Like many of us, I am grateful to Ignacio Sánchez Prado for having published his article “Academe´s Shameful Neglect of Spanish” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. When I read it, I sent an email to one of the Chronicle´s editors to ask whether a reply, meant as a supplement to Sánchez Prado´s essay, would be welcome. I am still waiting for a polite answer to my query. So far, only silence. Which is, of course, offensive. Do they own the Chronicle? Can they really set the agenda of what can be discussed and how much it can be discussed? Are they not responsible to the university field as such?
Whatever the case may be, I am no longer a very patient person, so the Chronicle can go jump in the lake, together with its editors. I think there is a certain urgency, at least for me, in what I want to say, so I won’t wait for their response. And I will publish it here.
Obviously Sánchez Prado is right, but in my opinion he is not right enough. In other words, he falls short of what needs to be said. Spanish departments are marginalized, yes, Latinx literary and cultural studies are marginalized, yes, hegemony in the humanities pays no attention to developments in the Spanish-language field, yes, that is, no, they don’t, not at all. And “Spanish departments are one of the few places in the university, along with programs in Latinx and Latin American studies, where this marginalization can be fought,” yes. But it ain´t happening. The situation is much worse, more dire than Sánchez Prado alleges. And it is because those who are hegemonic in the humanities today are not the only perpetrators. Spanish departments have been happy to collaborate in their own demise, in their own disappearance, in their own denigration. I have no sympathy for deans, they are very good at providing their own for themselves, but let us not blame the deans, or our colleagues in the English department, for our own failures. Which does not mean we should bless them.
There is clearly a crisis in literary studies that affects the English departments as well. It is true that English still commands an advantage over literature in foreign languages in the United States, and it is also true that there are prestige languages, like French and German, to a lesser extent Italian, that are in fact taken more seriously as literature-producers, or producers of thought in general, than Spanish. But Spanish, as Sánchez Prado says, is not a foreign language in the United States, and that is its advantage. Most students choose to learn the language, but it is also true that most of them take literature courses with reluctance and a certain degree of boredom. They can no longer be bothered with the many pages to be read, that is no longer their thing, and I bet our English Department colleagues feel that problem as much as we do. We constantly lose students. Our students are happy enough getting a minor, which means: they will take only one or two literature classes if pushed.
And of course institutions are happy to cut their offerings in Spanish-language literature, the weakest link is always the first to go. They could not care less about “the heritage and culture of this growing [Hispanic] demographic.” As far as they are concerned, assimilation would be much, much better, so there is a certain need for students to learn Spanish, but let us not exaggerate. After all, all Spanish speakers would love to be English speakers. I could tell you things you would not believe, and the inevitable conclusion would be: embedded, structural racism, but I am in a hurry to get to my main point. Up to now, I have only agreed with Sánchez Prado’s position.
There is an elephant in the room nobody wants to mention, and that is the plain fact that Spanish departments have lived for decades with their backs to the US Hispanic population. Our corporate, arrogant (or silly) expectation is that Latinx students should flock to our courses on Juan Rulfo or Diamela Eltit or Roberto Bolaño, since we are fundamentally certain that Rulfo and Eltit and Bolaño are superior writers to anything the Latinx literary field can offer. And, if we do offer courses on US Hispanic literature, we do it in the mode that Sánchez Prado recognizes as dangerous: we study that body of literature as a repository of cultural and political and identitarian problems, not as literature.
So we are stuck between a rock and a hard place: students are not really, no longer interested in studying Spanish-language literature, they are bored by or indifferent to literary studies, and many of them are hardly moved by identitarian reflections on Hispanic family life, how hard it is to grow up, or the vagaries of Latinx machismo. But they have no other options, we are not offering them anything else. So what is there to do? Do we insist? Do we keep doing the same thing we have always done and expect both the students and the administrators to wake up to our excellence? It does not take a lot of pessimism to conclude that is not going to happen, not soon, not later.
For decades now the general field of Spanish-language studies has been hostile to theory. This meant that our field has always been properly considered a second-class field for intellectual engagement. We adapt or apply from other fields, but always in the service of a mimetic enterprise. We reproduce, rather than produce, and we use the literary text as a field for deployment of political opinions, or opinions on sexuality and gender, or opinions on race that are for the most part borrowed from English- or French- or more recently Italian-language texts. But this essentially means that our field is pretty much a boring field, a field of boredom. There is no genuine intellectual excitement to be found. Whose fault is it?
Until Spanish departments become a place where genuine thought is developed, in Spanish preferably, or in English if you want, with Hispanic referents, until there is a genuine engagement with intellectual life in Latin America and Spain, until Spanish (in our institutions, in the United States) becomes a language where non-mimetic thought, that is, original thought is produced, Spanish departments and Spanish graduate programs will continue their self-earned, self-established decadence and their road to misery. Forget literature: we are not literary producers, we are only students of literature at best. Not enough. It is thought that counts, and it is thought that should count, not primarily textual analysis mired in half-baked, for the most part borrowed ideology. For at this point well-established historical reasons the old configuration of affairs is over. Something new is needed. I do not see Spanish departments, whatever remains of them, moving in that direction. I do see Spanish departments, however, trying to stifle anything that moves in that new direction. To kill it. Not to allow it to flourish. And that cannot be blamed on the blessed deans or on the blessed English department colleagues. It is on us.