Page 1


t h e


A Publication of UC Irvine School of Humanities • Winter 2010

Latin America’s African roots: A quarter-century of research By Armin Schwegler


n 1985, I ventured for the first time to the Black village of Palenque, located 50 miles inland from the Caribbean seaport of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia (see Map 1). Little did I know then that this would mark the beginning of twenty-five years of spellbinding research into the African origins of Latin America’s Black population. Since then, I have revisited Latin America in pursuit of its African roots on numerous occasions, expanding the search from Colombia to Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba (my recent book Palo Monte is on Cuban Black Magic, a religious tradition brought to the New World from the Kongo). Latin America is not generally perceived as being a “Black” continent, nor as having deep African roots. It may thus come as a surprise that approximately 30% to 40% of Latin Americans are of African descent — compared with just 10% for American Indian populations. For some areas,

Latinos of African descent constitute an even greater proportion of the population. This brings us back to the aforementioned Palenque, the Blackest of Black towns in all of the Americas. Palenqueros, descendants of runaway slaves (“maroons”) who escaped Cartagena around 1650,

Map 1. The Caribbean and Central America, and the approximate location of Palenque in northern Colombia

rarely if ever mixed with outsiders, and the practice continues virtually unabated today. In 1985, I was the first white person to ever live in their isolated village of 4,000 inhabitants. So as not to struggle with my complicated last name (“Schwegler”), Palenqueros called me simply el colorao, literally “the colored man”—a powerful reminder that I was operating in a world where ethnic and other references differ substantially from the established norms I knew at the time. Palenqueros do not just stand out ethnically. They are also unique in that they have managed to preserve a Creole language that scholars call “Palenquero” (locally known as Lengua ‘tongue’). There is reason to believe that Palenquero was once the language of slaves in the greater Cartagena area, and perhaps even the Caribbean at large. As such, it affords researchers an extraordinary window to the past. Studying Lengua and its African origins has been at the

Armin Schwegler (left) and Victor Simarra (whose name literally means “maroon”) in Palenque, November 2008.

center of my research pursuits. Prior to my arrival in the village, Lengua was strictly an oral means of communication, and as such it was heavily stigmatized both in and outside of the Palenque community, where

In 1985, I was the first white person to ever live in their isolated village of 4,000 inhabitants.

the more prestigious Spanish language had ruled for centuries. Not surprisingly, by the 1970s, younger generations had begun to shun Lengua altogether, thereby shifting to Spanish monolingualism. A few adolescents Palenquero male, November 2008 Like many of his age peers, he speaks fluent were, however, Spanish and Palenquero, often alternating keenly interested in betwee the two codes in rapid succession (codemaintaining their switching). ancestral speech, and upon their request, Carlos Patiño Rosselli (a colleague from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá) and I helped them develop a writing system, now widely used in local schools. As can be seen from the following representative Lengua sample, the overwhelming majority of its vocabulary is derived from Spanish (except for the initial African ma ‘the [plural]), all of the words in the sample have Spanish

roots). Yet, fluidly spoken Lengua and Spanish are not mutually intelligible. Sample: Palenquero:

Ma hende ri Palengue


miní ri Áfrika.

Word-for-word: The people of Palenque PAST come from Africa. Translation:

‘Palenqueros came from Africa’.

Research into the African origins of Palenquero began in earnest around 1980. At first, the search for the African roots seemed daunting indeed. The task appeared particularly difficult in part because, as mentioned earlier, the ancestors of this maroon community had escaped from nearby 17th-century Cartagena de Indias, then Latin America’s major slave trade center. As such, it was the “blackest” and most ethnically diverse city in the New World. When viewed against this backdrop of a heavily multilingual and multiethnic Black population, it is easy to understand why researchers, myself included, originally held out little hope of ever determining Palenqueros’ precise ethnic and linguistic African origins. As it turns out, this pessimism was unjustified.

