April 23 is Spanish Language Day, one of a series of Language Days selected by the United Nations to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity. Dr Yarí Pérez Marín, an Associate Professor and Director of Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, discusses her research as well as the duality of the Spanish language.
Q: What are your primary research interests?
A: I have two main areas of research: contemporary Latin American cinema and media, on the one hand, and on the other, early modern Hispanic culture in transatlantic contexts with an emphasis on the connection between the history of science and literary representation.
Q: Why is an interdisciplinary approach important in your research?
A: Taking an interdisciplinary approach to the topics I study allows me to ask better questions, and often leads to more thoughtful, or more precise answers that would otherwise not come into view. Drawing on the expertise of scholars in fields other than my own lets me engage with different kinds of evidence in an informed way. But it's not unusual. Thinking back to the writers, artists and thinkers from Latin America whose work inspired me to pursue an academic career in the first place, I can't think of an example where interdisciplinarity wasn't part of the equation. What is perhaps different in my own case are the fields that I've brought into conversation with one another in recent projects, like the history of surgery and literary studies.
Q: Can you explain how the Spanish language is both a site of colonisation and a site of resistance?
A: The rise of Spanish, with its roots in Old Castilian, one of several Iberian languages used in medieval times, to one of the world's most spoken languages today and the Romance language with the largest number of speakers by far, is a process closely tied to Spain's history of colonial expansion and the evolution of its political configuration. That the teaching of Spanish played a key role in the colonisation of indigenous populations in the Americas is clear, with instruction linked to religious conversion initially, and with non-Spanish speakers increasingly marginalised in matters of governance as the colonial era unfolded. It is important to remember that one does not have to speak Spanish (or Portuguese, or French) to be from Latin America, with languages like Quechua, Mayan dialects, Guaraní, Kreyòl and many others being very much a part of the region's linguistic map. Likewise, within Spain, the memory of Francoist efforts to suppress other Iberian languages such as Catalan during the dictatorship years is still fresh in people's minds and relevant to understanding popular sentiment.
However, languages are also palimpsests, refashioned and appropriated by their users over the centuries. Spanish remains a core vehicle for the expression of cultural and national identity in many parts of the Hispanic world, and is a platform for projects seeking to strengthen a sense of regional cohesion within the Global South. In some places, it is a language associated with resistance, as in Western Sahara, where Spanish asserts the distinctiveness of its cultural heritage, contesting the legitimacy of Morocco's ongoing challenge to its sovereignty. And it is also true of Puerto Rico, my native country, where after 125 years of being classed as an unincorporated territory of the USA, and despite being home to a population of US citizens larger than that of 20 of its 50 states, people residing in the island do not have a right to political self-determination, are not allowed to participate in presidential elections, and have no voting representatives in Congress. While the use of Spanish there crosses political lines and isn't a barometer of positions for or against political independence, its endurance and the scale of its use is striking in a decolonising context, spoken by over 94 percent of the population as their main language in contrast to just over five percent when compared to English according to the most recent census data.
Q: What are the next steps in your research?
A: At the moment I am working on several projects, including what I hope will be a monograph examining issues of visibility and differential vulnerability in early modern Iberian medicine. I am also writing an article on cinematic intertextuality and present-day ideas about regional solidarity in recent South American film and media.