S.7 E.4: Educating “Intercultural Liaisons”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus modern languages, literatures, and cultures professor Carlos Mejía Suárez.
Posted on January 21st, 2021 by

Professor Carlos Mejía Suárez of the Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures Department at Gustavus on growing up in the center of oil production in Colombia, his path to professor of Spanish language and Latin American literature, his literary scholarship and fiction writing, his digital humanities teaching and course on masculinities in Latin America and the US, and the approach and opportunities of his department.

Season 7, Episode 4: Educating “Intercultural Liaisons”

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College. In the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History. In my teaching, I strive to make students find out what they want to explore. For this reason, I encourage students to embrace the liberal arts, go beyond the merely practical and constantly question what we see and what we think we know. This wonderful distillation of what it means to teach and learn in a liberal arts setting appears on the webpage of my colleague and guest today, Dr. Carlos Mejia Suarez of the Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department at Gustavus, which he currently chairs.

Having earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in literary studies and Latin American literature in Bogota, Colombia, Professor Mejia Suarez went on to earn a PhD in Spanish, the Latin American track, at the University of Iowa. Since joining the Gustavus faculty in 2013, he has taught a rich mix of courses on such topics as master works of Spanish-American literature, literature of film and society in the Hispanic world, armed conflict and peace in Latin America, demons and heroes in Latin America, and masculinity in the U.S. and Latin America. He’s also participated with Gustavus students in the college’s community service learning program in Petatlan, Mexico.

Even while shining as a teacher, he has been active as a scholar with an impressive record of conference papers, journal articles, book chapters and edited volumes, and a novel. Beyond his department, Carlos is a faculty leader around issues of diversity and is extensively involved in the interdisciplinary peace studies, gender, women and sexuality studies, and Latin American, Latinx and Caribbean studies programs at Gustavus. He is in short a quite interesting and accomplished teacher/scholar, engaged with the issues of his day in his teaching, research and service, and I’m delighted he could join me for this conversation. Welcome, Carlos. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Thank you, Greg, and thanks for that introduction. You’re very generous.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure, and we both know normally we would be speaking to one another at a local coffee shop here or somewhere in Minneapolis, and alas we aren’t. What do you like about going to coffee shops and working on coffee shops? I can tell you what I … What is it about them that you enjoy?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

It’s something that I started really in my PhD, and it was more of a need to have some sense of something going on around me while I’m doing some work. Seeing people kind of moving past me and overhearing that there is movement around me, that it’s not just me closed off in my … Doing literature means that you’re with your head in books and looking at computer screens a lot. I like that in the coffee shop I get to do some of that, and then have a cup of coffee and then kind of overhear or maybe sometimes even meet with colleagues and share with each other a little bit of whatever we’re doing at that moment, so that’s why.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that is exactly, exactly what I feel. I try to explain it to people who can’t work, who need absolute silence they say to get work done. I’m exactly what you just said. I love that sound around me, and the motion. For example, even just seeing you working makes me feel motivated to work, or seeing other people work. And so then there’s the coffee, and like you I started this when I was a graduate student, a PhD student. Of course, I think when I think of … It just occurred to me when I think of Colombia, one of the things I think of is coffee. Maybe it’s in your DNA and mine as a Greek American too, the Greek Turkish coffee which I drank a bit growing up.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I didn’t start until I was here, though. Like in Colombia, I never drank coffee.

Greg Kaster:

You never drank coffee there.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, and even when I started going to coffee shops in Iowa, the first thing I was having was really tea. It was not coffee, but yeah, I’m not that … I should be a better Colombian, I should say.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you’re a disappointment, right? Well, it’s great that we can talk this way anyway, amid this god-awful pandemic.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Oh, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So you were on sabbatical last time. We’ll come to that in a bit and what you were up to last year, but what was it like for you this semester? Were you teaching online, hybrid? How did it work?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I was teaching hybrid. I was doing a combination of some in-person teaching along with some synchronous and asynchronous activities, so I was still going down to the college once a week. I was meeting with students, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Were you doing that in your office or in the classroom as well?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

