Eduardo Cabrera: ‘I have great hope in young Americans’
AL DÍA News spoke with Dr. Eduardo Cabrera, Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Millikin University in Illinois and finalist in the Latino Book Awards 2018, about the challenges of being a Latino immigrant in the Midwest.
Unlike the great flow of Latin American immigrants who come to the United States in search of economic opportunities, Eduardo Cabrera moved to this country for love. However, this small detail did not prevent him from making immigration and the problems that undocumented migrants undergo when arriving in the United States one of his main topics of interest, both as a writer and teacher.
"I fell in love with a Salvadoran woman, and because of her I came to Los Angeles," recalled Cabrera.
Born in Argentina, Cabrera studied Dramatic Arts in Buenos Aires and is currently a professor of Spanish and director of the Department of Modern Languages at Millikin University, in Decatur, Illinois.
To understand how this Argentine dramatist, writer, and finalist in the Latino Book Awards 2018 for his book "Nine Tales of Immigrants in the United States" ended up being a university professor in Illinois, we must rewind in time.
After graduating in Dramatic Art and Sociology, Cabrera began earning a living as a chess teacher in Buenos Aires. "I have always been interested in everything: chess, politics, art..." he said.
His life took a turn in the early 1980s whe he accepted an offer from a friend to spend a year teaching chess in El Salvador, invited by the Salvadoran Chess Federation. In addition to chess, Cabrera organized theatre plays and television programs, which is how he met his future wife, a Salvadoran actress whom he hired for one of the programs. Unfortunately, the civil war broke out, forcing his girlfriend to flee El Salvador and emigrate to Los Angeles, and himself to return to Argentina.
After a while, Cabrera moved to Los Angeles, where he and his girlfriend got married. It was the year 1986. "We were lucky to end up in California, a very progressive state, very cosmopolitan, that gives opportunities to do anything you want," he recalled.
In his neighborhood in L.A, the couple set up a theater school in Spanish, "which was a resounding success," said Cabrera proudly. Also in L.A, their three kids were born. The three of them are now consolidated musicians. One lives in Buenos Aires, another in the Netherlands, another in Los Angeles. "We inspired them to love art," explained Cabrera.
Upon arriving in the United States, Cabrera also took the opportunity to expand his studies and completed a Ph.D. in Spanish with a specialization in Latin American Literature and Theater at the University of California, Irvine. The title opened to him the doors of the American academic world, and soon a job offer came from a university in Kentucky. The entire family moved to the Midwest. "It was a very resounding change," said the professor. "Kentucky is a conservative state, with very few Latinos," he said. Later, the family moved to Texas, following another position at a university. The experience was similar. "Texas is an ultra-conservative, oppressive state, especially for Latinos. For the first time I felt like a foreigner," said Cabrera, who is now happy to be living again in a progressive state like Illinois.
In fact, in his latest book, "Nine Tales of Immigrants in the United States," a compilation of immigrant stories published in 2017, Cabrera gets inspiration from his personal experience as a Latino immigrant. One of his stories, for example, features a Latino immigrant who must move for work from California to Kentucky. "In my stories I explore how is daily life in different states," said Cabrera, recalling the cultural shock that his family had when they moved to the Midwest for the first time. "After living in California, where one feels welcome, where new immigrants arrive permanently - and that's why Spanish language is so alive - we endured discrimination for the first time," he said.
Currently, Cabrera and his wife live in Decatur, Illinois, where he spends his time teaching Spanish and Latin American Literature and Culture at Millikin University, anchoring a program at a local radio station while also writing books and academic articles. He has published a number of articles about literature, theatre, culture and politics in professional journals of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Spain, and the United States. He is also the author of the books like “Teatro Argentino: The Theater Direction in Buenos Aires” and “Theater Brief for the Class and the Stage,” which are used in some high schools and universities in the country.
One of the things that Cabrera is most proud of is his contribution for a radio program at Millikin University, where he disseminates topics on Latino culture, from Latin American and Spanish politics, to topics of interest for the entire Hispanic community in the United States, like immigration or the DACA situation.
"President Trump wants to eliminate the DACA and in our universities we have many students who are DREAMers," said Cabrera, who is also involved in various activist groups in Illinois. The two main causes for which they fight are fracking and DACA, a program implemented by president Obama in 2012 to protect undocumented immigrants that entered the country when they were minors from being deported.
