From Murals to Menudo and Soccer to Social Debate, CMC Summer Session will Glory in Latin American Culture

The richness and complexity of cultures in Latin America from pre-Colombian days up to the present is the subject of an upcoming summer session course to be taught by Carlos Gonzales, a professor in the Modern Languages Department at CMC.

Professor Gonzales says that the class, Spanish 102: Latin American Culture and Civilization, will be completely taught in Spanish.

“Every class, no matter the subject, is a language class in one way or another, even when it doesn’t exclusively teach language,” Gonzales says. “If it is math, the language of numbers is taught; if it’s a painting class, one learns the language of color, shapes and symbols, etc. That principle applies even more if that class is taught in another language.”

Gonzales says the course will explore the uniqueness of political, social and artistic components of Latin American culture with guided readings and research on the Web; television commercials, news and shows; feature movies and documentaries; music videos and songs.


CMC: This class seems packed with so much, in addition to the language component.

Gonzales: There will be occasions in which we will discuss the importance of the language in order to understand Latin America idiosyncrasies. Language, from the time of exploration quests and encounters between civilizations through conquest and colonization, has served as a model of culture and as a tool of submission. An example of this is in The Tempest, where Prospero uses language to communicate with Caliban and profit from him. There are customs, traditions and even humor that only can be understood if the language is known. Because of this, we are going to be studying language. The full meaning of “Az?car,” for instance, Celia Cruz’s iconic phrase, can only be understood by digging into Cuba’s history and learning about its plantations and slavery, and the sweetness the slaves felt when they overcame an ironically bitter period. Also, it is imperative that the current Caribbean music inspired by the rituals of sowing and harvest be added.

CMC: Which murals will students view and which films will be screened?

Gonzales: We will start at home. The first day that we discuss art we will go to Frary Hall at Pomona College to get acquainted with the very first Mexican mural painted in the United States: Prometheus. This work, painted by Jos? Clemente Orozco, which has immense aesthetic value, also has infinite symbolic value whose importance can only be understood when we are surrounded by that feast of color and symbols. We will prepare ourselves for that experience by studying Orozco’s Prometheus sketches housed in the Pomona College Museum of Art.

I would have liked to have taken my students to have a glimpse of one of the most controversial murals painted by the brush of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Am?rica Tropical, located on the old Italian Hall in the Placita Olvera, Los Angeles. However, I just found out that the mural is still being curated and restored. Nevertheless, while we visit the Placita Olvera the students will have the opportunity to admire murals of safety messages painted on the walls of the Hollywood Freeway (101) at Alameda (Luchas del Mundo [Willie Herron, Struggles of the World]), and urban murals painted near Union Station and la Placita Olvera (Recuerdos de Ayer, Sue?os de Ma?ana, Judithe Hernandez, 1982; Libertad, Luis Becerra, 1991; Father Hidalgo in Front of the Church of Dolores, Eduardo Carillo, 1979; among others). The murals display the struggles that immigrant communities face especially the Latino community to assimilate into a new culture and at the same time maintain their traditions and roots.

I will screen films such as La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow), Mi mejor enemigo (My Best Enemy), and Machuca, among others, that portray the emotional and social implications of being pregnant and raped, being a soldier in a border city at a time of conflict between two countries or simply being a teenager during a coup d’etat. All the films aim to create awareness and understanding about the culture, social and political issues and the way that Latin American societies deal with them.

CMC: Have you ever been to Machu Picchu?

Gonzales: The last time I visited Machu Picchu was a decade ago in 2001. For me, the citadel/fortress is of particular importance because I was born in Peru and that site is an evidence of my ancestors’ achievements. Being in Machu Picchu was an exciting experience where I found my roots and experienced a limitless gratitude for such a legacy. I felt, as Pablo Neruda, that its stones were talking to me and that its immensity possessed me. Never before had I felt more Peruvian than when I was surrounded by the rocks that gave birth to Machu Picchu. In that altitude is where I felt that the Deity was close and I came to a sense of my nothingness. Never had I felt more alive than when I was surrounded by the permanent inertia of those stones, because the stones at Machu Picchu still feel, unlike Rub?n Dar?o’s stone, “that feels nothing.”

CMC: Who is your favorite Latin American author and why?

Gonzales: I can enumerate any number of novelists such as the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, or the Colombian Gabriel Garc?a M?rquez or perhaps Juan Rulfo or the recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa. Nevertheless, I will say that my favorite Latin American author is a poet, C?sar Vallejo. I regret never having met him, nor having heard his verses read by him, nor having felt his concrete presence. Vallejo has no comparison in Latin American poetry. His verse is unique. He dislocates the language to express the ineffable. Vallejo breaks the verb and flexes the adjective to achieve a level of expression never seen in any language. He feels the suffering humanity on his own and utters it in his painful verse. Vallejo feels that he does not deserve to live, that he has stolen the other’s existence, that his bones are not his, that he was born on a day that “God was ill, grave”. No verse of any tradition oozes so much love, solidarity, and empathy for the dispossessed than Vallejo’s verse. Nevertheless he is a misunderstood poet. You could even say that he is a sad poet, but at the same time, positive; uncomplaining, but optimistic. To capture that seemingly contradictory feeling he uses the word in its full dimension: the word experiences and feels before the poet transcribes it on the piece of paper.

CMC: What are the most important things in your view that Latin American culture has to teach us in North America?

Gonzales: One of the aspects of the Latin American culture that could be of great use to the American society is the active political participation at all levels. Unfortunately, sometimes, at a university level, it is more common to find American students more concerned with who will be the next NCAA national champion in football than with supporting any political or social cause. Oftentimes, Latin American students are the ones that create changes in their country. Fidel Castro, for example, was a law student in the University of Havana when his political activities started to lead to a revolution. A group of rebels then attacked Moncada Barracks but were captured. Once exiled in Mexico, Fidel and Che Guevara met. Che was, at that time, a student of medicine. The Latin American intelligentsia plays an active role in the socio-political changes of the country. When they aren’t involved in a diplomatic career, the intellectuals are immersed in political leadership. The poet Pablo Neruda was a senator, and during Fernando Allende’s administration as president of Chile, he was ambassador of Chile in France. Vargas Llosa ran for president in the 1990 Peruvian presidential elections. Thus, in the Latin American culture, it is impossible to be an intellectual, university student or regular citizen without actively being engaged in politics. Conversations among students are generated by daily issues such as unemployment or abuse of authority, nepotism or embezzlement, injustice or social segregation. These conversations, at the same time, provoke active participation in manifestations, marches, protests, strikes, etc.

CMC: Who is your favorite Latin American artist and why?

Gonzales: Latin America is the birthplace of many great painters, each with his/her own aesthetic vision and expressive perspective. These artists converge in portraying active life, real life, a mixed and complex life that makes their works a manifestation of the search for political stability and social equality. Wifredo Lam, Fernando Botero and Roberto Matta are the most renowned artists. Because of his expression, direct and crude, and for his austere yet firm depiction of color and form, Oswaldo Guayasam?n is my favorite painter. During this period La edad de la ira Guayasam?n, much like Vallejo in his poetry, calls for consideration of the poor and forgotten of the world. The foregrounds of his paintings are more eloquent in that the out-of-proportion skeletal hands beg for empathy that compels one to action.


This is the ninth in a series of stories about CMC faculty teaching during the 2011 Summer Session. For additional information on this course, please visit Professor Gonzales’ profile page for contact information and office hours.

CMC’s 2011 Summer Session begins May 23rd and will offer both three- and six-week courses, all taught by CMC faculty. A full listing of course offerings will be available on the Summer Session Website.