How Cultures That Are Worlds Apart Create New Dialogues

April 23, 2015
members of the Migration, Heritage, Identity class

This spring, Evelina Gužauskytė, associate professor of Spanish, and her students in Migration, Heritage, Identity: Eastern Europe and Latin America embarked on an intellectual journey that spans two continents and delves into some of life’s deepest questions about identity, memory, and belonging. 

Every Thursday, Gužauskytė and her students consider how Eastern Europe and Latin America, parts of the world that are not usually linked together, have enriched one another’s literary and cultural expressions. As part of this exploration, they examine cultural encounters in a global context and view the world as a place of exchanges, networks, and surprising connections.

One early surprise was learning that the Chilean poet Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto adopted the pen name Pablo Neruda, after the Czech realist writer Jan Neruda. “I had no idea,” said several students who deeply admire the Nobel laureate’s work.

Nor did they realize that Julio Cortázar and Elena Poniatowska, revered Latin American writers, were intimately connected to Eastern Europe: Cortázar’s lover, translator, and companion was the Lithuanian writer and diplomat Ugnė Karvelis; Poniatowska’s family heritage was Polish.

Similar interchanges and encounters have helped generations of writers and intellectuals negotiate their places in between two distant regions and have prompted two key questions: What does it mean to have a home? And how do authors writing in exile cultivate a sense of belonging?

During the two world wars and later during the Cold War era, millions of people fled Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for Latin America, seeking a new life on distant shores. As the newcomers grappled with the loss of one heritage, they brought with them entire memory landscapes, which helped them develop new voices and make profound contributions to the multicultural societies in Latin American countries.

“Migration and movement of people as well as of ideas are very much a part of the constantly morphing face of the globe’s continents and transcontinental spaces,” says Gužauskytė, whose research delves into topics related to contemporary and colonial Latin America. “Studying cultures not as static and monolithic but as phenomena in flux is essential for understanding the complex relationship between territoriality and expression.”

Students in her class expand their own understanding of identity and memory landscape through a variety of genres, beginning with memoirs, essays, letters, and poetry by Neruda; Cortázar; Karvelis; Alejandra Pizarnik; Marjorie Agosin, Wellesley's Luella LaMer Slaner Professor in Latin American Studies and professor of Spanish; and others. The group also explores materials available online, including documentaries, interviews, images, and social networking sites, to get a more complete picture of how the two regions continue enriching one another’s artistic and cultural expression.  

Migration, Heritage, Identity: Eastern Europe and Latin America is innovative in two ways: It connects two world regions that are not commonly studied together, and it invites students to learn through a collaborative digital project.

Gužauskytė, who speaks six languages, believes that people learn best when they are fully engaged. “In this course, I envision my role as that of a mentor who guides students through their learning,” she says. “I provide them with the necessary background and methodological framework. From that point on, each student carves her own learning path.”

That path includes a research paper, which contributes to the collaborative digital project. For weeks, the students have been working to map the movements, exchanges, and relationships they have discussed in class, such as the letters between the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and the Czech Milan Kundera, and the ways in which the music and the polka dance of East Central Europe were adopted in Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. For some students, the course’s subject matter feels personally relevant. Victoria Angelova ’18, an economics major, grew up in Bulgaria, yet was fascinated from a young age by the Hispanic culture. “While researching, I discovered that about 600 Chileans immigrated to Bulgaria after the military coup in their own country,” she says. “I never knew that my home country had provided asylum to refugees from such a distant land. This course helped me see that people can embody two diverse cultures and be strengthened by that dichotomy.”

For Rebecca Hosey ’15, a Spanish major, the course highlights the plight of migrants, who continue to face injury or death, as did hundreds who drowned in a recent shipwreck in the Mediterranean. “When people spend so much time in transit, does that middle passage become a sort of home?” she asks. “Evelina’s course has taught me that borders, nationalism, and identity are much more complex than they appear. I did not expect to be able to translate what I have learned through her lessons and my research to everyday life and news events, but it is all extremely relevant, especially in today’s ever-changing society.”


-Gužauskytė’s course is in the process of undergoing a pilot assessment project as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Blended Learning Initiative. Development of the methodology involving the student-led collaborative digital research project was supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The design of the course was based, in part, on research Gužauskytė did while attending the Summer Institute for College and University Teachers at Columbia University, “America’s East Central Europeans: Migration and Memory,” funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.