Three years ago, during a stint as poet-in-residence at the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal, as he walked the streets of the medieval city, Ohio Wesleyan professor and poet Juan Armando Rojas, Ph.D., found himself asking questions because, as he says, “poetry asks questions. It doesn’t answer them.” The questions that intrigued him were, “Where am I right now?” “Where have I been?” and “What is my role as a human being, a teacher, a father, an intellectual, and a poet?”
Wandering along the streets and feeling himself transported to an earlier time, some ideas came to him. Rojas grew up at the border between the United States and Mexico, and, he says, “wrote poetry about living on the border between countries and using both languages. I wrote about the miracle of living in the desert and also subjects such as questioning violence in the region.” Teaching in Ohio, he found himself not that far from the Canadian border, and in Portugal, “I wasn’t in the big city of Lisbon,” he says. “Although I was in western Portugal, the country is not very large and I realized that once again I was close to a border, this time between Portugal and Spain.”
“That’s when I began to realize I’m trans-border poet. I cross borders.” Rojas continues. In Ohio, he navigates “what it means to be Mexican with a Mexican-American family and teaching mostly American students.” His poetry was somewhat informed by teaching “catechism to immigrant kids who are naturally bilingual. I tried to get to know them and to listen to and comprehend their stories of origin. It made me reflect that everyone is trying to have a better life and what it means cross borders and seek a new life in a different culture or country.”
While in Portugal, Rojas was approached about having his poetry published in Spain. “I researched the company and I liked what I heard. The company [Editorial Ultramarina] uses recycled materials for printing and is active in social media to engage readers, primarily younger readers, in the conversation about poetry. That felt right because one of the areas I want to explore is younger readers of poetry.” The book—Luz/Light—is bilingual and translated “by my spouse, Jennifer Rathbun, who has been my translator since we were both in graduate school,” Rojas says.
Rojas’s residency in Portugal and the offer for Spanish publication of Luz/Light led to more that self-discovery. It also “gave me the assurance that what I was doing was accepted in academia and by readers,” he says. It also led to an invitation to read from his work at an international poetry event in Huelva, Spain, where he spent four days last May. “Currently there is an interest in translating my work into Catalan, Portuguese, and German.
“In recent years, Rojas continues, “editors, authors, and poets in Spain are trying to find ways to learn from Latin American authors and to experience different ways of writing. Latin America is a goldmine of literature. Spain is looking at Latin America in the way Latin America once looked to the United States and Europe for great experimental work. The University of Salamanca, where Ohio Wesleyan students study Spanish, has opened an entire field of study in Latin American literature.”
Rojas discovered that his work occasioned considerable questioning during a series of presentations in Spain. “A lot of what I’ve written is about the experience of violence at the Mexican-American border, and during my sessions with upper-level students in Spain, I was amazed at the level of knowledge these students had about the issues and the maturity of the questions they asked,” he says. “They wanted to know what society was doing about the violence. I explained about the groups of people who hope to minimize violence through cultural events and workshops. Poetry flourishes at the border because it brings people something of beauty and of creation.”
Back home again in Delaware, Rojas continues to reflect on his life and those of his students. “I’m fortunate to be at a university where I can teach poetry by the great Latin American poets in the original languages. Learning a new language is hard [for students]. No one studies a language to get a job, as might happen in economics or science discipline,” he says. “Learning another language helps you develop as a human being, understand different approaches to society, and opens many doors and offers many surprises. When I hear from [foreign language] students who have been out of school for a while, their stories are almost always positive.”
Rojas is currently planning to start a creative writing workshop for adolescents in Delaware in order for them to express their world in different ways.