Spanish in the World

When the existence of this Western Hemisphere was first announced to Europe, it was done in Spanish. Quickly translated into Latin and hurriedly published, Christopher Columbus’s 1493 “Letter of Discovery,” as it has come to be called, was as much a world event as the remarkable discoveries it described and the promises it made to its readers at the Castilian royal court. Paraíso y patria, paradise and homeland, one of my undergraduate students recently wrote, reflecting on the promises of Columbus’s letter. Paradise and homeland: this was written by a student who was born in this country to an Italian American mother and a father who had fled his homeland, Iran, for political reasons and who can never go back or fears going back safely. A student of Iranian descent studying Spanish-language literature in Spanish in an elite university in southern New England: cultural, educational globalization.The promises of patria and paraíso were carried out in Spanish before any other Western language. Spanish accounts of exploration and conquest were quickly, avidly translated into Italian, English, French, German, and Dutch, as if to answer the question, “What are those people doing over there?” And this hunger for what Spanish writings might reveal was not abated as the sixteenth century gave way to the seventeenth. By 1625, the Englishman Richard Hakluyt’s protégé and successor, Samuel Purchas (1577–1626), translated in Purchas His Pilgrimes further accounts of Spanish voyages of exploration, conquest, and settlement. And he added something new: thanks to his translations, he produced the first fruits of learning about America’s indigenous civilizations in the English language.

Purchas excerpted in English, for the first time, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios reales de los Incas (“Royal Commentaries of the Incas”) in 1609 and 1617, and, more remarkable, he produced an English version of the mid-sixteenth-century Mexican codex, known today as the Codex Mendoza and preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. In New Spain (today’s Mexico), the great creole polymath Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645–1700) later pored over Purchas’s massive four-volume compendium. He admired its Mexican version of Aztec history, accompanied by painstakingly wrought woodcut reproductions of the Mexican hieroglyphics that had graced the original. The achievement prompted Sigüenza to remark that Purchas’s work was worthy of “el amante más fino de la patria” ‘the most devoted lover of the homeland’ (181–82; my trans.). But, of course, Purchas’s homeland was England.

In that light, Purchas, the Anglican minister, literary compiler, and translator, stands, for me, as the figure that triangulates three spheres of interest and influence: Spain, England, and America. And here I mean “three-plus,” since Purchas included the ancient autochthonous Americas alongside the Euro-Americas of his day. This triangulation of interests is vividly illustrated by Washington Irving’s History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which was the first complete, detailed biography of Columbus in the English language. Published in 1828, it was reprinted and excerpted for a century, well into the 1920s. Its influence is still felt in the United States, where we commemorate with a three-day weekend of blowout retail sales our federal holiday honoring Columbus. (These retail opportunities are not inappropriate, if we recall that Columbus’s original objectives were commercial.)

Long before Columbus came to be demonized as the purveyor of evil and disease, as a Renaissance-era Darth Vader, Irving had styled him in the nineteenth-century American entrepreneurial manner of the self-made man, devoted to economic enterprise. To do so, Irving relied on two sources: a mid-eighteenth-century, English-language compilation of voyages and discoveries, introduced by Samuel Johnson and titled The World Displayed (1759–61), and the Spanish-language biography of Columbus written by his son Hernando Colón (Adorno, “Washington Irving’s Romantic Hispanism” 56–65). Beginning in the eighteenth century, the Anglo–North American focus on the worlds of Spain invariably called into play this Spanish, English, and Anglo–North American triad.

For Anglo–North American interest in Spanish language and culture, I turn to Thomas Jefferson, who died two years before Irving’s biography appeared but understood that “the antient [sic] part of American history is written chiefly in Spanish” (“To Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.” 558). Jefferson helped institute the teaching of the modern foreign languages, including Spanish, in 1780, at the College of William and Mary, and in 1819, when he founded the University of Virginia. Writing in 1787 and 1788 to promising young men in his circle, urging on them the study of the Spanish and Portuguese languages, Jefferson cited the value of such study for both practical and academic reasons. To the young South Carolinian John Rutledge, Jr., on 13 July 1788, Jefferson wrote:

Our connections with the Spaniards and Portuguese must become every day more and more interesting, and I should think, the knowledge of their language[s], manners, and situation, might eventually and even probably become more useful to yourself and country than that of any other place you will have seen. (358)

And he added, presciently, “The womb of time is big with events to take place between us and them.” Indeed.

