Professor Narváez shares life story through Melby Lecture

On Monday, Oct. 21, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies León Narváez spoke to members of the St. Olaf community about his life’s work in a lecture entitled “My Story: Living the Liberal Arts in a Bicultural Context.” The talk, part of the 31st annual Carl A. Mellby Lecture Series, focused on Narváez’s experiences as a reader, writer, learner, teacher, interpreter, father and community member.

To begin his lecture, Narváez said that his bicultural lifestyle is “not the only way of living the good life, but it is my way.” He spoke of a bilingual and multicultural childhood, in which he spent the first nine years of his education at nine different schools throughout North, Central and South America. Ultimately, he said, he received half of his education in Minnesota and the other half in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico and Columbia.

Narváez, who was born in Minnesota to a Puerto Rican father and a Minnesotan mother, recalled times in which words did not directly translate between English and Spanish and idioms were lost on him – or more often on those around him.

“It was an early introduction to the fluidity and complexity of language,” he said. “I was taught at times in Spanish and at times in English, sometimes in public schools and sometimes in private schools.” Narváez went on to say that attending so many schools also gave him an early introduction to the intricacies of teaching.

Narváez himself is a lifelong teacher. After graduating from high school in Colombia, he taught at Lago Del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village at Concordia Language Villages. He began teaching Spanish at St. Olaf at the age of 23, and he has also taught at Bethel University, Carleton College, the University of Nebraska-Kearney, the University of St. Thomas and Associated Colleges of the Midwest summer programs. Narváez has taught Spanish, English as a second language, linguistics and political science. He has also taught future foreign language educators.

“To be an outstanding teacher of Spanish – or any other language – requires a great deal of planning,” Narváez said.

He pointed out that often in primary and secondary education, “those doing the hiring do not speak the language,” and that bilingual education is much more than simply translation. Every language, he said, comes with a different set of cultural realities. Narváez discussed cultural differences as reflected in language, names and nicknames. He also discussed his role as a bilingual, bicultural father.

“My greatest test as a teacher did not take place in any of the places I have taught class,” Narváez said.

Rather, it was moving his Minnesota-born children to Costa Rica for a period of time and seeing whether they could meet the strict academic standards in a Spanish-speaking environment. They did. In addition to his work as a bilingual educator and father, Narváez has also spent some time working as an interpreter.

“People underestimate how difficult it is,” he said of his work as an interpreter, noting that it is a challenge and a responsibility not simply to translate word for word, but to creatively interpret meaning in a different language.

Narváez told stories of teaching at a university in Nebraska where “some people thought a democrat was some kind of communist,” of trying to translate the speech of a man who kept forgetting to speak into the microphone and of his parents who, according to family legend, “had approximately only 75 dollars and a typewriter” when they married.

While Narváez’s anecdotes frequently elicited laughter – and even a few tears – from audience members, the most touching moment of the lecture was unscripted. Narváez used a slideshow with a few words, phrases and images related to the talk, and once clicked to the wrong photo.

“Whoops! Lo siento,” he said. In that moment, the audience got a real glimpse of the bilingual, bicultural context in which Narváez lives his life.

Narváez closed his lecture with a heartfelt thanks to the parents that raised him to live biculturally and to the students, colleagues and other community members at the college where, he said, “somebody like me can feel very much at home.”