Writing in Spanish Elevates Academia

Enma K. Elias
From the September/October 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

An estimated fifty-three million Spanish speakers live in the United States. This is the largest Spanish-speaking population outside of Mexico and makes Spanish the second-most-spoken language in the United States. Reflecting this growing demographic, several creative writing programs that are taught in Spanish or taught bilingually have launched over the past few years. By bringing another language into an academic system that privileges English, programs such as those at the University of Houston, the University of Iowa, and the University of Texas in El Paso provide alternative and radical frameworks that challenge a historically white academy’s assumptions about writing—how it should be taught, who belongs in the U.S. graduate classroom, and why we write.  

In 2017, the same year that Donald Trump was inaugurated—and the surge of racist rhetoric around the border wall and Latinx communities intensified—the University of Houston launched a PhD track in Spanish with a concentration in creative writing. The program is practical and theoretical in its approach to literary arts—graduate students take workshops in poetry and prose, all conducted in Spanish, as well as literary seminars within the Hispanic Studies and English departments, guaranteeing an interdisciplinary experience. Set in downtown Houston near the Second Ward, a historically Mexican neighborhood, the program places a strong emphasis on writing and community. Through Writers in the Schools and Inprint, two local nonprofit arts organizations, many graduate students have taught bilingual, Spanish, and English writing workshops to children, adults, and older people to engage the community in the power of reading and writing. Students have also organized public readings in defense of the thousands of immigrant children who are currently in cages at detention centers at the border as well as to advance other social causes. Additionally students have access to the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage program, a comprehensive archival project operated by Arte Público Press and housed within the University of Houston, which recovers materials that amplify Latinx voices.

“Writing is a powerful community-making practice, and in many ways I see our program as a form of writing activism,” says Cristina Rivera Garza, the director of the creative writing program in Spanish at the University of Houston. “When our communities are under siege—and they are—it is more important than ever to regain control over our narratives.” 

Student Valentina Jaeger was attracted by the program’s promise of an expansive understanding of writing’s intersection with resistance. “Writing is a constant act of ‘disappropriation’ and ‘debt payment,’ as professor Rivera Garza explains,” says Jaeger. “Each act of writing has become an act of unraveling all the knowledge and other voices that have been consciously or unconsciously in touch with mine.”

At the University of Iowa’s MFA program in Spanish Creative Writing in the famed literary hub of Iowa City, writers from around the globe working solely in Spanish are engaged in similar explorations. A number of graduates of the program, which was founded in 2012, have already found success in publishing globally and within the United States. Program director Luis Muñoz highlights the work of graduate Elisa Ferrer, who won the prestigious Premio Tusquets Editores de Novela for Temporada de avispas (Tusquets Editores S.A., 2019), which was her thesis, directed by the Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya.

Students from the program frequently take courses at other creative writing programs within the University of Iowa, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Literary Translation program, and the Nonfiction MFA program. This convergence of cultures and language allows students from all programs to socialize and to interact through events such as the Subtituladxs reading series, in which participants recite work in Spanish accompanied by projected translation “subtitles” to invite a larger audience. Leticia Fernández-Fontecha, a student in the program, says she started learning English in her late twenties. For her, each language offers a different space in which to think and express thoughts, differences that in turn shape her writing in the two languages. The program provides space to explore this: “English tends to be more precise, the narrative structures are more defined as well, whereas Spanish tends to longer sentences,” she says. “There is a different emphasis on words and the sound of words…. Both offer spaces of freedom and rules.”

An interest in the possibility that comes with work between and across languages helped inspire the founding of the bilingual MFA at the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP), the first such program in the world. “It was a radical experiment,” says Daniel Chacón, chair of the MFA program in creative writing. “We gave students the freedom to work in either tongue or to code-switch,” he says, referring to the process in which writers alternate between Spanish and English within a single piece. Set in a bilingual border town, unique and culturally rich, UTEP has been attracting students from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Spain since it was established in 1992.

Admission to the program does not require fluency in either language; coursework includes Spanish, English, and bilingual elements. Recent graduates include Betina González and Yuri Herrera, who have won critical acclaim and prestigious awards such as the Premio Clarín de Novela. Óscar Godoy Barbosa, a professor of creative writing at Universidad Central (UC) in Colombia, began his studies at UTEP in 2009. “In Latin American countries there is a focus on literary analysis and comparative literature but not the creation of literature,” he says. Upon returning to Colombia, Godoy Barbosa applied the methodologies he observed in El Paso to the emerging undergraduate and graduate programs at UC, which has been seen with much interest by other universities in the continent. 

Godoy Barbosa’s son, Sergio, came with him to Texas in 2009, when he was sixteen. He started studying at UTEP last fall and hopes to also contribute to Colombia’s literary culture. “I think there are important stories that need to be told about my country—about masculinity, about war, about poverty, and much, much more—and if I can be part of the conversation, I’m in.” 

The work emerging from all three programs testifies to the talent of an existing community of Spanish-language writers that a predominantly white academy has been late to recognize. “There is a common belief, a misconception that communities of color have to be legitimized by the white academy,” says Chacón. “But Spanish has had communities of influence meeting to discuss ideas for thousands of years. Spanish does not need legitimacy.”


Enma K. Elias is a short story writer, freelance reporter, quarantine baker, and paint-by-numbers enthusiast. Spanish is her first language.