Winter 2016 Bulletin

Spanish in the World

Rolena Adorno

When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences answered a bipartisan request from the United States Congress to assess the state of the humanities and social sciences, the Academy produced a major report titled The Heart of the Matter. To meet the goal to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world,”1 it recommended the promotion of language learning at all educational levels. The Academy project also resulted in a film on the role of the humanities and social sciences in American life. In seven brief minutes, each member of the star-studded cast of “The Heart of the Matter” ruminates briefly on the humanities, what they mean, and where we would be without them. The report and the film are available online: if the report is meant for our deans, the film merits viewing in our classrooms.

In response to the Academy’s promotion of language learning, and as a lifelong student and scholar of Hispanic literatures and cultures (though not by virtue of ethnic heritage), I offer an abbreviated version of the remarks I made at the 130th Modern Language Association Annual Convention on January 10, 20152:

When the existence of this Western Hemisphere was first announced to Europe, it was done in Spanish. Quickly translated into Latin and hurriedly published, Christopher Columbus’s 1493 “Letter of Discovery,” as it has been called, was as much a world event as the remarkable discoveries it described and the promises it made to its readers at the Castilian royal court. Soon afterward, Spanish accounts of exploration and conquest were translated into Italian, English, French, German, and Dutch, as if to answer the question: “What are those people doing over there?” This hunger for what Spanish writings might reveal about the New World was not abated as the sixteenth century gave way to the seventeenth. In England, Richard Hakluyt’s protégé and successor Samuel Purchas (1577 – 1626) translated in Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625) further accounts of Spanish voyages of exploration, conquest, and settlement. And he added something new: he produced the first fruits of learning about America’s indigenous civilizations in the English language.

Purchas excerpted for the first time El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios reales de los Incas (“Royal Commentaries of the Incas,” 1609, 1617), and, more remarkably, he produced an English version of a unique, mid-sixteenth-century native Mexican manuscript, known as the Codex Mendoza and preserved today in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. In New Spain (today’s Mexico), the great creole polymath Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645 – 1700) later pored over Purchas’s massive four-volume compendium. He admired its native version of Aztec history, accompanied by painstakingly wrought woodcut reproductions of the Mexican hieroglyphics that had graced the original. The achievement prompted Sigüenza to remark that Purchas’s work was worthy of “the most devoted lover of the homeland.”3 But, of course, Purchas’s homeland was England. Purchas, the Anglican minister, literary compiler, and translator, thus stands, for me, as the figure that triangulates three spheres of interest and influence: Spain, England, and the Americas. And here I mean “three-plus,” since Purchas included the ancient autochthonous Americas alongside the Euro-Americas of his day.

For Anglo-North American interest in Spanish language and culture, the tone was set by Thomas Jefferson, who understood that “the antient [sic] part of American history is written chiefly in Spanish.”4 Jefferson helped institute the teaching of the modern languages, including Spanish, in 1780 at the College of William and Mary, and in 1819 when he founded the University of Virginia. Writing in 1787 and 1788 to promising young men in his circle, urging them to study the Spanish and Portuguese languages, Jefferson cited the value of such study for both practical and academic reasons. To the young South Carolinian John Rutledge, Jr., Jefferson wrote:

Our connections with the Spaniards and Portuguese must become every day more and more interesting, and I should think, the knowledge of their language[s], manners, and situation, might eventually and even probably become more useful to yourself and country than that of any other place you will have seen.5

And he added, presciently, “The womb of time is big with events to take place between us and them.” Indeed.

Today those prophecies have been fulfilled. We have gone “from Havana to Macondo” and beyond. (Witness President Obama’s Executive Order of December 17, 2014, that lifted some of the half-century-old restrictions on U.S. relations with Cuba.) The winds from Havana that blew on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro took over the island, and those that blew from the United States on January 3, 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed the U.S. embassy in Havana and severed diplomatic relations, fanned the flames of U.S. interest in Latin America. Followed by the CIA-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the first months of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, in April 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, these political watersheds also foreshadowed literary events of great purchase in Latin America.6

The Latin American novels of the mid-twentieth century and their international translations – the “Boom” of Latin American literature – were accompanied by the ascent of the teaching of the Spanish language in the United States,7 and it has been accelerated by the growing Latino presence in the United States and, in the academy, by students’ practical interests as well as their intellectual and cultural engagements. On today’s Latino America, its history, and its promise, I recommend the three-part, six-hour documentary series, Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy that Shaped a Nation, which chronicles the centuries-long history of today’s Latinos and their ancestors on the North American continent. This project complements another great documentary series, Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle, which traces African American history in the United States from the 1830s to the 1960s. Both projects received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities through its Division of Public Programs, which funded the documentary films and helped design the projects that are taking community-based discussions to sites across the country.

