Antipodal Corrido. Chronicle of Spanish language in Oceania

Leonel Alvarado
Nellie Campobello in the Australian desert; Nezahualcoyotl in front of the Tasmanian Sea; a Rulfian hen in Middle Earth; the corrido “El caballo blanco” in a Kiwi university’s classroom—not too loud because there is another class next-door—; sugar calaveritas in a Sydney’s supermarket; chiles en nogada in a screen shot shared during a Zoom session amoung students from New Zealand and Australia: these scenes are all telling the story of Spanish language in Oceania.

During the pandemic, an Australian student wrote to me from the van in which she was living and traveling through the desert during the lockdown. Whenever she could find a wi-fi signal she would connect to my classes on Latin American music and politics. She told me that she was accompanied by Campobello, Rulfo, and José Alfredo’s corridos. Another student wrote a fascinating study on the Australian confusion between the Day of the Dead and Halloween, an inevitable cultural down under mishmash. What about the chiles en nogada? Well, in a course on travel literature we were talking about the baroque cuisine that seduced Italo Calvino in Under the Jaguar Sun [see box], and we had to settle with the screenshot.

And what do Campobello, Rulfo, a Nahuatl poet, a masterful corrido writer, the sugar calaveritas, and the chiles en nogada say to this group of antipodal students? As in any respectful corrido, I will tell the details.

In late 2011, The Australian newspaper reported that Australians were about to learn Spanish with a Kiwi accent. The article referred to an agreement signed between Massey University in New Zealand and the University of New England in Australia to provide a Spanish degree online from New Zealand. Ten years and more than two thousand students later, this program across the Tasman Sea continues to grow and now includes graduate studies. This has allowed a student based in the almost Mediterranean city of Adelaide to do research on fantasy literature written by women and to study Leonora Carrington and Cecilia Eudave but not before going to look for Aura at 815 Donceles Street.

It is not surprising that graduates of our programs read Rulfo or listen to corridos with their young students

During the last century and for historical reasons, Oceania looked almost exclusively towards Europe, hence the first university Spanish programs focused on the peninsular variant. In the last decades, with the arrival of Latin American academics, the panorama changed, different matches began to appear: Picasso and Diego Rivera; the romancero gitano and the corrido; the Spanish sentimental novel and Agustín Lara.

Because of this same historical attachment to Europe, the fostered foreign languages were French, German, and, to a lesser degree, Russian. Then, starting in the 1960s and due to their great cultural, political and economic influence in the Pacific, the Japanese and Chinese arrived. Spanish landed in the 1970s through a generation of academics linked to peninsular studies.

Massey University’s Spanish program is the most recent. It began in 1996 with an Iberian focus until a Honduran, a Peruvian, two Argentines, and a Colombian arrived. In the group, the Madrid-born member is interested in Philippine Spanish variant. This explains why Nellie Campobello came to the University of New England in Australia among courses on literature, music, travel literature, translation, film, and art, in addition to the essential language courses.

The arrival of Latin American immigrants, especially since the 1970s, has helped to promote Spanish teaching in schools and colleges. In addition, the number of professors educated in our universities has grown over time. In fact, both in Australia and New Zealand, this group of teachers has grown and it is not surprising that graduates of our programs read Rulfo or listen to corridos with their young students.

The rich Hispanic American language and culture has a place in our programs thanks to the fact we do not use textbooks produced by large publishers because these, due to their origin, respond to other cultural contexts . We have designed specific didactic materials for online teaching, which are relevant in their sociocultural linkage to Oceania. For that matter, if we study Latin American migratory processes, we incorporate migration to Australasia, so the study of native cultures becomes much more significant when students can incorporate the local perspective: Mesoamerican mythology dialogues with the Maori worldview, and Zapotec rap by Mare Advertencia Lírika, with the political music of the Australian indigenous group Yothu Yindi.

Indigenous cultural wealth is essential for our courses because it is a bridge that brings us closer across the Pacific. Maori, one of New Zealand’s three official languages —along with English and sign language— is, like Spanish, a phonetic language, which makes pronunciation easier for many students. Indigenous musical tradition, literature, film, and the great resistance movements allow us to enrich this dialogue between our cultures and to learn Spanish. And if we are talking about cuisine of indigenous origin, without the Andean sweet potato and potato, the Aztec chocolate and avocado, and the Mayan squash and beans, it would be impossible to understand Oceania’s culinary culture… But chiles en nogada are still missing!

Oceania is a region where Spanish and Hispanic American cultures exist. The northern voyages of Campobello, Rulfo, and José Alfredo have happily reached this South.

Italo Calvino in Mexico

UNAM Internacional

Under the Jaguar Sun is one of those books of experimental literature that the Italian writer Italo Calvino—a revolutionary author who, among many other things, inaugurated the literary 21st Century with his famous Six Memos for the Next Millennium—, enjoyed to elaborate, quite naturally. Remembered, among many other things, for his Our Ancestors series, which created unforgettable characters such as The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight, and his open, experimental, metatextual narrative that surprised readers with novels that are no longer novels (The Invisible Cities, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, The Castle of Crossed Destinies), Calvino undertook in the 1970s a project to write stories centered on the five senses. A marginal project among the many that the genius undertook, it would, unfortunately, remain unfinished: the brilliant author only completed three of them, those corresponding to smell, taste, and hearing.

The story from which the book takes its title, “Under the Jaguar Sun”, follows a European couple traveling through Mexican places such as Tepotzotlan and Oaxaca, and is dedicated to the sense of taste. Among the wonders that their palates discover—tamales, guacamole, chiles en nogada, moles—Olivia, the main character of the story, wonders about the complex procedures in that cuisine, and is intrigued by the consumption of the spicy foods that are so offensive and challenging to the European palate: Why this suffering in eating, why this pain?

“Perhaps that flavor emerged, all the same—even through the other flavors,” says Olivia (our italics), reflecting on human sacrifices and the fate of their remains.

Leonel Alvarado is a Honduran poet and writer. He majored in Literature at universities in Honduras and the United States. He lives in New Zealand, where he leads the Spanish and Portugese programs at Massey University. In 1994 he was awarded the Latin American Poetry Prize EDUCA, Costa Rica, and in 2013 he received a mention in the Casa de las Américas Prize, Cuba, and the Rogelio Sinán Central American Literature Prize. He has published eleven books of poetry, essay, and short stories.
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