Sunday, August 06, 2017

Chicanas y Chicanos in Unexpected Lands or Why Apply Now for a Fulbright

Photo by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: "At the end of each semester, i take a group photo of my classes.
Here are my students in the Chicana/o Pop Culture class that I taught in the spring 2017 semester."
Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, "unrepentant border crosser" is not new to La Bloga.  Our own La Bloga writer, Xánath Caraza, interviewed him last May focusing questions about his publications and his writing life.  (Click here for the interview.)  Currently, Santiago has just arrived to the United States from a Fulbright Year in Ankara, Turkey.  Before he settles in and returns to his position as Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at The University of New Mexico, I caught up with him to talk about his year in Ankara, Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar.

After reading this interview, I'm hoping, dear La Bloga Reader, that you may seriously consider applying to the Fulbright program. Join us in spreading Chicanx and Latinx cultura por rumbos unexpected!

Photo by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: "With some of my students, breaking the
daily fast during Ramadan with a traditional iftar meal"
Amelia Montes:  Why choose Turkey for your Fulbright?  What was the initial draw to Turkey?

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez:  I have been traveling to Turkey since 2005 to give talks about my work, and most of those visits have been in the Department of American Cultures and Literatures at Hacettepe University in Ankara. After a few years of class visits and lectures, I was invited by colleagues in the department to consider applying for a Fulbright Senior Lecturer fellowship. Because I had done a Fulbright in Spain in the 2006 spring semester, I had to wait a number of years before I could apply again. And then I decided to wait until I had completed a number of projects that I wanted to finish. So, 10 years after my Fulbright in Spain, I left for Turkey. And it was a great experience.

As to the initial draw, it’s kind of a long story. That part of the world has fascinated me since I was a child reading Greek mythology. Many of those places described in the epics and the stories are currently in Turkey. When I was a teen, I think Istanbul entered my consciousness while reading Agatha Christie. And later, as an undergrad, taking art history classes on Greek and Roman art, I was struck by the history of the region. I considered going into Art History before deciding to do graduate work in Latin American literature. Had I done that, I might have gone into the Byzantine period, or maybe early Ottoman. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve moved far away from those interests. What grabs me about periods like the late Byzantine/early Ottoman, is the meeting of different cultures in a particular space, Constantinople/Istanbul, in this case. After all, my life and my work is about crossing borders, about communities in contact, and about the building of lines of dialogue across diverse regions.

Anyway, though I’ve had this interest in the region since I was a kid, life took me in other directions. It was my late sister who ended up going to Turkey before me.  She lived in Istanbul for almost a year in the mid-90’s. She always wanted to return. And when I started going to Turkey in 2005, we often talked about making a trip together. Unfortunately, she passed away before she could return.

Amelia Montes:  So Turkey has a number of previous connections for you.  Yet, what were some of your expectations when you first applied for this Fulbright in Turkey and how did these expectations change over time?

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez:  Applying for a Fulbright always asks for a period of reflection. When I did my first one, in Spain, my initial expectation was to be in contact with scholars over there who were working in my field. But I also wanted to work on a novel that I had been kicking around for a few years. I was able to work with scholars in my field, but that novel ended up on the back burner and I haven’t touched it in years. Maybe one day. As to Turkey, my initial thought was to complete a promise I’d made to my colleagues years ago about going to Hacettepe for a year to teach. Also, I felt it would be a great opportunity to tackle one of the questions that I’ve been working through in my work since my Spain Fulbright: How is Chicano/a/Latina/o cultural production read outside of the US or the Spanish speaking world? One of the classes I teach is called “Movements in Chicana/o Literature” where we explore how Chicano/a literature moves from a regional to a national and then international readership. And it is this aspect that I find interesting. What can Chicana/o literature say to a reader in another country? The other expectation that I had was to finish a new collection of short stories, a number of them to be set in Turkey. And while I was able to complete a few, and also publish a new story, “Never Let Me Go,” I did not get as far as I wanted in the project. Perhaps I should go for another year.

