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Season 2, Episode 13 – Sarah Degner Riveros: Language for Life

Sarah Degner Riveros

Language is so much more than vocabulary and grammar. For Sarah Degner Riveros, Lecturer in Spanish, languages are inseparable from their history, community, and culture. In this discussion, we explore many ways the teaching and learning of Spanish opens doorways to a wider world and into the deeper self.

 

Transcript

Sarah Riveros: I cannot teach Spanish for tourism. So many times, I take a critical eye to the textbook and recognize that I’m not preparing students for future vacations. We learn Spanish from our neighbors, and being bilingual makes us more able to listen and believe that there isn’t one way of living in the world.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educated students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I’m Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it’s my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I’m honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: Hello. I’m Catherine Reed Day, host of the Augsburg Podcast, and today, I’m speaking with Sarah Degner Riveros, lecturer in Spanish. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah Riveros: Thank you so much.

Catherine Day: Could you start of us off by sharing how you ended up being a lecturer in Spanish? You are not from a Spanish country. You’re not from a Spanish-speaking family. How did that happen?

Sarah Riveros: I grew up in Chicago and in Texas and started learning Spanish at a recreation center, Spanish and French, six weeks each from a Brazilian teacher. And also, as a homeschooled child, had a friend of our family from church came over and told fairytales in Spanish. Her husband was from Spain. I was a Suzuki violin student, starting at age three, and so I developed a good ear. My mom is a musician.

As a rebel, at age 12, when I decided to go to public school, I told my parents I was gonna call the truant officer if they didn’t let me try public school. I had to pick two electives, and my dad thought that, if I learned Spanish, I would be employable, and he was right. I’ve always been able to find a job that I loved. And I grew up in the border lands. I grew up in Texas, in a community where there were a lot of latino families, Mexican families. The border moved. Texas was Mexico for a long time and some folks say still is.

And so, people in the community took me under wing, took me along to travel, and practiced with me in the community. So, I had teachers everywhere from a young age. In eighth grade, one of my electives was choir and the other was Spanish, and so, in public school, I took five years of Spanish and moved back to Chicago when I was 17.

Catherine Day: I’m interested in this little statement that you made in that answer that the border moved, and I would like to linger on that for just a minute. I’d like to unpack what you mean by that, historically, obviously, but also maybe a little bit about is there maybe something about that experience of a moved border that informs your teaching now?

Sarah Riveros: Well, Texas is a place that has lived under six flags, and so perhaps, Texas breeds some anarchists in believing in self governance. We create our own worlds. We create our own communities. We co-create our own families. I don’t really consider myself a Texan anymore, but I think that borders are scars on the plan, written through history and by war, often through violence, and borders also mark our bodies and our families.

Living in Chicago, in Indiana, and now in Minnesota, I speak Spanish a lot of the time, and I send my youngest to pre-K at Rondo, a community that was split by highway 94 that I take to work every day. But that split also divided a community and knocked out businesses and separated families from each other. I recognize the privilege that borders provide ease to some folks and also create great heartache and terror for a lot of people.

Catherine Day: Just a minute ago, before we started talking, you read me a poem, a couple of poems. You read them, first, in Spanish, and then you actually read one to me and you translated it yourself for me, and then you checked the translation in the book, and I found that just a fabulous experience because just when you told me what the other word… the word choice of the translator was versus the word you used, I so preferred the word you had chosen. In each of the cases, it made me wish I had that fluidity. I wish I had that agency that you’re talking about.

I would love for you to just touch a little bit on what you mean by not teaching for tourism. What does that look like here?

Sarah Riveros: I think there’s a great risk of thinking of ourselves as consumers, being content to live in an empire, exploiting other parts of the world through capitalism. The world doesn’t exist as our backyard. The world doesn’t exist to provide goods and services at a low cost for us. And yet, sometimes we don’t know how the food gets onto our plates that we enjoy. We don’t know who made our clothing, where did our socks come from. And making connections in Central America, in mexico, through Augsburg Center for Education and Experience and through the Nobel Peace Prize forum through Witness for Peace, an organization that brings testimony from Latin American countries. I’ve learned to listen differently and to teach differently, to look at the world through a human rights lens, and that means living smaller and thinking critically about what I need, what I deserve.

