Campus Professor, Puerto Rican Author: Zaira Pacheco

Zaira Pacheco is part of the best experiences of my first year at the University of Puerto Rico. A wonderful professor and a beautiful writer, she deserves to be recognized for her talent and her work ethic. Anyone who has the chance to take Spanish in the General Studies program should seriously consider taking it with her; it will be an unbelievable experience that will shape you and even make you consider your major twice. If you hate poetry or just don't care for it, Pacheco is going to make you love it. Overall, it's an enriching experience that is so great that you'll look forward to waking up early and going to her class, even if it's at seven in the morning (like it was in my case). Don't just take my word for it: without further ado, here's Zaira Pacheco!


HC: What did you major in?

Zaira Pachecho: I received my Bachelor’s in Hispanic Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. I began my studies in 2005 and finished four years later in 2009. I was very focused; I didn’t waste any time. After that, I decided that in order to go far in my career, I should travel far in the world as well, so I went to Spain. I enrolled at the University of Barcelona, where I completed my master’s with a specialization in Alejandro Tapia y Rivera.

Once I finished, I was tempted to return to Puerto Rico and complete my doctorate at the UPR, but I decided to finish what I started. I, also, received my doctorate from the University of Barcelona, but with a specialization in Manuel Abreu Adorno. It was marvelous to study Tapia because he is an incredible writer in the sense that he is the father of Puerto Rican literature. Abreu Adorno is another author about whom little is known, not only globally, but also in Puerto Rico. Since I was already studying there, I thought that it was a great opportunity to get to know the work of these great Puerto Rican writers and show them to the world.


HC: Did you always know that you wanted to be a professor?

ZP: Yes, without a doubt, [I knew] long before I started my bachelor’s! As a little girl, my friends played with dolls or played house, but I was always the teacher. My father and grandfather built a small house, and that was my classroom. Everything education-oriented has always fascinated me.


HC: Why did you choose Hispanic Studies?

ZP: Words call me: the words, the languages, the narrative... Since my adolescence, books have been my company. I grew up in the countryside; I did not live in a place where I could go out and play with the neighborhood kids because I didn't have any neighbors. There was not much else to do but to read.


HC: So then, where are you from originally?

ZP: I'm from Caguas, from the barrio Tomás de Castro. I lived there until I was 17 years old. I spent my first year as an undergrad in a residence hall in Santa Rita. There were eight of us girls sharing a single bathroom [laughs]. I could have studied at the Cayey campus of the UPR system, but I chose to come here because Río Piedras is a hub of excellence. It was always this place where great writers studied. Río Piedras is the country's cultural and literary hub. Maybe it's not a grand city compared to other grand cosmopolitan cities such as London or Berlin, but in Puerto Rico that is our place of interaction and cultural exchange. I wanted to be part of that.


HC: Did you always have your parents’ support?

Zaira: Well... to study in Río Piedras, yes. However, there was reluctance to my studying in Barcelona [laughs].


HC: Was your transition from Río Piedras to Barcelona difficult?

ZP: Eh... yes. Why lie? It was very difficult. In fact, when I first got to Barcelona, I had never been to Europe, but I had already been accepted (at the University of Barcelona). All I had was a one-way ticket, no return flight. You dream up these ideas, idealize these places that you’ve never traveled to.. above all Europe and Europe is... Well, as Pascale Casanova says, it is the "world republic of letters." You think of Europe, of all these great cities and how your experience is going to be something so enjoyable, so brilliant and unlike anything you've ever encountered. But when I arrived, I didn't know anyone. I had never felt so alone. Everything was so confusing; I didn't even know what to buy at the supermarket. I also did not have any access to the internet or a TV. I was totally disconnected from my family and from my country. On the other hand, when I arrived at the university I experienced a culture shock, curiously enough from the professors, I was treated differently simply because I was Puerto Rican. I dare to say they underestimated me.


HC: Did you work while you studied?

ZP: Yes, I found a job opportunity tutoring kids in English, but I was also assigned duties such as picking them up from school, giving them snacks, and feeding them in general. I was not the maid, but I was also asked to fold clothes and other things that were not part of my job. I ended up quitting but that is what I dedicated my time to. It was very difficult because they only spoke Catalan, and I could only communicate with them in English. Of course, they did not always understand me and sometimes I ended up speaking in Catalan because I had no other option. That's how I paid rent.

HC: What would you consider your most negative and most positive experiences?