Today, in 2015, those prophecies have been fulfilled. We have gone from Havana to Macondo and beyond (well beyond: witness President Obama’s recent, controversial executive order lifting some of the half-century-old restrictions on United States relations with Cuba). The winds from Havana that blew on 1 January 1959, when Fidel Castro took over the island, and those that blew from the United States on 3 January 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed the United States embassy in Havana and severed diplomatic relations, fanned the flames of United States interest in Latin America. Followed by the CIA-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the first months of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, in April 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, these political watersheds also foreshadowed literary events of great purchase in Latin America (González Echevarría 99–102).

The Latin American novels of the mid–twentieth century and their international translations—the “Boom” of Latin American literature—were accompanied by the ascent of the teaching of the Spanish language in the United States (Adorno, “Havana” 376–78, 388–84), and it has been accelerated by the growing Latino presence in the United States and, in the academy, by students’ practical interests as well as their intellectual and cultural engagements. And here I turn to today’s Latino America, its history and its promise. I recommend to you the three-part, six-hour documentary series Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation. It chronicles the centuries-long history of today’s Latinos and their ancestors on the North American continent, and it is accompanied by a book of the same title by the journalist and author Ray Suárez. This project complements another great documentary series, Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle, which traces African American history in the United States from the 1830s to the 1960s. Both projects received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities through its Division of Public Programs, which funded the documentary films and helped design the projects that are taking community-based discussions to sites across the country.1

Today, for institutional and financial support from universities, as well as direct access to the largest academic job markets, the best place to seek training to become a professorial academic Hispanist or Latin Americanist is arguably the United States academy. And undergraduate student enrollments in Spanish, among all the modern Western languages except English, hold primacy of place. I see this as a great responsibility, which we honor best when we are in the classroom. But the story is a larger one, and it affects not only those of us devoted to the study of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian languages, literatures, and cultures but all of us as members of the MLA and as advocates of the humanities and their place in the global university.

I recommend to you the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project The Heart of the Matter. In answer to a bipartisan request from the United States Congress to assess the state of the humanities and social sciences today, the academy produced a major report on the role of the humanities in higher education. We in the MLA should applaud one of its most concrete recommendations: the promotion of language learning, at all educational levels, in pursuit of the goal to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world” (12). The project also resulted in a seven-minute film on the role of the humanities in American life. You can find it online, and I encourage you to view and share it with your students. It features a star-studded cast, including the filmmaker George Lucas, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor, and the architect Billie Tsien. The actor John Lithgow kicks it off, and it features prominent scientists and social scientists as well. Each contributor ruminated briefly on the humanities, what they mean, and where we would be without them.

What is the elephant in the room in that short film? The growing prominence of the much-needed STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in the American academy. We all seem to be engaged in the polemics of possession—that is, in fighting for the possession of student enrollments and the defense of our own disciplinary turf. But in reflecting on the thoughtful, eloquent remarks of the scientist-participants in The Heart of the Matter film, and also sitting in monthly conversation with my fellow department chairs, many of them from the natural and social sciences, I realize that our STEM colleagues are not our antagonists.

We are more likely to find the forces of antagonism within ourselves, in our occasional indifference, every time (when and if) we fail to engage students who have walked into our classrooms from beyond the precincts of our disciplines. We all know how intellectually open such students tend to be, unfettered by unhelpful, intrahumanities biases. These students often ask the questions that their humanities-student peers consider obvious and fail to ask. How many times have you heard yourself thinking, as you ponder a response to an outside-the-humanities-box intervention, “Hmmnn, I never thought of that”?

