It is Catalina Ocampo Londoño’s first year teaching here as a Visiting Professor in the Spanish department. She’s come here by a rather circuitous route; she was born and raised in Colombia, went to school in Virginia and Boston, and in between getting her various degrees (her dissertation is still in the works), she has lived in Pittsburg, Minneapolis and now Tacoma.
Ocampo Londoño is interested in melding various art forms. She is teaching a class on the essay as an art form, while her dissertation looks at the history of literary criticism as if it were a work of literature. In all of her classes, she attempts to use different art forms to engage students with an unfamiliar language.
You’re a professor in Spanish Literature, which is an enormous field. What do you specialize in?
I focus on Latin American literature and mainly on the twentieth century. Specifically, I’m really interested right now in critical thought in Latin America. I’ve always read fiction and poetry and all these things, but my research grown… to things like the essay form and criticism. I’m combining it a little bit with literature because Latin America is a really interesting place because of the divisions between genres.
Things are a lot more fluid there; there is a lot more hybridization and movement between fiction and criticism, nonfiction and fiction, both in terms of the works themselves but also institutionally the way that it is structured. Writers are also critics; writers have also historically been politicians.
Are you teaching any classes specifically on that topic?
Right now I’m teaching a class on the Spanish-American essay. We’re reading stuff all the way from Independence to the present. The essay is an exciting topic because it’s the one topic where if something doesn’t fit it’s called an essay. We’re reading documents from the independence, lectures that people gave, communist manifestos and newspaper articles.
This is your first year teaching here as well and you’re teaching an introductory level course. What is it like teaching people who are just beginning to learn the language?
It’s exciting, especially when I can get someone who is there taking the class because it is a requirement to keep learning Spanish. The other thing that is challenging for me teaching 102 and 201 is how to present culture to someone who doesn’t quite have the language. This also functions in literature classes as well.
For example, in the essay class many of the texts we are reading are very difficult texts. Sometimes the language, the references in the text and the world they are in is very foreign. So the challenge is how do you take these very difficult texts and cultural material to people who don’t have full grasp of the language yet. This is something that I’m still experimenting with.
So do you switch into English sometimes?
In classes 201 and above I try to stay completely in Spanish.
For a while I worked with a professor at Harvard who has a little initiative called the Cultural Agents Initiative. She looks at the ways in which art has been used productively to affect social change. I worked with her for two years and learned some really amazing stuff with her.
We did many things; for example, we put on a conference of people who use photography not just showing political issues but also teaching people how to use photography so they can be agents of change. One of the things I came across as I was doing this was that a lot of teaching artists would use the arts as a way of teaching difficult material in a way that is accessible.
When you say agents of social change, what are some concrete examples of that?
One of the big people who does this is a Brazilian named Augusto Boal who does theater. He started out as an actor but then after a while he started developing this particular form of theater that involved the audience in the process of doing theater.
So he would stage a certain problem that the community was having and then they would stop it. Instead of presenting the tragedy, he would stop it and then the people in the audience would try to change what had happened or what would happen. It’s called forum theater. Afterwards they would discuss ways of transforming their community based on the solutions that had come up through theater.
There are tons of these examples of people doing these things across the world.
Do you try to do these sorts of things in your classes?
Clearly I’m not trying to do the same thing in Puget Sound, but the same types of principles apply. One of the things I learned is that art makes things accessible to us. So if you have a hard time coming to the world of text and reading something, there’s other ways for you to enter this world. You can do individual arts, or through performance, or creative writing. So I try to bring creative writing into my courses, and also have the possibility for students to bring creative writing into their projects. Things don’t map on perfectly to the world of the university, but there are ways to integrate them.
So you were born in Colombia and now you’re at Puget Sound; what happened in between?
Well, a lot of things. I was born in Bogotá, grew up there and went to high school there. I went to an American school because my parents continued to want to learn English. At some point the school was particular in that almost everyone in the school was Colombian. There was a small percentage of American kids that were there with the Embassy or the government. But it was mostly Colombians who stayed in Colombia.
But for various reasons I had the opportunity to come to the U.S. I went to summer schools and it got into my head that I wanted to come to the U.S. It was partially because this was the 1990s in Bogotá and it was just not a good time. It was the height of violence from drug cartels.
Did you experience any of that violence personally? How did it touch your life?
In the sense that there were bombs going off in the city and that was just part of your reality. I never had a bomb go off near me and fortunately never had anyone I knew hurt in this. But, my school was in the mountains and overlooked Bogotá and there was one particular bomb that happened after school. I remember seeing this bomb go off. I remember we heard it and we all went to the window, and you could see it.
So it fortunately never touched me personally but the type of atmosphere was just so different from what I saw in the United States and the kind of life that young people live there.
So I decided that I wanted to come to the United States. My parents weren’t happy with the idea, but I applied and fortunately it worked out financially. So I came to the University of Virginia and that’s where I did my undergrad.
Then, I had the horrible idea of doing graduate school right after college. I went to graduate school at Brown and halfway through determined that I needed to have a break. So in the midst of my graduate career I did many things—I was a copy editor for a while, I worked as a professional translator, I worked with this professor [at Harvard], I did internships at art institutions, I lived in Minneapolis for a while.
So what happened after Minneapolis?
I was doing some freelance and then I decided I needed to come back to grad school. I was coming across some really interesting texts and I realized I really needed to write that book. So I moved back to Boston, starting working with that same professor and did graduate work. So I worked on my dissertation and actually continue to work on my dissertation.
What is the topic of your dissertation?
The best way of describing it is that rather than looking at literature through the lens of criticism, I’m looking at the history of criticism through the lens of literature. There’s a couple of novels that came out between the late ‘50s that ‘70s that in many ways make fun of, imitate or parody critical language.
What do you do in your free time?
I have a three-year-old son, so that takes up a lot of time. I love to cook. I decided in my old age to pick up the mandolin. I’ve never played an instrument before so it feels like something very, very new. Also, getting to know Tacoma. I’ve spent so much time moving that a lot of my free time is spent getting to know the places where I am.
What’s something about you that would surprise your students?
My grandfather bought a circus. He was forced to give it back shortly afterwards. He was an interesting character. He was sort of an entrepreneur before his time, he also came up with this strange scheme to raise ostriches in Colombia, which never really panned out. He also had this butterfly raising business, which is actually very lucrative. They’re raised to sell at weddings.
In my secret life I also write poetry. Somehow that has been dissociated from the university persona and didn’t really occur to me. You could also say that I’ve heard people speaking in tongues, danced with Shakira when she and I were both 16 (seriously, long story), read Ancient Greek at some point in my life and currently live with three adults, a preschooler, two cats, a dog and a seven-year-old sourdough starter. I’m also much more comfortable with writing than with speaking, and am horrifically shy. My students will probably not buy a word of that, but it’s true.