S.4. E.3: Ni de Aquí Nor from There

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Spanish professor and podcaster Angelique Dwyer.
Posted on September 21st, 2020 by

Professor, podcaster, and Spanglish author Angelique Dwyer of the modern languages, literatures, and cultures department at Gustavus talks about her personal story as a “gringa Mexicana,” her education and approach to teaching, her award-winning community-based learning projects, and her own podcast.

Season 4, Episode 3: Ni de Aquí Nor from There

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

“Interestingly [foreign language 00:00:24]. Although I took the award for being the most Mexican gringa, I never liked being introduced by my friends in Portland as my friend from Mexico. It used to piss me off so much. I guess you could say that before I negotiated my identities, I was pretty much [foreign language 00:00:42], neither from here, nor from there. Maybe I still feel that way.”

So wrote my colleague, professor Angelique Dwyer of the modern languages, literatures and cultures department at Gustavus and a creative nonfiction piece titled “Gringos Mexicanos,” which she published in the Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies in 2019. As you will hear Angelique’s observation reflects not only her scholarly interests in US-Mexico intercultural studies and Chicana-Latina, cultural production, performance arts, and film, but also her personal story.

Angelique has been teaching at Gustavus since 2010, having earned her PhD in Spanish at the University of Iowa with a focus on 20th century Latin American literature. She has creatively made community based learning an important component of her teaching for which she won the President’s Civic Engagement Steward Award from the Minnesota campus compact in 2016.

In addition, she has directed the exciting Latin-American, Latinex and Caribbean studies program at Gustavus, which she is again directing and authored a wide variety of publications, including book chapters and works of creative nonfiction. For all these reasons and more, including my own wonderful experience as an undergraduate in Mexico in the early 1970s, I’ve been looking forward to speaking with her for this podcast. Angelique, welcome. I’m delighted you could join me.

Angelique Dwyer:

Thank you, Greg. Thanks for having me and thanks for that wonderful introduction.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. I should know we first met when you were interviewing on campus and I was so involved in speaking with you that I almost made you late for your teaching demo. Well, I think I did make you late, but you pulled it off, as you said, you were ready. So this is more relaxed for both of us, I think. Let’s start with your journey. Because I think I find that very interesting.

I remember speaking with you about that when we first met and I think our listeners will find it quite interesting. Where did you grow up and how did you find your way to what you’re currently doing?

Angelique Dwyer:

Yeah. I was born in Portland, Oregon. My parents are from the Midwest and we lived there until about when I was six years old and then for various different reasons, personal and family wise, my family decided to take a hiatus for about a year down to Mexico. And this was of course not something common. Not something commonly done by most families who have no ties to anywhere else but to the US.

And at the time they were in Portland, I should say that Portland is a very multicultural city and back then, most of our surrounding families, the kids that we would play with at school and afterschool were from different places of origin. Japan, Hawaii, Pakistan, the Philippines, India, and it was very multicultural. So some of my friends, or sorry, my parents friends actually were the ones who posed the idea on my parents.

And they said, “Well, if you’re going to take some time off, why not go somewhere like Mexico? It’s right next door, it’s financially viable, but more importantly, your kids can study another language. You can study another language and you can have that cultural experience out of it.” And that’s sort of how it happened. We went without knowing any Spanish whatsoever down to central Mexico.

And our parents put my brother and I in a bilingual school our first year in Guadalajara. And I remember part of the day was in English and then part of the day was in Spanish. And the part in English, I was in kindergarten and I was excelling, of course. But the part in Spanish I was just sitting there and nothing. I was not understanding a word that was being said to the point that I had been assigned to do a little drawing in my classroom.

And I looked over and I saw my classmates drawing and I saw, “Oh, there’s some letters there at the top.” I copied letter for letter, word for word, what it said at the top. And the teacher just walked over to me and said, “You’re not Vanessa Lopez Peres or whatever.” So, I had copied the other little girl’s name without even knowing that that’s what I had done. So it was completely no Spanish whatsoever.

And it was so rapid, we learned so rapidly my brother and I. My brother had started fourth grade. I had started kindergarten like I said. Within three to four months, we were already interpreting for my parents, arranging play dates. And one thing led to another that about six months into it, we moved into a different location that was closer to school because it’s really funny how things happen.

We first moved to a part of the city that’s called [Plakepake 00:05:40], that’s these gorgeous colonial streets, but it was 45 minutes away from this bilingual school that we had been enrolled in. And so, it was kind of like a hacienda style home, just completely from the movies. And after six months of driving back and forth in traffic, my parents realized, “Okay, we need to go to a smaller apartment in the area.” So we moved.

And then again, after the year was completed, my parents just saw how much of an effect it had on us, speaking Spanish, being embraced into the culture so quickly and so easily. And with some friends that we had there from Guadalajara, they took us out on the weekends as they normally do. It’s common for families to go down to different, smaller towns to spend the day either enjoying the views or the landscapes, the rural areas.

And so we drove out to Lake Chapala and drove around the lake, enjoyed a lovely day. And my parents saw a piece of property there and they inquired on the cost of it and they ended up purchasing it. Which is also a very interesting tale because it was in the middle of nowhere with the highest weeds you can imagine all around it. And the person who had lived in it, it was an abandoned home on a gorgeous piece of property in front of the lake, but just an abandoned home.

And the previous owner had passed away in it 15 years ago. So people in the area were all telling ghost tales and they had said that he had buried his riches in the land. So nobody would dare go there because of the ghost tales. Of course my parents took it upon themselves to sort of initiate this adventure. So it was a wonderful upbringing. I don’t think they intended to live there for 35 years.