I have recently had such a sustained, semester-long experience with the class to which I alluded at the beginning of these remarks. There were thirty-six undergraduates: two seniors, eight juniors, thirteen sophomores, and thirteen freshmen. None of them were majoring in Spanish, and only two were concentrating in the allied field of Latin American studies. As underclassmen, half the class had not yet declared a major, but the others ranged over fields that included molecular biology, computer science, environmental studies, and geology and geophysics. Thirty-six students in a course I taught in Spanish, reading difficult Spanish-language texts written from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century. It was unprecedented in my department’s experience and in my own. Our readings ranged from the pre-Columbian Texcocan prince and poet Nezahualcoyotl (which we read in Spanish, not Nahuatl) to the iconic baroque poet, our great prefeminist high priestess, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. What attracted and held the students to the course? Surely, you will say, they were all of Hispanic heritage. Not so! One-third of them had Spanish surnames, which revealed their Hispanic ancestry, but a full two-thirds did not. They were not Spanish speakers, and reading out their ancestrally inflected surnames in class was like taking roll call at the United Nations.

The course was, for me, a very short introduction to a new way of thinking about our vocation. That is, I fret about the declining numbers of humanities-subject majors, but, unlike Andrew Delbanco, who has written eloquently about the challenges facing liberal arts education today (139–77), I had given only glancing attention to the larger problem. I am not sure that I ever believed, as I do now, in the worthiness of our broader endeavor. Maybe I just had to experience it en carne propia, in my own flesh. The idea of reaching students outside humanities majors in courses of literary and cultural substance—and doing so in the language native to those traditions, in this case Spanish—is a worthy pursuit, not only as a service (which, in my view, is not a bad word) but also as an inherent aspect of our vocation.

Perhaps we in Spanish can do this more easily than those in other modern languages because of the ubiquity in the United States of student linguistic competence in Spanish, as well as the interests of students who do not possess it. If so, we are privileged, but it also gives us a greater responsibility: we must refuse to give up teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in Spanish. This is my proposal: to refuse to give up teaching in Spanish. (There are pressures that would have us do so.) The English language is ubiquitous, but it is neither a universal nor a transparent, nondistorting lens through which all other modern languages can pass, in translation, without loss.

All my colleagues in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian studies who are native speakers of Spanish or Portuguese are keenly aware of this. But I raise this banner as a native English speaker. The academic commitment we all share is epitomized, in one case, by a shared last name, the coincidence of which is too delightful not to mention. Henry James Klahn, the great-great-grandfather of my colleague Norma Klahn Garza, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, emigrated in 1840 from Nuremberg to Galveston, the provisional capital of the independent Republic of Texas. He became the scion of the Spanish-speaking Klahn-Garza clan whose descendants today live on both sides of the United States–Mexico border, and Norma was raised in a Spanish-speaking community of German Mexican descent. My paternal great-grandfather, Joachim Klahn, emigrated from Holstein in 1860 and settled in Iowa, so I was raised in an English-speaking community of German American heritage.

Here I have two points to make: the first, more broadly, is the reminder that the United States is still a country of immigrant populations of diverse destinies, even when their members come from similar origins. The second, more locally, is that, given my ethnic background, I wondered when I first entered this profession if I could really make it or really had a chance. But my late Italian American husband, the mathematician and humanist David Adorno, elliptically but effectively made the point: “Remember, there are no native speakers of mathematics!” Belonging to a particular language or culture, he added, using a mathematical turn of phrase, was “neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition” for success. He was right. My years on the faculties of Syracuse University, Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University are remembered by me for their strong and supportive environments. No less so—and especially so—has been my experience of the past eighteen years at Yale, where that support has come from the institution and from my colleagues Josefina Ludmer, the late María Rosa Menocal, and especially Noël Valis and Roberto González Echevarría.

I turn once more to Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. When Sigüenza called Purchas’s publication of the Codex Mendoza a worthy achievement, he meant that its publication rescued it from oblivion, preserved it for posterity. Sigüenza was himself one of the earliest, great scholars of pre-Columbian Mexican antiquities and, like El Inca Garcilaso, who did so for ancient Peru, Sigüenza sought to bring the pre-Columbian experience of ancient Mexico out of the shadows of myth and into the light of history.

