Though Prof. Maria Antonia Garcés, Hispanic studies, was born 400 years after the death of Miguel de Cervantes — the renowned 16th century Spanish novelist — she says that when she met him in a Spanish literature class, it changed the course of her life.
“Meeting Cervantes changed my life because then I went for a Ph.D. to work on Cervantes, and since then I have dedicated my life to working on Cervantes,” Garcés said.
Garcés has since spent her life, including her 21 years working at Cornell, studying Cervantes. Since encountering him while studying for her Master’s degree at Georgetown University, she has been rewarded for her dedication and recognized for her work, receiving the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association for her book Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale — the highest award conferred by the MLA — in 2003.
Years prior, while she was living in Colombia, Garcés worked as a journalist and as a director of a fine arts school. During her time as the director, Garcés was kidnapped and held captive for several months, an experience that connected her to Cervantes, who was also famously imprisoned.
“There was perhaps the possibility of understanding that facet of Cervantes’ life in a better way because I have also been a captive,” Garcés said.
According to Garcés, Cervantes’ time in captivity gave him an ability to see Spanish culture from a new perspective, which made him particularly intriguing.
“Cervantes was held captive in Algiers for five years, from 1575 to 1580, and when he came out of captivity and returned to Spain, he looked at Spain from the other side,” Garcés said. “This actually opened him up to other cultures, to other ways of thinking, and to the world of Islam.”
Garcés herself has experienced many cultures. Born to a Colombian-English father and a Cuban-French mother, Garcés says she did not have the typical upbringing in Colombia.
“We were a strange family,” Garcés said. “My father was brought up in England since he was two years old, he came back to Colombia when he was 23 or 24, so he was an Englishman. My mother is Cuban by birth but she was brought up in France, so this was a house where most of my parents’ friends were foreigners.”
Learning to speak and write in French before Spanish, Garcés said she had a truly multicultural upbringing.
“When I was growing up in Colombia, we lived in the country, and it was about an hour away from the city, but at that time driving for an hour was a lot,” Garcés said. “So my father brought a French governess, and so the first language that I learned to read and write in was French.”
Garcés later moved to the United States to attend high school in Boston around the age of 14. After finishing high school early, at the age of 16, she explored going to college at Cambridge University in England, before she decided to attend Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.
However, Garcés did not initially finish her studies there, deciding to leave to get married and have children.
“I didn’t originally finish my B.A. because I got out and got married when I was 18, and left the university — I was a sophomore then — and very soon I had five children,” Garcés said. “In 10 years I had five children.”
Garcés said she still wanted to study, but dedicated herself first to her family. Ultimately, she did complete school in Colombia.
“All the time I wanted to study; when I had my third child I went back to university in Colombia, and I decided, ‘I can’t do it now, it’s very difficult, I have three children, but later on I’ll do it,’” Garcés said. “After my fifth child was born I went back to university in Colombia.”
Later, Garcés returned to the United States and continued her studies at Georgetown University. It was there, while working for her Masters degree, that she discovered Cervantes and became fascinated with his creativity and with his outlook on Spanish culture.