International Symposium in Puebla

El Quijote desde América

By Mary M. Gaylord 

It is likely that Don Quijote first reached the Western hemisphere—in what was, at the time, lightning speed—as a stowaway. On September 28, 1605, Franciscan commissioners of the Inquisition at San Juan de Ulúa discovered the book Historia del Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in the possession of several travelers, including one Alonso de Dassa, who declared he had brought the book along for his own amusement on the long transatlantic voyage, and Gaspar de Maya, captain of La Encarnación. Shipments of Cervantes’ instant best-seller left Spain for Mexico and Cartagena in the spring and early summer of 1605, just months after its publication in Madrid. In 1608, a copy would be found among the belongings of Mateo Alemán, author of the Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604), who at sixty had finally succeeded in making his way to the New World. Although Cervantes’ American dream was to remain unrealized, Don Quijote, soon imported in quantity to American markets, would find an eager readership in Mexico, Peru and elsewhere. Along with Alemán’s picaresque saga, Cervantes’ burlesque history of a self-appointed righter of wrongs would reshape colonial society’s taste for prose fiction, as Irving Leonard has shown in Books of the Brave (Harvard University Press, 1949; University of California Press, 1992).

In the four centuries since its initial happenstance arrival, Cervantes’ great book, often called the first modern novel, has had a particularly profound and lasting influence on Spanish-American and Anglo-American literature, as well as a vigorous presence in the writings of North- and South-American literary scholars. What could be more fitting, in the light of its American sojourns, than to celebrate the 400th birthday of this universal classic of world literature in and from the Americas? These considerations prompted co-organizers Gustavo Illiades (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana of Iztapalapa, Mexico) and James Iffland (Boston University, currently Visiting Professor in Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures) to invite 23 fellow Cervantes specialists, all working in the Americas, to an international symposium in Mexico at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Boston University Humanities Foundation joined with institutes and departments of five Mexican universities (the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla; the Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios of the Colegio de Mexico; the Universidad Autónoma-Iztapalapa; the Departamento de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Universidad Iberioamericana- Puebla; and the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, the Instituto de Investigación Filológica and the Coordinación de Humanidades of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and a Puebla bookstore (Profética, Casa de la Lectura) in co-sponsoring four days of scholarly interaction in February.

The conference drew a lively audience, often including several hundred attendees, and considerable interest from the Mexican press to its eight academic sessions, which took place in the splendid period setting of the Benemérita’s Salón Barroco. Academic meetings were capped by a dramatic reading of chapters of the novel by actor-director José Luis Ibáñez, by a classical guitar recital from Guillermo González, and by a banquet inspired by Don Quijote’s Manchegan diet, at which guests were treated to a week’s worth of dishes at one sitting.

Formal presentations brought together the work of scholars from 17 Western hemisphere universities, from Buenos Aires and São Paulo to Montreal, working on topics ranging from Cervantes’ 16th-century models to Don Quijote’s recent and controversial partial translation into Spanglish. The full conference program is available at www. quijotedesdeamerica.org.

Mary M. Gaylord is the Sosland Family Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.