Ana Merino, Spanish and Portuguese

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

When it comes to multiculturalism, Ana Merino subscribes to “the theory of two houses.”

A person with two lovely homes—one in the city, and one at the beach—wouldn’t give up either place if he didn’t have to. Likewise, if an individual identifies with two cultures, he’d prefer to retain and celebrate both.

Merino, a native of Madrid, Spain, who has lived in the United States for fifteen years, hopes to encourage young Iowans with Latino roots to keep a foot in both worlds. An associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, she is laying the groundwork for outreach efforts that will inspire Latino children and young adults to express themselves creatively in Spanish.

She envisions workshops in which kids will create comic books, write poetry, and tell stories in Spanish. In developing plans and applying for grants for the bilingual comic book workshops, Merino is partnering with colleagues like Rachel Williams, associate professor of art education, and Corey Creekmur, associate professor of cinema and comparative literature and English. They hope to work with nearby communities like West Liberty, Columbus Junction, or Muscatine, all of which have a significant Spanish-speaking population.

Merino came to the University a year ago to teach creative writing in Spanish. Part of the appeal of Iowa City was living near the Mighty Mississippi—after all, Huck Finn was her childhood hero. She also loved the idea of working in an environment where creative work is so deeply valued—a UNESCO City of Literature—and the promise of fresh landscapes for her husband, accomplished artist Felix de la Concha, to paint.

With colleagues, Merino has submitted a proposal for a Master of Fine Arts degree in Spanish creative writing. She currently teaches basic and advanced creative writing in Spanish to undergraduates and a graduate course on graphic novels and comic books of Spain and Latin America. She’s also offering a first-year seminar on the Jewish presence in comics.

In an interview with fyi, Merino explained how her career as a poet took off unexpectedly, and why civic engagement is so important to her, regardless of where she happens to be living.

How did you become interested in poetry?

I fell in love constantly as a child and wrote love poems. The way I handle myself and make sense of things is by writing poetry. In college, I studied 20th century European history and wrote poetry on the side. I went to the Netherlands for a specialization on contemporary history focusing on Yiddish studies and the Holocaust. When I returned to Spain, I met with friends who were poets and we all decided to enter a contest. I sent my manuscript, and to my amusement, I won a prestigious prize. It made an impression on Ohio State University, and I was invited to pursue a master’s in Spanish literature. I went on for a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh.

Tell us about some of the creative work you’ve published.

Hagamos caso al Tigre, which means “Let’s Follow the Tiger!,” is my book of poetry for children. There are poems about a worried octopus that has oil in his ocean, a very talkative ship, and about how people become mermaids. I also published a novel for young adults last year, The Man With Two Hearts. A mother is telling her daughter the story about this man, who is always torn in his feelings from the two hearts. He goes to the doctor for help, and the doctor tries to figure out who is missing a heart and why this man has two. I have five books of poetry for adults; my sixth, Curación (The Cure), will be out this fall. It’s about illness and healing.

A few of my favorite things…

Spanish olives, dark chocolate, sunflower seeds
Homemade meals, cooked with pure olive oil
Working with children

The projects you’re planning in Iowa won’t be your first outreach activities. What else have you done?

In Pittsburgh, I worked on a project that brought cultural activities to a damaged neighborhood. We taught the kids Capoeira Angola, an African martial art that combines dance and acrobatics. The idea was to build up the community through music and literature, and to give the students a sense of their roots.

At Appalachian State University, I met with young people whose families were migrant workers at tobacco and chicken farms. We spoke in Spanish about staying in school, rather than dropping out to take a job at age 16. We talked about the possibilities and opportunities for people who are bilingual and multicultural.

Why is this kind of work important to you?

There is beauty and joy everywhere, but at the same time, there is suffering and pain everywhere. I believe in a better world, but we have to fight for it, and there are opportunities to do that wherever you are.

What do you do in your free time?

Since 2007, my husband, Felix, has been painting portraits of Holocaust survivors. While he is painting, he records conversations with them about their lives. We travel to different places to meet with them, and I help with the historical research for this project. We’ve done 32 so far. (For more information on the project, visit www.raoulwallenberg.net/?en/highlights/prominent-spanish-artist.5690.htm)

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