Tell a story, change a life Marta Caminero-Santangelo is professor and chair of English. She received a Kemper Fellowship and a Hall Center Research Fellowship in 2008, and last summer received a Smithsonian Institution Research Fellowship. Much of her work focuses on U.S. Latino/a literature.
compare the validity, the historical and also the emotional “truth,” of different stories. Literature invites us to leave our own skins for a while to try to inhabit and understand the stories of others. As it happens, that is also what it means to be human. — Marta Caminero-Santangelo
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Some years ago, as I was beginning a new research project on U.S. Latino/a literature and recent waves of immigration, I read The Devil’s Highway, by MexicanAmerican writer Luis Alberto Urrea. I wasn’t prepared for the effect the book had on me. A piece of narrative journalism, it tells the true story of 14 men who died in the Arizona desert in 2001, while trying to cross the U.S. – Mexico border illegally. It was an incredible work of literature — but it wasn’t fiction. It had actually happened. Urrea describes, in great detail, the desperation of the men as they realized they were lost, as they ran out of water, as they began to hallucinate. I read the book before going to sleep, and for three nights I dreamed I was dying in the desert. My parents came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1960, one year after Castro’s revolution. As they always take great pride in telling me, they came legally. Not until I was in graduate school did I understand that, in 1960, just about any Cuban who wanted to enter the U.S. could come legally; that was U.S. immigration law at the time. I wondered how my parents would have felt if, wanting to escape Castro and communism, they’d had no opportunity. What if, wanting a better life for themselves and their children, they’d been told they couldn’t come? I tried to imagine it. In 2008, hoping to understand better the stories of those who can’t come legally to the U.S., I went to the Arizona – New Mexico border. I volunteered for one week with a humanitarian group called No More Deaths / No Más Muertes. As we hiked trails where migrants had passed, we found children’s clothes, women’s underwear, baby shoes. Signs of desperation. Many
die each year. What, I wondered — I still wonder — are their stories? What makes people so desperate that they put themselves and their children at risk, attempting to save themselves? The power of literature is that it helps us to imagine the stories of others — stories perhaps so far from our own experience that they seem to us incomprehensible, truly foreign. Literature can create intimacy, empathy, in our increasingly global world. For me, this is also the core of the humanities. The humanities ground us in a complex understanding of what it means to be human: of how we understand our collective histories, of how we create art and tell stories that reflect a sense of who we think we are and who we aspire to be. Sometimes there is more than one story; sometimes stories conflict. National literatures have traditionally been part of the process of shaping a story of the nation. But of course, not all stories fit neatly and tidily within the prevailing national story. Private funding from the Hall Center and the Kemper fellowship has allowed me to develop ways to bring diverse stories to both the classroom and the larger scholarly community. The Hall Center Fellowship allowed me to spend time at the border, learning about political issues and human stories there. I try in turn to plug students into the world beyond the university, with its diversity of stories. And I encourage students to seek study abroad opportunities, Alternative Winter and Spring Breaks, and other learning options that expose them to new experiences and different horizons. One role of the humanities in a major university like KU is to open our minds to the immense variety of stories out there — to the alternative perspectives they present, different ways of understanding the world, different ways of conceiving of “the American people.” We cannot be a major university if we teach only certain stories or histories, ignoring others. Critical thinking involves learning to weigh and
Marta Caminero-Santangelo, professor and chair of English, holds a book that haunted her.