Latin American Writers

a window on their lives and work

Paloma Fernández Sánchez: Where are today’s writers in literature classes?

paloma pic[es] In 2018 the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP) celebrated one hundred years from its creation. To mark the occasion more than 1,000 teachers engaged in teaching and learning both languages at primary, secondary, and university levels  gathered in June in Salamanca, Spain, to share methodologies, practices, and materials related to the instruction and acquisition of a second language.

More than a hundred presentations, round tables, workshops and plenaries that took place during the four days of the congress would highlight the great variety of methodologies and materials that were shared. One of the common threads throughout the congress was the tendency to emphasize the use of the language in context versus learning by the rule. This expands learning beyond acquisition of linguistic competencies (reading, auditory, understanding written and oral expression) and includes cultural competence. The knowledge of sociocultural aspects of Spanish-speaking countries and cultures is as important as the ability to express oneself in the subjunctive. With this idea as a base, it is not surprising that many of the presentations revolved around the inclusion of social aspects and/or  service-learning experiences as part of learning a language.

The teaching of Spanish and Portuguese is defended by making the claim that the most important goal in learning a second language is  the utility and immediate and daily use of the language. Nevertheless, in literature courses we appear to take refuge in the classics—the canon. There were few presentations that challenged the use of literary texts in classes of Spanish as a second language, and in all those the common denominator was the attempt to present literature in the form most accessible to the present-day student.

All the options presented were of great interest. Without any doubt we are looking for strategies to give more life to literature classes, but we remain anchored to canonical authors. None of the papers addressed the central theme of the presentations­ – the study of Spanish and its immediate present use – without a focus on literature. Without taking away any merit from Cervantes, Garcia Márquez, Poniatowska, nor from publishing  blockbusters, I believe that we would benefit from finding a way to make space for writers more contemporary and less  known internationally . We are turning to the community, the village, the neighborhood in order to learn about cultural aspects of the language – why not do the same in the literary arena?

What happened in the AATSP conference is not exceptional. In preparing the syllabus for my course “introduction to Latin American literature,” I find myself with the same standard figures,  the same patron saints semester after semester.  Available anthologies contain a compilation of well-worn fragments from the history of Latin American literature.  Some of the textbooks, in a show of modernization, include a final brief chapter, added in the latest edition (2017), which offers three writers who are still living (all men).  In the face of this panorama one is confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to use a textbook.  Anthologies are expensive, if one is going to end up complementing one of them and using fewer than half of its readings—is it worth the cost?

The alternative – compiling oneself all the readings for the class – in addition to entailing a considerable investment of time requires an extensive research process. Many contemporary writers do not enjoy the publicity that comes with being published by big publishers. Many have opted for self-publication; others distribute their work through a wide range of media. Therefore, where do we look for these writers in an effective way?

In spite of all the obstacles, in my humble opinion there is no other option. If we wish to respond to the demands of students and the society in which we find ourselves; if we want literary studies that are not completely isolated and end up being an area even more exclusive and elitist than is now the case in programs of Spanish, if students and society in general seek a better understanding of the reality that surrounds us, why not include an our programs of class and research authors like Anacristina Rossi, Carmen Boullosa, Claribel Alegría, David Anuar, Javier Sicilia, Lydia Cacho, Adriana Cupul Itzá, Melvin Cervantes  and many others who continue writing and publishing the Latin American life of today that still remains to be discovered.

Paloma Fernández Sánchez teaches in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research areas are  the literature of Latin America and the Caribbean and the teaching of Spanish as a second language. Translation by Carol Polsgrove.