FEATURE — Spring 2010

Mabel Moraña, the William H. Gass Professor in Arts & Sciences (Photo: David Kilper)

Focus on Latin America Expands

Professor Mabel Moraña’s research and teaching add groundbreaking contributions to the development of postcolonial perspectives on Latin American society and culture.

By Gretchen Lee

For Mabel Moraña, the William H. Gass Professor in Arts & Sciences, violence is not just an act or series of events but a language that can be understood through its expression in literature and the arts, and by its impact on history and culture. “Violence always tries to say something using an encoded and symbolic language, usually with very perverse means or through strategy that we cannot agree with and have to condemn,” Moraña explains. “It is a truly interdisciplinary topic.”

Highly regarded as a scholar of Latin American colonial and contemporary literature and culture, Moraña’s current book project analyzes the language of violence in Latin America. In it, she uses literary works and visual representations for understanding the role of violence in society—a topic she also explored with Washington University graduate students and undergraduates in a course she taught in spring 2009.

Moraña serves as director of the Latin American Studies program. She also is a professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and in International and Area Studies, all in Arts & Sciences. She created and directs Washington University’s Summer Institutes in Quito, Ecuador, and Puebla, Mexico—six-week programs that offer Spanish-language immersion experiences for 15 to 25 students each year.

James V. Wertsch, the Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts & Sciences and director of the International and Area Studies program, credits Moraña with rejuvenating and re-energizing Latin American studies. “She is a force of nature,” he says. “She merges a well-deserved high-profile research status with a personal enthusiasm for students around lecture issues—it is a powerful combination.”

During the four years she’s been teaching at the University, Moraña has never taught the same course more than once. Instead she prefers to create new curricula each time to connect research interests with pedagogical projects and intellectual debates that are current in her field of study.

As director of Latin American Studies, Professor Moraña collaborates with other faculty, including Ignacio Sanchez Prado (left), assistant professor of Spanish, on publications and study abroad programs. (Sanchez Prado is a former student of Moraña’s at the University of Pittsburgh.) (Photo: David Kilper)

“I love teaching, at all levels,” she says. “It is, in a way, like going to the lab, if you are a scientist. It’s where you put your ideas to work—trying to see if they function or if they need refinement or to be changed. Students bring to class different experiences of the world, and they challenge your ideas and theories in ways that other scholars cannot.”

Moraña is also a prolific researcher, having written, co-authored, or edited nearly 30 books and contributed more than 60 articles to academic journals. She is frequently invited to deliver lectures and papers, having visited more than 50 educational institutions and organizations worldwide. Outside the University, she has served for 10 years as director of publications for Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, an organization that produced under her coordination the quarterly Revista Iberoamericana along with five series of books on Latin American literary and cultural studies.

“Professor Moraña is held in high esteem worldwide for her original re-readings of canonical texts of Latin American literature—from the colonial period through the 21st century—and for her groundbreaking contributions to the development of postcolonial perspectives on Latin America,” says Elzbieta Sklodowska, the Randolph Family Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. “Professor Moraña’s leadership and scholarly activities have played a pivotal role in making Latin America a significant presence on our campus.”

“Professor Moraña’s leadership and scholarly activities have played a pivotal role in making Latin America a significant presence on our campus,” says Elzbieta Sklodowska, the Randolph Family Professor of Spanish.

A bold start
Moraña recalls herself as a lively student: “very consistently rebellious from high school to the university,” she says, laughing. “I always knew I wanted to study literature and philosophy and very stubbornly continued on that path. I was very passionate and interested in the political side of culture—and I liked to argue a lot with my professors.”

She began her academic career in Montevideo, Uruguay, the city of her birth, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She then earned a graduate degree in literature in 1973 followed by a second graduate degree in philosophy in 1975. After a series of political changes in Uruguay that led to the military seizing power in 1975, the outspoken Moraña found herself forced out of work as a teacher. She decided to emigrate with her husband and her young daughter, Rosalia, to Caracas, Venezuela, where she studied for a master’s degree in philosophy at Universidad Simón Bolívar and began working at the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos, research institute.

In Uruguay, she’d focused her attention on European literature, and her first book analyzed Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But as an expatriate in close contact with Latin American scholars who were also in exile, Moraña’s work shifted. She found herself working collaboratively on projects that focused on Latin American cultures, and the cultural connections between politics, literature, aesthetics, and ethics.

Expansive interests
Mabel Moraña is the inaugural recipient of the William H. Gass Professorship in Arts & Sciences, named for one of the most critically acclaimed American writers of fiction and critical prose today. (Gass is now the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Washington University.) Moraña’s research, both past and present, spans an expansive range: baroque/neo-baroque literature, gender and ideology in Latin America, the so-called “peripheral modernity,” postcolonialism, identity and violence, and national and post-national cultures. Serving as director of Latin American Studies, Moraña is building visibility for and depth in the program through her expertise and energy.

“Scholars grappled with understanding Latin America, and authoritarian regimes, in the late 1970s and the 1980s. We explored historical situations, cultural problems, and social inequalities. Academics from different countries and from different disciplines provided fruitful dialogue and insight,” she recalls. “I started to travel a lot and to establish connections with intellectuals and scholars in other countries—in Latin America and in Europe, too, which furthered my perspectives and understanding.”

A major move
Shortly after her second daughter, Juliana, was born, Moraña received an invitation to study for a doctorate at the University of Minnesota.

Over the years, family always loomed large in Moraña’s life story. She cites her father, Juan José Moraña, among those who have had the greatest influence on her career. “My father was a blue-collar worker in Uruguay and had very limited formal instruction, but he was an incredible man,” Moraña says. “A self-educated man, he read absolutely everything and could discuss topics of literature with absolutely anybody. He suggested topics that I pursued, for instance, in my doctoral dissertation. He was a wise man, although he only completed four or five years of elementary school.”

Now grown up, Moraña’s younger daughter, Juliana, is a psychologist and social worker who lives nearby with her husband and their daughters, ages 4 and 2. Moraña’s older daughter, Rosalia, is a conceptual artist living in San Francisco and New York. “She does installations and printmaking, and in many cases topics we are exploring coincide,” Moraña says. “For instance, she worked a lot on collective memory and produced a lot of pieces on that topic, and I worked on those issues as well, from a theoretical prospective.”

Creating a dialogue
It was Rosalia who suggested the name for the conference on Latin American cultural studies that Moraña organizes at the University: “South by Midwest.”

Moraña organized the first of the “South by Midwest” conferences in 2006, successfully importing to Washington University a model that she had previously implemented at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was chair of the Hispanic languages and literatures department.

For the second “South by Midwest” conference, held in 2008, she teamed with Bret D. Gustafson, assistant professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences. The two are working together again to coordinate a third conference, to take place at Washington University in spring 2011.

The first “South by Midwest” conference dealt with issues of social change in Latin America. The second theme was “Rethinking Intellectuals in Latin America.” By targeting polemic issues at the center of academic and ideological debate in the Latin American field of study, these conferences have attracted the attention of many scholars in the United States and abroad, and have helped to bring visibility to the University’s Latin American Studies program.

With the conferences and throughout her life, Moraña’s work has offered a meaningful reflection of the themes that have shaped Latin American culture and, to some degree, her own life.

“These topics are very touchy and interesting, and they are crucial for the understanding of both national cultures and transnational relations,” she says. “It’s important to bring scholars together from different countries and open up discussions at Washington University, an institution that supports original, cutting-edge research in my field of study.”

Gretchen Lee, AB ’86, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.