ZP: I would say that it was the solitude when I made the transition, but that was only during the beginning because it later turned into something positive. I felt very at ease with being by myself, going to places alone, looking for things to do alone, and then along the way, without exactly looking for them, I made friends. Honestly, I think that the whole experience was good, although difficult. However, if it wouldn't have been difficult, I would not have learned and grown as a person, and it would've been boring. I believe everything was positive.


HC: Why did you decide to return to Puerto Rico and teach classes at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras?

ZP: I always wanted to be a professor here. I've had that stuck in my head ever since I was in elementary school. I already saw myself teaching classes; I never had insecurities about that. I can't even explain it to you. It was always something that I've been very cognizant of.


HC: How would you describe your teaching style?

ZP: To start, I owe it to my students to always be prepared. That is my responsibility, and it would be disrespectful to come to a class unprepared. I prepare myself for every class and it takes me hours. Honestly, I don't even know how I do it. I come prepared with all of the tools necessary to give quality in-class instruction. My teaching method of choice is the traditional, Socratic question-response dynamic because I enjoy conversation and student participation. I am not a fan of monologues or to only hear the sound of my own voice without students contributing in some way. I like to find a way for students to read a book and to really, truly enjoy it. That is a great challenge today: neither adults nor young students want to read. Let's be honest; the world is glued to their electronic devices. I also enjoy integrating an interdisciplinary approach, or better yet, how literature intersects with film, music or photography. It is essential to apply it to a much wider context.

HC: When did you begin to write your first published poetry book, Ciutat?

ZP: Ciutat—the word for city in Catalan which pays homage to the city Barcelona—is a book that I began to write while I was there in my time of solitude without an internet connection. At night, to entertain myself—aside from reading thick books that in any other circumstances I don't think would have been possible for me to do—I had this notebook, a diary let's call it, where I would record faces of strangers, peculiar smells, spaces, and any curiosities that stood out to me. Everything that seemed worth it, I would document in my notebook. Don't ask me how, but these observations turned into poetry. Maybe the more literary explanation for this would be that I tried to interpret what I saw in another language, a foreign one, in an autobiographical sense. Poetry is not autobiographical. This misconception stems from its ability to be born from experiences and realities, but [these elements] transform into something else. That is the magic of language if you want to call it that.


HC: What is your favorite literary genre to read?

ZP: I really like poetry, novels, short stories, theater... I really like them all, honestly [laughs].


HC: To teach?

ZP: I also enjoy teaching it all; I don't believe that it is so much the genre, as it is the text. For example, when discussing pop culture, a perfect novel to analyze is La Guaracha del Macho Camacho by Luis Rafael Sánchez or Las masas son crasas, a play by Pedro Pietri. In that sense, I don't consider the genre; if the theme is treated well, I don't have a preference.


HC: To write?

Zaira: Poetry, since I've already started with that [laughs], and I've already begun my second book. However, I also really like academic essays of literary analysis. I love the whole process of literary investigation.


HC: How would you describe your writing style?

Zaira: My style? I don't know if I have a style yet, or if I'm about to discover it. When I write poetry I try to...well, I don’t even know to explain this to you. I try to, aside from merely jamming together images into a poetic text, that the poem truly embodies the construction of something that not only is a poem in itself, with imagery and metaphors but that the work of the words is visible and that there is elasticity in its imagery. Poetry, above all, must have a wide range of meanings; it should have a wide range of images and metaphors, but, as I said, it should not be obvious. It should be profound and measureless. I don't know if my poems are like that, but I try to craft them as such. My first book will never be like my last book, so what I'm doing right now with my writing has nothing to do necessarily with what I'll be doing in the future. At least, that is my intention.


HC: Do you think that writing a novel is more serious than a poetry book?

Zaira: I think we should abandon the idea that writing a novel is more serious than writing poetry. Poetry is equally serious and just as rigorous as a novel, although it may be more concise. I believe that the process of discovering that voice is very long, one which is prolonged as one rethinks ideas, rewrites and edits over and over again.


HC: What is the best piece of advice you've been given?

Zaira: I have so many, I can't just give you one! For example, "Be yourself." Authenticity is so easy to lose in this world of appearances; this is something I always carry with me. Another is, "You have to be a fighter." You have to fight for what you believe in, even if the circumstances call on you to do something else. That is the way I view life and my career; I'm not a workaholic [laughs], but I do work very hard in order to achieve what I want.z

Ciutat is available for purchase at Libros AC in Santurce.