Alumni Profiles Series: Luis Sáenz de Viguera Erkiaga
Luis Sáenz de Viguera Erkiaga is a scholar of twentieth and twenty-first century popular culture whose interests include but are not limited to Basque punk culture, representations of evil in popular culture, Latinx artists and constructions of Latinxs in graphic narratives, and Latin American and Spanish Film and Literature. He is now Associate Professor of Spanish at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, where he serves as chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultural Studies. He is currently working on a project on industrial ruins that combines photography, theory, and history, as well as on a long-term study of stereotypes, xenophobia, and visual constructions of Latinx subjects in popular culture in the U.S.
WHAT EXPERIENCES LED YOU TO PURSUE YOUR PH.D. AT DUKE’S ROMANCE STUDIES PROGRAM, AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE IT INSTEAD OF A SPANISH DEPARTMENT ELSEWHERE?
I completed my undergraduate degree in English Philology at the University of Deusto, in Bilbao, and I took part in the Erasmus Exchange Program at University College Dublin. During those years, Spain had a mandatory military service (popularly known as la mili). As an antimilitarist, I was not going to participate in it, so I began looking for opportunities to continue my studies abroad. I applied to a Spanish M.A. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Once at Amherst, I learned about the possibilities that studying literature in the U.S.A. involved, and it completely reshaped my expectations of the field. I started writing about Latinx graphic novels such as Love and Rockets by the Hernández brothers and fought my way—with the support of some of my professors—to get the department to accept them as the subject of my master’s thesis. This work would become the basis for an entry in Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions (2012), and, together with some later work I did on Latinx stereotypes in U.S. superhero comic books, they form the backbone of a long-term project on Latinx graphic narratives. Going back to Amherst, I continued working on other graphic texts such as Carlos Giménez’s España: una, grande y libre, a seminal work published in the satirical magazine El Papus during the period known as “La Transición” (1975-1978ish). Then, I sat with my professors at Amherst to talk about Ph.D. programs that would welcome and value my interest in textual forms beyond the traditional literary curriculum. That is when I found consensus among my mentors that I should apply to Duke, and I did. Indeed, I was so determined to come to Duke that I only applied to its Romance Studies Department to work with Ariel Dorfman, and happily he welcomed me to the program.
WHAT HAS YOUR CAREER PATH LOOKED LIKE SINCE YOU GRADUATED?
My career path did not actually follow my graduation, but it preceded it. When I was A.B.D. [all but dissertation], back in 2004, I got a visiting position at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, which I held until a year after my graduation in 2007. Leaving Duke so early was a bittersweet decision. On the one hand, by moving on with my career I was giving up my last years as a graduate student attending wonderful classes, lectures and discussion groups on Duke’s campus. On the other hand, at Mount Holyoke I gained teaching and departmental responsibilities that enriched my profile, as I continued learning from my new colleagues. Also, moving to Massachusetts had a personal component, which is important not to bury under all other pressing issues. Then, in 2008, I got my current position as Professor of Spanish at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. Besides working at the Department of World Languages and Cultural Studies, which I chair, I have worked in several interdisciplinary initiatives, such as the creation of a Social Justice program, which I directed from 2014 to 2017.
HOW HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED THE CHANGES IN THE FIELDS OF IBERIAN POPULAR CULTURE AND PUNK STUDIES SINCE YOU FINISHED YOUR DISSERTATION IN 2007?
The fact that the Popular Culture Association, founded at Michigan State University in 1971, now has a section called “punk culture” is very telling of the state of the field. I am glad there is an area of studies to consolidate specialists, and I just hope it keeps itself open to dialogue with other related fields of inquiry. This also means that certainly more people are now publishing and researching about popular culture than when I was a graduate student, and I am pleased that this is the case. However, I would say that it is still more challenging to conduct research on popular culture than to follow a traditional literary career. For instance, here at Merrimack College I have tried my best to expand the academic curriculum, and I am happy to say that it is slowly happening. Next semester, just to give you an example, instead of “Introduction to Advanced Studies,” I will be teaching “Introduction to Cultural Studies.” I am optimistic about these changes, and I also like the fact that there is still so much work to be done and so many fights left to move forward!
WHAT PROJECTS DO YOU HAVE IN THE WORKS RIGHT NOW?
Besides my long-term work on Latinx artists and constructions of Latinx in graphic narratives (connected to my work on comic books and graphic novels, but also to my research on xenophobia and immigration in Europe and the U.S.), I am also currently working on a rather peculiar artifact. It is a combination of theory, history and photography around industrial ruins and abandoned spaces such as factories, closed traditional local stores, and about the transformation of public spaces in our cities and towns. It is a very exciting project that I have been developing with Diego Sanz (Karra Marro in the social mediasphere), a dear friend since childhood, and a wonderful graphic designer and photographer who is based in Bilbao, the Basque Country. We are working with mapping tools; we would like to recreate the experiences of wondering/wandering around no-spaces (Deambulando no-lugares). We began with Bilbao and the erasure of the tough industrial city we grew up in, but the project’s scope has evolved to become global, as we have expanded it to include Havana, Berlin, Hong Kong, and other spaces.
