Thurnau professor series: Spanish roots inspire work

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 26, 2014

Spanish Prof. Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola’s accent isn’t immediately evident. The 49-year-old associate chair of the Spanish department, and one of the most recent recipients of an Arthur Thurnau professorship, has lived in the United States for more than half of his life, making him more of a bona fide American than a foreigner.

But his accent becomes discernible after a few minutes of conversation. The same can be said of his Spanish roots. Herrero-Olaizola’s heritage has been a defining influence on his coursework and research throughout his academic career.

Herrero-Olaizola was born in Bilbao, Spain, a city in the Northern Basque country. He had five siblings and was the youngest of the sons. In Spain, he attended a Catholic school for his primary education. Though he does not quite know where he made this realization, Herrero-Olaizola always knew he wanted to be a teacher.

“One time, maybe when I was in the second or third grade, the teachers asked you to write what you wanted to be when grew up and I believe I wrote I wanted to be a teacher and I believe I wrote a content remark — I said ‘I wanted to be a teacher because I feel that my teachers could be better,’ or something like that,” Herrero-Olaizola said.

Decades later, Herrero-Olaizola received the Arthur F. Thurnau professorship for his excellence in undergraduate teaching at the University. The Thurnau professorship is one of the highest honors available for faculty and recipients are also given $20,000 for classroom innovation.

The professor’s dedication to his studies allowed him entry to the Exchange Student Program Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in England in 1987. There, he met exchange students from all over the world, including the United States. In England, he began to consider coming to the United States and pursuing a career in higher education.

Although he left for the United States at 22, Herrero-Olaizola’s childhood memories from Spain followed him throughout his career. Herrero-Olaizola was a child during the regime of Francisco Franco, a dictator who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975. His rule was characterized by military rigidity and an authoritarian concentration of power. Franco built concentration camps to imprison and do away with enemies and suppressed dissenting views through censorship and coercion.

Herrero-Olaizola said he always felt a “presence of authority” growing up under Franco’s regime in the Basque region close to France. He remembers seeing upheaval on the streets and constantly hearing about bombings, terrorist attacks, kidnapping and other violence through the media.

“In a way you sort of feel a bit, I don’t want to say numbed, but you get used to it because that’s what you’ve always seen,” he said.

The lingering memories of Herrero-Olaizola’s childhood under the Franco regime are evident in the topics he chooses to research. In 2007, he published the book “The Censorship Files: Latin American Writers and Franco’s Spain.” The book investigates censorship during Franco’s authoritative rule and its effect on the Latin American Boom, a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that involved the proliferation of Spanish-language literature.

One book he is currently writing, called “The Colombian Condition: Global Violence as Cultural Commodity,” explores Colombian cultural production and the implications literature manifests about drug cartels and violence’s influence on Colombian culture.

Herrero-Olaizola’s fascination of the violence in Colombia is tied to the memories he has of his childhood in a time of civil unrest.

“When people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re going to Colombia, it’s so dangerous,’ I’m like, well I had the experience of living in that kind of environment,” Herrero-Olaizola said. “So, when I go to Colombia, I can see a difference between what is the day-to-day experience and what you see in the media. They’re just two completely different images.”

Away from the challenges of growing up in a Fascist regime, Herrero-Olaizola found solace through reading. As a child, he read the popular Spanish comic-book series, “Mortadelo y Filemón”, a story following two detectives and their humorous adventures. For him, reading these comics “took him elsewhere.”

When he was 16, he read what he considers the most influential book of his life, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The story depicts multiple generations of a Latin-American family in a fictional Colombian town. The narrative, underlying humor and magical realism genre — where magic elements are mundane and natural, and otherwise normal events are portrayed as supernatural — struck Herrero-Olaizola as unique.

“To me, that was very strange, it was a bit strange to read that and accept that reality that the book proposes, which is a kind of magical reality, you just go along with that like the characters in the book,” Herrero-Olaizola said.

His love of storytelling is reflected in the types of courses he chooses to teach, as he tends to focus on cultural production in Spanish-speaking countries and what the books, films and letters reveal about the nation’s culture. His previous course subjects include Latin American Boom literature, violence depicted in Latin American art, and Spanish film and its themes of displacement or drug culture.

Herrero-Olaizola said he tries to emphasize the effectiveness that narrative can convey the sense of culture.

“I always tell my students that literary training really helps you and provides you with a lot of skills in terms of writing and critical thinking and understanding how texts work and all that,” Herrero-Olaizola said. “That is something that I do emphasize in my classes as well.”

In teaching, Herrero-Olaizola does not believe in using an unchanging pedagogy, but the need to adjust to the dynamic aura each classroom possesses. He listens to student responses to course work and assignments, which vary from class to class, and adjusts his teaching to suit each setting.

“I try to position myself in the body of the student when thinking about the class,” Herrero-Olaizola said. “How it is that a student can be able to understand this film, or how it is that a student is going to be able to read 150 pages of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude?’ ”

LSA senior Amy Yu took two Spanish film classes with Herrero-Olaizola.

“He has so much positive energy and passion for the material, that he was able to get everybody excited about it as well,” Yu said. “The class structure was extremely collaborative and interactive and everybody, no matter how well you spoke Spanish, felt comfortable sharing ideas and talking.”

Herrero-Olaizola’s enthusiasm for teaching transcends the classroom. Spanish Prof. Juli Highfill worked with Herrero-Olaizola extensively on curriculum reform for the Department of Romance Languages and Literature. She lauded the professor’s creativity and receptive teaching style, adding that she would hear students “clamor” to get into his classes.

“It’s the whole package: being a creative teacher, being so engaging and enthusiastic, at the same time extremely efficient and dedicated and knowledgeable in all areas,” Highfill said.

Herrero-Olaizola plans to remain in academia for the rest of his life and to continue researching new themes in Latin American cultural production and create new courses, including a study abroad course in Colombia.