Why I Majored in Romance Languages and Literatures

Lena JonesMitchell ’24

Choosing to be a Spanish major was a seemingly simple decision.

I knew that I wanted to refine my conversational Spanish and that my Spanish-speaking skills would be enriched by taking at least one Spanish class each semester. However, unknowingly, this was not my sole impetus for choosing the Spanish major, as the classes I took and the professors who taught me offered much more than I imagined. Largely, the required classes for the major weave socio-historical context into early modern literature analysis. These classes fueled my absorption into the material. One of my favorite required classes was Medieval & Early Modern Literature: Licentious Laments to Life is a Dream, taught by Professor José Cartagena-Calderón. We read many plays that were in evaluative conversation with, often, transitional eras in Spanish history. One of the most impactful texts we read was the quintessential picaresque novel The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities written in the mid-16th century. The text houses scathing anti-clerical and anti-status critiques of Spanish society, which was undergoing an economic boom and societal restructuring due to monetary return from the Americas. The critiques are so bold that the text is written anonymously, so as not to receive backlash from the Spanish government during an era of censorship. The contextualization of this text and many others made the texts extremely meaningful and amplified my desire to know more about cultural aspects that affect the Spanish language.

Furthermore, I have always wanted to assist Spanish-speakers in the United States to some capacity. However, I had never been able to learn, through an academic lens, about the historical context that underlies the Spanish language, nor the trials and tribulations of historically undervalued Latino populations (i.e., Chicanos and Afro-Latinos), until I started pursuing a Spanish major. Another requirement is a Hispanic linguistics course. I took Spanish Phonetics and Phonology with Professor David Divita. There I learned about the prejudicial nature of the United States Spanish education system, which values Spanish from northern regions in Spain over regions in Latin America. Additionally, I learned there is bigotry both within Latin America and in the United States against regional Spanish that elides that -s at the end of words such as in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. These revelations, among other interesting dialectal features that characterize the Spanish language, aided my perception of Spanish as a complex and multifaceted language. The class also led me to listen intently to native Spanish speakers and silently note the phonetic differences often indicative of their region of origin.

Overall, the Spanish major offers so much more than conversational practice. I learned how to read critically, analyze deeply, listen intently and do so skillfully in a language that is not my native one. This is all thanks to the wonderful professors and classes of the Spanish Department.

Max Ober ’22

As I browsed the major offerings before attending Pomona, the Romance Languages & Literature (RLL) major stood out to me as the ideal of what I wanted to get out of a liberal arts education. The major–which sits at the intersection of literature, cinema, linguistics, politics, history, and culture more broadly–allowed me to appreciate language as a “passport” to a wider body of study.

Additionally, as a native English speaker, the major allowed me to broaden my horizons past anglophone literature and the American and Western cultural canons. By choosing the RLL major, I was able to expand my knowledge in both French- and Spanish-speaking contexts. Also, as a double major with international relations, the RLL major was the perfect complement in that I easily fulfilled the language requirement and enriched my IR studies with the cultural context that is often missing from political science classes.

One of the most critical aspects of the RLL, Spanish, or French majors at Pomona for me, however, is the way I learned to read and think critically on a much deeper level. Professor Susana Chávez-Silverman is a champion of “slow reading” in her classes. Roughly analogous to close reading, this method of reading teaches you to appreciate the depth, intent, and delicate construction of prose and poetry in a way that examines the heart of a piece and avoids blithe generalizations. Because of her classes, I developed a deep love for poetry and genuinely felt that I had learned how to read for a second time.

The same type of revelation happened for me in Professor Jack Abecassis’s French Films class. Like all the RLL professors, he is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate, and it’s particularly true when he is discussing films. He teaches the critical principles of film analysis and how to apply them so that students learn to appreciate the nuance, depth, and meaning of each scene, shot, and frame. The course is also a wonderful overview of the history of French cinema and, as with any RLL class, is imbued with additional layers of information at the political, historical, and linguistic levels. From Professor Virginie Duzer’s Frenchness, May 1968-2018 to Profa. Chávez-Silverman’s Tropicalizations class, there is a huge wealth of knowledge in the department and so much to learn for those with a passion!