"The issue of immigration continues to be a very important source of inspiration in my career," said Cabrera. "Luckily, my wife and I did not have to struggle to become legal residents, but I am worried about the situation of the undocumented immigrants so it has become a constant in my books," said the author.
Another tale in his book was inspired by the drama of immigrant children who arrive alone at the border with the United States, especially during Obama's term. This is a hot topic today, with President Trump defending his policy of splitting up families entering the U.S. illegally, defying a growing chorus of condemnation. In Cabrera’s tale, the story echoes the situation of the more than 1,200 Central Americans, mostly Honduran children and women, who left their country 15 months ago, fleeing violence and unemployment, hoping to enter the United States as political refugees. Only 400 people of this contingent of immigrants, known as the "Migrant Caravan," has managed to reach Tijuana, in Mexico, on the border with San Diego, CA, and now they are forced to wait for the Trump government to concede to them political asylum. However, seeing the advance of the caravan, Trump ordered the deployment of the National Guard in the border limits, a measure of pressure more for Mexico to stop the more than 1,000 Central American migrants - among them about 300 children, most of them Hondurans who left from the border with Guatemala, as reported in El País last month.
Last year, the Illinois Humanities Organization granted a scholarship to Cabrera to speak about his theatre play "The Immigrants" throughout the state. The play explores the complex life of immigrants in the United States, through the experiences of Martin, a young man of lower middle class means who faces the typical problems that are experienced in a community of immigrants, helping the viewer to overcome the stereotyped vision of the immigrant. "The work does not emphasize the material needs but the intellectual ambitions of the protagonist," explained Cabrera, who recently traveled to Colombia with a grant of the University of Minnesota to give a talk about theater and literature in Spanish.
Apart from writing, Cabrera loves his job as a university professor. "We do not teach only Spanish language, but a whole culture," he said. What satisfies him most is seeing that he is able to awaken in his students an interest in the culture and language of his parents. "Some of them decide to travel to Spain, or to Latin America, in an exchange program. And they return to the United States absolutely changed. Many had not even left their own state before," said the professor. "They return with a more open mentality, they want to travel again. The goal of our university is to train global citizens," he said.
This is not exactly the spirit of the current president of the United States, but Cabrera says he has "great hope" in young Americans, who are much more progressive than it seems. "I do not think Trump will win the election again. I think soon we will see a new progressive government," he said.
In addition, "when the number of Latinos grows, the number of progressive votes also grows.”
"That's why Trump is so opposed to us," he said.
From his position as professor of Spanish Language and Culture, Cabrera has also noted that “more and more Anglo-Saxons are interested in our culture and our language.”
"They realize that without Spanish they do not get anywhere," he said. Especially in big cities like New York, Los Angeles or Miami, where knowing Spanish means having many more job opportunities, be it as an entrepreneur, a nurse in a hospital or as a school teacher. "A high school teacher who speaks Spanish is highly valued, because he can communicate in Spanish with the parents of a Latino child," he said.
At home, he was always very clear about this: his three children were educated in a bilingual and bicultural environment, "something they now value a lot, since it has opened them many professional opportunities," he said.
Another thing that Cabrera is also very clear about is that he was fortunate to have arrived first in California, a state where the Latino identity is kept alive thanks to the continuous arrival of immigrants, while in other states it gets more complicated to maintain bicultural aspects. In environments with less Latino communities, children are more likely to be ashamed to speak Spanish in public to avoid social prejudice, for example. And nowadays, despite Trump's anti-Latino rhetoric, he believes that it is even easier to keep Spanish alive, as Latin American immigrants, at least in California, "increasingly come with more education and university education. It's different from a few decades ago," he said. He also recalled that California is a state where Latinos already have political representation in all political strata.
In the next few years, Cabrera intends to continue writing and publishing in Spanish, although he knows it is challenging. He regrets the poor distribution of books in Spanish published in the United States, but trusts that "sooner or later publishers will understand the potential of the Latino market. It is a lack of vision on their side: they do not see that there is a market that is very interested in our issues. I can see it every day on my radio show," Cabrera said. “In addition, the arrival of immigrants with a higher educational level favors the dissemination of reading and culture in Spanish," concluded the professor, convinced of the importance of promoting bilingual culture in the United States.
In fact, one of the things he likes the most when he visits his son - a tango violinist - in the Netherlands, is to see how polyglots the Dutch are. "Knowing languages opens your mind a lot," he concluded.