Just to give you an example, we have looked at the way the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has impacted the neighborhoods around it and the city in general. The Bilbao we grew up in was full of warehouses and garages where young people like myself used to rehearse their music. It was a half dead/half alive city, full of run-down buildings and businesses on the edge of closing. From the perspective of popular, alternative culture, though, it was a very lively space. The Guggenheim changed everything. In our project, we are documenting these processes of gentrification that we have experienced firsthand. Now, as COVID-19 has struck, we have a strange feeling. On the one hand, historical stores and bars are closing due to the economic crisis. Some of the most iconic pubs of Bilbao are gone! On the other hand, we have been recording this process for long time and now it feels like it has accelerated, which makes our work even more pressing and relevant. Right now, you can see some of the photographic work we have been doing on my flickr account or Diego’s Instagram.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE BEING A MULTILINGUAL SCHOLAR WHO IS FLUENT IN BASQUE, SPANISH, AND ENGLISH. HOW DID IT INFLUENCE YOUR ACADEMIC AND INTELLECTUAL TRAJECTORY?
In my academic publications, I have written both in Spanish and English depending on the journals where I chose to publish. Also, I did not face any difficulties to have my work reviewed for tenure, since the committee at Merrimack relied on bi- or trilingual external peer reviewers. I would add that this is probably quite common today. I wrote my dissertation in Spanish because my entire committee could read it. I had already worked in Spanish for my coursework and during my exams, so it just felt right to continue in the same direction. One positive outcome of this language choice is that it has been available to a vast number of readers who maybe would not have accessed it if I had written in English. Let me clarify this point: after I finished the dissertation, I agreed to have my thesis publicly accessible at Duke’s site in PDF format. This gave my work a good amount of exposure, even if it meant that it would be unlikely for me to publish it as a book. Professionally, things might have been easier in a certain sense if I had been able to turn the dissertation into a book quickly. Nevertheless, I am quite pleased that it’s available and free for everyone who wants to learn more about the youth radical culture that developed in the Basque Country during the late seventies and early eighties. It is also true that I like switching between projects and, once I had my first sabbatical at Merrimack College, I was ready to move on to something else. It was not so clear to me at first, but now when I think about it, I enjoy the fact that my work on radical politics and activism is accessible to every reader for free. It allows a more diverse population to access it, and it goes along with the idea that knowledge is not produced ex nihilo and for the glory of an individual, but rather it is part of a larger collective endeavor that transcends and helps all of us.
WHAT PRACTICAL STRATEGIES WOULD YOU OFFER GRADUATE STUDENTS WHO WILL SOON BEGIN THEIR PROFESSIONAL CAREERS AFTER A GLOBAL PANDEMIC?
It is true that the pandemic is a particularly challenging moment, however one never knows… I got my tenure-track position just before the 2008 financial crisis, so it is all way too familiar. At that point, I remember hearing more and more schools were freezing their tenure-track positions as well, at least in the liberal arts. I can also share that I gave up some short-term research-oriented offers, since my priority as a new parent became to have a secure tenure-track position. Something that worked well for me was to present myself as someone very flexible and prepared to work in a variety of fields and initiatives. So, I was ready to teach Comparative Literature and Spanish (peninsular and Latin American) Literature, as well as Cultural Studies courses.
More generally, I think building a strong network of support at Duke and outside of Duke is essential. In fact, the current climate might be a good context to strengthen this net. For example, all conferences are going online, which allows everyone to attend events and meet people that used to be harder to reach. We cannot travel, but we can Zoom. This opens an opportunity to build networks overseas and participate in debates and spaces that were difficult to access before.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MEMORY FROM YOUR TIME AT DUKE?
My time at Duke was a truly transformative phase of my life. I remember those years being full of intensity. Honestly, I was just fascinated to study and live in such a beautiful and challenging space as Duke’s campus. The community inside and outside was also incredible. What I probably miss the most about my time there is the atmosphere around events. Learning outside the classroom was something unique to the atmosphere surrounding events on campus. Learning and deep challenges to the way we understood the world, especially social and cultural processes, could take place anywhere, from informal talks at the bus stop, to the after-talk refreshments with graduate students and faculty, followed by gatherings outside of campus where students would carry on the conversation. I have had access to such a productive, enrichening learning environment on few rare occasions, but the community of grad students and faculty at Duke created those types of opportunities to dialogue constantly.
I also deeply appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of graduate work at Duke. In my case, that translated into the chance to enroll in many courses taught by visiting professors. I wanted to engage with those who were temporarily appointed at Duke, and often when I least expected it I had the best experiences. For example, I remember taking a Brazilian Theory course with Prof. Wander Melo Miranda who came from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. At first glance, the course was by no means related to my work; nevertheless, it ended up being a key experience for my intellectual trajectory. The same thing happened in a Popular Music class I took with Prof. Antonio Méndez-Rubio, from Universtitat de València. He taught me a lot about cultural theory and popular culture, but also about how to be a good, socially engaged educator. I am grateful not only for the learning I acquired in the classroom, at conferences, seminars and events at Duke, but more importantly for how its environment and community allowed me to grow as a person and a scholar.
Ph.D. candidate in Romance Studies
Elia Romera-Figueroa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Romance Studies Department. She has also been a Fellow at the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge (2020-2021), at Kenan Institute for Ethics (2019-2020), and at the FHI Social Movements Lab (2017-2020). Her research focuses on women singers during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Spain, gendering the anti-Franco struggle, and researching about the engagement of many of those performers with Second-Wave Feminists movements. You can learn more about her at academia.edu.