Angel L. Estévez got his Ph.D. degree at The Graduate Center and is now Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at The City College of New York. Professor Estévez is currently serving as Director of Master's Program in Spanish 2005-2010. His area of research centerson 20th Century Spanish-American and Caribbean Literatures, including Magic Realism and the Fantastic. His most recent publications are: "The Construction of the Magic and the Role of Popular Religion in the Caribbean Context,"Critical Insights: Magic Realism,Ignacio López-Calvo, Ed., Salem Press, 2014; El español y su evolución (co-authored with Silvia Burunat), New York: Peter Lang, 2014; El español y su estructura (coauthored with Silvia Burunat and Aleksín Ortega), New York: Peter Lang, 2012; El español y su sintaxis (coauthored with Silvia Burunat and Aleksín Ortega) New York: Peter Lang, 2010; "Lo neofantástico en el relato dominicano del siglo XX (la significación de las manchas)" Rumbos de lo fantástico: Actualidad e historia. Ed. Ana María Morales, José Miguel Sardiñas, and José Cardona López. Palencia: Cálamo, 2007; and La modalidad fantástica en el cuento dominicano del siglo xx. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Professor Estévez has taught at Lehman College and Fordham University at Lincoln Center Campus.
While studying Spanish literature at The Graduate Center in the early 1990s, Estévez was struck by a lacuna in the curriculum that would eventually help define his career path. "The first time I became aware of Dominican literature was in my graduate studies. I took a course on the literature of the Antilles and the Hispanic Caribbean and the syllabus was very long and extensive, but there was no Dominican literature on it. I asked the teacher, 'Why are there no Dominican works on this list? Why not include at least one or a couple of authors?' She said, 'Angel, Dominican literature has not been well-studied.' With so many Dominicans in New York, there were no courses that addressed Dominican art and literature. That was the first time I thought that maybe I should explore Dominican literature and history. That was how I started thinking about possibly making a contribution to the study of Dominican culture."
Dr. Estévez has always made an effort to keep in touch with his roots. "I came here in 1981, and I have kept contact with the Dominican Republic by going there when I can. I also have three Dominican channels on cable that keep me in constant contact with what is happening there. I also attend the Dominican Book Fair and attend events at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute as much as I can."
Looking back, Dr. Estévez has high praise for one particular mentor, a formative influence in his early life on the island. "I am the twelfth of thirteen siblings, which is not rare in the Dominican Republic. I have always been self-motivated. I am the only one among my siblings who has taken the path of education, and I have motivated myself most of my life. But I have to give credit to my fifth grade teacher, Martha Vázquez. She taught me family values; my personality was shaped by her, and my sense of how to conduct yourself in society. When I went back to visit Santo Domingo a few years ago, I took a copy of my dissertation, which was dedicated to her."
Dr. Estévez also feels that the vernacular and folkways of his fellow Dominicans began to cast a spell on him when he was still a child. "My first six years, I grew up in the countryside near Santiago. I remember, years later, when I moved to Santiago, I was fascinated by languages: especially my own, Spanish. After that, when I came to the US, I was fascinated by French, later Latin, and then Portuguese.So one component that has influenced me is my love for language-- as well as literature and film.
"But also, since a very young age, when I was living there, before I turned 18, I used to observe and loved the way ordinary Dominicans went about daily life, observing what they do, what they talk about, how they go about their everyday activities. For example at the market, I was interested in how the farmers talked and how they acted. I learned a lot from humble people like that, and that is part of what drew me to study Dominican popular culture and folklore."
Nearly a decade later, after earning his Ph.D., Dr. Estévez was astonished to find, once again, a lack of intellectual engagement with Dominican culture; but again, he took quick and decisive steps to remedy the gap. "When I went to work at City College in 2002, when I was hired, I noticed there was not even a single course in the curriculum that addressed Dominican literature and culture.I told the Chairperson that the kids that go to The City College of New York didn't have anything to identify with. I said, 'Can we put together a course?' I prepared a course on Dominican Literature and Culture. I designed it and proposed it to the Executive Committee. It is now a part of the regular curriculum. I have taught the course four times and it has filled quickly every time."
I ask what lessons Dr. Estévez has learned in his years as an educator. "In a teaching career you always learn from students. One thing I've learned from them is how to look at Spanish as if I were not a native speaker. It gives me a chance to get into their shoes and become more aware of the problems they face and the questions they have. I have learned to think like an English speaker. I manage to see Spanish from an English-language point of view."
