Tell us a about your academic/research interests and the courses you currently teach.
I have done research on two very different areas: colonial studies and contemporary literature and film, with a focus on Chile in the last decade. My first book was on Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Cortés’ foot soldier in the Conquest of Mexico, and his literary techniques as a chronicler. After editing a book on the Chilean novel after Pinochet, my second book was dedicated to the Chilean director Sergio Castilla, whose films are emblematic representations of my country’s history of the last fifty years. My teaching is centered on Latin American narrators, from Borges and the novelists of the famous “Boom” (Donoso, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa) to the most recent challengers of Magic Realism, Fuguet and the McOndo movement. My greatest concern at the moment is my general education course on “Latin American Culture,” which spans from 1492 until today. I want my students to become aware of the complex history of the whole continent, including its links to the United States. I want students to take advantage of advanced research, such as James Lockhart’s groundbreaking work on the Nahuas after the Conquest, and at the same time examine the enticing reflection from Elia Kazan’s polemical film Viva Zapata. Or, just to give you another example, make them understand that Neruda, besides being a great poet, was a communist but not an enemy of democracy even if he was persecuted due to the politically convenient “Law of Permanent Defense of Democracy,” passed in Chile at the beginning of the Cold War.
What motivated you to study Chilean film and literature?
During my tenure as UC Education Abroad Program (EAP) Study Center Director in Chile from 1997 to 1998, I read the books of a whole generation of young novelists who were writing about the Pinochet dictatorship in provocative ways. At the same time, I discovered the eye-opening films on life in Chile from Gustavo Graef Marino, Gonzalo Justiniano, Ricardo Larraín, and in 1999, Cristián Galaz’s box office hit The Sentimental Teaser. I also reconnected with Sergio Castilla, whom I had met while I was a graduate student at Harvard. He was back in Santiago, filming Gringuito, a dramatic comedy on exiles who return to a country in transition to democracy. My desire to contribute to a better understanding of these phenomena is at the heart of the two books I mentioned.
What research are you currently working on? Any recent or upcoming publications?
My work on Castilla and Galaz, which I presented at the University of Göttingen, led to a decade-long collaboration with Manfred Engelbert, a specialist of Chilean culture, including film and popular poetry including the songs of Violeta Parra. Our book on Raúl Ruiz has had a very favorable critical reception (15 reviews so far). Perhaps the line we like best is: “Spanish-speakers should check out La tristeza de los tigres y los misterios de Raúl Ruiz (2011) by Verónica Cortínez and Manfred Engelbert. It’s a sweet antidote to all the empty guff that is written about RR” (https://mubi.com/reviews/28330). We hope that our new book, Evolución en libertad: El cine chileno de fines de los sesenta, almost ready for publication, will have the same echo among scholars and the general public.
Last year was the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Can you tell us about the significance of this event? How do you think Chile has been shaped and impacted over the last four decades by this event?
The violent end to an experiment in social democracy certainly marks the last forty years of Chilean history. I can’t help being deeply moved whenever I listen to Allende’s last words right before the presidential palace was bombarded. In some way, he turns out to have been prophetic because the people are back on the “grandes alamedas” and the socialist Michelle Bachelet was just sworn in for a second time as President after four years of conservative government under Sebastián Piñera. This peaceful and unproblematic change from right to left or left to right is a symbol of the broad acceptance of democratic rule nowadays. Undeniable progress also has been made in creating better living conditions for the average citizen. Yet abysmal inequalities in income, education, and healthcare still darken the bright picture painted by macroeconomists. Bachelet faces great expectations and I wish people won’t forget the most important lesson from our recent history, namely, that violence of any kind is not a democratic argument and that “ardiente paciencia,” (ardent patience) invoked by Neruda citing Rimbaud, is a main quality of good citizenship.
You co-organized a major conference, "The Other September 11th," in November of last year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Chile’s coup d’état, The conference was sponsored by the LAI and very well attended. What was the outcome and reaction to the conference; any publications or collaborations as a result of the conference?
The main outcome of our conference will be a special issue of the Radical History Review, “The Other 9/11: Chile, 1973,” edited by Heidi Tinsman (UC Irvine), Michael Lazzara (UC Davis) and others. The event was an impressive showcase of international interdisciplinary scholarship on Chile, which drew attention from all over the world. Significantly, social history and problems of inequality, human rights, and minority discrimination were at the core of the conference. The humanities had their say in dialog with the historians, when the latter were surprised to discover the advanced defense of women rights and the explicit denunciation of torture in the films of Sergio Castilla, who came as a special guest. In the particular case of Brian Loveman’s keynote address on authoritarian remnants in the constitutional framework of Chile, I think President Bachelet would be well advised to take into account this painstaking scholarship, recognized by respondent Sebastián Edwards, when she tries to chart a new constitution.
What do you envision for the Center for Chile, Argentina, and the Southern Cone under your leadership?
In the first place, I would like to have a discussion about the name of the Center, which came about as a pragmatic solution in very special circumstances. Without forgetting the importance of Argentina and Chile, it seems to me that we should also pay attention to Uruguay and Paraguay. Perhaps we should think of a Center for the Southern Cone period. A first step towards this broader concept was the conference given by Felipe Michelini, a distinguished member of the Uruguayan Parliament and international advocate for human rights, who was invited by my Argentinean colleague Adriana Bergero. Beyond more events on specific topics of interest to faculty and students, and taking into account the current questioning of borders not only in Latin America, I can envision a major conference on this issue, addressing historical, judicial, political, and cultural implications. Of course, this could only be done with the support of colleagues working on the Southern Cone or neighboring countries. In any case, the success of the Center will depend on a common effort and therefore I would like to invite everybody to join the challenge.
What are your three favorite films?
Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock, The Shop on Main Street by Ján Kádar, and Badlands by Terrence Malick.