They’re still there today. I think in their minds it was, “Oh, let’s do one more year. Oh, let’s do two, three more years. Oh, let’s do maybe five more years.” And one thing led to the next and it was completely 100% an adventure. We had avocado trees and we had wayaba trees or waba trees and strawberries and just lemons, whatever, limes, whatever you wanted, we had it there, mango trees. We had horses down by the lake.

And it was a very free, happy upbringing. And we lived in between two towns. And so when we wanted activity, we would go into the pueblos, into the towns and we would go to the dances on Saturdays and my mom would have us selling cupcakes and we’d go to church there.

Greg Kaster:

So in some ways, it’s a normal kind of childhood you’re selling cupcakes, but it’s very unusual in other ways by the typical US standard, right, you grew up in, you said you were born in Portland, is that right?

Angelique Dwyer:

I was born in Portland, Oregon.

Greg Kaster:

But your parents are from … Where were they from in the Midwest?

Angelique Dwyer:

My day is from Chicago. Yeah. Yeah. And my mom is from St. Louis, Missouri. So I had very much a Midwestern upbringing, both of them Catholic. My dad had studied to become a priest back in the ’60s. So he was very much in favor, still is, of service and going out into the communities and working with the people, change has to happen from within, with the people.

And so long story short, he was kicked out because he was a rebel and the church at that time was not in favor of him doing that. And so, after he was kicked out, when he was 27, he met my mom. He went back to school and they met at Southern Illinois University.

Greg Kaster:

Huh. And was he doing sort of ministerial work in Mexico or, and what was your mom doing?

Angelique Dwyer:

No. So my parents, gosh, I wish I could say that that was the case because I think it would make a great story. But no. He is someone, my dad, especially is someone who has constantly reinvented himself. He’s very passionate. At one time even has been just a workaholic. Whatever he’s passionate about, he moves forward and goes with it. And my mom is a very hard working woman as well.

And so my dad has mainly had had a career in the restaurant business and was extremely successful in the Bay Area, in Portland and Seattle, all along the Pacific Northwest in the restaurant business in several different restaurants. He started in cafeterias in colleges and universities, and then from there, went to larger restaurants and then started developing some health issues related to that, how demanding the work was.

My mom is an English teacher and thanks to her, we maintained our English and we can actually read and write in English, because it was such a switch coming from an English speaking world and then going to a Spanish speaking world. And I should mention when we moved to Lake Chapala and purchased that piece of property, I went from first grade all the way up to college in 100% Spanish.

So Spanish has always been an academic language for me. English has been more the language of my home. And then I did actually study abroad in England for that very reason, because my parents said, “You got to keep your English, make sure that you go somewhere if you want to study abroad.” Of course, I wanted to go to Argentina and I had romantic ideas of I’m going to do this.

And they kept saying, “No, you need to go somewhere where you can make sure that your English … you owe this to yourself, to your culture, your heritage.”

Greg Kaster:

It’s so interesting. First of all, I’m thinking I studied in Mexico as I guess I was a junior in college and just fell in love with it, with the then a girlfriend who was fluent in Spanish, came from Northern Illinois University to go to the University of the Americas, which was in Cholula apart from Puebla. And I just loved it, but we never … she’d been to Guadalajara. We made it there, but we did get to Guadalajara, which I remember was just absolutely beautiful. Yeah. Just loved it.

But it sounds, and I love Mexico and still doing and I want to get back. I haven’t been back in a long time. But so you went straight through to college, but in college you were a communication studies major. Right?

Angelique Dwyer:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

What led you to that? And how did you make the switch from there to Spanish in 20th century, Latin American literature?

Angelique Dwyer:

Very interesting. K through 12, we were in a very rural area and there weren’t really many opportunities. Schools were underfunded. And I always had this feeling of what else can I do? I remember I kept going into my teacher’s classrooms and their offices and saying, “What else can I do?” Actually, I remember going up to a psychology teacher and saying, “How can I be more?” Those were my words verbatim.

So I think I was desperately searching for mentors. And the education I got, I think everyone meant well, but it was really under, it was under the level. I was not academically where I needed to be. And to the point that even when I took my SAT exams to get into college, they’re not called SATs there, but the entrance exams, I got something like a D minus, I barely passed, and I was so full of passion and desire, and I wanted to continue learning.

And that’s always been a continued thing for me. If I could continue being a student and I think that’s why I’m a professor. Because I want to continue learning. I want to continue always putting myself in a position where I can just drench myself in new information, in new ideas and thinking about things in different ways. But I almost didn’t pass that exam.

And I remember having to go in and talk to the dean of students and talk to the administration and saying, “What can we do about this? And will you still accept my daughter?” Basically was what my parents were saying. And they said, “We’re going to give her a semester on probation.” And that first year I excelled tremendously. And I think it’s because I found I was at a big city now, a large city.

And your question was, why did I choose communications? I wasn’t really sure. Because I was coming from a small area and I wasn’t 100% sure on what I wanted, I had very, very different ideas. I said, “I think I want to do law, psychology, or English.” Of course, I had always loved writing. Always. From when I was like six and seven years old, I remember actually stapling pieces of paper together with stickers and drawings and handing it to my parents’ friends and saying, “Here’s a copy of my new book.” And everybody would just laugh hysterically.