In the classroom. Thankfully, we have classrooms that were big enough for the courses. I mean, they allowed us to be kind of safely distanced, so yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good. Yeah, oh, I originally signed up to do hybrid. Then I sort of I guess got cold feet thinking about my age, and again the then surge. But I have to say I’m proud of Gustavus. It did pretty well. I think it did better than I thought it would, at least judging from the mass testing that came toward the end of the semester. I mean, I know some students and some staff and faculty were infected but for the most part not too bad, so fingers crossed. Man, I made it to my office one day and then it just felt so good, so good to be in my office. Because like you, I mean I don’t work at home that well. I need to get out. We got through it. We got through another COVID semester and I guess there’s another one ahead of us, maybe.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Maybe by the fall we’ll be “back to normal,” whatever the hell that means under these circumstances.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, keeping my fingers crossed that yeah-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, same here.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Things will start to get better, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Same here. So I’ve never been to Colombia. When I was an undergraduate I went to Mexico for a semester, in central Mexico, near Puebla, Cholula. It was University of the Americas, it was called, with my then-girlfriend who was from high school, fluent in Spanish. I just fell in love with Mexico. I mean, I just absolutely fell in love with it. I’ve not been back since. Miss it, in some ways. But I would love to go to Colombia, to Argentina, but and Chile too, and at some point Brazil. So, but tell us a little bit about your background. Reading about you a bit more for the podcast conversation, I learned about the town and province you grew up in. It sounds like it was pretty impactful on you.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

So tell us a little bit about where you grew up.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, so from age zero to 14 I lived in my hometown Barrancabermeja, which is in the Santander province. But my hometown is really … Santander is kind of in the middle of the country, so it has that ambient culture of the mountains. But I’m from a town in the river valley, and the river valley was historically better connected with the coast. So my hometown feels a lot like a mixture, and then on top of that my hometown is kind of the center of oil production in the country, so it attracted a lot of workers from all over the country. Among those, my father is from the mountainous region of Santander. So growing up there, it was kind of a mixture of people from all over the country and from different countries as well, so that was kind of the setting for my childhood. Kind of very warm town, 40 degrees Celsius all year round.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you mentioned the heat, yeah. I mean you’re saying what you wrote, that it was kind of a crossroads in many ways. I think you said something about how it was, and you’re getting at this in your comments here, more oriented toward the Caribbean than the Andes. Is that-

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, so culturally, so for example vallenato was much more of the type of music that you would hear, at least when I was growing up. And it’s a culture that is much more of like open spaces, closer relationships. Andean culture or cities in the Andes tend to be more, like people tend to be more private. And so in my hometown, my mom’s family, they are all very much involved in each other’s lives and very, constantly checking in with each other, which is kind of great. It was a family of … Well, I think it’s 13, 14 aunts and uncles.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Wow.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I never remember the exact number, and a lot of cousins. So for example, for Christmas or New Year’s celebrations it was like a big event when I was little.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. My dad was Greek American and then my mom grew up in a … I grew up on a farm in what we called downstate Illinois, kind of south of Champaigne-Urbana. But man, I loved having both the urban and the rural in my background, and just wonderful … Not as big a family as yours, but wonderful get-togethers with cousins at the holidays, great food. My God, the food was amazing. The Greek food, and then one of my aunts was Mexican American, Greek, Mexican, all-American farm food. It was heaven. So did you have siblings as well?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, I have two sisters.

Greg Kaster:

And are they both in Bogota or in Colombia?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, one of my sisters lives in New Jersey and the other one lives in Bogota, which is where I spent the 12 following years from age 14 to 26. I lived in Bogota, and I also love Bogota as well. I adore it. Sometimes it sounds like I’m saying that Caribbean culture is better in some way, but I really, I kind of loved the open nature of those relationships in my hometown. But then also, I absolutely fell in love with Bogota and kind of the rhythm of the city, yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, gosh, I just realized I really had never been to a city on my own, I guess, until Mexico City. I went to Chicago. My dad had grown up in Chicago. We went there, but usually with my parents, I guess. But man, that’s when I just … God, did I fall in love with urban life in Mexico City, and Bogota is certainly a place I want to get there. Maybe with you one day, who knows?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Maybe we can. That would be fun.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So I guess technically I’m not a first-generation. My mother went to a two-year teacher college. My dad did not go to college. Were you the first in your family to go to college or university?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, no. My father, he has an engineering degree. He worked in the oil company. My mom, she didn’t have a college degree but she was a professional. She started working at a young age, first in the office of the controller in my hometown and then eventually she was hired at the oil company as well. So I was brought up in the context of that oil company and all of the issues around it. But so yeah, I think in my family we were very much aware. My father has always been very big on saying that education was the best thing he could give us, so he always … To the point where he would emphasize, “I don’t want you to work while you’re studying. I want you to just study,” you know?

