his or her language, tries to explain the reality and language of others.
At any point in your research do you do you touch upon bilingualism or/and multilingualism in relation to the study/acquisition of language? Is this area of interest?
I approach that topic from my teaching experience. Some of my students are bilingual and others have a diverse proficiency level in Spanish. Their Spanish proficiency is often restricted by certain sociocultural and regional particularities. Therefore, I attempt to make sure that those students know the language according to the diastratic, diaphasic and diatopic varieties. My goal for my students is that they understand the culture of their ancestors, but also that they have access to a high standard, cultivated and professional Spanish.
What is your current research project?
I have just finished the transcription and editing of the first inventory of Cuban voices prepared conjointly by Spanish American intellectuals in the context of their own society, the city of Havana in 1830. I have dedicated five years to that project. It is an unpublished manuscript, which was believed lost forever and therefore even its existence was in doubt. This document is evidence of the hard work of that first golden generation of creole intellectuals in Cuba and their contacts with Spain, and how they intended the island to be visible to the world. This manuscript was prepared using the sum of literary, linguistic and scientific knowledge of five participants, notable figures of the culture at the beginning of the 19th century in Havana. This document is a very important link in the history of Spanish language in Cuba and Spanish America. I am sure that it will become a reference in the books dedicated to regional lexicography history in Spanish America.
Can you share with us any project or initiative dealing with Latin American or Latino communities?
One of my research projects was designed to recover the life experiences of Cuban intellectuals living outside the island, in different areas of the USA, Europe, and Latin America. That project was originally my field work for a master’s thesis in Argentina and it ended up being converted into Cuba per se, a 575 page book. Some of the fifty intellectuals who gave their testimony for that book have already passed away. For some of them, those pages are a testimony to the future, a statement in the midst of forgetfulness and precariousness suffered by many emigrants and exiles. I planned that project while I was away from Cuba for a short time and, somehow, it became an anteroom to what would come later in my life in the USA.
Can you describe how working in libraries and archives has been paramount in your research on language, and the importance of accessing primary sources for the scholarship of the study of the Spanish language and to the field of Lexicography?
There are real treasures of the Spanish language in the US archives and libraries; documents that were written by Hispanics in this country or brought in suitcases of immigrants and exiles. Those documents are not digitized; sometimes, their existence and content are unknown, or they have not been transcribed. I release them from their long sleep in boxes and on shelves. The search for documents related to Cuba has been an adventure full of surprises. However, it is slow work because of the problems inherent in the transcription of fragile, mutilated and illegible pages. It is a job that requires dedication and patience to achieve results.
What has been the most rewarding (or challenging) aspect of your career, thus far?
The biggest challenge has been readjusting myself in each migratory stage of my life to the very diverse professional, cultural and linguistic environments. I moved from cultural journalism to the academia, from a Caribbean island to the Andean and South Cone regions, from the Spanish-speaking to the Anglo-American context. I have tried to achieve promotion, continuity and coherence in my personal life and professional career. I wanted each stage to be personal enrichment, even when it seemed like I was jumping into a profound hole, an uncontrolled spin, or self-mutilation. All those migrations involved professional readjustments and have required immense effort, but the result has been gratifying.
Finally, you have an extensive (and impressive!) resume of publications, including books, articles, and presentations – what advice can you give to an aspiring Latino/a/x student interested in pursuing a career in academia?
It is certainly important to put forth a great deal of dedication, energy and optimism if you want to have a career in environments where the dominant culture is different from your own. One has to understand the rules well, and articulate clearly the projects to which you are devoted. Follow lines of research that are close to your heart, work hard in and for them.