Sigüenza’s salute to Purchas anticipated the tribute that the great Prussian explorer and scholar of the Americas, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), would make to the memory of Sigüenza. Journeying to New Spain in the last decades before it became an independent Mexico, Humboldt tried to locate the Mexican manuscripts famously collected and studied by the creole polymath. Humboldt did so because he knew that the Italian traveler and compiler Giovanni Gemelli Careri (1651–1725), the author of Giro del mondo (1699–1700), had seen those manuscripts and perhaps copied some of them under Sigüenza’s supervision. Although Humboldt was not successful in his search, he discovered the whereabouts of the greatest extant collection of ancient Mexican artifacts of his day. Recalling his preparation to go and view it, Humboldt wrote, in French, that he imagined, and experienced in his own right, the emotion that Gemelli Careri must have felt when, more than a century earlier, he had made the pilgrimage that ended at Sigüenza’s door.

I have presented this imaginary, but not unreal, conversation because it was carried out over time and from the vantage points of various cultural and linguistic traditions: Renaissance English, baroque Spanish, Italian, creole Spanish American, and Enlightenment German and French. All were united in the single, transcendent pursuit of pre-Columbian antiquities. And all their exchanges were brought together through the Spanish language, as the earliest European conduit and interpreter of precious pre-Columbian indigenous traditions of the Americas. This cultural historical litany exemplifies the continuity of culture that characterizes, in no small measure, the life of the humanities.

Throughout the many lifetimes of the Spanish language in this New World, on the Iberian Peninsula in the Old, and in Asia in the East, Spanish has become one of the world’s most culturally rich languages. It contains the traces of those many ongoing, diverse cultures that it has touched and the new formulations with which it interacts and which continually renew it. It explains why my colleagues in the field imperfectly called colonial Latin American literatures, as well as those in literary and cultural studies devoted to Spain, modern Latin America, Latino America, and, for Portuguese, the Luso-Brazilian world, continue to soldier onward.

One of the greatest sixteenth-century Spanish humanists, a professor at the venerable University of Salamanca, Hernán Pérez de Oliva (ca. 1494–1531), did everything he could to elevate the dignity of vernacular Spanish and make it a language of high culture and learning. Interested also in cosmography and geography, he reflected, in 1524, on the geopolitical position of Spain. Now, in 2015, I quote his words to focus on the geocultural position of the Spanish language and our study of all that is expressed in it: “Antes ocupábamos el fin del mundo, y agora estamos en el medio, con mudança de fortuna cual nunca otra se vido” ‘We used to occupy the ends of the earth, and now we find ourselves in the middle of it, thanks to a twist of fortune such as never before has been seen’ (qtd. in Adorno, Colonial Latin American Literature). Come to think of it, I stand before you this evening, “thanks to a twist of fortune never before seen,” never by me imagined, never by me dreamed.

I extend my deepest gratitude to the MLA for this remarkable honor. I will attempt to live up to it. I’m not done yet.


These remarks were delivered on receipt of the seventh Modern Language Association Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement at the MLA Awards Ceremony at the 130th MLA Annual Convention, in Vancouver, BC, on 10 January 2015.

  1. The national dissemination of the two documentary series has also been developed and supported by the NEH’s Office of the Chairman through its Bridging Cultures and Common Good initiatives.

Works Cited

Adorno, Rolena. Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

———. “Havana and Macondo: The Humanities in U.S. Latin American Studies, 1940–2000.” The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II. Ed. David A. Hollinger. Cambridge: Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. 372–404. Print.

———. “Washington Irving’s Romantic Hispanism and Its Columbian Legacies.” Spain in America: The Origins of Hispanism in the United States. Ed. Richard L. Kagan. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002. 49–105. Print.

Delbanco, Andrew. College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. Print.

González Echevarría, Roberto. Modern Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

The Heart of the Matter. Cambridge: Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 2013. Print.

Jefferson, Thomas. “To John Rutledge, Jr.” 13 July 1788. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 13, March to 7 October 1788. Ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956. 358–59. Print.

———. “To Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.” 6 July 1787. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Volume 11, 1 January to 6 August 1787. Ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1955. 556–59. Print.

Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de. Teatro de virtudes políticas. 1680. Seis obras de Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. Introd. Irving A. Leonard. Ed. William C. Bryant. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1984. 165–240. Print.

Rolena Adorno is Sterling Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University. A version of this speech was presented at the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver.


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