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s a huge gift. God, that is literally … My father, who as I said didn’t go to college but was … And when I think of him reading, he read mostly newspapers and sort of news magazines voraciously. But he would always say, maybe there’s a Spanish equivalent of this within U.S. history or American history, “Knowledge is power. Knowledge is power.” He valued education, and I was the same way. I did not have to work at all, except in the summers, when I was in college. I remember my then high school biology teacher. He was the dad of a best friend, telling my father, quote unquote, I’ll never forget this, saying to my dad and my dad agreed, that sort of like, “Studying is your full-time job,” you know?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And I think about that often, because I think everywhere these days, or most places, most schools, so many of our students work. I mean, they’re working 20 hours a week, sometimes more, you know?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

We were lucky, you and I, and it’s a gift. So I wanted to ask a little bit about the oil companies. I mean in my head, I imagine sort of like Louisiana. I don’t know. I mean, you really were aware of the refineries? I mean you mentioned, I think you wrote about how the light from them sort of lit your hallways or something?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes. Yeah, so we lived in one of the neighborhoods that were built for … I think the neighborhood where I grew up was built very close to the refinery, and it was set up I think it was for the Italians that are some point were working in the company. So there were three neighborhoods that were right there, really close to the refinery. And yeah, so I was very much aware of the refinery. It was kind of a fixture of every day, and also even the big … Oh, how do you say this in English? We call it [foreign language 00:15:26]. It’s like a big-

Greg Kaster:

The derricks, or the drills?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, it was a big tower and at the top it’s where they burn the excess of certain products.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So that flame would light up sometimes, and it was kind of the candle coming in at night for if you felt like going to the kitchen. I was always a little bit afraid of the dark so that was kind of, “Oh, there is the light o the refinery.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing. I mean even for me just hearing you and then reading about it, writing about it, it’s a powerful image. Was there noise associated with it, too?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I mean yeah, pumps or whatever you would hear? You were aware of the …

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

It was more of a constant … It was kind of white noise in the background. It wasn’t too intrusive. There would be occasional, like loud sirens or loudspeaker announcements, things like that, that you would hear in the distance. But it wasn’t too … I should say it’s not worse than living close to downtown Minneapolis where you’re hearing sirens all the time. It’s very similar. Even though my hometown is … Actually, my hometown is kind of the size of Minneapolis. I always felt like it was a small town, but it’s not.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and when I tell people how, “What is Minneapolis?” It’s just I think, it’s not as big as a lot of people think. I know that population-

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, Minneapolis proper I think is 304,000?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s what I think, about 300,000-something, yeah, yeah. It feels to me bigger, but it’s not. The other thing, what about pollution, environmental issues, were they of a concern already when you were growing up?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, yeah. So one of the big issues was related to, my hometown is surrounded by swamps. They were very polluted, and there were initiatives to save some of them. I don’t know how successful they were, but we were very aware that there were issues as a result of the refinery being there. Sometimes it was difficult to differentiate if some of the stench that you would get sometimes during the days, if it was pollution or if it was the usual smell of a swamp, you know?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So yeah, it was always there.

Greg Kaster:

Is there kind of an environmental movement there or not, currently?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I don’t know if currently there is. Back when I was little there was … I don’t remember there being an organized thing. I remember I became more aware of that through, there were TV shows in the country that focused completely on environmental damage and greenhouse effect and the ozone layer, things like that. That made me kind of notice or question what I was seeing in my own hometown. And yeah, the smell sometimes it was very apparent that yeah, there was some kind of chemical pollution.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, when you say … So growing up, we used to drive some route we took, we would go from the suburbs where I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, to the city. We often went through Calumet, along Calumet Harbor, and all the chemical plants then. Maybe they were seal plants too, but the smell was just incredible. I sometimes wonder, “How did I survive all those drives?” But final question about this, so were these Colombian companies or multinationals? I mean, was the oil industry nationalized or is it in Colombia?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

It is.

Greg Kaster:

It is.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So it is nationalized. It has since 1990, they have been gradually privatizing, not oil per se but different aspects of oil production. So I believe that the part that the state has kept is the riskiest one, which is the exploration. But otherwise, it seems like private capital or interests have become more and more involved in … For example, I think they wanted … One of the big areas of contention at some point was the production of [foreign language 00:20:33]. Oh, what is it? It’s, you know, the little balls that produce plastic. Yeah, since that’s a kind of a good, very rich business, I think that at some point private interest started to get wealth in that. But yeah, so yeah, it is nationalized but there are issues there, and there were constantly. It’s kind of a constant political struggle to keep those resources and not let them be taken over by other interests.

Greg Kaster:

A familiar story in obviously other parts of Latin America and other continents as well. So what about literature? When did you develop an interest in literature, if you can pinpoint a moment? I mean, was it already in high school, for example, or only when you got to college or university?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Well, I think it builds over time, I guess. The first thing I remember about the interest in literature was when I was very little, I was constantly writing short stories and comics. But I guess for a lot of people, that’s kind of a game at some point and they grow out of that. I never grew out of that. And then I guess I think when I was in first … Like in, what is it? Seventh grade, I read The Iliad.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I completely loved it, and then I think the next book that really … I think that when I realized that literature was my thing was when I read The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah, right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

A philosophy teacher in high school assigned us to read the first two chapters, and it was a failure. The entire class kind of rebelled, and I was the only one who finished the book. I mean, the teacher changed her approach to the class and so people didn’t have to read the novel, but I kept going because I loved it.