My linguistic and anthropological investigations carried out since 1985 demonstrate that the Palenquero maroons came from a rather restricted area of Central West Africa (see Map 2), and spoke a single African language called “Kikongo” Map 2. (literally “Language Approximate area of Planqueros’ African of theofKongo”). Our Professor German Anke Biendarra homeland, where Kikongo is spoken. The ability to narrow down territory includes portions of northern Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Palenqueros’ African Congo, and the Republic of the Congo. provenance with such precision has come as a true surprise to all, and reinforces the notion that, in some instances, Afro-American slaves managed to establish ethnolinguistic networks that were much tighter than had previously been imagined. Following up on the lead of linguists, the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at the University College London has recently collected DNA samples from mouth-swabs in Palenque as well as among Kikongo speaking populations. It is hoped that this same DNA research will soon clarify further exactly which Kikongo-speaking groups constituted Palenque’s first human stratum, and what conclusions can be drawn from it as regards the wider Black population of the Caribbean. When I first arrived in Colombia, Palenque was a sleepy, seemingly forgotten village with no running water, no electricity, and only very few modern amenities, among which was one television set for the entire village. Social and linguistic stigmatization was such that its local Lengua was being abandoned at an alarming rate, quickly moving it to the brink of existence. Today, that situation has changed dramatically, as young and older Palenqueros now take great pride in speaking their tongue. In addition, the village has become modernized to some extent, making cell phones and even internet connections fairly ubiquitous. There are essentially two reasons for this last minute language revival: on the one hand, scholarly publications brought Palenque to the attention of national and international academic audiences, many of whom considered the “discovery” of this New World “African village” truly sensational. This in turn has prompted a progressively growing stream of academic tourism to Palenque. So great is Palenque’s newfound fame that busloads of school children and teachers now descend on the village almost daily. They do so to witness for themselves the amazing survival of a special tongue, and to partake in local traditions (e.g., music

and dance) that evoke Latin America’s African past. These events have coincided with the growing panColombian movement of negritude (‘Black awareness’), which began in the 1990s and subsequently spread to neighboring nations. In the process, Palenque has become the unofficial mecca and representative of this movement of negritude. In Festival of the drums, Palenque. 2005, UNESCO proclaimed Visited by hundreds of tourists, this annual Palenque as a “Masterpiece festivity highlights local “African” traditions and the use of local Lengua. of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. A close Palenquero friend recently told me: “We Palenqueros have gone from shame to fame in less than a generation. It feels so much better to be Black today!”. Armin Schwegler, professor of Spanish and Portuguese and director of the Global Cultures Program, has researched widely on the history and typology of the major Romance languages as well as the “marginal” speech communities that are of great historical importance to understanding the evolution of American Spanish. His research has led him all over the world, including Colombia, Spain, Highland Ecuador and Cuba.

HUMANITIES INTERNSHIP PROGRAM CELEBRATES TEN YEARS By Rodrigo Lazo, professor of English Since its creation in 1999, the Humanities Internship Program has placed students in yearlong paid internships at local companies throughout Orange County, successfully introducing Humanities majors to a range of career options that call for effective writing and communication skills, distinguishing characteristics of any Humanities scholar. Internship positions have ranged everywhere from learning the inner workings of city government as a public information intern for the City of Irvine to coordinating housing for low income families at a local non-profit housing development firm. The brainchild of Jon Wampler, former chief executive officer of PacifiCare, and Robert Moeller, professor of History, the program’s original goal was to show students that they can utilize Humanities degrees in almost any field. “Many

“I’ve seen so many students have an ‘Aha!’ moment when they realize, through their internship, that their education in the Humanities has true value in the business world...” Humanities students assume that after completing their BA their options are limited to becoming lawyers and educators,” says Moeller. Admittedly, when the program first started it was difficult to convince employers and students to participate. However, as word spread about the contribuThomas Hall, human resources tions students made associate at Jamboree Housing and former HIP intern, works with Emily to various firms “the Hsiao, HIP intern for 2009-2010. employers needed no convincing.” Neither, it seems, did the students. Numerous interns have done such great work that they’ve been invited back for a second year with a company and others have been offered full-time jobs after graduation. Still others have entered and gained employment in fields such as real estate, tourism, financial consulting and other areas as a direct result of their internship. As one former intern notes, “I have gained immense knowledge, both in regards to the working world and my own aspirations. I could not have asked for a more encouraging first step.” Wampler, himself a history graduate from Indiana University, wanted students to see that the critical thinking and effective communication skills learned in the Humanities transfer seamlessly to the private sector. “I’ve seen so many students have an ‘Aha!’ moment when they realize, through their internship, that their education in the Humanities has true value in the business world,” says Wampler. “Often there is an ‘Aha!’ moment for the business owners as well who are sometimes seeing for the first time the skills a Humanities intern can bring to the table.” Program Coordinator Raschel Greenberg explains that the success of the program rests on the careful screening of applicants. “We work closely with employers to be sure we are sending intern candidates that meet their needs,” Greenberg says. That means every year student applicants must complete an application that includes an academic transcript, a writing sample, and a statement

explaining what they hope to gain from the program. Students are then interviewed by a faculty committee, and those who make the cut are matched with specific internships. The competition among students ensures that the most qualified are placed in the positions and the screening process means that students arrive ready to work in a professional setting. “Employers have come to count on us sending them well prepared interns,” Greenberg says. The internship program usually places between 12 and 20 students annually but this past year several companies cut back on their employees and the number of internships sank to five. Just as the nation has moved into an economic recession, the number of internships