In addition to forcing Dr. Estévez to expand the way he thinks about language, the students have impelled him to confront the no less profound question of how he experiences his national and cultural identity. "One thing it's important for me to highlight is something that happened once when I was teaching the Dominican Literature and Culture course. I was discussing migration and started asking the students, 'How do you feel when you come back to Santo Domingo and to the Dominican Republic, and how do you feel when you come back to New York? Do you feel you have arrived at home? Can you call the United States your home, or do you feel more at home in the Dominican Republic?' The students started thinking. My students have either lived here all their lives or they have migrated from the Dominican Republic and lived here for 5-10 years. So when I asked, 'Do you feel at home here, or do you call the Dominican Republic home when you go back?' it of course elicited a lot of different reactions. And then one of them asked me, directly, 'How do you feel?' That got me thinking. When I come back to New York City, I don't feel home, and when I go back there, I don't feel home either. It made me realize that I am in between these two cultures, of course I feel Dominican and I eat Dominican food, and I dance to Dominican music, and I speak Dominican, but when I go there, the Santo Domingo that I left does not exist anymore. You see the buildings, you see the streets, you see the school, but what you left when you were there, your everyday life, your friends, no longer exist. That particular student helped me to realize that as a New Yorker, living here for thirty something years, even though my roots are Dominican and I feel very much Dominican, there is something missing from my Dominican-ness, that sense of connection to my roots. I feel that somehow there is something missing. There is a connection that is not plugged in somehow. So I was very honest and told them that I feel like I'm in limbo. So that made me realize how important it is to think about that: where are you? Where do you feel a sense of belonging? That was important."
Dr. Estévez hopes that more young Dominicans will join the teaching profession, but he underscores that it is a labor of love. "Teaching is a vocation. You will not get rich teaching. I have students that ask me, 'How much am I going to make as a teacher?' If you don't have a vocation for teaching, you should find your true calling. Read a lot, learn a lot, get prepared; love what you do. As a teacher you are privileged to touch lives, to change lives. The satisfaction and sense of having done right is the main reward teachers take home. Also, I would advise my fellow Dominicans, if they want to teach, to go all the way and get a PhD."
Dr. Estévez has high hopes for future research into Dominican literature, a rich field with abundant material that remains unexplored. "When I started thinking about how I could make a contribution, I started reading about Dominican literature, culture, and history, and I decided that maybe I could contribute through the study of narrative. I started reading Dominican short story writers and I found that very little work had been done in that area. I wrote a proposal. What I discovered was that the Dominican Republic had very solid production in terms of the short story in the twentieth century. I studied four authors and found that these writers were really well-known on the island but not outside, especially in New York. That would be an interesting area to explore in future research. Why are certain writers only known on the island? Why haven't they been exported? Dominicans have more to export than merengue and bachata: they also have a large group of writers whose work is waiting to be discovered in the diaspora, and who are comparable with Borges and Garcia Marquez. The younger generation needs to be introduced to that culture. Children of Dominican parents need to learn more about the island. It's important for us to learn about these artists, and for our children to do so."
Our conversation returns for a moment to the surprising vicissitudes of cultural identity. "When I decided to make my contribution to Dominican Studies in this way, I realized that I have become more Dominican in New York than I was back in Santo Domingo. It reminds me of what the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier said: he became a true Latin American in the years when he lived in Paris. He learned more about Cuba when he was living in Paris, and I have learned much more about the Dominican Republic here than when I was over there.
"We do have a tradition, and we have had a tradition, from long ago, just waiting for us to discover it. Of course it was very much shaped by Trujillo, whose regime controlled every aspect of Dominican life. After he was assassinated, there was a flourishing of writers who had repressed their creativity during the 30 years of his rule. I became aware of that once I started researching, and people who haven't studied it don't know all of what's there."
Finally, I ask Dr. Estévez how important technology has become in university learning. Not surprisingly, he is ahead of the game, making a serious effort to get students to master the newest tools. "Every course I teach is linked to Blackboard in an online version, so students can follow from their computer. Online learning is not for everyone—some instructors and students like it and some don't. A lot of students have difficulty coordinating their schedules to it. However, I link all my courses to Blackboard because I want all my students to take advantage of technology. Not all my students are tech-savvy, and I think they need to be, so I try to engage them in online learning. By doing so, hopefully, I am contributing to the preparation for the future. More courses are offered online now than ever before. Some schools even offer MA and PhD programs online.If I can expose them to that, it would be great if they could take advantage of those opportunities. I've taught quite a few courses online—mostly between 2006 and 2009. Back then I heard a rumor that online learning could make classrooms disappear. I hope that day doesn't come, but if it does, I would like my students to be able to handle it. The time to become online learners is now. Our teens are growing up with all kinds of mobile devices and laptops, so for them it's natural. They don't have to make the transition. Since you can do everything online now, they should be savvy. I hope they do take advantage of the opportunity to learn it now, do the work now, participate, because you don't know what the future is going to bring, but I think it's going to bring more technology. The time to learn is now."