Dr. Pérez de Mendiola, center, is gathered with her class.
Marina Pérez de Mendiola serves as Richard Armour Chair in Modern Languages and is professor of Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean literatures and cultures at Scripps College. She earned an MA in Spanish civilization and economy, and a PhD in Latin American literatures and cultures at Paris-Sorbonne University. Her research and teaching are dedicated to the study of literature, languages, cultural translations, and transatlantic cultural and political relations from a postcolonial perspective. Pérez de Mendiola’s scholarship presents an interdisciplinary and richly textured approach to historical and current issues, helping to fuel inspiring growth of the College’s department of Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures. We interviewed her as part of our ongoing Spotlight on Faculty series.
Scripps College: You teach classes that are popular among students at Scripps and The Claremont Colleges that are not only helping students hone their Spanish language skills—English and native speakers alike—but that demonstrate the unique political, social, and artistic components of Spain and Latin American culture. What is your favorite period of literature and culture, would you say, as you lead students through their studies—and why?
Marina Pérez de Mendiola: I don’t have a specific favorite period per se, but I usually focus on the 20th and 21st centuries, and most particularly on works that question concepts that enable white nation building and that create nations formed at the expense of marginalized and vulnerable populations in the Americas and Europe. The material we engage in my Introduction to Literary Analysis, for example, is probably the one that keeps me, and my students, on our toes the most. We begin with one of the most difficult pieces of fiction written in Spanish, Alejo Carpentier’s 1949 novel, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World). We spend three quarters of the semester on this short but dense and multifaceted novel about Haiti’s successful slave revolution that led to the first black republic in the world by 1804 and its importance for the continuous process of decolonization. Students have to engage in close reading and analysis of complex topics ranging from the articulation of master/slave relations, the formation of binary oppositions and their paradoxes, religious practices such as Voodoo, esthetics, and historicism. This reading, and the study of the 18th and 19th century histories and cultures in the Americas force all of us to confront this history of oppression, racism, and how it is at the very root of our neocolonial/liberal repressive present in this country in particular. We try our best to not fetishize the past in order to push ourselves to confront our own realities and how we, and our institutions, participate in oppressing others.
SC: During your tenure at Scripps, youhave won multiple teaching awards, including Professor of the Year twice, which is an honor voted on by students, and that signify your passion for your subject and working with students. Can you talk about your teaching philosophy?
MM: My philosophy is to be as respectful as possible of students, their intelligence and their circumstance. My aim is to transmit my passion for literature—joyfully but at times also heatedly—its incredible power and its relevance to students’ daily realities. The literature we read makes more sense than what we call reality today. I try to share the kind of literature that inspires and provides an empowering refuge or challenge, a space that pushes us to think differently and uneasily but that also allows us to express how we feel, a space that elicits screams, laughter, discomfort, surprise, silence, anger, or reassurance. The stories of others tell us we are not alone, and that they cannot be contained or reduced to one interpretation. The multiplicity of meanings, meanings that are often deferred, and the resistance to homogenization that this kind of literature allows for hopefully engages students beyond the individual experience of reading and incites them to enter in dialogue with each other during class discussion and hopefully beyond the classroom. Of course, doing all this in Spanish presents its own difficulties, but it can also be liberating, as students are not bound by the “hyper correctness” that expressing themselves in English—the institutional language—requires of them. That is how speaking English feels to me: it gives me permission to be messy as it is not my native language!
SC: We’ve heard that your courses may incorporate various expressions from cinema, the press, literature, and art. What would a sample “mini course” look like, if we were able to join you in the classroom on a topic such as the politics of culture?
MM: In my class “La imagen y la palabra,” one of our weekly three-hour seminars is dedicated to the Luis Buñuel 1932 film, Las Hurdes, which has been read/viewed differently by viewers and critics alike for the past 85 years. For some, it is as a scathing assessment of the Spanish government’s disregard for some of the most rural and forgotten places in Spain and a biting critique of the conventions of ethnographic documentaries of the time. For others it can only be seen as “distinctly colonialist in its reduction of the hinterland people to the status of freak show exhibits for the Parisian avant-garde” (Nicholas Thomas). Given that this film has been qualified as “surrealist” by both opposing views, we delve into the role of Surrealism and Dadaism through the examination of their written manifestos and the relationship between artistic “avant-garde” movements, scientific uses of film, the political and socio-economic realities of the time in Spain, and Spain’s relationship to the rest of Europe and the Americas.
SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?
MM: Sadly, I am the only woman in my family who has gone to college. Luckily, my daughter is now second generation, and should graduate at the end of this year. This being said, my maternal grandmother (who did not go beyond fifth grade, as she was busy caring for her 18 siblings) and my mother had difficult lives but they were avid and critical readers of fiction. They eagerly put into my hands everything they were reading—even when not “age appropriate.” I am who I am today thanks to my Amatxi’s resilience and storytelling gift and to my mom’s intellectual curiosity, sustenance, and open mindedness. Their spirit still fuels me today.