El Morro guards the northwestern tip of the old city, a headland with sparkling three-sixty views. Poised to fire cannons and guns against approaching sea invaders, the stone castle—six zigzagging levels, walls thick as hallways—was built by the Spanish starting in the early 1500s. El Morro protected Spain’s “porto rico,” the harbor crucial to any European empire seeking a foothold in the resource-rich Caribbean basin. But while El Morro protected San Juan from a seaside attack, the city’s eastern flank remained exposed to ambush by land, a weakness exploited by the British in 1598, then the Dutch in 1625. The Dutch succeeded in burning the city to the ground, but no one ever captured El Morro, whose now pleasant grassy lawn was, several times over, a bloody battlefield. After these near catastrophes, Spain began a second fort, Castillo San Cristóbal, at the city’s northeastern headland. Spain held Puerto Rico until the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. intervened in Cuba’s struggle for independence. During a few short, calamitous months in 1898, Spain lost to the U.S. its Pacific and Caribbean lands, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and, temporarily, a nominally independent Cuba. An empire of nearly four hundred years dissolved like cobwebs in rain.
Though I never knew the names and battles of these San Juan forts, there was a time, not so long ago, when I could recount a nutshell history of Puerto Rico, starting with the native Boriqueños. I had a grasp not only of the Spanish Caribbean and the Spanish-American War, but also of Mexico’s evolution from distinct indigenous civilizations to an independent nation to losing half of itself to the United States in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I knew the atrocious history of California’s Spanish missions and that Operation Peter Pan ushered thousands of Cuban schoolchildren into the U.S. after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
But today, standing on a precipice in Old San Juan, I battle to recall why Puerto Rico was el clave al Caribe. Before whitecapped aquamarine, hair whipping, I strain to see into my intellectual past, but my mind’s blank. I have to read the National Park Service signs, starting at the beginning. Worse, walking the ramparts, my confidence weakened, I worry I mixed up estar and ser in the morning’s conversational forays. Here I speak Spanish not to be understood—nearly everyone we’ll come across is bilingual—but to know if I still can. Language is a deeper, more intuitive, more intractable vein. Words, phrases, do return, but with difficulty; my ears feel cotton-filled. I blame the trouble I’ve always had with Puerto Rican Spanish. To my Mexico-trained ear, these islanders sound like they have marbles in their mouths.
Realizing the scale of what I’ve forgotten is depressing. Competency and knowledge are not supposed to abandon you like lovers do.
I came to know what I knew through the love of a language—in this case, one that is also a language of colonization. Spain’s influence in the Americas is a brutal narrative of domination, but for just this reason, Spanish opens up histories and cultures of half the world. For a twentieth-century girl growing up at America’s easternmost edge, the lure was irresistible.
No languages at all were taught at my rural, K–8 school in Maine (English class itself was called Language Arts). But when I entered high school, I discovered that my classmates had been learning French since fifth grade at least, many since birth—like mill towns across New England, Augusta has a large French Canadian population. I’d never catch up. And perhaps because I lived in one of the only regions of North America where French was spoken, it felt to me like a small, local language. At the high school, French and Spanish had their respective perks and perils, each language taught by one enthusiastic teacher and one terror. The worse French classes were taught by a towering, short-tempered, convent-trained spinster; the worse Spanish classes by a downtrodden woman who’d married a man from El Salvador. Her clothes were ill-fitting, exposing protruding parts for ridicule, and she shuffled about the classroom in a constant state of demoralized apprehension, unable to knock irregular conjugations into our thick skulls.
More personally relevant to my choice of languages was that my father’s first wife was Mexican American, and for most of my childhood my brother was traveling through Latin America. When I was eight, we visited him in Spain, where he was studying abroad. The Alhambra and its orange groves, the tapestry factories, and the Prado’s El Grecos all made deep impressions. I was in awe of how many places my brother could go with one linguistic passport, and I was determined to do the same. Because my siblings lived in Los Angeles, I also knew that Spanish was taking over big cities in the U.S., and I had been raised to value practicality as highly as book-learning.
In college I studied anthropology, Spanish, and writing. While I loved the interviewing and furious observation of fieldwork, by senior year I knew anthropology as a discipline wouldn’t hold me. I couldn’t see myself writing papers like those I was reading, papers questioning the authority of a text, fixated on the ethnographer’s bias to the exclusion of the history and cultural interpretation I craved. My postgraduate options sorted themselves into 1) some kind of writing/editing thing, or 2) some kind of Latino/Latin American studies. I was luckier than I realized when these two dovetailed in work as project manager for one of the most interesting and valuable projects I’ve been a part of, the Encylopedia Latina. In his introduction, Ilan Stavans recalls that he first thought the endeavor “an utterly quixotic task.” We were bound to fall short of expectations. He eventually agreed to the idea because the areas of scholarship the volumes would contain had previously been both dispersed and uneven in quality. Roughly twenty-six thousand emails and four years later, the Encyclopedia Latina made its debut.
Immersion in the table of contents alone was an education. Reading the articles across disciplines and finding connections between them (I was responsible for many of the Related Articles…) was a remarkably thorough history course. But the Encyclopedia Latina taught me more than facts. I learned how to conceive and organize an enormous, comprehensive scholarly project spanning five hundred years and most of a hemisphere. As my knowledge of places expanded, these places grew roots and connected to one another and became populated with indigenous peoples, colonizers, immigrants, slaves. My work spurred further reading and kick-started travel—to see the places I’d read about, learn merengue, study Mexican huipiles. The Encyclopedia Latina made me a young person of exceptionally wide-ranging knowledge. And while my comprehension of any particular region, war, or people may not have been thoroughly detailed, what I knew was clear, supported by evidence, accessible, and retainable. For a while.