Greg Kaster:

You kept going. So by then for sure, you were a literary guy.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And I like that you were already writing short stories. I also like, I’m thinking, maybe the definition of a scholar is that it’s a person who hasn’t outgrown what she or he was doing as a young … Or was interested in as a young person.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, it becomes this obsession then, everything, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, so I mean University of Iowa, that’s interesting. I mean, was it because of its reputation as a place of … I mean, so many novelists, writers, have come out of there. Is that what drew you there, or was it the particular Spanish program? What drew you to Iowa?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

There was a professor there, Daniel Balderston, and he’s a very prominent Borges scholar. He was in Colombia in 2003, 2004 I think, and he was there for a Fulbright exchange program. And then we met at a conference there in Bogota, and he started to talk to me about the Spanish program, what they were doing, what he himself was doing. I talked about my interests and he told me, “Listen, just come to Iowa City.” Also, they offered a very strong financial packet so that also drew me there. I think a friend of mine was going to Madison at the time, but the financial packet at least from what I remember, it was better in Iowa and so I decided to go there.

It was a great experience. I had a very amazing group of colleagues who were also friends, and we collaborated a lot. I still stay in touch with a lot of them, and not only Spanish literature people but also some in linguistics, some in language acquisition. Something that I really appreciated about my time in Iowa was that it made me value knowledge not just as something that I do by myself, but it’s something that has to be linked to developing relationships and communal bonds, you know?

Greg Kaster:

Right, yeah. Excellent point, right. I mean this idea, the solitary scholar, yeah, sometimes we are writing and researching alone but it really is a collective endeavor. That’s, boy, I mean some of the best experiences I had and certainly what I remember most about graduate school is exactly what you’re describing, just hanging out with peers and talking. Talking about not only our work but just life in general, and of course usually over coffee.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes. Yeah, of course, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

The graduate student and coffee, probably a research topic there. So I’ve only been to Iowa once. I really enjoyed it, but had you been to the States before or-

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, no, never. Yeah, it-

Greg Kaster:

So what was it … Go ahead.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Arriving was something else. Like I said, I always thought that my hometown was small. And then when I arrived to Iowa and the shuttle from the airport to Iowa City took me through kind of these, it was like endless fields of corn. And then I arrived to the apartment complex where I was going to be living, which was on the outskirts of Iowa City. I felt like, “Oh, where is the town?” So I was really thrown aback, and then eventually the following few days I started to go downtown to go to the department. Yeah, so it took some getting used to and it was smaller than I had ever thought it was. But then I also was able to kind of find my footing there. I eventually moved to downtown Iowa City rather than in those grad student apartment units, which I mean for someone who gets there by themselves, it was kind of depressing the first year. But then eventually you start to kind of get a sense of what the town is and the people there, and I really developed great friendships and great relationships.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and then you start to flourish. I’m thinking, kind of joking, it was good preparation for living in St. Peter, although now you live in Minneapolis. Would you ever live in St. Peter? Have you lived in Mankato or nearby, or not? Were you always living up here while you’ve been teaching at Gustavus?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I lived in St. Peter the first two years and a half, and then I lived six months in Mankato, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So yeah, Kate and I came from … We were finishing out PhDs. It took me a long time. It took me three years after I arrived at Gustavus to finish. But coming from Boston University, Kate having grown up literally in New York City, me in the suburbs of Chicago and then to St. Peter, yeah, I mean there’s no question about it. It was culture shock. I mean, I still remember how we felt. Many good things, including having a job at a good school, a tenure-track job, but that was … Neither one of us had ever lived in a place like St. Peter in terms of its size and the kind of town it was so it took some getting used to.

But colleagues like you, I have to say one of the things I appreciate about our world, our academic world, is the way … I know not all of us are good at this, but the people like you. I know I’m thinking of Stewart Flory and Marleen Flory who were in classics, both now deceased, but people who come to a new place that is in many ways foreign, to use that word, even if you’re a native of the country. And then you grow into it, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

You learn to love it and enjoy it. That’s kind of what you’re describing with Iowa City. So let’s talk a little bit about your research. There’s a lot I’d like to talk about regarding that, especially the masculinity piece which interests me. But maybe we could start with your sabbatical, since that’s probably freshest in your mind. You were on sabbatical, was it for the whole year last year, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and you were doing … Well, just tell. I think you had several projects going. You were translating. You were finishing a book manuscript and also a novel, so just tell us a little bit about your work this past year.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So yeah, I finished a novel that I wrote in Spanish and I’m still trying to see where that can go. I’ve been circulating it and still looking for someone to publish that.

