I’d love to begin with you introducing yourself, your background, and your work.
My name is Araceli Hernández-Laroche and we moved to Spartanburg eight years ago. The Great Recession brought me to this coast after finishing my doctorate at UC Berkeley. A few years later, as I was teaching French and Spanish at a women’s Catholic university in New Jersey, my mother unexpectedly passed away and we laid her to rest in her Mexican village. My grief was such that I attempted to anesthetize the pain by seeking a new beginning in an entirely different location, and that is how I ended up in the South as an associate professor of modern languages at USC Upstate. My mother, Carmen, loved Gabriel García Márquez, and I believe she influenced my love for world literature and the nuances of language. This quote from El amor en los tiempos del cólera reminds me of what she would gently advise today, “Be calm. God awaits you at the door.”
In the classroom, you’re a proponent of collaborative projects and high impact learning. How have you been able to transition those models to virtual learning platforms?
I teach online, tech-intensive, Active Learning and hybrid courses. In the past, I co-taught with a criminal justice professor a service learning course that engaged with French existentialist literature as we prepared students to tutor at the local detention center through an award-winning program, Operation Education.
Abruptly and ironically, in the middle of this semester, our own worlds became a prison of sorts. My students and I, along with society, had to quickly learn to live sealed off from others, with limited freedom to venture outside of our home walls. When the pandemic hit, I was lucky that most of my courses were already online except my French 310 course (French Cuisine and the Francophone World). Since our class is small, we learn remotely by connecting twice a week through Skype; it has been a lovely escape for me and my class guest (my Parisian husband who is an exquisite cook). My students present their blogs on French cuisine from France, North Africa and Quebec; they create French cooking videos and curate wikis on l’Art de la Table, wines, cheeses, pastries, breads, holiday foods, traditions and so many culinary delights. On the last day of class, students will host a virtual picnic by presenting three dishes—l’entrée, le plat principal, le dessert—prepared at home from the class textbook. Food is an art, a science. In the words of Guy de Maupassant, “Of all passions, the only one that seems respectable to me is the passion for food.”
In addition to your work in academia, you’re on the Alianza Spartanburg Leadership/Steering committee, the Inclusion Council for the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the LGBT Fund, and on the boards of the Hub City Writers Project and the Chapman Cultural Center. How do you believe we can best support Spartanburg’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities during this time?
In the first days of social distancing, as I oscillated between panic and hope, many dear warrior friends (educators, activists, artists, writers and non-profit community leaders) from around the state, the region and this city were organizing, connecting virtually and sharing information and resources to make sure already vulnerable communities were not left further behind. For instance, language is key for making everyone aware of support and to feel seen and accounted for in a time of crisis. We learned from translation and interpreting colleagues (like Maria Francisco Montesó) and Alianza Spartanburg members that providers of key services need to communicate in Spanish and other languages to reach all families in our very international Upstate. Since Alianza Spartanburg was founded by Dr. Laura Barbas-Rhoden in 2012, a monthly meeting welcomes anyone interested in building more inclusive and resilient communities throughout the city and beyond. It took a pandemic to cancel our March meeting! For our April meeting on COVID-19 resources, Natalia Valenzuela Swanson hosted our first Alianza virtual roundtable of community leaders.
We urge everyone to think about those who may be excluded from funding relief due to language barriers, lack of proof of income or a Social Security number, and to consider the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color. This pandemic has revealed for all to see that we have many unsung heroes that are absolutely essential, such as health, grocery and farmworkers, and many of them are women and people of color.
I’m interested in discussions of both loss and gain. Personally and professionally, what has been the hardest to lose at this time? What have you been offered that surprised you?
Serving on boards and volunteering with community members from all walks of life keeps me constantly learning. But sometimes, I may not pause long enough to take some personal time to visit family on the other coast or abroad. A few weeks ago, as I watched closely the nightmare unfolding in Italy and Spain, I knew I had a small window to visit my father, brothers and sisters in California before social distancing took hold. That was my most precious gain—the gift of having the time, resources and mobility to see my family. But once I was with my father and brothers, I practiced social distancing by not reaching out to friends and extended family—may they forgive me. A professional gain is having more precious time to write and do research for a couple of book projects—with colleagues here and in Mexico—that relate to global upheaval and displacements.
The fear of a collapsing local and world economy is what I perceive as the biggest loss. What was certain weeks ago is no longer a given in our lives. I do not want anyone anywhere to lose their job security permanently. We must take action now to help everyone bounce back.
In times of crisis, we turn to the arts for comfort, release, stimulation, and so much more. As a champion of the arts, what, in this unprecedented time, is functioning as a balm for you?
Artists and writers are uniquely positioned to lift our spirits and inspire us. Beauty and art can transport us away from grief and anguish, at least momentarily. The Hub City Bookshop, the Chapman Cultural Center, university and public libraries, for instance, remain resources for us all—albeit virtually. As a professor, one of my favorite classes of all time is to teach global existential writers—from Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Memmi, Miguel de Unamuno to James Baldwin. Life or death situations, finding freedom from a prison-life existence, and examining choices and consequences that impact the lives of others are all questions that tend to generate passionate ethical debates in my students. You too can pick up Albert Camus’s The Plague, in its original French, or in translation, and plunge into a world frighteningly parallel to ours that offers us examples of stubborn, unrelenting courage. This quote from Camus’s existentialist masterpiece captures our collective malaise, “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
What advice would you give students struggling to cope with changes resulting from the spread of COVID-19?
Focus on what you can control, such as your thoughts, choices and study habits. Sleep more. Exercise. Read for pleasure. Disconnect from social media and the news to connect with your inner peace and loved ones. Your professors are as anxious as you and they want to support your academic goals. The pandemic will transform us. Who will you be when this threat is behind us?
Dr. Araceli Hernandez-Laroche is an associate professor of Modern Languages, foreign-language coordinator and assistant chair of the Division of Languages, Literature and Composition at the University of South Carolina Upstate.