And at the time, they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I always said, “I want to be a librarian.” And I think it’s because I just have always loved books. I love the smell of books. I love going to the library. I love getting new books out, just flipping through them, which is something that I think the whole eBook and eReading idea, I do miss the tangible aspect of it.

But a friend of mine actually had studied communications because in Mexico, how things work actually in the Spanish speaking world in general, except for Puerto Rico, I believe, you have to know what you’re studying before you even apply, you can’t even apply to the college or the institution without declaring what your major is going to be ahead of time. There is no GEP program.

It’s, “This is what I want to be. This is what I want to study.” And the all four years are geared toward that field. So I had these very vague ideas, but a friend of mine had actually done a semester or two of comm studies. And she had shared with me, “Oh my gosh, look at the brochure. I’m having a blast. It’s so much fun.” And I had seen images of, “Oh, you can take photography, you can take audio, you can take video journalism.”

And that’s what really got me about it was how varied it was. And I always knew I loved writing, but there wasn’t really a program that was similar to that at the institutions that I was looking at being enrolled in. And my parents did sit me down at one point and said, “Do you want to go to the States? Do you want to go to study?” Actually, I was looking at Puget Sound to study English in fact.

And so with my brother, he did about a year or so at a college there in Laredo and he decided to just head back home. So it didn’t really go very well for him. So I said, “I don’t know if I want to go to the States.” It just felt like I wasn’t ready. It felt like I was too young almost, too insecure about coming up to the States alone when all my family, all my upbringing, what was there in Mexico.

I do have relatives here in the States, but we were just raised in a way that was so centered around Mexico, that it seemed very weird for me to leave at that point. So I decided to stay and I’m very happy that I did because that institution, [Eteso 00:17:23] and Guadalajara, which is a Jesuit private college, very similar to Gustavus, I think in the sense that though it’s not liberal arts per se, it has that Jesuit philosophy, which is very free and open and exploratory.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The Jesuits, I have to say I guess I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox church. My dad was Greek American and raised a Episcopal and attended public schools in the suburbs of Chicago. But my goodness, the Jesuits certainly provided fine education. So many people I know and admire who write about that. So you found your way from there. I want to come back to your identity in the second. But from there, you found your way to the University of Iowa. And at that point, you were going specifically to do graduate study in Spanish.

Angelique Dwyer:

So, when I graduated from Eteso in comm studies, it’s interesting because at that point, I was still writing. In fact, my four years in comm studies, everything that I did, if I had to say what I specialized in that entire time was script writing. I very much enjoyed writing scripts for television, actually. And that’s where I thought my future was going to head because in your fourth year, you have to fulfill … it’s a requisite in order to graduate, you have to fulfill 500 hours of what they call [foreign language 00:18:52], which is really kind of like an unpaid internship.

And I was fortunate to work at an educational television company for children, Channel 8, actually at the time. And I would write with a team of script writers. I would write the scripts for that TV show and I had a blast and I loved it. And so, I knew I wanted to do something with writing, and I knew I wanted to continue studying. Then when I graduated, the way it works is you can either complete a senior thesis or you can take an exam and that warrants you your diploma.

Many people don’t have the privilege of doing that. They’d go into the workforce right away or dedicate themselves to something else and they don’t actually need the diploma. But those who actually want it and have the opportunity to do it are able to dedicate themselves to writing their senior thesis. For some people in Mexico, that can take 15 years. It can take five years, 10 years because financially, it’s not easy to do that.

I was like I said, privileged enough that I was able to do that. For one entire year, I dedicated myself to writing senior thesis, which was something like 120 pages. And it was wonderful as an undergraduate student because it really pushed me. In fact, I’ll tell you something interesting about that process. Even though I was studying comm studies and I had a love for English and for literature, I decided to work with folk tales and that got me into literature as a whole.

And that’s when I realized that’s what I want to pursue. But at the time, I had found a key book by a professor at the University of Minnesota, Alan Dundees. And I didn’t know Minnesota, had no idea. And the Liberty at the time, a 21 year old, 22, whatever I was at the time, I just said, “Why don’t I email him? Because I have a couple questions about his book.”

And wouldn’t this wonderful professor from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities replied in full detail on multiple occasions. And that informed that thesis. And I had the pleasure of actually meeting him at the University of Minnesota when I taught there two years ago as an adjunct professor. And so, it’s just crazy how life circles and that sort of serendipitous moments like that. And now here I am, associate professor also working with literature and folk tales and stories and life stories, telling my own stories through creative non-fiction.

Greg Kaster:

I love that. I love all those components of your journey. And I agree. It’s interesting. And sometimes funny and is always not always, just so often unexpected the twists and turns. And so, what if he hadn’t responded? You know what that means?

Angelique Dwyer:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

You just don’t know. But so, you ultimately went to Iowa, right?

Angelique Dwyer:

Yeah. So the University of Iowa. So I applied, I was very, very naive. A very passionate, very motivated, but very naive. And when I was in high school, I had a mentor who was a senior woman, retired from the University of Iowa theater teacher. And so she had said to me, she was actually a mentor of mine. I would show her my poetry. I would go up there, have ice tea with her, show her my poetry and she’d give me some guidance and we’d read together.

She really helped me with my English skills academically speaking and creatively speaking. And so she said, “Gosh, Angelique, you should really apply to the University of Iowa.” And I looked into it. But I think one of the things that’s really benefited me in my own career is really coming into things with a certain naivety. And I say that only because had I known that that was one of the top institutions in creative writing at the time, I never would have applied.