From left to right: 2009-2010 HIP interns Bojana Sandic and Melanie Glass, HIP Program Coordinator Raschel Greenberg, Professor Rodrigo Lazo, and HIP interns Emily Hsiao, Kellen Heigle and Katherine Vu, and Hector Quezada (not pictured).

available to students has plummeted. Several companies that employed interns for many years were unable to hire students in 2009. Not resigned to give up after 10 years, the program is currently looking for new companies to participate and hopes to increase the number of employers in 2010. A new group of students will apply for the program in the spring and begin their internships in June. Despite the current economic climate, the program strives to continue offering students the opportunity to experience the wide array of professional opportunities available to them as well as serve the local business community by providing top level interns. For more information about the Humanities Internship Program visit or contact Raschel Greenberg, program coordinator, at (949) 8241392 or

A Glimpse of Sylvia Reines


By Alisa Reines Cowden - September 2007

“Literature is literature and we should read it because it is literature, not because it is handmaiden to anything else,” writes Azar Nafsi, author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. Humanistic inquiry, whether reveling in the pleasures of reading or meeting the challenge of philosophical discourse, opens up new vistas of knowing and understanding. Or as School of Humanities alum, Randall Baumberger ‘88, president of Paramount Studio Group, bluntly stated: “With humanities, you can do anything.” Unfortunately, undergraduates have drifted away from the humanities. According to a 2009 article in The American Scholar, from 1970 to 2004, the number of history majors dropped from 18 percent of all majors to 11 percent; English majors dove from almost 8 percent to 4 percent; and those in languages and literatures other than English declined from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent. The author of the article, William Chace, former president of Wesleyan and Emory, credits this decline, in part, to the swelling enrollment of students in public universities rather than in private colleges. He argues that the mission of the publics tend toward technical, applied, and scientific fields and that their students tend to gravitate toward these majors. While not immune to these trends, our school continues to attract over 2,200 majors across sixteen departments and programs. Indeed, literary journalism has grown dramatically from only 7 majors six years ago to almost 300 today. As one of the leading schools of Humanities, public or private, we can take pride in providing the best of a liberal arts education within a premier research university. How do we gauge excellence? The global reputation of our faculty is one measure. According to the latest U.S. News and World Report, UCI is number one in critical theory and for all departments and programs included in the rankings, none fell below 42, a remarkable achievement. For me, I read excellence everyday in the

written comments of teaching evaluations. The overwhelming majority of my humanities colleagues are engaged educators— knowledgeable, passionate, and accessible. Those who teach large survey classes that fulfill general education requirements are our best ambassadors for the intrinsic values of the humanities. A first year student in one of professor Amy Powell’s art history classes revealed: “I am a public health major and I would never have dreamed of enjoying art history, but I absolutely loved this class.” After taking a course with philosophy professor Marcello Oreste Fiocco, one engineering major declared that philosophy was just as challenging, if not more so, than engineering. Indeed, in reviewing the profiles of colleagues eligible for merit or promotion, I am humbled by their talents as scholars and as educators. I also appreciate our alumni and friends who have given so generously to the school over the past year. Individual gifts totaling almost $800,000 allow more students to begin or continue their studies of the humanities with scholarships and fellowships. Although financial challenges persist, I am buoyed by our collective dedication to students as we convey the power of the visual image and the written word.

Vicki L. Ruiz, Dean

Visit the School of Humanities Blog at for weekly updates highlighting news, events, faculty, students, and general happenings in the school.

BOOKSHELF In China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history and one of the Humanities’ resident China experts, provides cogent answers to the most urgent questions regarding China’s meteoric rise from an impoverished, repressive state into an economic and political powerhouse. Wasserstrom reveals the similarities between China today and the United States of the 19th century and he provides guidance on the ways we can expect China to act in the future. The Unnamed is the second novel from Joshua Ferris (Programs in Writing, fiction 2005). Ferris tells the story of attorney Tim Farnsworth whose life of privilege and marriage are strained to the breaking point as the result of a strange and mysterious illness, one that compels him to walk to the point of exhaustion. Writing from three distinct and equally moving perspectives, author Michael Jaime-Becerra (Programs in Writing, fiction, 2001) tells a story about the painful balance between love and responsibility. An intimate and poignant first novel, This Time Tomorrow casts a new light on Southern California’s working class and its struggles for happiness.