Greg Kaster:

What kind of novel? How would you describe the novel? I mean is it a comedy, drama, mystery?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

It’s a family drama, and it’s set in 2000. No, it’s the Christmas of 1999, and it’s kind of about a town not dissimilar from my own hometown. It’s kind of about a family where a group of brothers kind of have a hold on a … They become kind of a corruption circle in the city, right? So they are involved in different kinds of dubious contracts, and then some kind of sexual predation as well, right?

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So it’s about these brothers and their sister, and how things during Christmas kind of go very bad, right? So that’s kind of-

Greg Kaster:

You know, as you’re speaking I’m thinking, I minored in Latin American history and took Spanish as an undergraduate. But rightly or wrongly, when I think of Latin American literature, at least as I was exposed to it, surrealism comes to mind. Are there elements of that in your novel, or would you say it’s realism? How would you describe?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

It is realism, but then it has … So something that I wanted to do was to bring about kind of the layer of fantasies and fears and illusions that people carry with them, and kind of also the images that provide them solace for things that don’t go according to what they want. So there’s some imagery that has to do with even though … Because something that interests me always is, how is it that noticing how bad sometimes things are going, what is it that we are using to keep ourselves afloat, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And sometimes it’s the little things that we treasure from better times. Sometimes it’s the types of stories that you read or see. Sometimes it’s the illusion of love. Sometimes it is the types of dreams you have at night, right? And sometimes the bad things that people want to do, that we all want to do and we don’t necessarily act on that, but maybe for some people they act on those things and they find ways to justify doing those things.

Greg Kaster:

That part of your work I find, by the way, really interesting. That came through in some of the reading I was doing in preparing for our conversation, the way you are interested in and look at for example images, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

What imagery or what images people use to kind of make themselves feel better. And of course I couldn’t help … I can’t help even now as you’re speaking thinking about how all of us are doing that in some way as we try to get through this pandemic. The novel sounds fantastic to me. I’m already envisioning a miniseries or something, but good luck with that. And so you also worked on a book manuscript.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Was the book manuscript already underway, and you wound up completing it during the sabbatical?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I completed it, and it’s been submitted to a publisher and I’m waiting for kind of not their decision, but I guess their feedback on things to change and to adapt, yeah. So that one is more about images of demons in Latin American literature from the 19th century to nowadays. It’s kind of a way to explore, or my argument is that these images are a way in which we are processing the challenges that alterity and diversity bring to our cultures, to our lives. I point out too this imagery is on the one hand, kind of a lot of these stories work to make a warning, like to warn people what not to do, right? To set limits. But sometimes that also, the image of the demon, while it’s warning us, is at the same time proposing alternatives, right?

So that’s kind of what I’ve been exploring. How is it that this imagery informs or shapes these kind of social lines that people can go beyond? Like if it’s more … I didn’t want it to be kind of just a reproduction of, “This is the normative vision of the devil.” It’s more about, what are the anxieties that the devil are prompting, and how can we kind of problematize a little bit the image of the devil, and problematize this notion of evil in culture?

Greg Kaster:

Is there change over time there? You say from the 19th century to the present. Are what the demons, the anxieties or issues the demons represent, are they changing over time or not?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, so I think at some point there were more of, the image of the devil was more associated with … Or some of these writers wanted to have more of a Faustian image of the devil, and sometimes critiquing the influence of European culture or sometimes using it to reproduce European culture. But over time, the devil becomes kind of … It becomes also associated with forms of belief or types of belief that were not the hegemonic Catholic religion, right?

Greg Kaster:

Okay, right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So a lot of the images of indigenous religions started to take those, or were taking those images. But I think that the key element for me was to notice how modern times for Latin America, from 19th century to our contemporary age, be it with the stabilization of countries, with the introduction of Latin America into the international dynamics and international markets in the first half of the 20th century, and then with the influence of globalization and mass media towards the late part of the 20th century and the beginning of our 21st century. How it’s always, we always identify in this type of imagery, there is a linkage to specific elements of alterity that these contexts are bringing about, right? So for the 19th century it was the images of people who were kind of in the frontier of these emerging nations, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So the image of the gaucho in Argentina, and how it was instrumentalized to produce the addition of Argentinian identity and how it is in one particular poem, it is associated with demonic stories, with these kinds of … Particularly the opera of Faust and how their inability to identify that it is art, and they think that it’s actually the devil. It’s kind of a way in which there is a humorous element but then there is also kind of a suggestion of a type of culture that is not completely integrated into the national formation, so-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Oh God, it sounds like fun. I mean, sometimes I wish I had been an English major, because I love working with imagery and texts, especially literary texts, and teaching them, too. So that’s a book manuscript that’s submitted and we’ll look forward to its publication and reading it. And then you were also working on some translation. Is that right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Oh, I worked this summer on translating an excerpt of my novel to see if I can maybe start to move it as well in English. I worked with a translator, who she has translated some Colombian novels before and she was very generous in her feedback and comments. So because I translate, but literary translation is not my field, so-