Photo by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: "View of Ankara from Ulus, the old quarter of the city.
Amelia Montes:  Perhaps! I did read your story, "Never Let Me Go" (click here for the story), and it is a beautiful literary "translation" of what you are saying about geographical, spiritual, passionate moments within the human experience.  And now-- you’ve just returned (last week!) from your Fulbright year.  What is it like for you in this “re-entry” stage?

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: The return has been a bit disconcerting to be honest. On the one hand, there is the fact that I can now read street signs and ads and understand conversations around me. But on the other hand, I am dealing with a feeling of being a bit misplaced, or lost; in translation or in place. A lot has happened to the US while I was away, the rise of intolerance and hate has been truly tragic to witness from abroad. Following the election, I met with one of my fellow Fulbrighters and we talked about the sheer frustration of being away while terrible things were happening. He expressed to me that he felt like he should leave Turkey and return to the US to become a part of the resistance. I offered that our presence as cultural ambassadors could also serve as a form of resistance; we could show our students that we did not represent that dark side of the US, that we represented the positive. We were both fighting with the sense that somehow our country was getting away from us, and returning after being away for nearly a year, I do feel like something has been lost. This has probably been the part of my return that is of greatest concern, how do we step back when we face an abyss? It is necessary for all of us, writers, scholars, artists, to continue to work towards bringing us back.

Amelia Montes:  Agreed. I often think about those moments in the classroom which can certainly "bring us back."  In the July 2017 issue of the “Turkish Fulbright Commission Newsletter,” you write:  “Teaching for me is a conversation. The students learn from me as I learn from them.” Give us an example of one of these moments in your Ankara, Turkey classroom teaching Chicano literature. 

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: I always ask my students to approach a reading not simply on an objective level. I want them to explore their own subjective reactions. When it came to reading Chicana/o literature, I would ask my students to think about how it could possibly relate to their own lives. To get them to understand the experience of migration, I would talk about Turkish migration to Europe, in particular, Germany. They have a term that they use to refer to to German Turks, Almancı. I asked my class to describe this community and I discovered that it was very similar to how Mexicans refer to Mexican Americans; they’re not really Turkish, they don’t speak that well, and so on. I would then tell my classes, I’m an Almancı, a Pocho Almancı. Above all, what I wanted to get my students to understand was to not view the literature as something simply distant or foreign, something apart from them.

Photo by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: "At the beginning of our Fulbright year, the
Turkish Fulbright Commission organized an orientation for us in Ankara.  Here we are at the
Anıtkabir,  the tomb of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic."
Amelia Montes:  As you know, I’ll be going to Serbia and you were in Turkey—places where Chicanas/Chicanos and the teaching of Chicanx literatures are not expected.  Why is our literature, culture, art, etc. relevant to transnational audiences? 

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: Yes. Congratulations again on your Fulbright! That is excellent, and I love to hear that students in places like Serbia, Poland, or Turkey are being exposed to our culture and literature. When I tell people that I teach our literature in Turkey, the first response I often get is, “And there’s interest in that in Turkey?” And I’m happy to say, there is. I think our literature is relevant because of how we write about transnationalism, about migration, about being “foreign” in one’s own land. At the end of the fall semester, a student approached me to confess that because part of her family was Syrian, that she was often called derogatory names, and that reading Chicana/o writers opened her eyes to experiences of being hybrid, blended, or mixed.

Amelia Montes: Your examples here are so important for us to understand-- how individuals from other countries "read" us.  Some people have described these countries (Serbia/Turkey) (when I tell them where you went or where I’m going) as “lawless” or “not safe.”  What do you say to that? 