Catherine Day: What are the topics that you’re addressing in your classes?

Sarah Riveros: I teach Spanish language, first year, Spanish 111, 112, every semester, and I also teach Spanish composition using a textbook; Spanish Composition Through Literature, where students have the chance to try different genres and registers in writing, but we also read Sandra Cisneros in that course. [Spanish 00:06:34], The House on Mango Street. And Francisco Jiménez [Spanish 00:06:39], the memoirs of [Spanish 00:06:42], a child who grew up in a family of migrant workers in California. And so, we read these fictionalized memoirs and students explore their own childhoods to mine their memories for stories. That’s my favorite class. That’s Spanish 311, and it’s the gateway course to the upper division courses for majors and minors.

I also teach Spanish conversation course, Oral Expression, Spanish 312. In that course, this semester, we’re doing podcasts, modeling ourselves on the example of podcasts by Radio Ambulante, which was recently acquired by NPR. Radio Ambulante does interviews and tells stories around Latin America, and so, my students are telling their stories through interviews.

Catherine Day: Who’s the host of that podcast?

Sarah Riveros: Camila Segura is a colleague of mine from graduate school, and she founded it when it was very small. Now Daniel Alarcón is her co-host, and there are others, I think, also working on that podcast.

Catherine Day: Our listeners could find that podcast-

Sarah Riveros: Oh, sure. Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s online. Radio, like Radio, Ambulante, like walking radio or ambulatory, ambulance.

Catherine Day: Let’s go back to the students exploring these stories and these fictionalized memoirs. I see the connection back to some of the things you were saying earlier that your invitation to the students is to question some things about their experience, to perhaps even take the time to think about this tomato on their plate and who picked it, who grew it, who watered it, who was necessary. What happens in that process?

Sarah Riveros: We read the stories together in class, by Francisco Jiménez, and also explore the online archive of the Farm Workers Movement. And so, we’re looking at archival materials from history, as well as stories from a childhood in the 1940s and 50s, before Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were organization farm workers. There are themes in those stories about, for example, a Christmas gift, a Christmas that was unexpectedly painful, a disappointment. And so, I ask students to take those general themes and think of their own stories and tell a story, in their own words, that they can then share with the class. Without meaning to, as we tell our stories, we do examine privilege. We examine obstacles that we’ve had to overcome, and the material benefits that have been present supporting us in our lives.

I think storytelling is a safe way to do that because we own our stories. We believe them. We know they’re true. When an author shares a story with us, it’s a gift that opens a window into a world that otherwise we might not have known, and it’s an invitation for us to do the same, to take a lens and look at our lives carefully, critically, and to believe ourselves. Students gain a lot of confidence by writing, and then, in workshop, in small groups, in groups of two or three to share their stories and echo back words that resonate. And then, by the end of the semester, we can have a literary reading where have a party. We enjoy sharing food and taking turns, taking the mic and sharing stories in Spanish. There’s a lot of confidence in having a collection, a story collection and saying, “This is me. This is where I came from.”

Catherine Day: You are inviting the students to bring their whole self into the classroom when they visit their own story. I’d like you to talk a little bit about the fact that you also are planning to share with your colleagues in a speech you’re gonna give later today, as it turns out, that this is a place that you can bring your whole self. What does that mean? What does it mean to bring your whole self, and what do you see when your students are bringing their whole selves here?

Sarah Riveros: I have felt, since the first time I stepped foot on this campus, that Augsburg is a safe place for taking risks. I came to the interview with a baby and a three year old wearing a Spider-Man costume, and-

Catherine Day: They were in the interview you, those two?

Sarah Riveros: No, they were on campus.

Catherine Day: They were on campus. Okay.