Like Latino Americans and Created Equal, the Academy’s film “The Heart of the Matter” offers an excellent antidote to common misperceptions, in this case, the notion that the STEM subjects are the humanities’ natural antagonists. We are more likely to find the forces of antagonism within ourselves, in our occasional indifference, every time (when and if) we fail to engage students who have walked into our classrooms from beyond the precincts of our humanities disciplines. We all know how intellectually open such students tend to be, unfettered by unhelpful, intra-humanities biases. These students often ask the questions that their humanities-student peers fail to ask. I cannot count the number of times I have heard myself thinking, as I ponder a response to an outside-the-humanities-box student intervention, “Hmmn, I never thought of that.” The idea of reaching students outside humanities majors in courses of literary, historical, and cultural substance – and doing so in the language native to those traditions, in this case, in Spanish – is a worthy pursuit, not only as a service (which, in my view, is not a bad word), but also as an inherent aspect of our vocation.

Perhaps we in Spanish can do this more easily than other modern languages because of the ubiquity in the United States of student linguistic competence, as well as the interests of students who do not possess it. If so, we are privileged, but it also gives us a greater responsibility: In the fields of Hispanic Studies, we must refuse to give up teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the language, that is, in Spanish. (There are institutional pressures that would have us do so.) The English language is ubiquitous, but it is neither universal nor a transparent, non-distorting lens through which all other modern languages can pass, in translation, without loss.

I turn again to Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. When Sigüenza called Purchas’s translation of the Codex Mendoza a worthy achievement, he meant that its publication, though in English, rescued it from oblivion, preserved it for posterity. Sigüenza was himself one of the early, great scholars of pre-Columbian Mexican antiquities, and he sought to bring the pre-Columbian experience of ancient Mexico out of the shadows of myth and into the light of history. His salute to Purchas anticipated the tribute that the great Prussian explorer and scholar of the Americas, Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859), would make to the memory of Sigüenza.

Journeying to New Spain in the last decades before it became an independent Mexico, Humboldt attempted to locate the Mexican manuscripts that Sigüenza had collected and studied. Humboldt followed the footsteps of the Italian traveler and compiler Giovanni Gemelli Careri (1651 – 1725), the author of Giro del mondo (1699 – 1700), who had seen the manuscripts, and perhaps copied some of them under Sigüenza’s supervision. Although Humboldt was unsuccessful in his quest, he was able to examine the then-greatest extant collection of ancient Mexican manuscripts available. Recalling his anticipation, Humboldt later wrote, in French, that he imagined, and could experience in his own right, the emotion that Gemelli Careri must have felt when, more than a century earlier, the Italian had made the pilgrimage that ended at Sigüenza’s door.

I have presented this imaginary, but not unreal, in fact, virtual, conversation-over-time because it was carried out from the vantage points of several cultural and linguistic traditions: the Renaissance English, the Baroque Spanish, Italian, and creole Spanish-American, and the Enlightenment German and French. All were united in the pursuit of pre-Columbian antiquities, and all their exchanges were brought together through the Spanish language, the earliest European conduit and interpreter of pre-Columbian indigenous traditions of the Americas. This cultural historical litany exemplifies the continuity of culture that characterizes, in no small measure, the life of the humanities and, in particular, the role of the Spanish language within it.

Over the course of time, Spanish – in this New World, on the Iberian Peninsula in the Old, and in Asia in the East – has become one of the world’s most culturally rich languages. It contains within it the traces of those many ongoing, diverse cultures that it has touched and the new formulations with which it interacts and which continually renew it. The great Spanish humanist Hernán Pérez de Oliva (ca. 1494–1531), who helped forge vernacular Spanish as a language of high culture and learning, marveled in 1524 at the place of Spain in the world: “We used to occupy the ends of the earth, and now we find ourselves in the middle of it, thanks to a twist of fortune such as never before has been seen.”8 We can say the same today about the Spanish language. If any of the professional practitioners of the modern languages can make good on the Academy’s goal of promoting language learning, it is incumbent on us in Spanish to do so.


Rolena Adorno is Sterling Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University. She is the recipient of the Modern Language Association’s Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2003.

© 2016 by Rolena Adorno




1. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013), 12; online at

2. Rolena Adorno, “Spanish in the World,” Profession,

3. Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, Teatro de virtudes políticas, in Seis obras de Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, introd. Irving A Leonard, ed. William C. Bryant (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1984), 181–182, my translation.

4. Thomas Jefferson, “To Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.,” July 6, 1787, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 11, 1 January to 6 August 1787, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 558.

5. Thomas Jefferson, “To John Rutledge, Jr.,” July 13, 1788, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 13, March to 7 October 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 358.

6. Roberto González Echevarría, Modern Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 99–102.

7. Rolena Adorno, “Havana and Macondo: The Humanities in U.S. Latin American Studies, 1940–2000,” in The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion Since World War II, ed. David A. Hollinger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 376–378, 383–384.

8. Quoted in Rolena Adorno, Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 11.