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In Search of Democracy

A visit with Michael Ugarte, Professor, Romance Languages Department

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: Africa Spain urbanism activism equatorialguinea

Like many researchers, Michael Ugarte finds his research to be rooted in his personal history. "My research is connected directly to who I am, what part of the world I come from, and where I grew up," begins the MU Professor of Romance Languages. As we sat in his tiny office, I found myself staring into the kind eyes of this gentle soul, mesmerized as he described the personal connections involved in his research. Ugarte's family tree contains a long line of Spaniards dedicated to fighting for democracy. His mother and father, for instance, came to the U.S. after the Spanish Civil War (and the toppling of democracy there) to escape Spain’s dictatorship and the government’s retaliation for their democratic political views. Ugarte grew up hearing family stories about such folks as his grandfather being jailed and sentenced to death for having participated in the government of the Second Spanish Republic. "I [have] lived in relative comfort by comparison with my family," Ugarte offers to situate his intellectual activity. "This defines me a great deal, even though I was born in the United States. My father and my mother instilled in me a sense of identity—ethnic, but even political identity—as being a person who tries to work for democracy in all kinds of situations."

It follows then that in college and graduate school Ugarte studied Spanish and philosophy, that he followed in the footsteps of his ancestors by getting involved in social and political activism related to his intellectual work, and that his first book, Trilogy of Treason (1982), examined the work of Juan Goytisolo, a novelist in exile from Spain in the 1970s. "I always try to make a connection between my intellectual work and my political work," he explains. It should also come as no surprise then that, being the child of parents in exile, Ugarte began exploring the notion of exile as a literary motif: "Living from outside your so-called home […] defines your writing." Based on this research Ugarte published Shifting Ground: Spanish War Exile Literature (1989), which explores how important Spanish writers have drawn upon and been influenced by this state of exile.

Next, Ugarte turned his eyes toward urban culture. "I grew up in a tiny town in New Hampshire," he chuckles, "where a big accomplishment was the second traffic light!" Describing himself as "a country bumpkin" child going into the city, Ugarte recalls his excitement about going to Boston with his father for Red Sox games: "I loved the city from the very first moment." Examining the role of the city in Spanish literature, Ugarte spent a year in Madrid where he looked at representations of the city in the works of important turn-of-the-century Spanish writers. Ugarte approached these writers—many of them "country bumpkins" like himself—in terms of how they represented urban life in their works, as well as how Madrid influenced their writing culturally and politically. This research culminated in his latest book Madrid 1900: The Capital as Cradle of Literature and Culture (1996).

The research project Ugarte is now pursuing—Spain’s relationship to Africa and the African influence in Spanish literature—differs from his previous work, yet remains connected to his previous intellectual and political work. Ugarte will examine such cultural texts as novels, poems, newspapers, paintings, posters, and other artifacts, treating them as creative expressions of social identity and attempts to construct a sense of nationality, race, and ethnicity. Ugarte wants to examine how the African “Other” (with a capital “O”) and ideas about the so called “dark continent” are manifested in Spanish consciousness. “Racism has always been a part of Spanish mentality,” says Ugarte, who explains how the African Other was depicted as barbarian in order to justify colonization, where it became “the white man’s burden” to “civilize” these parts of the world, with the added benefit of providing the colonizers with precious metals, natural resources, slave bodies for labor, and so forth.

"Colonization vitiates any sense of equality and democracy," Ugarte rightly points out. With this in mind, Ugarte has turned his attention to Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country on the central west coast of Africa, which is the only Spanish-speaking country south of the Sahara and "the last bastion of Spanish colonization." Even today, neo-colonizers desire the country's oil. "Oil is more a curse than a blessing in Equatorial Guinea," says Ugarte, who reports that 90% of the oil contracts go to big corporations, leaving only 10% to a corrupt dictatorial ruler and his family who have little interest in the welfare of their citizens. The relationship between Equatorial Guinea and Spain, unfortunately, has been examined by very few scholars. It is crucial to look into this relationship, argues Ugarte, because it reveals how Spaniards saw the African Other, "how they wanted to latch onto their imperial background." Ugarte now has a unique opportunity to work with Donato Ndongo, a living author whose novel Shadows of Your Black Memory he recently translated into English. Ndongo, a visiting professor at MU, is himself in exile from Equatorial Guinea. From the perspective of dialect, "to talk to an African man who speaks Castilian Spanish with slight African inflections is just remarkable to me," says Ugarte. On top of this linguistic intrigue, it is fitting to find both men—like Ugarte’s kin—actively in search of democracy.