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History of Hispanic Studies at Vassar College

by Professor of Hispanic Studies Andrew Bush, January 2011

The Department of Hispanic Studies at Vassar has followed closely the course of the development of scholarship in the field over the century and a half of the history of the college. Instruction in Spanish formed part of Vassar’s early commitment to modern foreign languages in the education of a student body with the means and desire to travel, and it is still represented in our library holdings, for instance, in Three Vassar Girls in South America (1889). The title of the department, however, is expressive of a shift in what we would now call globalization. After defeat by the United States in the war of 1898 and the loss of its already reduced political power in the Western hemisphere, Spain embarked on an effort of cultural diplomacy under the heading of “Pan-Hispanism”—whence our “Hispanic Studies” (as opposed to, say, “Spanish Department”). The goal was to reinforce the Spanish literary legacy that might shore up wounded national pride and also underwrite a weakened, but present cultural hegemony in Central and South America. By mid-century, the political landscape had changed. Spanish fascism had defeated the democratically elected socialist government in a horrendous civil war and many of Spain’s writers, artists and cultural critics went into exile. Hispanism in the United States was greatly influenced by those exiles, many of whom found teaching positions at leading American colleges and universities, including Vassar. The Spanish poet Germán Bleiberg became the longstanding chair of Hispanic Studies at the college. It is only very recently that the last member of the department who had been brought to Vassar by Bleiberg, Professor emerita Patricia Kenworthy, has retired, bringing to a close a period of transition that she helped to navigate.

The most significant change both at Vassar and in the profession at large over the past quarter century concerns the place of Spanish-speaking America in the curriculum. The presence of Latin American exiles from many countries suffering under repressive regimes who continued their intellectual work at colleges and universities in United States, the organized political movements of U.S. Hispanics, and of course the rapidly increasing immigration to the U. S. from South and Central America and the Caribbean, all contributed to a shift in balance. At Vassar, as late as the mid-1980s, the faculty lines in the department included three positions in Peninsular Spanish literature and only one in Latin American literature. At present there are rather three positions in Peninsular studies and four positions in Latin American studies, though many members of the department teach some courses on both sides of the Atlantic divide. That reconfiguration attests to several important matters. Most obviously, student interest in Hispanic studies has grown enormously over the course of a generation; happily, that interest is positively correlated to increasingly stronger language preparation in secondary school and significantly larger numbers of students from Spanish-speaking homes. But beyond the geographical adjustment that now focuses the larger portion of department course offerings on Latin America, there has also been an intellectual reorientation from literary studies, narrowly defined (and de facto, limited to a long-established canon reifying gender and racial inequality), to cultural studies, defined as a multidisciplinary approach to the culture of Spanish-speaking lands as it is expressed in all the diverse segments of society. Hispanic studies students continue to read Cervantes and Sor Juana, Gabriel García Márquez and Carmen Martín Gaite, of course, but they also dedicate study to film and mural painting, social movements and environmental issues, all in historical, anthropological and political contexts. And the intellectual scope of the department continues to grow.