Sarah Riveros: On the first sunny day in March, when the weather turned nice and students started wearing shorts and enjoying the sunshine, and I recognized immediately that this a place where people can be creative. I saw bright colors of clothing and hair, and people dressed in unique ways, as the city invites us to do, and I could tell, in the classroom that this is a place where people do show up with their whole selves, imperfections and all. This is a safe place for making mistakes. It’s a safe place for exploring possibility. It’s a safe place for figuring out who we are and what our calling is, and I needed that badly.

I had experienced domestic violence and was wearing borrowed clothes from my sister at that interview. I hadn’t been home in a number of weeks and was surviving with five kids by spending my savings to stay in a motel, and Augsburg took a risk, took a chance on me, and I took a risk, too. I really felt and feel called to this place, to this time.

Catherine Day: Let’s talk about the time, because again, you have some thoughts about memory and the moment that the institutions [inaudible 00:12:33] to, say, look back on 150 years as it thinks about moving forward. What does that mean to you?

Sarah Riveros: May I quote a poem?

Catherine Day: Sure.

Sarah Riveros: This past summer, I visited Augsburg’s study campus in [inaudible 00:12:48] Guatemala, and the director, Fidel [Chinico 00:12:51], took a group of students to visit the museum of memory in Guatemala city, and at the entryway to that Museum of Memory is a poem by Humberto Ak’abal, a Mayan Kʼicheʼ poet who became an ancestor and passed on last week. His words really resonated with me.

[Spanish 00:13:12]

A rough translation would be “From time to time, I walk backwards. It is my way of remembering. If I only walk forwards, I will be able to tell you what it is like to forget.” I think, without that piece of reflection, without looking back, looking inward, looking at our history where we’ve come from, it’s easy to forget to be grateful for who we are and for those who have held doors open for us and made a place for us and called us to be who we are at this time and this place. And so, I think it’s very important to acknowledge and look back with gratitude. None of us got here alone.

Catherine Day: And so, that’s a reference to privilege, which is one of the things you said earlier, is something you want the students to look at that… if I can put words in your mouth, it implies to me that you’re suggesting every one of us on this campus has some form of privilege.

Sarah Riveros: Yes.

Catherine Day: That we’ve experienced. Some door has been held open for us. Probably would not be on this campus had that not happened over and over again. And I also hear in what you’re saying something about reflecting on our flaws, our imperfections, some of the difficult things that our a part of our memory and our history. What are a few things that are surfacing right now with students and with you in the classroom as you explore what’s coming up because of that reflection, this moment, looking back and looking forward?

Sarah Riveros: I suffer from imposter syndrome, but maybe that’s not the right word for it. I recognize that I learn more from my students than they learn from me and that they’re investing in an education for a world that I don’t always feel prepared to get them ready for. A college education isn’t a beginning of lifelong learning, and the world is changing. My PhD did not prepare me for the world that I live in now, bilingual, multiracial family that I’m raising. Single motherhood in a big city and the 60 or so students per semester who trust me to decolonize the curriculum. I am coming to the painful awareness, as an academic, that white supremacy is alive and well in the ivory tower, and as a white woman teaching Spanish, that’s a terrible thing to realize. Realizing that comes with responsibility for changing myself and getting out of the way.

I look forward to seeing the future at this place and to seeing the students who are studying now in roles of leadership and for their voices to leave a legacy here, for some of them to come back and teach here in years to come, to teach my children.

Catherine Day: One of the interesting things, I think, about an Augsburg education is that it has a lot of humility. Sometimes, it’s so humble that it doesn’t let the world know how great things are here. I think these opportunities to talk gives us a window into what is great here.

Let’s dive a little deeper. Maybe you have a couple of student stories, a couple of illustrations. You don’t have to use their names, but you can just characterize some experiences. What kinds of leadership are you seeing as you get out of the way and they step forward to show you what the future could look like for us?

