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Languages Are Universes: An interview with Rosario de Swanson

In September, junior Emmett Wood sat down with Rosario de Swanson, Marlboro’s Spanish language and literature professor, to discuss diversity at Marlboro, languages as universes, and Mexican feminist playwright Rosario Castellanos.

Emmett Wood: How long have you been at Marlboro?

Rosario de Swanson: I have been here for eight years—I think this is my eighth year. It’s been a very long time now.

EW: What brought you here?

RdS: I had lived with my husband in Massachusetts for a very long time. In academia many couples have to live separately, and I did not want to do that because my children were still at home. I did not want to be far away. So when I got into the job market, after I got my PhD in 2008, I only applied to more local jobs. I didn't know a lot about Marlboro until I applied to the job here.

EW: What was your impression when you started here?

RdS: One of the things that I really liked about Marlboro was a group of students that I had my first year who were mostly language learners. They became very close with me, and I worked with some of them on Plan. Something I couldn’t have done in another place. I love the way in which the students are co-producers of the knowledge they acquire. I’m not just standing up and saying this and that. They are co-participants in what they learn. Once they move through building a foundation they have their say in what they want to do. It's very rewarding to work with students on their Plan. Plan is a beautiful project, it is more involved than just fulfilling a requirement.

EW: What has been your experience of diversity and inclusion at Marlboro? 

RdS: When I came to Marlboro there wasn't a lot of diversity among staff or students. Then one year a group of students approached me and some other professors to create the group called “Living in Color.” I accompanied the students to the dean, to give them validation about the needs that they had—as kids who weren't the typical Marlboro students—and to create a space and get them some resources. My part in that was to support them and listen to them and help them in any way I could so they could carry on and it has gone very well. It’s one of those situations where something so small and student-lead can have such a big impact. They do so many programs and movies now, they do a lot of fun things.

EW: Marlboro’s the kind of place where students strive for independence, and language is something that is usually seen as very regimented. What is your approach to teaching Spanish?

RdS: Language is one of those disciplines in which the medium is the message—the words that you are learning is what you need to use, and you need to practice daily. There are five aspects of language—reading, writing, listening, speaking, and conversation, all of that is imbedded in this bigger thing called culture—so if you don't do those five things at the same time you won't succeed as much. That’s one of the reasons why languages need to be taught three times a week. And ideally must be practiced daily. The students who stay have a very positive experience and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with them on a lot of Plan work. Some of them write 70 pages in Spanish as part of their Plan. In the beginning you have to learn the words to use them. It requires memorization and repetition. After that come the tutorials and that's when you can get into what you want to do in a specific field. And then going abroad is important. The students need to see the applicability of language not only in the academic world, but engaging with people. Going abroad and speaking the language is extremely important because language is a means of communication. Languages are universes and ways of thinking. Because words, ideas, and stories shape the world, when you learn a foreign language, you see that different language perspectives make you look at the world differently. You learn more than you think. Now I am teaching a class on Magical Realism completely in Spanish. We are reading novels from that tradition. The students in this class are students that just came out of Intermediate Spanish. This is the advantage to being small, and being a co-participant in a student’s course of study. However, I also offer courses in English on Latin American culture and literature; I select books that are bilingual so students can write papers in Spanish or English if they want to.

EM: What was your background before you came to Marlboro?

RdS: I immigrated when I was older, so I had some college education but not a BA. I studied communications which was very helpful to me. I went back to school at Smith College for my BA as an older student. I already had kids. I had to work and I had not been in a classroom in so many years. The only class I had been in prior to that was in Spanish in Mexico. It was culture shock, it was a lot of work but it was fun. I love learning. I did my PhD at UMASS. Once again, family was very important. It had to be local, because my kids were still at home.

EM: How did you come to immigrate from Mexico?

RdS: My parents immigrated before I did. The area that I’m from, many of the people there have a long tradition of immigrating to the U.S. as workers. When my parents were rather old my father decided to go to return to America to work, he had been a bracero before. I was the youngest, and not allowed to come, but later I joined them. That's how we got to California, to work. It was difficult but also fun. It was difficult because I didn't speak English very well, but because I was young it was fun. I had never been outside of Mexico, it was an adventure. I had more education than other immigrants from my region so I was able to learn English faster. I worked as a cashier for a fancy restaurant. It wasn’t as hard of a job as the work of other immigrants. My sister worked as a cashier for a bank, all because we had a little bit more education.

EM: You do research as well as teach?

RdS: I have been very fortunate to be able to combine teaching, which I really love, with publishing. I have a good number of articles, and I have a book that's coming out, even though this semester I’m teaching four classes. I think it’s because I came to the profession as an older person. I like focusing on something and following the idea through, and I teach students that. If I’m curious about something I learn about it. Having this experience also helps in directing Plan students. I don't consider myself fearless at all, and I tell students all the time that 80 percent of everything is just trying it. I didn't know that I was going to be published the first time, but I sent the manuscript, and I got a response. You have to give yourself the opportunity 

EM: What’s the focus of your own research?

RdS: When I was studying for my dissertation I was interested in three things, and these are things I have been interested in since I was very young: women, indigenous cultures, and African roots. I decided on African roots. I just published a paper on the African roots of Peru. I’m interested in indigenous literature and poetry, and Latinos and their history in the U.S. But, my book is on a Mexican feminist, Rosario Castellanos, whose plays have not been studied. They are very beautiful and she's one of the very first Mexican women who talks about homosexuality, in the ’50s and ’60s, when this was not talked about. In one of her plays she talks about not just male homosexuality but female. It's very carefully placed and you can almost miss it in passing, but it is there. My big discovery is that she wrote a play that didn't have a positive review because of the mention of homosexuality. The play was taken out of publication. Then she reinserts the same play as a chapter of a novel, and the novel gets turned down. It’s not published. Then finally she manages to do the same play, but as a short story in the ’70s. So I can trace the original version in the ’50s to the novel in the ’60s, finally to the publication of the short story in the ’70s. The book, titled "¿Y cuál es mi lugar, señor, entre tus actos?": el drama de Rosario Castellanos, comes out in December.

EM: What other things do you like to do?

RdS: I like cooking Mexican food, and I like eating. I used to cook more with students, when I had more time. My first year I taught students how to make tamales, and they loved it. I also like dancing Salsa and Merengue. I’m good at it too. But I have to have a good partner.

EM: How did the partnership with the Mexico’s Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí come about?

RdS: Because of my publishing I have met a lot of people in my field. It's very necessary for someone at Marlboro who teaches as a single faculty member or someone who is the only person teaching in their field, to have contact with people who are in the same field as you. In humanities things move so fast and you have to stay abreast of developments in your field. For me it has been a lifeline to talk to my colleagues and I've developed connections with people. I have a colleague who works at San Luis Potosí, which is relatively small for a Mexican University. And seeing the need at Marlboro for students to be immersed in the language in a safe and academic environment with a lot of freedom, it just seemed like a logical thing to do. Marlboro college is at a particular point in time and having connections like that will help the institution—not just my discipline but also the college. As professors we're always thinking about what’s best for the students.