Greg Kaster:

Right, and I mean that’s an art. My God, that is. I mean, I can’t even imagine. What about, so is there such a thing as … I mean, we speak about Latin American literature. What are some of the hallmarks of let’s say, if there is such a thing, as the Colombian novel or Colombian literature? Things that are common to Latin American literature as a whole I suppose, but also distinctive to Colombian fiction.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Well I think … And if we are talking about contemporary-

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Colombian literature, I think that up until probably the first half of the 2000s there was still this kind of reaction to the impact of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Boom, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And I think it took probably 15 years for Colombia to kind of move past the impact of magical realism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and start to make space for writers who are doing something different.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I mean, I think for a lot of people, Garcia Marquez, that was it, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

That was Colombian literature.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, and I mean growing up, going to book stores, it was very hard to have consistent offerings of something else, something other than Garcia Marquez, for Colombian literature. There was Garcia Marquez, Alvaro Mutis maybe for a while, but then usually there were people writing and they were doing amazing things, but they didn’t get recognition. They wouldn’t last in the shelves. I think it became a problem I guess because of the way in which publishers marketed there.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And in the end, Garcia Marquez kind of ate a lot of the market. But after 2005 … I think after 2000 even, writers started to become more diversified. The offering of writers became more diversified. By diversified, authors started to get more opportunities to be recognized. I think that others like Laura Restrepo have been very successful. Of course, Colombian literature probably since mid-20th century has been marked by this relationship between literature and the representation of violence, and it has been a common trope. It was kind of a common trope even for Garcia Marquez. His One Hundred Years of Solitude has that moment of the massacre of the banana plantation that is very well known. But I think that nowadays there are other explorations of violence that is not necessarily focusing on representing or denouncing violence that no one sees.

I think that there has been now more of a recognition or more awareness of violence in a way that allows authors to move beyond the need to denounce and to kind of just express the overlap of other aspects of life that are still impacted by violence. There is not notion that Colombia was a very violent country in the ’80s and early ’90s because of the drug cartels, and certainly there were a lot of issues. I think there was a lot of instability. We were in a situation of a lot of anxiety over the future. But I think after the fall of the cartel system, Colombia became even more violent. But it was not that noticeable, because it was more of a slow burn kind of violence. It was low intensity, little things happening over time. And by little things I don’t mean … In English that sounds [crosstalk 00:46:03].

Greg Kaster:

Right. You don’t mean to minimize it, I know.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, no. Yeah, it’s more like small events that are not noticeable, but that for people, like for their own lives, they are life-defining, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Or even life-ending.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, yeah.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So I think that to some degree, contemporary authors in Colombia are trying to see, how is it that life as a Colombian takes shape in that backdrop of this [crosstalk 00:46:40].

Greg Kaster:

With that backdrop of violence.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And that really weird contradiction of political discourses about peace and safety that seem to be used to also perpetuate cycles of violence. So I think that that’s something that authors keep going back to. There is also, in merely literary terms I think that there is a desire to go back to archives, to documents, to visual representations, to media, to study that violence, to kind of explore what it means for our subjectivity as Colombians.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and that’s the history part of your work and their work that I find so fascinating. And also, I mean your own work in literature on conflict and violence and peace, as you’re speaking and thinking about the history of our own country and I mean the violence of this country. It’s not just the Civil War or the American Revolution, but sort of the everyday violence of just gun violence for example, but also labor violence. A lot of people don’t know just how violent this country, the United States, the violent labor capital history we have certainly going at least back to the late 19th century and arguably even earlier. So all that I find just fascinating. I know you teach a bit about that.

Let’s pivot it now to your teaching. You’ve done work on the digital humanities, which my colleague Glenn Kranking and also my colleague Maddalena Marinari, both in the history department with me, have worked on as well. And speaking of violence and drugs, you had students do … It sounds just fantastic to me … Do digital … I don’t know if it was one project for the class or if they worked on individual projects, digital projects about the war on drugs? Tell us a little bit about that.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So yeah, these were J-term courses, right? So they had-

Greg Kaster:

Our January term, yeah.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, January term courses, so it was a one-month class. What I decided to do was, and I’ve done different versions of this, I did it three times, right? And sometimes I had one project overall, but I think what I decided to settle and was to decide to expose students to different ways to create argument that is not necessarily the written argument of our research paper, right? More of thinking about the topic that we were discussing and addressing and exploring, and seeing how design can communicate certain aspects of what we are understanding about the subject matter.