FACULTY NOTES Three Loved Things: Teaching, Writing, & Learning An Interview with Professor of English Michael Ryan By Megan Haugh, fourth-year English major Megan Haugh: If I’m not mistaken, 2010 will be your 20th year of teaching at UCI. What has kept you here so long? Michael Ryan: This is the best job I know of. My colleagues have been unremittingly Michael Ryan with his daughter. generous-- especially Jim McMichael, the other poet on the permanent faculty. And my students have been great and keep getting even better. Haugh: UCI’s MFA Program has always been ranked among the top graduate writers programs in the country. What qualities about the program would you say contributed to such a high ranking? Ryan: All MFA students receive the same financial support during their three years in the program, so the prevailing atmosphere is communal not competitive. It’s a crucial feature, and attracts the kind of student we want to teach. Good students attract good faculty which attracts good students and so on, in a feedback loop. With 500 plus applications for 10-12 spots, we can be extremely selective. Ron Carlson, Michelle Latiolais, and Jim McMichael are all superb teachers, and the four of us together have something like 140 years teaching experience. Haugh: When you say that your students are getting better, do you mean that you’ve seen them grow as writers? Or do you mean that students now seem to be stronger writers in general than students you’ve had in the past?

Ryan: Both a gift and the ability to develop it are required to be a really good writer. The gift can’t be taught, but how to develop it can. I try to see what’s distinctive about each poet’s work and describe it back to him or her. And write prescriptions for what to read and how. Writerly reading-- reading for usage, as a practitioner not a critic--is a learned skill that seems to make everyone’s work better. You can learn how to take a poem you love and see how it’s made. If you practice this, it will enter your own writing automatically. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. It’s also a spiritual practice to learn how to pay close attention to what you love. Haugh: In what ways do you feel that your own work has changed since you began teaching at UCI? Ryan: I don’t know how or if it has. I’ve finished four books while teaching here, and there are at least three more books (glacially) in the works. Writing a book changes you, or ought to-- it ought to matter enough to change you. I encourage my students to write what they can while they can. What you can write now will be very different from what you can write later, for better and for worse. And what happens to you in life, good and bad, changes what you can write whether you want it to or not. I’ve always wanted my writing to be about the reader not the writer-- or not only the writer. That’s where all the art comes in. That’s what I try to teach.

Bridging the Cultural Divide: An Interview with Associate Professor of Asian American Studies Linda Vo By Daniel Yu, fourth-year English major Professor Linda Vo has been teaching at UCI since 2000 and is currently chair of the Department of Asian American Studies. Her interest in the field stems from her unique experiences as a child, traveling from country to country as her father pursued a career with the U.S. State Department. Born in Vietnam, Vo lived in cities all across Asia and Europe, including Tokyo, New Delhi, Jakarta and Brussels. In each of these places she stayed for one or two years, finally settling down in southern

California as a high school student. In her research, Professor Vo is particularly interested in the development of immigrant communities and how Asian Americans make investments in their local institutions. She studies the cultural differences between first-generation immigrants, second-generation Linda Vo immigrants, and what is known as the “1.5 generation” of immigrants and how each demographic has a different approach to ideas of home and national identity. Her current projects include a new book about cross-racial relations in which she explores antagonistic competition among racial cliques as well as the movements that have allowed for productive coalitions between groups such as Asian-Americans and Latinos. Through her experiences at UCI, Vo has seen the “great diversity in [her own] backyard”. She speaks of the vibrant, ethnically diverse population on campus, one that is always shifting. “Within the larger Asian community,” Vo notes, “there are many smaller communities, each with its own distinct culture.” Vo makes it a point to teach introductory courses as well as more advanced classes in her department. She enjoys the opportunity to connect with students and offer them guidance in what can otherwise be an impersonal academic setting, encouraging students to involve themselves in community service projects such as youth programs, museums and health care events. She is very involved in community service herself as a board member of numerous organizations, including the Vietnamese International Film Festival, a week-long fair that promotes the work of Vietnamese film-makers. Also a strong advocate of the arts, Vo believes it to be a powerful medium for social change, noting that “the freedom of expression younger generations enjoy is the fruit of a cultural and political renaissance in immigrant communities.” If you’re an undergraduate in the School of Humanities interested in interviewing a faculty member for publication in the next issue of Between the Lines, please contact Kristie Williams at for more information.

