7 minute read

Home is where the heart is

A look into the lives of professors Enrique Álvarez and Michael Leeser

The study abroad program in Valencia offers students and faculty members the opportunity to create a home away from home. With the help of Florida State University’s International Programs, they are able to establish temporary roots in a new culture and environment.

Enrique Álvarez and Michael Leeser are associate professors of Spanish at FSU, where they have taught for the past 11 years. Since 2012, they both have been establishing their own sense of place in Valencia when teaching during various academic sessions. They also have been partners for almost 20 years.

Their home environment in Tallahassee is well established, but they appreciate being able to create a second, comfortable home in Valencia.

I love being in a place where we can walk everywhere, and you walk out of your building and are confronted with life,

Leeser says.

Both feel that the culture and structure of Valencia’s program creates a unique learning environment for students as well as for themselves.

“In the summer sessions, we establish a very specific kind of relationship with our students that you don’t get in Tallahassee,” Álvarez says.

Álvarez’s academic focus in Tallahassee is Spanish literature and cultural studies, in addition to studies in gender with a focus on masculinity, and he teaches Spanish Reading and Conversation in Valencia. Leeser focuses on second-language acquisition and bilingualism in Tallahassee, and he teaches Studies in Hispanic Languages in Valencia.

They met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while earning their Ph.D.s; Álvarez was in his second year and Leeser in his first.

“We found each other as life companions; our life together has been a fantastic accomplishment of commitments,” Álvarez says.

The two have found a pleasing balance between work and home life.

They have the same colleagues but teach different types of classes for FSU’s Modern Languages and Linguistics Department. They also enjoy their time together, especially traveling, but have their own personal interests they like to take on. Leeser likes competitive sports, for example, while Álvarez enjoys music shows.

“We have lots of things in common,” Álvarez says, “and we agree to disagree sometimes, but we get along together very well.”

Both are from small towns—Álvarez is from Navia, Spain, which is located in the Principality of Asturias region, and Leeser is from Macungie, Pennsylvania, which is about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Álvarez moved to England to complete his B.A. at London University, studying Spanish and Latin American studies. He then moved to the United States in 1997 and received his Ph.D. in 20th-century Spanish literature and cultural studies.

Leeser completed his B.A. at Wheaton College in Illinois and his M.A at Middlebury College in Vermont. He received his Ph.D. in Hispanic linguistics and acquisitions.

“We are so happy to have them coming to teach from the Spanish program of FSU’s Modern Languages and Linguistics department to the Valencia study center,” says FSU Program Director Ignacio Messana.

They bring all the knowledge and all the coordination with the ‘home campus’ for us, plus all the academics, good teaching, and experience. And, of course, all the fun. I am proud to say that for me, they are good faculty, and above that, good friends.

Students taking classes with the professors enjoy the knowledge they bring to the program. Karen Orellana, who took Leeser´s 2015 course in Valencia, admits not knowing much about her temporary new home before arriving in the country.

“Coming to Spain I didn’t know about the culture, and I have asked him so many questions and he has answered all of them without hesitation,” she says.

Alvarez (left) and Leeser (right) in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences.

Annie Strickland, a student who took Álvarez’s summer 2015 course, says he is “a cool guy and has a lot of experience in the field.”

Álvarez and Leeser agree that the most rewarding part of their Valencia experience is being able to watch their students grow. They teach students beyond the classroom and use the local community to help their students grow as Spanish-speaking students, and say they enjoy hearing their students become excited about the material they are learning.

“The student gaining enthusiasm and wanting to explore the culture is the best reward as a teacher,” Leeser says.

“To begin with, Enrique and Michael are good friends—they happily share the places and people that they have come to know in the past years teaching here,” Robles says. “They provide a bi-cultural experience by having a foot in Florida and one in Spain. Both are no nonsense. And funny.”

The two express their appreciation to be part of FSU’s community, especially for the support they receive with their partnership.

“I love Florida State for many, many, many reasons—I can’t begin to name all of them,” Álvarez says, “but the way they have been since day one, the administrators, and academics, and colleagues have been about our relationship by not making an issue about it, it’s been really good.”

American history changed June 26, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Words and messages of support from those close to Álvarez and Leeser boosted the couple’s happiness with the court’s decision, making the day even more memorable for them.

“What struck me the most was emails I got from former students, and family members, and friends that are very supportive,” Leeser says. “That’s what meant the most, getting that support from our straight allies.”

“Straight allies that are happy for you because they love you,” Álvarez adds. “It is an accomplishment for them as well.”

That day was a turning point for Americans, and a lot of people expressed themselves on assorted social media platforms.

Leeser and Alvarez during a visit to Leeser’s hometown in Pennsylvania

“Facebook became some sort of a multicultural, multi-colorful place,” Álvarez says.

While the court’s decision was very recent, Álvarez and Leeser have been talking about the idea of marriage for quite some time.

“It’s part of our responsibility as educators to also educate our fellow citizens in America about what is a right to live by one’s emotional desires, without interfering in others’ (lives),” Álvarez says.

Education is an important concept to Álvarez and Leeser, within their private life and at work. Álvarez wrote his dissertation on queer male poets in Spain and is currently researching problematic construction of masculinity in 20th-century Hispanic culture.

Leeser’s dissertation focused on second language comprehension, and he has published several journal articles on the topic.

One of the classes that Álvarez teaches in Tallahassee is titled Queer Theory.

“Queer studies is a growing field of inquiry in the humanities,” Álvarez says. Originally offered to just graduate students, the class is now open to undergraduates.

Because my students are [activists], and they come to us with questions, and we provide them with answers, and I might not be upfront as an activist but I certainly feel like one,

Álvarez says.

The two are excited to see America enter a time of change, and move toward a positive view of marriage equality. They are pleased that recent events are starting to encourage the view that love is equal for everyone.

“Love is having a simple dinner, and feeling like you are dining at the Ritz,” Álvarez says. “Love is to have a simple omelet with a glass of wine, and that simple omelet and glass of wine taste like the best meal ever. That’s love.”

“And watching ‘Game of Thrones,’” Leeser adds, causing both to laugh in agreement.

Enrique Álvarez´s three favorite Spanish poets

Olvido García Valdés

Born December 20, 1950, Valdés has written poetry, prose, and translations. She has three major stages of writing. The first includes her first three verse collections. The second includes her prose book Caza Nocturna. The third includes two books of poetry that bring a profound awareness of death. In her third stage, her collection titled Y todos estábamos vivos won the National Poetry Prize in 2007. She is currently a professor of literature and Spanish in the Instituto el Greco of Toledo, Spain.

Federico García Lorca

Born June 5, 1898, he was part of the Generation of ’27. His most famous work, the Romancero Gitano, was published in 1928. The ballads highlight the gypsy lifestyle and the trials and tribulations the gypsy people go through. The book brought him fame across Spain and the Hispanic world, and he went on to write many more poems and plays until his death. García Lorca was arrested on August 18, 1936, at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, and he was executed by the National Militia on August 19, 1936.

Jaime Gil de Biedma

Born November 13, 1929, Biedma was a Catalan post-Civil War poet. His earlier poems showed a strong opinion toward Spanish dictatorship, and his first publication, Compañeros, took after the Trotskyist expression for Communist sympathizers. Along with Francisco Brines, he was also famous for helping to reinvigorate homoerotic topics in poetry. Biedma belonged to a group of poets known as the Generation of ’50, individuals who were inspired by social realism after the Spanish Civil War. He died in 1990 from AIDS.