Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Prescient Moment of the Past

As I was cleaning out the office area of my former classroom, making way for the teacher who will replace me, I marveled at the vast amount of useless items I had accumulated over five years. I was cold-heartedly throwing things away when I came across a long-forgotten copy of Appalachian Today, the alumni magazine of Appalachian State University.

The reason I had kept this particular issue is because it included an article about me and the subject I taught. The piece was written by Gene Miller, a professor in the English department who at the time was also an assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. I reread the article, was reminded about the superb job Gene did, and that made me want to share it here.

In addition, what struck me about the piece was that although the idea of becoming a novelist was not even on my mind at the time, I now see that this was the direction in which I was headed all along.

Hispanic Literature Offers Insight to Minority Culture
By Gene Miller

Nothing takes you into the heart of a culture like literature, says assistant professor Silvio Sirias.

Sirias, who was born in California to Nicaraguan parents and always felt torn between two cultures, has brought a new appreciation for minority cultures and their stories to Appalachian State University’s curriculum based on his personal enlightenment from Hispanic writers.

His former feeling of isolation may be common because the U.S. Department of Labor expects a 75 percent jump in the number of Hispanic workers in the United States between 1990 and 2005. Sirias says students need to understand this culture.

“There is a yearning among the young to know the other—those who are different from them—and novels, stories, poetry, and essays can take you safely on this journey,” Sirias says.

Hispanic literature, which scholars also refer to as Latino literature, is considered a growing and dynamic branch of American literature.

“The material is so rich and powerful that it clamors to be taught,” Sirias emphasizes.

Appalachian began incorporating such literature in the curriculum in the spring of 1996 when Sirias and Susan Keefe of the anthropology department team-taught a course in the General Honors program titled Ethnicity in the Latina and Latino Novel. He was excited by the success of the course, Sirias says, “Because students came out of this course with an increased sensitivity to Hispanic culture and values and a much better understanding of Latinos and Latinas as people.”

He went on to teach a special topic’s course in the spring of 1997 for the women’s studies program on Latina writers. The expanding interest in the literature is reflected also in the University’s selection of In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel by Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez as required reading for this fall’s entering freshmen.

Sirias’s push to enlighten students began with a personal identity crisis—he felt strong ties to both the American world of his birthright and the Latino world of his ancestry. Living in both worlds only confused matters more, he recalls.

“L. A. was my home, but I moved to Nicaragua at age eleven because my father had a business opportunity there. After living in the city of Granada for a few years, I identified with that culture, I blended in. But then I returned to the United States for my undergraduate degree—identifying once again with the Anglo culture—and when I returned to Nicaragua for a year it wasn’t the same peaceful place I remembered, not the same place I had left.”

Suddenly a stranger in a strange land, Sirias felt more American with his Latino friends and more Latino with his American friends. “Like Thomas Wolfe, I found that I wanted to go home, but I didn’t even know where home was, much less how to get there.”

An invitation to sit in on a Chicano/Chicana literature class in his final year of doctoral studies at the University of Arizona helped resolve his nagging confusion.

He was studying Don Quixote de la Mancha and didn’t think much of Latino and Latina literature because he couldn’t identify initially with the writers or their concerns. But that course and subsequent reading of novels by Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Arias, Abraham Rodriguez, Cristina Garcia, and Oscar Hijuelos, awakened him.

“Something just clicked. I realized that these voices, these writers of Latino descent publishing in English, were speaking of people like me, that we had a shared childhood, that their themes—loss of and yearning for home, search for identity—were my themes, that they were speaking to my cultural background, articulating my deepest feelings, opening my eyes to my evolving identity as I was redefining myself and my life experiences.”

Sirias continues to redefine himself through research. Recently, he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Houston to participate in their Recovery of the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project.

The grant also enables him to prepare a scholarly edition of Salomon de la Selva’s Tropical Town and Other Poems, a rare poetry collection regarded as the first volume of poetry published by a Latin American author in English. Only seven copies of the book are believed to still exist.

As for the future, Sirias wants to reach the “hundred or so” Hispanic-American students who currently attend Appalachian. A minority literature curriculum will also help to attract others.

“The voices in Latino and Latina literature are their voices. These students deserve the opportunity to discover others who, like them, have treaded the same waters of discovering what it means to be a Hispanic-American,” he says.

Appalachian Today, Fall 1997