EVENTS Dates, times and locations subject to change. Please visit for up-to-date information about Humanities events. Unless otherwise noted, all events are free and open to the public.

FEBRUARY Country Driving: Peter Hessler in Conversation With Kenneth L. Pomeranz Tuesday, February 16, 2010 – 11 a.m. Humanities Gateway 1030, UC Irvine Peter Hessler is author of River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving as well as a regular contributor to the The New Yorker. Kenneth L. Pomeranz is UCI Chancellor’s Professor of History and co-founder of The China Beat blog. Presented by the Humanities Collective, Center for Asian Studies, Department of History and The China Beat. E-mail for more information. Book Signing and Conversation With Angella Nazarian Thursday, February 18, 2010 – 4 p.m. Humanities Instructional Building 135, UC Irvine Angella Nazarian will discuss her book, Life as a Visitor, which chronicles her life in America after fleeing Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Presented by the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture. Visit for more information. Speak, Write, Paint: Colonial Scripts and Indigenous Literacies in Latin America and Beyond Friday, February 19, 2010, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Humanities Gateway 1010, UC Irvine Symposium explores what literacy meant to indigenous people, how writing was deployed, and what visual forms stimulated in their audiences. Presented by the Group for the Study of Early Cultures. Visit for more information. Black Writers Series Reading and Book Signing With Jericho Brown Wednesday, February 24 , 2010 - 6 p.m. Humanities Gateway 1010, UC Irvine Poet Jericho Brown’s 2009 book of poems, Please, won the 2009 American Book Award. Presented by the International Center for Writing and Translation & the Program in African American Studies. E-mail for more information.

MARCH An Afternoon With Architect and Urbanist Teddy Cruz Friday, March 5, 2010 – 1 p.m Humanities Gateway 1030, UC Irvine Teddy Cruz is professor of architecture and urban studies at UC San Diego and principal architect of estudio teddy cruz. Email for more information.

A Future for Armenian Studies at UC Irvine When Sylvie and Garo Tertzakian adopt a cause, they embrace it wholeheartedly. Fortunately for the School of Humanities, they’re currently passionate about the creation of Armenian studies at UC Irvine. After conversations with Touraj Daryaee, Howard C. Baskerville professor of history, about students expressing interest in ancient and modern Armenian history, Sylvie decided to take action. In 2007, she and Garo recruited support from fellow Armenian community members and succeeded in raising funds for the history department to offer two courses in Armenian history during the 2008-09 academic year. The courses were immensely popular among both Humanities and nonHumanities majors. Professor Levon Marashlian, who taught the spring offering in modern Armenian history, noted that “with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Armenia became an independent country and has attracted considerable media attention because of its strategic location at the juncture between Russia, Turkey and Iran – countries that are obviously important for U.S. policy.” Not content with a one-time offering of courses, the Tertzakians hope to continue the tradition of raising support for Armenian studies. This past December, they hosted Armenian community leaders at their home.

The group which gathered not only pledged support for 2010 courses in Armenian history but also adopted the long-term goal of endowing a chair in Armenian Studies. Sylvie, a former adjunct professor at Chapman University and Garo, a renowned specialist in urology, have fostered their commitment to education over the years as chairs of the UCLA Parents Fund and as community advisors to UC Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. Sylvie Tertzakian addresses supporters of Armenian

Studies at her home. “We intend to push forward with our efforts and raise enough money until the day comes when we can say, with pride, that we have an Armenian Studies Chair at UCI,” said Garo, who was recently awarded the “Mkhitar Heratsi” Medal of Honor by Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian. Awarded to health professionals for their significant contributions to the advancement of healthcare in Armenia, Dr. Tertzakian is the first physician of Armenian descent residing outside of the country to receive this prestigious award.

With the Tertzakians’ commitment and enthusiasm, Armenian studies might soon have a permanent presence in the Humanities.

For more information about Armenian studies please contact Carolyn Canning-White, director of development at (949) 824-8494 or

Between the Lines is published quarterly by the UC Irvine School of Humanities Office of Development and Alumni Relations Humanities Gateway Building, Irvine, CA 92697-3376 Contact Kristie Williams at 949.824.1342 or to be added to the mailing list or to update your e-mail address.

Between the Lines - Winter 2010  

Between the Lines Newsletter for the School of Humanities

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you