I would have been so demoralized, so intimidated. I never would have even applied, but yet I did. My work was nowhere near where it needed to be, but I applied and coming from Mexico with letters of recommendation written in Spanish yet poorly translated, not because … I would have loved to have written them myself, but I was not able to do that. So I had to pay someone who didn’t quite have the level of ability to do it.

Anyway, long story short, they did not accept me into the program. However, they did accept me into the University of Iowa graduate program. So what that did was that enabled me to take graduate level courses in multiple fields. So I actually was able to take one poetry course at an undergraduate level and then another at a graduate level. And that got me to realize that, “Gosh, you know what, I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” And it really got me to work on my craft.

Every week I was turning in multiple poems for different classes, but then what was I doing to pay my rent? I was teaching Spanish. And that’s where I found a sense of home. I got to Iowa and back in the day, this was what, 15, 20, I guess this was 20 years ago. Which isn’t really that long ago. But back at that time, I don’t really remember anyone in the poetry program there talking about Spanglish or talking about using different languages in their work.

It was very Anglo centered, English centered. And it wasn’t a place where I felt a sense of identity or a calling. Whereas when I had applied for the Spanish teaching program, again, very naively, I did not know who I was interviewing with one of the top professors in the field of Spanish, of teaching Spanish as a second language. And she became my mentor and she is the reason why I’m here today because she formed me. She made me into one of the best teaching assistants I could have been.

It was a wonderful … At the University of Iowa at that time had a true both 50 TAs teaching Spanish and working together, learning. We had very strong supervisors. We had opportunities to work in the textbook industry and write collaboratively and independently, do a lot of freelance work as well. So that solid mentoring led me to see, “Oh my goodness. I could do something with this.”

And it’s funny because I remember that first year that mentor brought me into her office and she said, “Angelique, I see you’re struggling here. You applied to the poetry program, you didn’t get in. You don’t really feel a sense of identity.” I actually went over to the comp studies department and I said, I interviewed and it just didn’t flow. It was either theory. It was theoretical or practical.

And if it was practical, you had to have a portfolio. Well, I didn’t. If it was theoretical, you had to have a strong knowledge. Well, this was somebody, I had only had six months of English instruction abroad. The rest of my entire training was all in Spanish. So I didn’t really feel like I had the level where I could produce essays, which that was more of, I think, a personal thing of my own.

I think I easily would have grown into it, but at the time, that was intimidating to me. And I also interviewed in the English department and in the comp studies or sorry, comp lit department. And same thing, I didn’t really feel a sense of them saying to me, “Hey, you got this and we’ll work with you. And don’t worry, we have this program that can support you.” It all felt very odd.

And she said to me, this mentor, she said, “Angelique, if you apply, we will accept you. We’re looking for students like you.” And believe it or not, I said to this woman to whom I definitely owe a lot in my career. I said to her very naively, “If I had wanted to have poked, if I had wanted to have studied Spanish at a master’s degree level, I would have stayed in Mexico.” Can you imagine? Oh my God, how embarrassing?

But yeah, so we can follow up on that one later, but what ultimately led me to the program and what convinced me was not only did I feel a sense of home there, linguistically and culturally, but several things. First, I could take film, oh my goodness, I love film, I could take literal studies. I could take a performance study, something that I had only touched upon briefly in my senior year of undergrad.

And what did that mean? So that’s what really drew me in and, I can also take lit and theater and poetry. And my professors are from all these different countries. It’s not just Mexican professors with the occasional. I had a Cuban professor in Mexico and I had a Colombian professor in Mexico. No, here in the US, you have such a wide variety of professors from different country countries and cultures and expertise.

Greg Kaster:

That’s just, again, a wonderful story with those contingencies. And you’ve said a couple of things that I think are worth emphasizing here to listeners, especially to young people thinking about college and worrying about majors, all of that stuff. And one is the importance of naivete, of not having everything figured out and of how the naivete can work to one’s advantage as it did in your case. It can leave you open to things.

Angelique Dwyer:

100%. In fact, I can tell you one other thing related to that, that I think will be impactful for student listeners, especially. I had started as a teaching assistant and of course I interviewed and I got the position and I went through a week of training, surrounded by, I think, it was something like 25 or something new students who were being inducted into this program.

And again, very naively, I had understood “teaching assistant.” And so I’m thinking, “Well, I’m going to be assisting a professor in this.” And I am someone who I’m definitely 100% a leader in the sense that I know what I want, but I was always very shy. In my undergrad and growing up always, always very shy in academic settings. With my friends and socially, no. Within the arts, I always loved dancing, loved performing, but when it came to speaking and being in an academic setting, I was always very, very shy.

And I remember my senior year of undergrad, I really went through a lot because I would purposefully choose positions that were not positions of leadership. Even though I had the idea originally, I wouldn’t want to direct it. I wouldn’t want to direct it. If it was a TV show or a video, I would be the assistant to the director. And by accident, I had a situation in my television class where I had to direct.

Because I had been the assistant director and the guy who was directing had missed, and I couldn’t sleep that night. I was so nervous because of how shy I was and how I think what’s the expression, that famous quote that says we’re afraid of our own light, our own power.

Greg Kaster:

Our own shadow. Yeah.

Angelique Dwyer:

And so I excelled tremendously when I actually took that opportunity. So in this situation, here I am, I interviewed for this position, I got the job, I’m going through the week of preparations. And the day before, we’re about to begin class, the fall classes are starting at the University of Iowa. And I have my students, it’s the day before, I tell my colleagues, my friends around me, “So I wonder when we’re going to meet these professors and I hope they’re nice and easy to work with.”