Sarah Riveros: I’ve seen students recently modeling a culture that’s not punitive but restorative. I’ve had the opportunity here at Augsburg to teach Spanish I and II in a prison setting, in a college in prison program, a collaboration among a number of Twin Cities colleges. That has confirmed for me that punishment doesn’t get us anywhere. And to see student leaders not just calling injustices that they see but working to build relationships. And to learn together, collaboratively. That’s very powerful. That takes an awful lot of spirit, a lot of faith, a lot of courage and hope in the future, and that’s contagious.

That’s a gift that our students bring to us because they have… many of our students live in more than one world. They code switch. They know how to speak three languages. By the time they get to campus, they’ve spoken three languages every morning. The way they speak with their families and in the community and on social media and during the commute and in the classroom. They switch registers and sometimes literally switch languages and sometimes switch ways of communicating within English. That ability to be that resilient is what invites older people, like me, to a place at the table, to say, “There’s room for you, too. You can still learn a lot and you have a lot to learn. That degree is not an invitation to sit on your laurels, but rather, it does give a position of power to facilitate dialogue through which we all learn a lot.”

Catherine Day: The institution is preparing itself for some major investments. It’s inviting major investment in itself, which in itself is a bold and exciting leap of faith. As you think about those investments, what dreams do you hope they will fuel?

Sarah Riveros: Well, selfishly, I would say in languages and cultures. I would really enjoy seeing us create more teaching materials and teaching opportunities for teaching and practicing justice through language and culture. I think we also have amazing campuses in Cuernavaca, Mexico and in Chela, Guatemala, and what a privilege for our students and staff and faculty to experience Augsburg in those places and to do home stays and feel a sense of calling to our bigger human family by making really strong connections in those communities that are part of Augsburg. I would love to see investment and growth in study abroad.

This city is a classroom. This city is a learning environment that’s so rich with culture, and so, to have students practicing activism, learning leadership in the laboratory that is the city, making art, leaving a lasting legacy as murals on the walls of this city, I would love to see that sort of investment.

Catherine Day: What’s caught my ear, Sarah, is that you spoke about the story of Mary and you’ve kind of brought it up to a connection to music and to a story that’s been empowering. I wonder if we can dive into that a little bit.

Sarah Riveros: I’m part of a faith community called Tapestry, and in December, when we read the story of the incarnation at church, I met our pastor and musicians here in chapel service and that’s how I became part of faith community. It’s a bilingual worshiping community in Richfield. My family has been there for a couple of years now. We sing in the salsa band. My four-year-old son likes to play rhythm, and I sing. That community has become like family to us.

This past December, when we celebrated the incarnation, we sang three versions of the Magnificat, and they really stuck with me, especially one in Latin that I’ve been signing as I walked across the walking bridge from Steward to campus. Mary’s words are so powerful, as she gives consent. I grew up Lutheran, and so this brave, optimistic, 12-year-old feminist was missing from my childhood and that voice of a young woman saying yes to the impossible and being willing to lend her body to the incarnation of hope is a model of courage for me. The Magnificat is Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, and she’s speaking to the Lord.

She says, “The Lord has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich, he has sent away empty.” And I live in this juxtaposition, as a single mother of five children, with the privilege of a job as a professor in an amazing big city, as someone who struggles to have faith in the government sometimes, as someone uncomfortable with a position of power. In the classroom, I want my classroom to be a democracy. I want students to have their needs met and their voices heard, and yet, I can’t… I’m the one who holds the grade book and I have to recognize that.

As I recognize the problem of white supremacy in academia and the way that privilege benefits me for labor I haven’t done, this prayer gives a lot of hope to see suppressed voices empowered, to hear heritage speakers of Spanish gain confidence in speaking the language of their family, of their childhood, that they’ve heard spoken at home perfectly and yet, and not had the self confidence to claim. To see that process happening in the classroom before my eyes is such a privilege.

Catherine Day: Sarah Degner Riveros, thank you for sharing with us the courage of your voice and the idea that you have found a welcoming place to work and connect in community.

Sarah Riveros: Thank you.

Catherine Day: This is Catherine Reed Day, and this has been the Augsburg Podcast.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg Podcast. I’m President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit augsburg.edu.