Colonialism in U.S. Spanish Departments


Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

While Las Meninas is perhaps the world’s most famous selfie, and Miguel de Cervantes’s edits on Cide Hamete Benengeli’s novel mapped metafiction centuries before it was in vogue, there’s an argument to be made that the cultures of Spain should appear considerably less in U.S. curricula. In a recent study, I found some disturbing trends: Despite efforts toward cultural democratization in the 1970s, nearly all Spanish-language departments in the United States are overwhelmingly Eurocentric. The 2015 data indicate a roughly one-to-one ratio of specialists in Iberian study to those in Latin American topics across the academy. The population of Latin America is more than 10 times that of Spain, yet the cultures and languages of each have basically equal representation in U.S. classrooms. Mexico, for instance, has almost three times more inhabitants than Spain — and while many departments in the data set did not have a single Mexico specialist, 97.7 percent of departments surveyed had multiple specialists on Spain.

This Eurocentric hiring vastly overrepresents Spain, not only in pedagogy and publications but also in cultural goods like literature, art, film, and spoken accents in the Spanish language. These faculty demographics privilege specific ways to use the language orally and in writing, including accents (like a “th” sound for “z” and “c” when followed by an “e” or “i”), grammar and syntax (the use of the perfect tense rather than preterit for a recent event, completed or not), articles (like leísmo, or the use of le as a direct-object pronoun instead of lo/la), vocabulary (ordenador for computer, coche for car, zumo for juice, and so on), verbs (like conducir for to drive and ponerse de pie for to stand up) and the second-person plural (the use of vosotros as informal you plural). The tendency also overloads class time and assignments with material from Iberian cultures and literature, ignoring their unstudied Latin American equivalents.

The faculties have been organized so that our seminars discuss Cervantes’s Mozarabic wordplay but not Titu Cusi’s quechueñol; we see ourselves in Velázquez’s rather than Tezcatlipoca’s mirror; and Picasso is not considered “Guayasamín of the North” — such examples could go on ad infinitum. But they are not natural hierarchies. Even the most passionate Iberian apologist cannot maintain that the material is more aesthetically engaging or historically meaningful. Perhaps the way we present the work (or don’t present it — or label it “folklore” rather than “culture”) makes this pedagogical Spanish exceptionalism appear normal to some scholars, if not appropriate.

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said such tendencies have turned Latin Americans into nadies — nobodies. And these anachronistic faculty-demographic and curricular standards have some troubling outcomes on student behavior: U.S. undergraduates immersed in European-dominated classrooms are far more likely to choose Spain over Latin America for study abroad. And while the accents adopted by language students have yet to be comprehensively studied, the balance probably sways heavily toward Castilian Spanish cadence, in accordance with the institutionalized overexposure to that mode.

Eurocentric departments are particularly misguided for U.S. colleges, as Latin American traditions, languages, literatures, and histories inform North American cultures in any number of ways (much of the United States is de facto Latin American). The bulk of attention misdirected toward comparatively absent European Spanish traditions might best be characterized as a case of cultural lag. Amidst the rise of multicultural values, the present faculty model has a strictly colonial character, making our classrooms arenas of a soft form of imperialism that presupposes cultural hierarchies and perhaps appropriate ways to understand the world.

These outdated practices tend to rely on several myths: The colonizer is the “root” of the cultural system (a hierarchy that continues after political independence); the language, art, literature, and aesthetics of the subaltern have been profoundly influenced by imperial directives; and the existence of European languages and cultures in the Americas is generally positive. Our existing faculties are designed to reproduce that reality: Spanish cultures, languages, and accents are more important and thus, our curricula and faculty demographics must reflect that idea. Myths like these are a language, one that must be repeated and presented as fact by teachers and other authority figures, lest the system will fall apart.

A representative hiring practice would treat the cultures—and thus the people of those cultures—in more egalitarian ways. Overloading the faculty, canons, and curricula toward Spain has occurred for 500 years; transitioning our professoriate toward the cultural realities of the Spanish-speaking world is an ethical imperative that is long overdue.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is an associate professor in the department of humanities at the University of Puerto Rico. He is the author of In Paris or Paname: Hemingway’s Expatriate Nationalism and co-editor of Paris in American Literatures. His recent work has appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Voces del Caribe, and the minnesota review.

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