Carlos Blanco: Critical thinker from the margins

December 20, 2013
CarlosBlanco Aguinaga. Photo courtesy of Alda Blanco.

CarlosBlanco Aguinaga. Photo courtesy of Alda Blanco.

The foundational event in Carlos Blanco Aguinaga’s life, who died in San Diego on the 12 of September of 2013, was the Spanish Civil War. He was a child when he escaped the country with his family upon the defeat of the Republican forces in his home town of Irún in the Basque Country, first for France, then for Mexico City. While he would return to Spain numerous times from the 1960s on, and would make contemporary Spain the centre of his academic endeavours, he never held a Spanish passport . The war, then, turned him into an exile and determined his citizenship, but it marked his life much more profoundly than that. It made him part of a community the identity of which was defined as much by defeat as it was by the pride of having taken part in the good fight. My impression is that it was this that instilled in him an ingrained belief in solidarity and justice and in the need for political and ideological struggle to gain them. He, with thousands others, left Spain defeated, but managed to preserve what is most admirable of the Spanish Republican values at the core of his identity, and to return them to the world through his actions.

Blanco Aguinaga moved to the US from Mexico when still a teenager in 1944 with a scholarship to study his BA at Harvard, and would eventually return to the country for good in 1953 to pursue an academic career in Hispanism. His first post was held at Ohio State University, then he briefly taught, already as a full professor, at the University of California, Riverside and at Johns Hopkins, only to move in 1964 to what would become his most permanent post in the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, UCSD, where he remained until his retirement in the early 1990s.

As a Hispanist in US academia, Blanco Aguinaga benefitted from his Republican exile status, given that the field had grown since the end of the Spanish Civil War in a climate favourable to illustrious liberal Republican exiles such as Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Américo Castro or Vicente Lloréns, who populated Spanish departments across the country. They received the brilliant young Blanco, a representative of the second generation of Republican exiles, those who had left Spain as children, with open arms. But as a young scholar specializing on the literature of contemporary Spain, Blanco refused to mind only the business of philology. Very soon his scholarship would show a preoccupation with the intersections of literature and history that revealed a growing political and philosophical interest in Marxism. For example, his work on the radical political origins of the members of the Generation of 1898, a bastion of the Spanish literary canon frequently instrumentalized during the dictatorship to accommodate Francoist ideas of Spanishness, constituted at the time of its publication,1970, one of the most daring and innovative interventions in the field. In this as in many other instances, Blanco Aguinaga’s literary scholarship revealed a commitment to critical thinking that I see as indelibly tied to an acquired habit of thinking from the margins, and of being suspicious and defiant of hegemonic discourses. In other words, a commitment carefully cultivated in political exile.

There was more in his rebellion against actually existing Hispanism than the politicization of constituted fields of research, important as this is. He became heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s in California, in particular  with the struggle of Chicanos and Chicanas. In this context, he was able to leave a lasting mark in the political history of American universities through his work as co-founder and director of the Third World Studies programme and as vice-provost of Third College at UCSD. Promoting the presence of racial minorities on campus and the academic study of their cultures and histories had its knock-on effect on Hispanism itself. Carlos Blanco Aguinaga can be credited as being one of the first “Peninsularist” specialists who actively supported the development in his department of Latin American and Chicano Studies. In so doing, it seems to me that he was once again demonstrating that the principles of solidarity and justice were fundamental to the ethics from which he exercised his profession.

I met him as a student in San Diego when he already was at the end of his academic career, and I had the honour of being one of his last doctoral students. Although I went to UCSD directly from Barcelona to San Diego and was a product of the Spanish educational system through and through, from primary school to university, at the age of 24 he was the first person to teach me formally on the Spanish civil war and the culture of Republican exiles. I was not an exception, just part of the generation who grew up during the Spanish transition to democracy, when it was widely accepted that systematic and wide-reaching revisitations of the violent national past put the country at risk of repeating the trauma. I had to go all the way to California to learn about what is arguably the most important event of the Spanish 20th century, and to understand its importance for the now, in historical, cultural and political terms. Having Blanco Aguinaga as my doctoral advisor turned me into a scholar, but it also changed for good the way I understand my country’s history and my relation to it.

In Blanco Aguinaga reading and writing, commitment to scholarship and to political ideas, personal and collective history were connected in a profoundly coherent way that inspired generations of his students, colleagues and friends. When I started to learn with him I knew little about his life story and where he came from. The more I found out, the more I came to believe that his passionate engagement with literature was part and parcel of his engagement with the world and that both originated in his condition as a political exile of the Spanish Civil War. In the years since I left San Diego, I have encountered many other students of his, with very different backgrounds from mine, and shared with them the conviction that Blanco Aguinaga has left a permanent mark on them. This mark consists, in equal parts, of acquired knowledge and ethical principles. It has to do with teaching students how to look critically at an object, how to interrogate it with respect but not with deference, how to do research that matters, passionately. It also has to do with feeling valued as a student, with learning to be proud of where one comes from and to realize how one’s origins relates to one’s own intellectual interests. It is this mark that remains with us now when he has left us, and it is our responsibility to keep it alive. For me, as a Spanish person, it does not only connect me with the legacy of an extraordinary individual, but with that of a collective history, once expelled from Spain but still coming back.

Mari Paz Balibrea teaches Modern Spanish Literature and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.