Preface: The first time I met Jonathan it was mid-August, myself in mid-sunburn (that repulsive molting phase) painting the Main Street mural with a crew of students, faculty, and locals. The two events coincided harmoniously because, not unlike the mural itself, Jonathan’s personality is colorful, vibrant, and a much welcomed addition to our community. He’s one of those rare few whose passion and generosity is made self-evident during your first conversation together. Bonus: on that evening his compassion and generosity physically manifested itself in the form of an authentic Puerto Rican dish prepared by his mother; a dish he so selflessly shared with all the paint crew. I say selfless because if I was Jonathan no two hands but my own would ever get within even a fraction of an inch from the plate. A consensus of palates agreed: It was divine. And naturally, we wanted recipes. In fact, I was concocting mental scenarios of just how to go about that (I mean, I just met the guy). Of course, you’re probably thinking that I could’ve just politely asked him. And you’re right. Unfortunately, for me, any interpersonal communication between a new acquaintance and myself tends to sabotage my ability to function sociably. Point in case, amid running through those hypothetical scenarios and enamored with each bite of rice, I realized I was polishing off the last forkful. I proceeded to quietly put down my utensil and casually walk away as casually as one could in such a mob-producing situation. I’m no food critic and I don’t want this to detract from relating to you just how approachable and downright friendly Jonathan is (as the following interview transcript will shed light on, Jonathan without a doubt fits right into the tightly knit community of GU and Lamoni, and it’s exactly that which means the most to him). However, being born and raised in the Midwest, the offering to new acquaintances a home cooked meal, despite whether that meal is served in your grandmother’s ceramic ware or just wrapped in tinfoil, is no small gesture – it’s an act of the upmost kindness, and, perhaps, a small way of establishing commonality and community between one another.
Since I was a teenager. I was 15 when I moved to the States. I did half of my high school there and half here.
What was your undergrad major?
At Purdue I was a Spanish international studies major. Then at western Michigan I was a Spanish literature major. My PhD was in Hispanic cultural studies with a focus on literature.
How can you can explain the initial attraction to studying your native language and its literature?
Definitely a way to keep myself connected to Hispanic culture. That was one of the reasons besides I just enjoyed reading and Spanish was my favorite subject in school. I was also attracted to learning about different cultures, and ever since I moved to the United States I constantly meet people from different cultures, like those from Latin American countries and Spain. That definitely had an impact on my desire to pursue higher education in those languages, cultures, and literatures.
Biggest culture shock going from Puerto Rico to U.S.?
Language. There is a myth that if you’re Puerto Rican your bilingual. But no, not for a country boy. I’m not from the city. I had heard English before and we are required to take English classes in elementary school but it’s the same as [in the States] – there are words here and there but you’re never prepared to put them into conversation. So English was the main culture shock. Fortunately, I moved to an area with a big Latino population so I was always surrounded by people who spoke Spanish. Speaking Spanish seems to be natural to me even in the context of the U.S. just because I’ve been around people who speak it. At times, I will forget that I’m in the states and that the most popular language is English. I think that had an impact in the way that I acquired English. It’s been a long process and I’m still learning.
You said you considered yourself a country boy. How does your idea of the country compare with the country here in Iowa?
It’s a different kind of country [laughter]. In multiple aspects. Just the way it looks. I’m from the mountains, it is flat here [laughter]. I mean, there are a couple hills here but it’s different. The type of culture is a little bit different, too. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Lamoni is smaller than my hometown, but Puerto Rico is also small at 3.5 million people. My hometown is small but you have a lot of people living there and it doesn’t feel as spread out as it does here. Still, Lamoni feels like a natural fit for me. I feel very comfortable in this type of setting.
The last University you worked at was presumably larger than GU?
Oh yes! [laughter]
So I was wondering, what was your first impression of GU?
My impression of GU… well, I fell in love with it.
Yes. I like the smaller university, and when I was interviewing I saw the dynamics between some of the professors and students and how they interacted with each other from talking to walking on campus. That sense of community becomes very handy when it comes to learning a new language. You can exchange ideas, be more connected, and have a direction connection with [instructors]. I really like that. At bigger universities you don’t get to spend as much time with students and you won’t be able to make a larger impact as you would here at a smaller liberal arts college.
What’s your biggest advice to students who are studying abroad? I know the current political climate in the U.S. can be daunting if not unsettling.
First, I’d like to connect the size of GU to that. I believe, when international students come here and see the sense of community we have, they’ll start realizing that they cannot generalize the planet even in this political climate. I think international students, in order to adapt, should embrace that sense of community and establish connections. Those kinds of relationships are going to last even when they leave GU. And being a smaller town, creating those connections will help balance that homesickness. And as far as students who want to study abroad, I definitely recommend that. Not only from the standpoint of learning a language, but in general there are so many benefits from getting to know other cultures and understanding the perception of Americans around the world. I told my students, that if you want to have a better understanding of what the global perception is in respect to the U.S. then travel. You will learn a lot. You’re understanding of another culture and your own will increase, and your capacity to be more tolerant and accepting.
Fun questions: Favorite Puerto Rican dish? [I know, selfish question. If you were there, this is the point in the interview, regrettably, that things took on an air of interrogation. I’m still trying to get recipes out of this guy.]
Hmmm… that’s hard… I’ll have to go with Arroz con Gandules, and I can spell that out for you [laughter]. And that is accompanied with Lachon Asado – that’s roasted pig. Arozz is a yellow rice with a grain and a side of roasted pig. It’s really good.
[Now salivating] It sounds delicious. If you could bring a piece of Puerto Rico here to Lamoni, a little slice of home, what would it be?
I mean, people here are friendly so I cannot say the friendliness of Puerto Rico. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s sort of an abstract thing. Like a way of being Puerto Rican. I’m not sure how to explain. Man, this is difficult (ha).
I mean, I like the answer so far. I thought you’d go with the cliché beach or mountains, but your actually getting at a more abstract, collective identity.
Yeah, for example, people here are friendly, but it’s a different type of friendly. There’s a laid-backness that’s different. Being laid-back in Puerto Rico is different than being laid-back here. I also don’t want to say something that translates to something that people will think “oh, he’s a jerk!” [laughter]. I guess, it’s the festive feeling of Puerto Ricans. Regardless of the economic crisis that the island is going through, regardless of all these issues that affect the people, their spirits are still festive and they face it with a smile.
Final Question: you went to the Iowa State Fair this year, didn’t you?
How did that compare in terms of festivities?
That’s way different! [laughter]
Currently, Jonathan has plans to submit a proposal for a Spanish minor at GU, a minor of which he has been reworking. He also has hopes for reinstating the Spanish major at some point in the future.