The entire table breaks out in laughter and one of my more experienced friends who had already actually completed an undergraduate degree in education, in fact from Peru, looks over at me and says, “You’re the teacher. What have you been doing this entire week?” I almost had a panic attack right then and there. I was sick to my stomach the entire night and the entire rest of the semester.

But the first day I walked into that classroom, I knew that was my vocation because something that makes you physically ill and yet so excited afterwards, it just shows that that’s something that you’re passionate about. So I always say my vocation found me. I didn’t find my vocation. My vocation found me.

Greg Kaster:

You were open to it too because of your naivete. And the other thing you said that’s so important is that issue of comfort, of knowing this is me or this is where I feel I can be me. I think that’s also important for students to think about or prospective students, anybody really thinking about, “I have to major in this to be this, but I’m not really happy doing this particular major.”

Angelique Dwyer:

Exactly. I always tell my students, “Make sure that you listen to your own instinct because …” And I always tell them, “You don’t question yourself. I know that you’re coming in with your parents’ ideas and your family’s ideas and your friend’s ideas and your own presupposed ideas of what you wanted to do and what you thought you were going to do, but don’t ignore your instinct. If you’re having a wonderful class, if you’re having an excellent experience in a particular field, don’t ignore those feelings, follow them.”

Greg Kaster:

Good advice. Excellent advice. I want to talk about your teaching and a bit in your work with students. But before we do so, let’s talk a little bit about that opening quotation from your piece Gringos Mexicano set that I read. So, you said earlier, I think, something about Mexico still was, or still is the center of your life. Tell me, how do you think of yourself? Do you think of yourself as Mexican American, a Mexican gringa? I mean all of the above?

Angelique Dwyer:

Yeah. It’s interesting, and part of the podcast project, right. I’m kind of throwing it out there that I’m a gringa Mexicana. But it’s really interesting because I very much feel the need to introduce myself as I’m American, but I grew up in Mexico. I have to add that. And I do say, I do call it in that story in that story called Gringo Mexicano I do call it that I, of course I’m privileged.

That I can walk into an institution and I can “play it white American” who’s monolingual, monocultural. And I can do that or I can brag about my Irish ancestry, even though I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. But I could brag about that. And we have to call that for what it is. There is a privilege to that. And in the story I talk about going into the beauty, what is it, the beauty shop or whatever, when you get your hair cut.

And for some reason, they love to talk about your personal life. And I just avoid that. I really disliked that. So I just take it as a performance. Who am I going to be today? And usually my go to is just I’m Katie from Portland, I moved to the Midwest. I’m a professor, or I teach Spanish in college and that’s just sort of my persona. But that’s never good enough because they always want to know more.

“Well, why are you doing Spanish? And where’d you learn your Spanish?” And it’s just, oh goodness. But that’s the part is that I can play that. But yet I don’t think that if I’m trying to have a friendship with someone, if I’m teaching, if I’m truly going to be who I am 100%, then I need, in order to perform my identity or just simply be fully, I need to embrace those. I need to perform those collectively.

And the difficult thing about it is that American society, especially mainstream culture will not allow you to do that. If I had a penny for every single time I was asked, “Well, if you had to choose, what do you feel more? Do you feel more American or do you feel more Mexican?” And it takes someone coming at it from a monocultural, monolingual aspect to even form the question that way.

Because anybody who has lived a different experience will tell you, that’s an impossible question. It’s like your kids asking you, “Well, who do you love more? Do you love me or my brother more?” Or nieces and nephews or friends, your best friends saying, “Well, who’s your best friend, me or you?” It’s like, “No, I mean it’s not about that.” It’s about friendship in general. It’s about people in general, it’s about a sense of being.

And so, that’s something that I actually try to share with my students a lot. Because I do have a lot of students coming from underrepresented backgrounds and it’s about teaching them that you don’t have to choose. You can be both, multicultural and embrace it. It’s not about choosing.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I’m thinking as you’re speaking a long time ago getting into, it might’ve been my first year of teaching into a friendly debate with a class about whether it was appropriate to think of themselves as Swedish American or Scandinavian American. And they wanted to just say American, “We’re American no matter what our backgrounds are.” What about in Mexico when you travel there, which you do often, I would imagine, how are you greeted or treated by people who don’t know you?

Angelique Dwyer:

So when I am in Guadalajara and the surrounding areas where I grew up, of course people do look at me. There are white, blue eyed, green-eyed Mexicans, I always say Mexicans and Latinos in general, it’s a tree of different roots. So Latinidad is a tree with different roots. You’ve got the Afro, you’ve got the indigenous, you’ve got the Asian, you have, especially nowadays you can’t …

We know this. We can’t look at someone’s ethnicity or what they look like ethnically or racially. And we can’t say, “This must be this, that’s obvious.” But people would comment and say, “Where are you from?” Well, actually they wouldn’t word it that way. They would say, “You’re not from here.” That was the literal translation. [foreign language 00:37:49]. And I would always say, “Yes, I am.”

And I would say I’m from Los Altos. Los Altos de Jalisco. And you know Los Altos de Jalisco is a part of de Jalisco up in the mountains that actually housed a lot of refugees from the second world war from Germany. Germany, Poland. And so it’s common for a lot of the people that are from that area to actually look white and blue eyed, white and green eyed, and they call them [foreign language 00:38:22].