We didn’t know it then, but the years we nurtured, were driven insane by, and published our four-volume tome—650 entries, 1.2 million words—were the last gasp of hardback encyclopedias. Wikipedia was on the rise, and in a few short years reference publishing would collapse.
With Wikipedia, with Googling, began our collective era of bits-and-pieces learning. Forget the five-thousand-word article on the Mexican-American War; use the jump links to find the year or person you’re interested in right now. Playwright Richard Foreman has a name for the superficial thinkers we’ve become in the era of bytes-based research: “pancake people.” But I’d valued being someone with wide knowledge. I’d felt round and whole. The encyclopedia’s editors stressed, over and over, the importance of clear, nuanced writing, and I was beneficiary number one. I was enamored of the scholars I’d emailed to contribute entries on Chicano literature, on Spanglish, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, whose articles I read and reread. For years I considered attending various graduate programs, but I couldn’t motivate myself to apply. I couldn’t choose what area of study I liked the most. I wrote three entries for the Encyclopedia Latina: “Luis Alfaro,” the MacArthur Award-winning Chicano writer and activist; “Comanches,” the Native American tribe; and “HIV/AIDS.” I realized I was a generalist.
I continued to work in Latino-focused publishing when I could, but I had to take other jobs as well. Funds and time for travel became more limited. The knowledge losses were incremental, but noticeable. I’d be drawn to an exhibit on Mayan architecture, thinking I pretty much had it down, then realize I was starting nearly from scratch, like everyone else. Knowing at least a rough history of the Spanish Americas and Latinos in the U.S. had defined me at a time when I had few outlines and accomplishments—no career, no program of study. To lose knowledge was to lose competency, lose face, lose a part of myself.
When we’re young, life is all about the senses. Found objects straight into the mouth, fingers into light sockets, noses thrust into the faces of animals. Mouth-feel, toe-feel, nose-feel: this is how we learn.
Then we enter school. Textbooks, primers, research papers, “primary sources” (a term we absorb as if we knew it from birth): these are our appendages. We still lust for full-throttle sensory experience, but student days rise and set with books.
How do we learn when we’re no longer students and have not chosen paths as scholars? Not only learn but retain and recall? It’s something I think about a lot, working on a college campus surrounded by academics, teaching and engaging with students, while spending much of my time writing and editing not only fiction and essays but emails and grant proposals, enmeshed in requisite business tasks. All have taught me, in countless ways, how to think and communicate better, but except for short expeditions into the library stacks for a particular review or story, I’m no longer regularly learning about the world in a deep or methodical way. That’s extracurricular.
While I share Foreman’s general concern about how Internet-assisted information-grabbing may be retarding our ability and inclination to work painstakingly through confusion to a place of clarity, at the moment I’m more concerned with having shrunk from a pancake to a pencil.
I miss the confident person I used to be when a rough history of Latino civilizations was within a moment’s mental reach. I miss the richness of experience enabled by stable background knowledge. I miss fluency in another language. To learn another tongue is to be let in on a secret. To join another, previously inaccessible, community. Entry into a world that feels, for a moment, limitless.
At the same time, I worry that the distinction between deep and shallow learning is too easily made. We’ve established a false divide between the expert and the generalist, ignoring the middle ground occupied by the observant, thinking person. Let’s call her an ambitious generalist. As Stavans says:
For what makes knowledge heftier if not the attempt to look at the universe
through different filters, while maintaining a rigorous form of pursuit?
The evaporation of reference publishing has not meant the end to well-researched books, of course. And they are more accessible to us now than ever. Reading them is the trick.
When my father retired from clinical psychology practice at age seventy, he read, from A to Z, our 1988 Encyclopedia Britannica, and the supplementary set of Annals of America, still on the shelves he’d built to hold them a decade earlier. I thought he was nuts. Then he reread the Bible. He began teaching classes on science and religion. He began teaching Spanish, staying a step or two ahead of his students. My mother is halfway through a degree in computer science and networks. These days I find myself, in my extracurricular hours, cooking, something I can do with my hands and eat at the end. (Turns out I’m a terrible gardener.) Touching, smelling, tasting, seeing, listening. I bring myself back not to the bookish part of my student years and school-less twenties, but to the sensory apprehension of childhood.
While I know it’s a mistake to trust too far in inherited tendencies, to count too much on the future, the examples of my parents and older friends and colleagues are a solace. It will be a long time before the many scholarly books and articles in my queue thicken the batter of my knowledge to something that will rise easily when given heat. But I can still achieve limitlessness, once in a while, under the right conditions. Standing in a place and getting it, having read and listened and seen enough to catch not just the three-sixty view but also that other dimension: what has happened on this ground years before, something about why this place is how it is today.
Leaving El Morro, holding on to an empire’s rise and fall and a glimpse of the daily life of a city that no longer exists, I am both refreshed and tired. The views were spectacular, the placards succinctly informative. There’s salt in my hair, a splash of sun-shower rain across my shoulders, and an ache in my lower back. I promise myself, again, that I will reacquaint myself with the knowledgeable person I used to be, but it must be in pieces, in sights and sounds. Someday I will read and speak more Spanish. For now, I’ll have to forgive myself for what I no longer know.
—Jennifer Acker, Editor in Chief
San Juan, Puerto Rico
1 Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States. Eds Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbram. Grolier, 2005.
Image Credit: Jennifer Acker, View of El Morro from Castillo San Cristóbal