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On the Menu: Quinoa and Cervantes

This post is written by NCTE member Michael Guevara. 

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Before it became all the rage as a super grain for hipsters and people who drop the names Terry Gross and Ari Shapiro like they were childhood friends, my wife and I discovered a recipe for a black bean and lime quinoa salad in the now tragically defunct Gourmet magazine.

Up to the point of finding that recipe, we had no idea what quinoa was. We would have, like most of those who saw our salad at a pot luck, called it couscous.

We knew not. We were uninformed. We were inexperienced.

We now love quinoa.

As is often the case, when we try new things, we find new loves.

Sadly, we also know not and are uninformed and inexperienced on one of the greatest writers to ever live—Miguel de Cervantes.

Born 469 years ago today in Spain, Cervantes is widely regarded as a writer so consequential and influential on Western literature that Spanish is often called the language of Cervantes. But we know Shakespeare, not Cervantes.

A few weeks ago, right around the beginning of a new school year, Crest toothpaste ran a Shakespeare commercial without any doubt that audiences would recognize the ubiquitous bard. In 2017, TNT will introduce a bawdy bard in the new drama Will, which examines Shakespeare as someone no one knows—yet.

And now Miguel.

Not recognizing Cervantes beyond what is found in The Wit and Wisdom of Don Quixote de la Mancha is a crime against humanities, and we are diminished for it.

In a world of turmoil and terrorism, how do we not gnaw on the words of Cervantes in his poem “A la guerra me lleva”:

A la guerra me lleva
mi necesidad;
si tuviera dineros
no fuera en verdad
To war I’m called
And I must go;
If I had money
It wouldn’t be so

And how in a society where pooches parade through life in designer bags and pet owners are now pet parents do we not acknowledge the author who gave us the first talking dog story in Western literature? In The Dialogue of Dogs, Cervantes gives us a raucous tale within a tale where the better-than-humans dogs recount the tribulations of their lives at the hands of a flawed humankind.

Even the life of Cervantes merits our merit.

He was a man who participated in duels, a man sold into slavery by pirates, a man who lost his arm in battle, and a man who conceived his most iconic work while locked away in prison.

Our lives are broadened, enriched when we dare to break away from the familiarity of what we’ve always been fed. In an earlier post this year about Cervantes, I wrote: “I want students to recognize, appreciate, understand that people all over the world write. I want them to understand that wondrous literature happens in a multitude of languages. I want teachers to examine their lesson plans and their own biases, and challenge themselves to fire the canon they are so accustomed to teaching.”

And I still believe this.

But I also believe something else: maybe we need to stop thinking about ourselves as English teachers. Maybe it’s time to think of ourselves as teachers of great works, as tour guides to the wonders of words—our own and those of others—awaiting discovery.

A few weeks ago, I heard a wonderful interview with the writer Laia Jufresa about her debut novel Umami, which was originally written in Spanish. As Jufresa discussed the relationship she had with the woman who translated her novel to English, I was struck by these words: “It’s such a treat to have someone translating your work because no one ever will read your work as closely as a translator does.” This gives me a hope as I seek to discover more Cervantes.

My own Spanish doesn’t rise too far above the ability to order off the menu at my favorite Mexican restaurant, Lee’s El Taco Garage, without need of a translator, but the language of Cervantes is too rich to let language get in the way. Earlier I debated whether I should say “To war I’m called” or “The war takes me” (thanks, Mom for your input), but the more salient point isn’t whether I went too literal or too interpretive with my translation. No, the point is that I’m still gnawing on the words and ideas of Cervantes, a man who knew war.

Our students need more gnawing in their lives.

If you want the recipe to our black bean and lime quinoa salad, I’m happy to share it with you. If you want to add some Cervantes to your literary menu that you may just grow to love, I’m simply happy.

And to Miguel de Cervantes: feliz cumpleaños.

Michael M. Guevara is a former high school English teacher and former district English language arts and reading coordinator. Most recently he served on the 2016 Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills review committee. Michael is a writer and an independent educational consultant.