And so I always say, “Oh, I’m there.” And immediately, because they don’t hear a gringa accent in my voice, they hear an accent similar to their own, they let it go because it’s believable. But the rest of the time, I’m always cognizant of that. But the interesting thing about the feeling of nationalism in Mexico and of national identity is that it’s all through language.

And of course [foreign language 00:38:55] is this figure, the woman who stood by, [foreign language 00:38:59] right hand, so to speak whose claim to fame was all of the many indigenous languages she was able to speak. So, it’s all about language in Mexico in terms of making connections with people. So if you can speak like someone from Mexico, then the way you look is not going to be the first thing that’s brought up, it might be the second or the third or the fourth.

It’s always going to be language first. And this is something that I explore a lot in conversations with my own podcast. Because I wanted to explore that that’s not just a personal opinion, but that it’s something that other friends of mine and colleagues who I would also label as gringos Mexicanos, and we get into that a little bit. Like, what does that mean? And do you identify as that as well?

Or, “This is just a made up term.” I would never identify myself first as a Mexicana, because again, I have to be cognizant of the fact that I was not born in Mexico and my family, I have no family members of whom I descend, of whom I’m a descendant that are Mexican. My brother is married to a Mexican woman and of course my nieces and nephews are Mexican American.

But I, myself, can not claim that I am Mexican. I do feel Mexican. I feel Mexican American. And I always say that my friends in Mexico will say [foreign language 00:40:22], “You’re so Mexican. Oh my goodness.” And I’ll say, “Well, I feel it,” that’s my response. I feel it because I do feel a sense of identity with Mexico. But I can’t claim it. So I say gringa Mexicana because I have to [inaudible 00:40:39] my gringaness first.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so interesting. I’m kind of laughing at myself because my memory because when I was in Mexico, I had the opposite problem experience you do, which is that I could pass in appearance for Mexican. But once people started speaking rapid Spanish to me, I lost it. They used to call me, I think they called me [foreign language 00:41:04] or something like that. Anyway, so I would find myself in the situation where someone thought I was from Mexico somewhere.

Or were just be speaking to me as though I were a native speaker. I had no idea what they were saying. I could make out some of it. Anyway, that is very interesting about the language. What about, let’s talk a little bit and also about how you feel that way lately. If we can, a slight detour before we get to your teaching. What were you thinking, are thinking as you hear President Trump going on about Mexicans and building the wall. I wonder what that’s like given your sort of dual identity.

Angelique Dwyer:

Wow. Well, it’s just so offensive. It’s beyond words at this point. It’s so offensive because Mexico is right there and when we talk about the term greater Mexico [foreign language 00:41:57], looking at the fact that just imagine I tell my students this, just imagine that there was a time in history where Oregon and California, that’s where the border was. That’s where the border of Mexico and the United States was.

Now of course, we can’t envision that at all. We’re thinking, “Oh California is the US.” Well, yes and no. We have to talk about, we have to acknowledge the fact that our southwest is just rich with culture, Hispanic culture, Latino culture. And unfortunately, so many people from a mainstream cultural and historical perspective don’t acknowledge that, it’s so offensive.

And I like to call it cultural amnesia, that it’s like every different cultural group came through the US at a different point in history. You name it, the Irish, the Italian, Germans, et cetera. And everybody was put under a similar level of scrutiny and intolerance and racism and xenophobia to the point that with the Mexican people, they’re right there, this is your neighbor, but of course, it’s also done with Canada.

So it’s appalling and really terrible when you think about what could be the relationship between these neighboring countries and how anyone who’s visited Mexico for longer than one week and for longer than just partying purposes-

Greg Kaster:

Right. And just going across the border. More than just traveling into Tijuana or something.

Angelique Dwyer:

… can tell you how rich the culture is, how welcoming the people are, how much you can learn from being there. That honestly, it’s a pity what’s lost.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. I have had one person in particular in my life who was going on about there’s no cuisine. My God, I couldn’t agree more. The culture, I just remember one of the only time I’ve been to Mexico City, I guess, was, well, several times when I was there as a student, just absolutely blown away by how cosmopolitan it was, the rich history, the culture, the art, the food.

And I know the food, I like food and the food. And by the way, I want to interview your dad since he was in the restaurant business, the food scene there is so incredible. We’ll leave it at that. You talked about in an interview you did for the student newspaper, The Weekly, you said of your teaching and I’m quoting you, you were asked, “What three words best describe your teaching style?” You said, “Comedic, benevolent, and challenging.” And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you mean by those words.

Angelique Dwyer:

So I’ll start with comedic, and I think it’s because I’m the standup comic in my family. Growing up, things were kind of rough. I only have one sibling and our relationship has had lots of ups and downs. But whenever there’s drama in the relationship or in the family, I’m the one known to break the tension. And to this day, I love storytelling. And I love having the attention of listeners and trying to be as personable as I can with the objective of connecting with someone, connecting with a story.

And if there’s one word I could use to describe my passion in life is stories. It’s about using stories to connect with people, whether it’s a story through dance, whether it’s a story through creative writing or through teaching. Even when I do my teaching, I always use stories and anecdotes as a way to connect to people and to help with learning.

So I also think that comedy is something central to Mexican culture, the Latino, Hispanic cultural in general, but I think it’s just very central to Mexicanness. It’s cracking a joke here and there. And I always tell my students the very first day of class, I say to them, “I need you to kind of roll with me.” That I might crack a joke. I might say something I’m never going to do it at the expense of anyone.