So for example, one of the first things I said was, “We are doing digital humanities constantly.” For example, something like you seeing a protest, right? That’s even a form of doing digital humanities. So something I wanted to bring out for them was to start to have them think about, how is it that using technology helps you shape an argument, right? Communicate something about these topics, but then at the same time noticing how some of the questions that these topics bring up, and kind of the way to understand things through humanities, allows you to also look at technology from a different angle, so yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s cool. I like that, the dual aspects of it.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, yeah. Because I think that usually with digital humanities there is the tendency to think about how this enhances humanities. I was constantly looking at it more as how humanities enhance our experience with technology, you know?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s fantastic, flipping it around.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, and trying to think that for example when we’re talking about the war on drugs, and we are talking about how we represent the types of violence that are taking place, and the way in which this is covered in different representations, right? In media or in fiction or in TV series, things like that, and then have students think about, “What do you want to say about this representation in the form of let’s say a timeline,” right? And using specific software that helps you produce timelines, and play with the design of the timeline to communicate an idea. And having them think about, “Okay, so I’m seeing this timeline and the way I code color, layers, accompanying images, text, the type of text that I use, how long, how little? It is in itself forcing them to make a selection on how to frame the topic.

But then also in that process of selection, if they are thinking about the humanities side that process of selection is also prompting them to think about, how is it that what you’re seeing usually in your everyday life in websites or in tweets or things like that, is in itself a way of looking at the subject matter, right? So hopefully, one of my hopes from that experience was that students would be able to not only think about how they produce their own arguments, but how to not be just consumers of what they see in technology, but to start to wonder, “What is it that this form is prompting me to think about the subject matter? And should I just stay with this form of input to the subject matter, or should I continue to expand? Should this prompt me to do something else,” right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I think that’s fantastic because it’s a way of saying, “We’re not just using digital technology as a tool for the humanities, but we’re bringing humanities perspectives, ways of thinking, to bear on the technology itself.” You’re reminding me of some years ago I was able to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on the visual culture of the Civil War. One of the lessons of that experience, powerful lesson for I think all the participants was that we historians and maybe literary scholars, so often we’re using images just to kind of supplement what we’re writing about, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

“So here’s what I’m describing and writing. Oh, and here by the way, here’s an image of that.” But to study visual culture is really to take the images as our texts, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And to study them for how they shape understandings and identities, so I find that fascinating. I really want to be doing more with that as you have, and as I said my colleagues Glenn and Maddalena. The other thing I want to get to before we conclude, a couple of things, but one is your work on your teaching about masculinities in both Latin America and the U.S., because that’s a subject I am quite interested in. What are some of the key themes let’s say in that course that you’ve taught on masculinities in Latin America and the U.S.?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, so I guess I did it twice and I followed two different paths. In one instance I was more focused on kind of analyzing toxic masculinity, right? And particularly in terms of kind of the age group of our students, right? Of our student body. And I used this book called Guyland by … Oh, I’m forgetting his name. Richard Kimmel, I think?

Greg Kaster:

That’s not … Okay, yeah, I know the title. I can’t remember the author. It’s not Michael-

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

I think it’s Michael Kimmel.

Greg Kaster:

It is Michael Kimmel. I was going to say Michael Kimmel, the sociologist, yeah.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, so I use that to kind of have students think about toxic masculinity. In the second time around I decided to kind of diversify more and tried to follow more different forms of hegemonic masculinity in different cultures, and paying attention to how it relates to other forms of gender identity. So I wanted to make sure that there was no … I really think that there is an issue in celebrating this idea of being a man, right? And as kind of this way of hardening or particularly in education, kind of detaching young boys from certain aspects of their lives that tend to be associated with more feminine performance of gender, right? Or with queer types of identity.

So what I did was tried to follow hegemonic masculinity but then starting to devote some time also to issues of sexuality in specific, then also how masculinity relates to queer identity or gay identity or trans identity, right? And then I also try to include usually some sources that address the issue around these biological arguments, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And what is it that we know really about this correspondence between gender, sex and biology, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And kind of have students problematize that relationship. And then I usually, in each unit I try to always have something from either the U.S. or Latin America to notice, how is it embodied in a specific body of work, right? So it could be a film or a short story, or I even used Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Greg Kaster:

Oh sure, yeah, perfect.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Which is basically like the representation of toxic masculinity in a very small Caribbean town in Colombia, right? And the other book that I thought was very helpful in the second time I taught the class was bell hooks’ The Will to Change, right?

