Norma Cantú's study abroad course opens perspectives
within and without
Debra Peña is seeking her Ph.D., but until she studied abroad in Spain, she had never been out of the country. “I wasn’t looking forward to that plane ride,” Peña said. “I was worried about a lot of things.”
Like many of the students who have taken the three-week trip to Toledo, Spain as part of the course taught by Norma Cantú, professor of English and U.S. Latina/o Literatures, Peña said she was transformed by the experience. “It’s about negotiating the spaces in another country, and negotiating the spaces within myself.”
This is the sixth year that Professor Cantú has taken a group of graduate students and advanced undergraduates to Spain for the summer trip. This year’s courses included Cross Cultural Traditions: Roots of Chican@ Folklore cross-listed with Creative Writing: Creative Nonfiction. The program is a partnership between UTSA and Universidad de Castilla/La Mancha, where the classes are held.
“I hope for the students to learn the content of each course,” Cantú said, “but I also want them to make the connections that come from actually being in Spain.”
While the trip focuses on the folklore of Spain, each student brings back something unique from the experience. A common theme for the students, however, is a heightened awareness of differences. Almost 300 years ago, San Antonio and South Texas were being settled by Spaniards, and the people, language and culture continue to carry the mark of the first Europeans to settle here. During that same period, Toledo was already an ancient city, built completely of stone and sequestered behind walls on a high hill. For many of the students who have taken the course, the contrasts between the old world and the new are stark.
“The landscape and spaces are very different,” said Cordelia Barrera, who received her Ph.D. in English through the College of Liberal and Fine Arts two years ago and now is an assistant professor at Texas Tech University. “In San Antonio, we have such an array of different buildings, and in Toledo, you’re walking these narrow cobbled streets. There, in every part of the old city, the stone buildings crowd in on the stone streets so closely, and are so consistently ancient, that it is impossible to escape the history,” she said.
While Barrera had taught in Africa before taking the course, most of the students are not so well-traveled.
Christina Gutierrez, an English major, had never been overseas when she went two years ago to learn more about healing folklore for her dissertation on women and illness.
“I’m from Laredo, and there are definitely practices that are very old and continue on in the South Texas region, like weaving,” she said. “But I think I saw more how the cultures have gone in different directions over the centuries.”
Gutierrez returned to Spain this summer, this time in the creative writing course, and found the second trip to be as much of an eye-opener as the first.
When the group visited a marzipan factory as a part of their study of cross-cultural traditions, Gutierrez said, their guide was an elderly gentleman who had worked there his entire life. As he explained the creation of the sugar-and-almond-meal confections, he showed them the workers’ tools used in crafting the delicate shapes.
“Each [worker] designs their own tool according to their own needs and their own hands,” Gutierrez said. The small tools look like spoons but with flat surfaces.
Then their elderly guide went to a drawer and pulled out another of the spoon-like tools. This one, he said, had been in the factory longer than he had, and had been hewn by a man who worked there so long ago that the lifelong employee had never known him. For Gutierrez, the tool became the symbol of the heartbeat of work in this place, a heartbeat that continued on as both time and workers passed through.
Because she was enrolled in the creative writing course, Gutierrez used the trip to write about herself, and she used herself to write about the trip. “Women and illness is my dissertation. My mother had breast cancer, which is what motivated my research. But I had not written about my perspective as a daughter, going through that with her. Dr. Cantú encouraged me to do that.”
Making a conscious effort this time around to connect with the people of Spain and to be open to the community and their experiences, helped her do that.
“It fed into my writing and my journal, and even my creative pieces,” Gutierrez said. “I want to go back on my own now.”
On her previous trip, Gutierrez had bonded more closely with her fellow students, an easy thing to do when the curriculum involves three hours each morning in the classroom and group walking tours of the city every afternoon. The creative writing students also wrote about 20 pages a week in journals and as assigned exercises.
Gutierrez advised students planning to study abroad to keep an open mind and “be willing to take in all these new experiences. Revel in it while you’re there because it goes by so quickly.”
Debra Peña is writing her dissertation on 20th-century Southern women writers, so Spain is not directly relevant. But polishing the lens through which she views their world is a discipline that the English major considers vital to her project.
“Cross-cultural studies are important to the critical race aspect of my studies,” Peña said. “Plus, there’s a whole Southern culture with its own folklore that I will have to explain. If I can immerse myself in another culture and describe that, then I can explain my own to a panel.”
When she came back from Spain, Peña brought with her a new perspective on how different societies—San Antonio and Toledo—can layer very different behaviors and attitudes upon their inhabitants, while at the core, the people retain a thoughtfulness and decency that impressed her.
“The people are genuinely nice to one another, as they are here,” she said. “An elderly man got up off the bench he was sitting on and offered it to Dr. Cantú because it was hot. People’s body language, and the movement of crowds, they’re the same as in San Antonio. They care about the welfare of the person next to them, foreigner or not.”
The students witnessed the procession of Corpus Christi, a religious observance in the streets of Toledo—which are, for the most part, so narrow an economy car can barely pass through, and pedestrians must jump into doorways to avoid being hit by the mirrors. This experience was a key component of the course, said Dr. Cantú.
In San Antonio, it is possible to move through the crowds during Fiesta, but in Toledo during the Corpus Christi week, people claim their spots for the procession—and they don’t move for anyone. “The people were reverent,” Peña said. “They were very solemn. But they were very protective of their space.”
Peña and Gutierrez had been at a café about 10 blocks from where they were to rejoin their group, and found it took an hour and a half to get there. Nobody would budge during the long procession. To move at all, the women had to slip into the procession stream.
“So we walked in the procession between the nuns and the band, with people fussing at us because we weren’t supposed to be part of it,” Peña said.
Finally, the procession reached a small plaza, where everyone stopped to hear a priest give a prayer. “You could have heard a pin drop,” Peña said. “That’s when a policeman finally opened up a path for us to get out.”
Peña loved the steep, narrow streets, and she loved that she grew stronger every day that she climbed them. In a side trip to the city of Segovia, the group climbed 152 steeply pitched steps to the top of the Alcázar, or castle. She was exhilarated to reach the top.
Now back home and dealing with the pressures and obligations of everyday life, Peña sees herself and her family as part of a bigger world, where other people in other places are making their own way.
“There’s this whole life force going on, a world of possibilities,” she said. “Having seen it, it’s more than just rhetoric. Even if I’m here dealing with a broken dishwasher, there’s an Alcázar with 152 steps. And I did it.”