I do have standards and I’m never going to humiliate someone. It’s about making it light and making it move forward, having a connection, sparking a connection. And I often find that being light and fun and airy about things helps me to do that. But I think one of the reasons why I enjoy teaching so much is because I enjoy the limelight. I enjoy performing whether it’s through [crosstalk 00:46:57] or storytelling or in this case like my podcasts.

Writing from a voice that’s a very much a standup voice. At the same time though, I will say, related to teaching, though that’s the case, my teaching is very much student centered. So I like to throw out a comment much like, was it Mike Myers in his SNL sketch, Linda who would say, “I’m going to give you a topic.” Throw out a big term, 19th century, whatever. And she’d say discuss.

So I like to give it a little bit of like a standup moment where, okay, we’re talking, here’s the case, here’s the scenario, let’s go for it. So that it’s student centered in the sense that they’re working with it, they’re being challenged. They’re being motivated to put it together on their own and kind of put the onus on them. But now I lead in to benevolence and challenging that I like to push my students out of their comfort zone, but I also provide a net.

So if they fall, they’re caught. I don’t like teaching with humiliating people. I don’t like making jokes at the expense of others. Everyone in their life I think has had good teachers and bad teachers. And I very clearly know what I don’t want to do and where the limit is. And for that reason, it’s about being kind, it’s about being a mentor. It’s about inspiring people. Why? Because that’s how you pass it forward.

One day they will be mentors one day. They will be teachers. They will share this with their family members. And hopefully, that’ll be a cycle that’ll move the continuum forward.

Greg Kaster:

I think those are three ingredients of teaching excellence, which you certainly have, the comedic, the benevolent, and the challenging. And I couldn’t agree more about teaching being performative. At least I think the best teaching. I’ve become much more aware of that. My own case, I sometimes think maybe I should’ve gone into the theater. I’ve even had students say in evaluations, “Oh, you’d be good on stage or whatever.” Well, it is a stage, right?

Angelique Dwyer:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

We’re on stage. I always say we write the script, we produce it. We do the lighting, we do the sound. We do it all. Let’s talk about, one key part of your teaching, which I’ve mentioned in the intro, and certainly what I think of, I know a lot of Gustavus faculty think, and even students from me think of you as a professor at Gustavus, is the emphasis you’ve placed on what is sometimes called service learning, or I think better community based learning. Talk a little bit about some of what that is involved in your teaching.

Angelique Dwyer:

So I was hired at Gustavus to initiate, spearhead, and develop a program that would work with modern language or within the modern languages, literatures and cultures department for multiple languages, primarily Spanish in this case, the area that I teach. And I knew coming into the job, this was what I was being interviewed for. This was what I was being hired to do in addition to teaching, of course.

And my first year, I really just wanted to scope the area, I wanted to drench myself in what does it mean to be here in St. Peter? What is Minnesota in culture? I was just moving from Iowa. So one would think, “Oh, there’s not so much difference,” but in fact there is a lot of difference. A different culture, different ideology. We have different students here.

And so I wanted to really drench myself in that in the sense of community in town, what opportunities were there. Now, I did come to Gustavus with an idea, like I said coming from a Jesuit background of service and working with the people, working in the community. So I came with that idea. I had had some experience at the U of I with community based learning in the classroom, creating curriculums for that setting.

I think the side I had more than anything is instinct. I love conversation. I love talking to people. I love meeting new people. I love listening to people’s stories. So, that’s what I did that first year. And the first year, I was lucky to have different mentors here on campus and in the community who led me to different opportunities in terms of scholarship, in terms of grants and funding.

And one thing led to another, and we developed the language buddies program, which is focused on trans cultural competence. Meaning in order for something to work and to work and work, not just to work for working sake. But in order for it to be lifelong learning, for it to be meaningful, for it to have an impact, otherwise, why do it? And that’s community engagement. And so, it has to be reciprocal.

So what are the needs of the community? So let’s talk to the community, let’s talk to different organizations, let’s sit in meetings and just see, “Okay, what’s going on here?” Hear those, and then how could I volunteer and volunteer my students in order to maybe meet those needs? And at the same time, I have my students learn. So we were looking ultimately for a win, win situation and for things to be reciprocal.

And oftentimes my students would come in and they would say, “I’m going to help “a student, a third grader,” I’m going to help a third grader learn English, a third grader from Guatemala learn English.” And I was all about, let’s reverse that question. So, what is the third grader going to teach you in addition to this class? And it really very rapidly changed the framework, the way that they looked at things.

And semester after semester, we realized that, “Wow, actually there is a lot of impact here on the student, on the third greater, who got to sit down with a native English speaker to work on their English assignment or their reading.” But equally, if not more, so there was a tremendous advantage here for this Gustavus student who was exposed to working with a child that speaks another language. So their linguistic skills are right up there.

But on an intercultural level, what are they learning? They’re learning adaptability, flexibility, how to work in different settings with different people. And what is the empathy? What is the students living situation, openness, cultural openness? Are they refugees? Are they undocumented peoples, et cetera and what does that mean? And so it would really break down barriers for them.

So we started very initially with the language buddies program. We would pair students in groups of two, and we would send them to volunteering Latino families to their homes directly. And in the home, there might be two, three kids that needed help with homework. Sometimes the parents needed help interpreting or translating certain documents, letters they got in the mail. Sometimes they would need help going to the grocery store.

