Dr. Liliana Trevizán, a Spanish professor in the Department of Modern Languages, has been educating SUNY Potsdam students for the past 25 years, guided by her strong convictions for democracy and equality.
Born in the southernmost city in the world, Trevizán spent her youth in Punta Arenas, Chile, located where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific on the Strait of Magellan. The weather was often so harsh on the southern tip of Chile that intense winds would tear the roofs right off of buildings. “It’s a beautiful, but very powerful landscape,” Trevizán recalled.
The extreme weather in Punta Arenas foreshadowed the political climate that unfolded later in her life in Chile. In 1973, during Trevizán’s freshman year at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, a military coup d'état ousted the sitting government, and a military dictatorship, led by General Augusto Pinochet, took hold on her country.
“It was one of the cruelest in Latin America. I tell this to my students: When I was their age, we had a curfew for 10 years, we couldn’t go out after midnight. Not only a curfew, but people would disappear. I had friends whose fathers had disappeared. I had classmates in college that were taken,” Trevizán said.
Halfway through her freshman year at the Universidad de Chile, a large fence was erected around her campus and students were forced to enter through a military checkpoint, with an armed soldier checking bags and identifications. Half of the professors fled the country and many others were fired.
One of her favorite classes, taught by Professor Rojo, allowed her to study the literary work of American Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. “It was a fabulous class and I would sit in the first row, and I think I was a favorite student because I read more than he wanted us to read. One day we arrived and the professor was not there. We waited for a half hour and the chair of the department came and said that the professor had been taken. He was teaching American literature; American literature was considered subversive,” she said.
Although she felt fear, panic and intimidation, Trevizán began to fight for democracy. She participated in the first protest on campus after the military coup occurred—leading to her interrogation along with 40 of her classmates and subsequent expulsion for the remainder of the semester. Overall, more than 3,000 people were killed or went missing under Pinochet’s regime, with tens of thousands of prisoners tortured during the dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990.
Despite all the horrors around her, and on top of her full class schedule, Trevizán was also working as a full-time teacher—burning the candle at both ends to finance her education and support her family. She went on to get her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in world literature from the Universidad de Chile. After graduating she joined other teachers in founding a charter school in a poor neighborhood—a daunting task during the dictatorship. “Many of my best friends are writers and the censorship we had in those years was terrible. I admire so much that they still wrote and said their piece, although some of them were imprisoned for it,” she said.
The school was exposed to random searches by the government and their underlying theme—a school for democracy—needed to remain shrouded in secrecy. “We were motivated by working with students that were really at risk, a population that needed us. We were also motivated by our desire to build democracy from the ground up—to teach students how you function in a place that is now repressive,” she said. The school, Camilo Henriquez, is thriving today as a school of excellence in Santiago.
After founding the school and working as a teacher in Santiago for several years, Trevizán moved to the United States and went on to get her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Romance languages from the University of Oregon in Eugene. Her expertise in women’s literature, feminism and women’s movements in Latin America formed the backbone of her dissertation. She started teaching at SUNY Potsdam in the fall of 1992, just recently surpassing the 25-year mark on campus.
For the last two and a half decades she has been educating SUNY Potsdam students not only about the Spanish language, but also about the importance of democracy, freedom of speech and free thought. “The inclusion of everybody, and not silencing anybody and not censoring people—to me, that is so important,” Trevizán said.
During her tenure at the College, she has been an important figure in the women’s and gender studies program, acting as its director for six years. Last semester, she taught four classes, including a “Cultures of Latin America” course, where her students raised money for the recovery efforts in Mexico following the earthquake, and in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
Last semester, Trevizán also taught a unique seminar course on “The Politics of Love in Latin American Literature.” Her advanced students read novels and poetry about love and examined critically the narratives of love in the work of Pablo Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Elena Poniastowska, as well as the iconic love stories of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Che Guevara, Gabriela Mistral and Pedro Lemebel. Her students also read lengthy novels in Spanish such as “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Garcia Marquez and “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” by Manuel Puig before writing three 10-page papers in Spanish.
This spring she will be teaching a general education Spanish class where students complete their modern language requirement and have to show that they are able to communicate by delivering prepared speeches in Spanish. “Language is so much about feeling comfortable. It’s like swimming in some ways. When you’re not in the water, you can’t really learn how to do it, no matter how much theory you have,” Trevizán said. She is also excited to be teaching a class on 'Feminist Research Methods' for students who are majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, or who would like to learn feminist approaches to do research in any given field of study.
Trevizán always welcomes students into her office to help them figure out their career paths and to give them advice. She encourages them to do internships and travel abroad. One of her students, Spencer Elias ’15, had the opportunity to move to Santiago after graduation, where he spent two years teaching at Camilo Henriquez, the same school Trevizán had started decades earlier.
Trevizán is also currently working on a book that will be examining what memory means for democracy. “My obsession is democracy, because I experienced what it was like to not live in a democracy. I was always very involved and very active in building democracy and fighting that dictatorship—so, that is still in my heart, it’s in my DNA,” she said.
To learn more about Trevizán and the Department of Modern Languages, visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/Lang