Gene Bell-Villada has been a professor of Spanish at Williams since 1975. Having spent his childhood in Puerto Rico, Bell-Villada, whose mother was Philippine-Chinese, moved first to Cuba and Venezuela, and then to the United States for college. At the University of California, Berkeley, he became interested in Spanish and Latin American literature. His specialties include Modernism, music, and narrative in addition to Latin American literature.
You have lived in many countries in your life and you identify as a “third culture kid.” Do you think that this kind of multi-national experience gives you a different view on international events and issues from most Americans?
When one grows up internationally, one naturally sees things internationally. You’re always aware that the U.S. is not the only country with interests. And one is potentially a kind of natural cultural relativist who sees all customs as local and even arbitrary. (Not in all cases, though; there are many Americans who grow up abroad and are attached to the notion that “America is the greatest country in the world.”)
How do you feel that your experiences as a third-culture kid have affected your sense of your identity as an American?
Indeed, precisely because of my TCK experiences, I’ve never felt fully American. I’m Hispanic as well. There’s a bit of me from each of the three Latin American countries where I was raised. You might say that I’m an American Third Culture Kid, or American plus something else.
What is your specialty? How did you become interested in Latin American literature, especially after you studied music in college?
My formal specialty is modern Latin American fiction, though I’ve also written on English, French, and American literature, as well as on larger political and social topics. I’ve even published two books of fiction of my own!
Back when I decided that I could no longer continue in music, I shifted to literature. At first I tried English literature, but found myself dissatisfied with the ethos and attitudes of the English field. So I moved to Spanish. By pure chance, it was at that very moment when some amazing new fiction was coming out of Latin America, and I saw that I could serve as a mediator, an interpreter, between those emerging authors and their American readers.
Why do you think it’s important for Williams students, and Westerners in general, to study Latin American culture?
Latin America and its 20 republics are our hemispheric neighbors. So that in itself is a reason to be aware of their presence, their issues and debates. Moreover, the U.S. currently has the fourth or fifth largest Hispanic population in the world. (Some observers say it’s maybe even the third-largest.) In that regard, then, we’re part of Latin America. Finally, for those with literary interests, over the last 50 years, some of the world’s greatest literature has been coming from Latin America’s writers.
Why do you think it’s important for Williams students be aware of international issues?
The United States is not the world! It is just one country among many. Owing to the sheer size and power of the USA, however, there’s a tendency in this country to Americocentrism. (Folks all over the world have some idea of what’s happening in the US. By contrast, few Americans have much of a grasp of events abroad.) Becoming aware of international issues is a useful antidote to that tendency.
If you could go any one place in the world, where would you go?
No place in particular—but all of them, too! There are many places I feel affection for—Mexico, Argentina, France, not to mention Berkeley, California. I’m particularly fond of Madrid, having lived there for two years as the director of the Hamilton College study-abroad program. Some day, I hope to see the Galápagos Islands. Meanwhile, I recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, where I spent my first 12 years on this earth; during my visit, I met up with former classmates whom I had not seen since 1959 or earlier.
What are you reading at the moment?
For my own edification, I recently finished William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. To keep up with my field, last night I wrapped up Henry Louis Gates’s Black in Latin America. As part of my researches, I just slogged through Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? as well as Nabokov’s nasty critique thereof. (Neither of them was exactly a treat…) For light reading on an upcoming airplane trip to New Mexico, I recently checked out Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead. And now, for the very first time, I’m about to embark on Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin!