FYI Magazine

Bringing Spanish to Life

Beatriz Gómez Acuña, associate professor of Spanish at Elmhurst, specializes in the folk ballads and oral traditions of her native Spain. Her teaching interests, however, extend to Spanish popular culture and the College’s service-learning programs. Here, she discusses how she keeps her classroom lively and her students engaged.

What brought you to the United States?
I met my husband, who is from Madison, Wisconsin, while he was studying in Spain. We traveled back and forth to visit each other during our college years, and finally settled down together at the University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.

How did you get interested in Spanish folk ballads?
My particular interest is in ballads that pertain to the feminine realm. These were usually transmitted from mothers to daughters as a way to pass along messages or advice that women couldn’t convey in the open, messages about everything from arduous domestic tasks to sexuality and seduction. I became intrigued by how these ballads were used and what they said about women of those times. They were very empowering.

Does the tradition of folk ballads still exist in Spain?

It continues today but is really dying out. The setting in which those ballads were sung no longer exists. The main task now is to record and preserve what we have. That’s how I became interested in the Sephardic Jewish community in Chicago. These Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s and resettled in many places, including Northern Africa, Romania, Greece and the Netherlands. After World War II, many of those remaining went to the United States and South America. I wanted to find out how they expressed their story through ballads. It’s a small community here, but some of its elderly members still speak Ladino [a Judeo-Spanish language], which is in danger of extinction. I thought, what can I do with this?

Did you uncover any ballads?
While I haven’t heard any songs yet, I have recorded a few prayers. One of those prayers, for the protection of a child, closely resembles a Catholic prayer in Spanish. I think it’s because before the expulsion of Jews from Spain, three monotheistic faiths coexisted there together—Jews, Muslims and Christians. They likely influenced each other. I also recorded personal narratives—the stories of their families, traced back to the diaspora, and then after the diaspora, where they moved.

How do you convey the richness of such traditions when you teach Spanish?  

Elmhurst’s world languages, literatures and culture department endorses the communicative approach to language learning, which concentrates on providing open-ended activities that the students can use to communicate rather than the direct explanation of grammar. We want students to find information for themselves, to be self-motivated. In my fourth-year Spanish classes, which focus on culture, I start off with 21st-century Spain, which grabs their attention because it’s a very liberal society, with open immigration laws and legalized homosexual marriage. That intrigues them. Then we go back in history. 

What has impressed you most about the students at Elmhurst?
I appreciate how motivated they are. We don’t have a strong language requirement at Elmhurst, so most of the students are in my classes because they want to be there. They want to be challenged. They see the value in learning a language and being exposed to what they see as a global society.

Is that why so many of your students participate in the service-learning program, which you’re also involved in?
Absolutely. The program is so valuable from a cultural and linguistic perspective. It’s eye-opening for students to go to places close to their homes and see such different communities with different social systems and values. It takes them completely out of their comfort zone. It’s also valuable for them to experience being the minority, to be “the other” if only for 10 hours a term. Plus, they must communicate in Spanish. Even if they don’t know how to say a word, they must convey its meaning. Students gain strength from that. They realize they can do so much more than they thought.   

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