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Alfredo Alonso Estenoz: Journalist, professor, and published author

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Alfredo Alonso Estenoz: Journalist, professor, and published author

Alonso Estenoz (on the righthand side in the striped top) appears with his college friends during a colloquium they organized in Matanzas, Cuba, in March of 1995.

Alonso Estenoz (on the righthand side in the striped top) appears with his college friends during a colloquium they organized in Matanzas, Cuba, in March of 1995.

Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alonso Estenoz

Alonso Estenoz (on the righthand side in the striped top) appears with his college friends during a colloquium they organized in Matanzas, Cuba, in March of 1995.

Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alonso Estenoz

Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alonso Estenoz

Alonso Estenoz (on the righthand side in the striped top) appears with his college friends during a colloquium they organized in Matanzas, Cuba, in March of 1995.

Emma Busch, Staff Writer

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Originally from the province of Matanzas in Cuba, Associate Professor of Spanish Alfredo Alonso Estenoz grew up with a passion for writing and reading that would later compel him to leave Cuba for the United States.

Alonso Estenoz was born on a farm and lived in a small town the size of Decorah with his family. From the ages 12 to 17 he attended a boarding school, as many other children in Cuba did in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Though Alonso Estenoz and other students would visit home every weekend, interaction with his family was limited.

“This was part of the plan; the Cuban government had to change the educational system in Cuba,” Alonso Estenoz said. “I mean the schools were good, but there was also a way the government . . . diminished the influence that your family could have in your upbringing. It was not that we were bombarded by political propaganda at the time, but everything in Cuba was, and in a way still is, subject to political propaganda from the government.”

Alonso Estenoz recalled that students would attend class in the morning, have lunch, and then spend the remainder of the afternoon working in the fields harvesting crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and coffee. The field work was mandatory for all students; the motivating factor behind this combination of education and physical labor was believed to educate individuals in a “complete sense,” though Alonso Estenoz says that the idea was not widely accepted.

Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alonso Estenoz
Alonso Estenoz when he was a pionero, term referring to all students in first through ninth grade, in front of a wall with the slogan that translates to “We will be like Che Guevara” that they had to recite every morning befre classes started.

Alonso Estenoz regards education during the revolutionary years as “one of the greatest contradictions in Cuba.” He remembered having great teachers and the Cuban government’s emphasis on education, but he also says that the ways people could apply their education was limited.

“The government has invested a lot in education, but at the same time, [the citizens] haven’t taken advantage of what they have learned,” Alonso Estenoz said. “So they have control of what people can do with that knowledge. You teach people how to think, but you limit what they can think or topics that they can discuss.”

Alonso Estenoz obtained his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Havana in 1994. He said that as a 17-year-old student he was aware Cuba did not have freedom of the press, but he did not realize how politicized the career was until he became a reporter. He instead thought of it as a way to develop his writing skills.

Despite its challenges, Alonso Estenoz says that journalism gave him access to information others in Cuba did not have.

“The Cuban Communist Party that controls the government [publishes] a newsletter that circulates among journalists and people in important positions in the government and it’s a summary of important international news,” Alonso Estenoz said. “Since there was no internet back [in 1989], and access to information was always problematic in Cuba, studying journalism was a good way to get access.”

After leaving the radio station, Alonso Estenoz worked as a freelance journalist with national newspapers and magazines as a cultural correspondent and a film critic. He also worked for Casa de las Américas, an institution founded in 1959 following the Cuban Revolution in order to promote Latin American culture. Casa de las Américas publishes several journals, books, and has departments devoted to arts, theatre, and music in Latin America. Alonso Estenoz served as a staff writer and proofreader for the institution’s main journal.

In 1998 while Alonso Estenoz was working for Casa de las Américas, the University of Havana opened its first master’s degree program in Latin American literature. Alonso Estenoz decided to pursue his interest in the subject, but did not finish the program after the opportunity to study at the University of Iowa following a presentation he gave at the Latin American Studies Association in Miami in 2000. Alonso Estenoz says his decision to come to the U.S. was spontaneous, but it made sense from an academic standpoint.

“For me, that was the logical continuation of what I was doing in Havana,” Alonso Estenoz said. “I didn’t have a clear idea [of] if I was going to stay in the United States or not, but then I was offered this opportunity, which was an ideal way to continue my studies.”

Alonso Estenoz graduated from the University of Iowa in 2005 with a Ph.D. in Spanish with an emphasis on 20th century Latin American literature, specifically literature from the Rio de la Plata region. Most of Alonso Estenoz’s research has been on Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian writer, poet, literary critic, and activist. Borges’ work was banned from Cuba due to his criticism of the Cuban Revolution. Alonso Estenoz explores how Cuba received the writer’s work before and after the revolution in his book “Borges en Cuba: Estudio de su Recepción,” [Borges in Cuba: A Study of his Reception] which was published in September 2017.

Alonso Estenoz’s interest in teaching comes from a desire to share his knowledge and research while working as a staff writer at Casa de las Américas. Once he entered graduate school it became a passion and way to develop in students a better understanding of language and culture.

“Teaching became for me an opportunity to engage in discussion with students to contribute in a way to a better understanding of the Spanish language, Spanish culture, and Latin America in particular,” Alonso Estenoz said.

Alonso Estenoz has shown Hannah Wright (‘18) how to make the best of difficult circumstances, a lesson that was especially pertinent during a 2016 J-term course abroad in Havana when the city suffered severe flooding.

“When we were in Cuba, there were huge floods at least once a week,” Wright said. “He actually got stranded in his apartment for two of the floods, but instead of getting really frustrated with all the water he laughed it off and changed plans. He also encourages laughter in class, too. There are times when I completely miss the point of the lesson and I get frustrated with myself, but Alfredo just tells me to shrug it off and move forward.”

Noah Tiegs (‘20) says Alonso Estenoz also gave him the chance to combine his passion for theatre and Spanish in a way he never had previously.

“I will always remember Professor [Alonso] Estenoz because he was the first person to teach me theatre in Spanish,” Tiegs said. “He gave me the opportunity to unite these two passions and continued to provide me with resources to dig deeper into the text. He even sent me some memes about the play. His passion for the content he teaches, and the look on his face when students can’t get enough of it is very special.”

Alonso Estenoz is currently working on a project that focuses on writers that came of age in 1959 during the early years of the Cuban Revolution.

“The purpose is to create an online reference guide that includes short biographies and information on how the Cuban Revolution affected their careers one way or the other,” Alonso Estenoz said. “I hope to collaborate with several students on this project.”

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