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: Ah yes, the “security” issue. Before leaving last August, Turkey had been going through an almost monthly series of terror attacks, and then there was the attempted coup in mid-July. As I was taking my family —my mother lives with me and is helping me raise my nephew, my late sister’s son— my siblings asked me to reconsider the decision to accept the Fulbright. My response to them was that if the State Department felt it safe enough to go, that we would go.  I think the larger issue here is that non-Western (or ex-centric) countries will always be viewed as "not safe" and this narrative of lawlessness is imposed on them.  In 2004, I was invited to be a featured writer at a book fair in Cali, Colombia.  During my week there, almost everyone asked me if I had been afraid to go. I used to spend a lot of time in Tijuana, Mexico in the late 1990's, when the Tijuana cartel was particularly vicious, and I was often asked if I was scared.  I still get these questions when I travel to Mexico.  My response: Though I don't want to minimize the real tragedy that afflicts, or has afflicted countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Turkey, this narrative of lawlessness manufactures ideas about a place that negatively impact that place.  How often have we heard that the U.S./Mexico borderlands is dangerous?  If we view the border as dangerous, then the solution is a wall.  This is a very short-sighted response.  Unfortunately, this narrative is also reflected in pop culture.  When I told my students in Turkey that my family was from Mexico, many asked me if I watched the show Narcos.  I responded by saying, "No, but let me tell you about my family and some of this really cool music and literature coming out of the borderlands."  If there is a solution to undermining negative narrations about a place, for me it comes through dialogue, paying attention, and listening beyond those narratives that would attempt to impose structures upon our understanding.

In regards to The Turkish Fulbright Commission:  They were very aware of the issue, and they took great care to ensure our safety. We signed up to receive security warnings from the embassy, and we were told to always be aware of our surroundings and to avoid large gatherings. If we traveled, we were told to give the Turkish Fulbright Commission a detailed itinerary of where we were going, where we were staying, and also contact phone numbers. We also had an emergency group phone list so in the case that something happened, we were all told to report in with our location. I also chose to rent an apartment in a suburb of Ankara. In my year in Turkey, I always felt very safe.

Photo by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: "Passengers departing from the ferry in Istanbul."
Amelia Montes:  Why should our Chicanx and Latinx comunidad consider applying for a Fulbright? 

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: This is a great question. I think our comunidad should consider it for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great way to collaborate with scholars and colleagues working in our field. Second, the opportunity to work with students who may or may not have ever read our literatura is priceless; you are opening the minds of young, interested, students, while your mind is also being opened by them. It’s a beautiful experience.  Third, the chance to hear their stories and to share your own. While I have what I refer to as pre-remedial Turkish, I have still been able to have interesting conversations with people out in the streets. In Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, I once had a long conversation with a man selling prayer beads. He spoke very little English, and I spoke even less Turkish than I do now, but we were still able to communicate —sometimes via hand signals— about Turkey, Football, and our lives. Another time, in a taxi in Ankara, the driver and I had a conversation about music while he played a CD of Arabesque music. When he dropped me off at the train station, before leaving, he stepped back into his taxi, pulled out the CD we were listening to, and gifted it to me. These at times brief moments of cultural exchange are important in that they can lead to a greater cultural awareness, a greater empathy.

Amelia Montes:  Do you have something you’d like to add? 

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: Receiving a Fulbright Senior Lecturer Award to Turkey has been a highlight of my academic and creative career in that it has allowed me to connect with other communities, to share in their stories, and be a part of what I call the Fulbright story, a story that has been told by thousands since the establishment of the program in 1946. I’m so happy that you are also going to be a part of that story, and I’m looking forward to hearing all about your experiences. As I’ve said in the past, stories are important for us as a way to connect. We need to listen to the stories that surround us. Mine is a community united by stories, threaded across distance, held together by history, and bound in a book that travels with me. Part of my job —probably the smallest part— is to tell a story, the other half is to listen to others tell me theirs. In this way, hopefully, we can bridge those things that would attempt to separate us. I greatly thank the Turkish Fulbright Commission for allowing me to be a part of their story. And thank you for this interview.  Muchísima suerte in Serbia!

Amelia Montes:  Gracias, Santiago! La Bloga Readers-- I invite you to think about becoming a Fulbright Scholar.  Click HERE for the Fulbright website's many informational links.  I am also wishing Santiago an excellent coming year with his University of New Mexico students. ¡Adelante!

Photo by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez: "Nazar hanging from branches of a tree outside
the village of Göreme, in Cappadocia. The nazar amulet is a protection against evil eye." 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for this interview which captures the essence and the humanity of the Fulbright. I can't wait to tell my stories and to hear yours!