TEACHER FEATURE: MARÍA JOSÉ LUJÁN, DIVERSIFYING OUR CAMPUS

PR-1

by ALEXANDRA ESPINAL ’16

Disclaimer: This interview has been translated from Spanish to English

“I don’t know the exact percentage, but there is a big number of students who speak Spanish on this campus,” said María José Luján, Chair of the Department of Spanish. She’s right. Manhattanville’s campus is exceptionally diverse and the Hispanic and Latino culture is very well represented. This is one of the reasons why Professor Luján, who has been teaching at Manhattanville since 1997, decided to start Tinta Extinta, a literary magazine that will be completely in Spanish.

“One of my students had this idea about a year ago and I thought it was great, but we hadn’t been able to carry it out until now,” said Luján. “There are some really creative students in the Spanish classes here. We have Graffiti for creative writing in English, so I think we should have a Spanish counterpart.” 

While Tinta Extinta will feature works written in Spanish, it aims to be an inclusive and global enterprise. “We’ve asked everyone who wishes to submit to the magazine to write a short summary of their work in English because if we remain too local then there is no room for expansion. We’ve also invited students from other universities to participate, not just from the United States but from around the world as well. We actually got a submission from a student in Colombia,” said Luján.

Luján is no stranger to multiple tongues; she has been working with different languages since her college days in the University of Murcia in Spain, where she studied philosophy and literature in the field of Romanic Philology, focusing on French and Spanish. “I have attended bilingual schools since I was four years old. I spoke French perfectly; it’s a language that fascinates me. Also, everyone in Spain spoke French at that time,” said Luján. She did her thesis on medieval French, which she was capable of translating at that time. She went on to do her doctor’s degree on the erotic Spanish novel.

“I’m really interested in erotic literature written by women, especially women in Spain. At first I concentrated in literature written by women in Central America and Spain, but now I’ve expanded to Latin America. Right now I’m interested in women who write in Spanish in New York City,” said Luján, who is currently working on an anthology dedicated to this subject.

Even though she’s been living in the states for almost two decades, the transition from Spanish to English was not one that Luján made willingly. “I didn’t decide to come here; my husband was working in Bogotá, Colombia and was transferred to the United States. I didn’t want to come because, first of all, I didn’t speak English and it’s very hard to learn a language after a certain age. Second of all, my daughter was only a month old at the time and she was my priority,” said Luján. However, she’s warmed up to living in the United States. “Now, I don’t want to leave,” she says. “I would go to Spain to retire, but right now I wouldn’t leave because I believe that this is a really practical country. Even though they care a lot about appearances, there are a lot of other values that they have here that I like and I’m comfortable with. In Spain, you won’t see a woman wearing a leather coat with sports shoes. In New York you can. Nobody messes with you here and nobody says anything. I like living that way.”

Luján came to Manhattanville after a colleague at SUNY Purchase, where she was teaching at the time, mentioned that they were looking for professors to teach Spanish for beginners here. One of her priorities as a professor here is to make sure her students have intellectual curiosity. “This is a phrase that I repeat in class every day. My biggest achievement will be when my students have intellectual curiosity,” she said.

As a professor, Luján is pretty laid back. The reason for this, she says, is that she’s had more than a couple bad teachers. “I had good professors and I had bad professors. When I had good professors I normally enjoyed the classes, but when I had bad professors I always thought that students didn’t have to put up with that. I would think that if I were a professor I would change some things.” Having bad teachers, she says, is what ultimately led her to become a professor.

Being a literature professor, Luján has a broad range of knowledge on books and writers. She enjoys realist novels, and some of her favorite authors include Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende (but mostly her early work), Ana María Matute, among others. If she could chat with one deceased writer, she said she’d pick Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. “I would ask him why he wrote Don Quixote and why the book, especially the second part, is riddled with short stories that all connect at some point. How was he able to criticize the Spanish society of that time through these short stories? To me, it’s amazing.”