Professor of Hispanic Studies Julio Ortega has been teaching at the University since 1989. He began the the Transatlantic Project, which, according to the project’s website, is “dedicated to research, teaching and colloquia on the cultural and intellectual history of exchange, dialogue and debates between Spain and the Americas.” He was named one of the 50 most influential Spanish-American intellectuals in 2015, and he has been awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2011 by the Mexican government, the highest honor granted to foreign citizens. His office at Rochambeau House is filled with books on Latin American literature, including works of his own. And according to his Vivo researcher profile, Ortega is an “accomplished scholar, poet, playwright, and novelist” who also began. As the end of National Hispanic Heritage Month approaches, The Herald spoke to Ortega about his work in shaping the University’s Department of Hispanic Studies. Yet, rather than speaking on his accomplishments, he reflected on his experience working with former University presidents and famous writers he had met throughout his career.
Ortega found himself at the University after teaching a seminar at Harvard in which some of his students were from Brown. Ortega said that he was surprised by the Brown students’ maturity and how they wanted the “class to be a dialogue.” When a teaching position opened at the University, those same students presented his name for consideration.
“I was (chosen) to come to Brown by the students,” Ortega said.
Originally from Peru, Ortega received his undergraduate education at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in 1963 and his Ph.D from Universidad Catolica in 1974. Ortega taught at Yale and the University of Texas at Austin before coming to the University. He was also the director of Latin American Studies at Brandeis University, where he invited novelists Carlos Fuentes and Toni Morrison to speak. Ortega has received a Guggenhein Fellowship, in addition to the National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship, not once, but three times.
At Brown, where he also served as chair of the department of Hispanic Studies, Ortega began the Transatlantic Project. Ortega said that the project would become the “major model of reading Latin American literature” in a global context.
“One of my main concerns was that (the study of) Latin American literature … was considered like an archipelago,” in that it was separated by country, he said. Instead, Ortega wanted to conceptualize an encompassing view of Latin American literature.
In order to further bring together ideas and research in the field, Ortega hosted a series of international conferences in Spain, Mexico and Peru. Now, the project has spread further in Latin America and to countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.
Ortega saw Brown as an ideal place to start this project due to the support of former University Presidents Vartan Gregorian and Ruth Simmons. He said that both presidents saw international collaboration “as the very nature of modern knowledge” and understood its importance for students. Gregorian visited a conference in Cambridge organized by Ortega; Simmons visited another in Barcelona.
During Ortega’s tenure, the University’s Hispanic Studies department ranked number one, a success that Ortega credited at least in part to Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes’ time as a professor-at-large at the University. He said that Fuentes attracted students from different places which created a “utopian United Nations of culture in Providence.”
The Transatlantic Project at the University grew, attracting scholars and students from different universities to Brown’s conferences. That growth got to the point where Ortega said the program eventually became too large for the University to physically accommodate. Over the past several years, he said, his role has been to visit other universities to help them with their own conferences.
“Transatlantic is in too many spaces now,” he said.
His current research focuses on the foundations of the family in Latin America in the context of matriarchal myths in Mexico and Peru.
Josė Antonio Mazzotti, a professor at Tufts University and a founding member of the Transatlantic Project, said that he couldn’t think of many other professors who “have that energy to create networks and publish” as much as Ortega has.
“He has been the engine of the department in many ways,” Mazzotti said. “He has really put the Brown Hispanic Studies department on the map of Latin American studies in the United States.”
Robert Combs ’22 had always been interested in Spanish language and literature, and was attracted to Brown because of “names such as Julio Ortega,” he said. According to both Combs and Mazzotti, Ortega is an important reference for scholars within the field of Latin American literature.
Combs also noted that Ortega is unique because he is both an accomplished scholar and a novelist, something that Combs said Ortega is humble about. “If you look at his list of accomplishments … it does not seem to fit the man, as he is so humble, and (it is) certainly not something that he would publicize in class,” Combs said.
Ortega is currently teaching HISP 1331K: “Borges y la Literatura Fantástica,” a class on Argentinian writer Jorge Borges whom Ortega met while teaching at UT Austin. Combs said that part of the reason why he finds Ortega’s classes enriching is because of his anecdotes about famous Latin American writers, many of whom he knew personally. Some names which Ortega remembered meeting included Borges, Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez.
“Knowing that Professor Ortega had known García Márquez himself was … enormous to me,” Combs said.
The class on Borges is Combs’s third class with Ortega. While Ortega is a lecturer, Combs said, he is interested in hearing students’ opinions on class readings. Ortega said that his favorite part about teaching is the students, whom he calls the “most important (people) at any university.”
Ortega finds that teaching at an American university like Brown is unique in how its students engage with international literature and the emphasis it places on international dialogue and discussion.
“The American university is an open space,” Ortega said, “creating scenery of new ideas, new trends — free of the heavy duty of the traditional.”