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Which it addresses some of the broader, how masculinity connects to broader social issues, like what is its relationship with the system of white supremacists, capitalists, imperialists, right? And she has this kind of series of words put together in a sentence, and they kind of make a self-aware statement of how complex that sounds, but that they really mean to say that all of these words are important in considering how masculinity is … The role it has in kind of the perpetuation of pain and unhappiness even in men themselves.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, this stuff I just find … I got an interest in the history of masculinity or manhood, first it was called manhood in the 19th century, then the word masculinity, early 20th century in this country around the labor movement. But I just find it so interesting, and this is all making me want to team-teach with you a course on this, by the way, at some point. It would be fun.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Everything you were just saying, the ways in which notions of manhood and masculinity are constructed, but they’re constructed in relation to other identities. There’s no way to understand notions of manhood without also understanding what it means to be let’s say white or straight or queer, right? Depending on the particular context we’re looking at. How there can be multiple masculinities, and even in competition, right? In conflict at a similar or even at the same moment. And then I’ve just become obsessed with this in the last, I don’t know, since Obama’s election, I guess. Just the way, I mean certainly not the first time by any means that politics has been so gendered in our country’s history. But man, I mean there’s just no way to understand the last several presidential elections, with I mean going way back to Bush, Reagan, I mean just the first Bush even, without understanding notions of masculinity and manhood, and womanhood as well, so-

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And how for masculinity in people of color also, how it plays a role and for example how it relates to immigration status as well. So I spent some time in that class with issues of black masculinity, and I wanted to get more in depth into immigration status and the reality for masculinity, and I see this performed in the situation of border crossing. But there is just so much you can do in FTS, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah [inaudible 01:02:08].

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

And I cut stuff down, but yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Well, we’ll meet in a coffee house when we can and work up a course, because I’m still so interested and it would be fun to do. It would be interdisciplinary too, literature and history. In the few minutes remaining, I’d like to hear your thoughts about … You chair this department. I shouldn’t say this department, your department, not my department, but the Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures department at Gustavus, which I think is a phenomenal department. Make your pitch for that department. What do you think are its particular strengths? Why should a student consider majoring, whether it’s in Spanish or French?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

So kind of the main appeal of a language degree is that it accompanies very well any other degree, right? So particularly if students are interested in double majoring, it’s something that goes very well with any degree. But even as it stands on their own, learning a new language and in our department, the vision is not so much to focus on this vision of producing the perfect native speaker, a student who sounds like a native speaker, you know? For us, the most important thing is to build students’ ability to be intercultural liaisons, right? People who allow to build bridges between cultures and between people from different backgrounds.

So as we’ve seen in a globalized world as the one we live in, language allows you, having that background allows you to go back not so much to being able to translate, right? Which yeah, granted, it is still an important task. But what is more important is to become aware of how close we are to others who speak differently, who see reality differently. How close we are to realities that are named with different works, with different expressions, with different … And the values that go attached to the use of certain words, certain sentences or certain behaviors. So these are some of kind of the values that we strive to embody, and so for that we have multiple opportunities for students not only to have classes that are shaped within this vision, but also to have opportunities that are experiential, right? Study away, also some community engagement opportunities.

Particularly in the Spanish section we have been able to maintain partnerships that allow most of our students, if not all of them, to be thoroughly engaged in, while they’re in Gustavus, with some of our community partners. And overall as a department, we are all about noticing the intersections, right? Some of our degrees are interdisciplinary and we are sharing with other departments. And so yeah, I think that we are a department that is very vibrant. We are trying always to innovate and to find new ways to have students engage with other cultures, and not only with other cultures but with being able to see that that thing that they usually called another culture is really embedded in their own experience, in their own [crosstalk 01:06:31].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s fantastic. That’s just superb, and certainly when I think of your department I think of vibrancy and innovation, and I loved what you said about kind of the intercultural liaisons. That is so important in all kinds of ways that we don’t have time to get into now.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, sure.

Greg Kaster:

I wish we could. So any perspective students listening, when you come to Gustavus make sure you not only take courses with Professor Mejia Suarez, but with other members of his department as well. I think at Gustavus, right, you must study a language.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

You cannot graduate without, so I’m proud of that, too.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yes, and this is also something that is great about Gustavus that I very much value. In a historical moment where we see educational institutions kind of pushing back on the value of language learning-

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s right.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

We are maintaining this as an asset.

Greg Kaster:

I couldn’t agree more. I mean, where so many institutions are abandoning it, right?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I would argue it’s more … And you are too, more essential than ever.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Carlos, this has been a pleasure.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Thank you, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

My only regret is that we’re not doing it at our usual coffee shop, but we will before long. I really enjoyed this, enjoyed getting to know you better as I got ready for the conversation. So take good care, good luck with the novel and the back manuscript. Look forward to reading both.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

And have a good … Are you teaching J-term or not?

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

No, no.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, so have a good and much-deserved break.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

And we’ll stay in touch. Take care.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Yeah, you too.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Thank you, Greg. Thanks for having me.

Greg Kaster:

You’re quite welcome. Bye-bye.

Carlos Mejia Suarez:

Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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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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