It was kind of like they were little personal assistants or something. Every situation was very different. And later, we partnered with Martin Lang over at comm studies and videos were produced by his students using our language buddies program and working together in order to come up with framing questions. We put together language buddies videos that illustrate five stories of how very differently each of these interactions took place.

So this we did for about three years embedded in the curriculum 100%. So we’re teaching Latin American culture and we’re learning from the beginning, 1492, but we’re also talking about, “All right, what are you doing today with this family from Guatemala? Well actually they’re Mayan. So Spanish is their second language. Oh, how interesting. How does that relate to this situation?”

So from the beginning, it was a textbook or not really textbook because I don’t use a textbook, but you know what I mean? It was academic, but it was also hands on learning project-based, service learning, community engagement, very much complimenting and intentional. But after about three to four years of doing that, it was so high stakes in terms of the work that was behind it. Even though we had student coordinators helping us, it was very, very much a lot of work.

So we decided to then how can we streamline this? How can we continue this work, continue the impacts that are working, as I said before, both ways, but mainstream it and ensure that we can work on this more? So we talked to the school principals and the superintendent of the St. Peter public schools here, and we worked together and now we partner with them and we work through the schools.

So teachers tell us which students specifically need the additional support. And then our students are paired now one-on-one. Sometimes this also varies, the teacher might say, “I want one student or two or three to come in during these periods and to work with everyone or to work with students at this table.” Some teachers actually have had very interesting, innovative ideas of they come in and they sit right next to students who are recently arrived from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and just sit next to them and they act as interpreters.

So if the second grader has something to say, the language buddy will raise their hand and say, “This is this student’s contribution, which he told me in Spanish and I’m sharing with you in English.” And this is wonderful because it enables that student to speak Spanish and for the other kids in the class to benefit from that language and have it [crosstalk 00:57:13].

Greg Kaster:

I think it’s just great. I think it’s fantastic. And the thing that turned me off about service learning, at least as it was being presented years ago, was that this idea that we sort of show up, we and our students, and we’re here to help you. And the one experience I had in the Twin Cities with that was that, well, we don’t need your help. We don’t have the time or the money to train you to help us.

So I think that that emphasis on the reciprocity, what the Gustavus student learns from the student that he or she is partnering with or buddying with, I just think is so, so important. We’re almost out of time, but I do want to talk about your podcast at least briefly, because you’ve mentioned it a couple of times. Just tell us a little bit about what that involves and how people can access it if they can.

Angelique Dwyer:

Yes, thank you. The podcast is called Gringos Mexicanos, and you can find that at gringosmexicanos.org. It’s a larger project in the sense that it began just myself writing my stories and they say that writers have … creative writers, they always are answering the same question and I’ve even done this in my research. So maybe it’s writing in general.

What’s that question that I just can’t put my finger on, or that just really motivates me, that I want to continue exploring in different settings in different geographies, different cultures, et cetera? And for me, it has to do with the sense of nostalgia, the sense of identity, the sense of where am I from? And I realized that’s a very political question. But am I from Portland?

Well, I really don’t even … if you asked me a specific question about Portland, I don’t know that I could answer it because I really didn’t grow up there as an adult. Am I from Mexico? Well, I only lived there for about 18, 20 years. So am I from there? If you asked me a really specific question, I’ve studied it, but am I from there? Maybe not now. Am I from Iowa? Well, I lived there for 10 years. Am I from here? I lived here for 10 years. So where am I from?

And I think it’s just that search. It’s identity negotiation process. And I started writing and seeking publishers for the creative nonfiction stories. And I realized after publication that, “Gosh, these stories, they’re really meant to be read out loud.” And my husband actually said, “Well, why don’t you create a podcast. If that’s what the purpose is, then you should do that.” And I thought, “You know, that’s what I need to do.”

Because I had felt it within, but yet I hadn’t really made that decision. And I applied for a grant and started putting things together. And as soon as I started doing it, I just wanted to do more and more. And the first part of it is of course my own reciting of the stories that have been published through Portal. And I’m very honored that that was the case because Paul Alison has edited numerous works in the field of Latino studies and edited the works of Susana Chavez-Silverman, her famous text Killer Cronicas, written in Spanglish as well.

Was a huge influence for me in grad school. So to be published by him was a big deal for me in the sense that maybe you need to continue doing this. If this is being validated, this is somewhere you need to continue exploring. So I had originally had five stories. I’m about to upload a sixth one that will be forthcoming in October, also published by Portal.

And the first part of it is, like I say, the reading of those stories. The part that I’m working on now is interviewing colleagues from within the field and from other fields of academia, people who work in the community, friends on these issues of multiculturalism, bilingualism, identity, religion, religious practices. What does it mean to be a Gringo Mexicano? Or what does it mean to be Latinex today?

Greg Kaster:

It all sounds great. And of course it couldn’t be more timely given what we’re dealing with at the present moment. And I urge listeners to tune in and also listeners can hear, I can hear just the range of creativity and interest on your part comes through. And as you said really at the start, your passion for learning, which I think is essential to being a successful teacher as you are.

So thanks so much. I urge listeners, students thinking of attending Gustavus to seek out Professor Dwyer and learn a great deal. So thank you so much, Angelique. It’s been fun, and we’ll see you back on campus at some point.

Angelique Dwyer:

Thank you. Thank you, Greg. This has been wonderful. Take care.

Greg Kaster:

It’s been great. Take care. Thanks.

Angelique Dwyer:

Thanks.

Greg Kaster:

Bye.

Angelique Dwyer:

Bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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