Sojourners & Strangers

A scholar of exile, emigration and repatriation speaks the language of lives in transition. By Steve Weinberg. Photography by Samuel Aranda

Each year thousands of migrants—the tired, the poor, the huddled masses from the teeming shores of impoverished African nations—stream toward the hope of a living wage. With them come other voyagers, refugees from political oppression, intellectuals yearning for the freedom to speak without censure, young people seeking the higher education their homelands can’t provide.

Immigrants make a perilous journey in a boat.

All share in common the desire for a better life, the dream of transcending the suffocating circumstances of heritage.

It is perhaps fitting that a first-generation American, MU’s Michael Ugarte, would feel empathy for such purposeful exiles. But as a researcher in academia, such feelings can serve simultaneously as a blessing and a curse. The blessing: vicariously experiencing the thoughts and feelings of others can provide profound insights. The curse: empathy can lead to the sort of close identification that can compromise scholarly objectivity. That Ugarte manages to hold these opposing tendencies in balance is a testament to how adroitly he mingles his research, teaching and life experience.

A professor of romance languages, Ugarte specializes in analyzing Spanish literature from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. From that relatively narrow realm, he has branched out into exploring the conditions of the downtrodden in mid-Missouri, teaching peace studies at the University, helping beleaguered migrants along the United States-Mexico border, and writing for reformist magazines such as The Nation. He has focused much of his recent energy on Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, impoverished African nation that gained its independence from Spain fewer than 50 years ago.

That the struggles of Equatorial Guineans, both poor migrants and better-off exiles, are of intense interest to Ugarte is evident from the first page of his new book, Africans in Europe: The Culture of Exile and Emigration from Equatorial Guinea to Spain. The book is cast as an academic monograph filled with endnotes and other scholarly trappings—Ugarte has even created a research term, “emixile,” conflating emigration and exile, which are related but not the same — but from the first page the tone is one of soulful scholarship.

Immigrants rescued at sea prepare to disembark on Fuerteventura Island, Spain.

Unemployed immigrants, hoping for work in the olive trade, queue for food in southern Spain.

Trauri Mohammed, 29, photographed in 2005. Mohammed left his home in Mali after losing most of his family to malaria.

Top to Bottom Immigrants rescued at sea prepare to disembark on Fuerteventura Island, Spain; Unemployed immigrants, hoping for work in the olive trade, queue for food in southern Spain; Trauri Mohammed, 29, photographed in 2005. Mohammed left his home in Mali after losing most of his family to malaria. Having entered Spain illegally, he found it difficult to secure work. He was living on the streets when this image was made.

“As a first-generation North American whose parents were born and raised in Spain,” he writes. “I have been interested in the cultural exchanges arising as a result of repatriation, exile or emigration. Lives that move through time according to departures and arrivals make for transformations of all kinds—psychological, political, social, and linguistic. They determine how an individual will read the world and his or her place in it. In many ways, the immigrant experience is the North American experience par excellence, and in my case, it serves as a constant, albeit changing, factor in virtually all my daily activity.”

Ugarte rounds out the introduction to the book by relating two anecdotes of his first visit to Spain at age 5: seeing a South Asian family parting ways at New York’s JFK airport, and viewing a black man on a bus headed to the coastal city of Alicante.

The black man is especially significant because he represents the migration from somewhere on the African continent to Spain, a mostly homogeneous, non-immigrant nation until the 1980s. The transition is frequently difficult at the beginning, and too often remains difficult. On the bus, the black man is toting a large plastic bag containing a mix of items (pirated music, sunglasses, chewing gum) that Ugarte surmises will be offered for sale at a nearby beach or downtown, most likely without a permit.

Like so many other African migrants, the man on the bus might have risked his life to reach Spain, surviving the perilous crossing of the approximately 60 miles of water between the Western Sahara and the edge of Europe called the Canary Islands. Ugarte wonders “did his photograph appear on the front page or middle pages of [the newspaper] El País, shivering, half dead, with that expression typical of all the ‘illegally’ arrived Africans, as if to ask the viewers of the photograph, ‘OK, now what are you going to do with me?’ But this man, I thought, has a history, a family, a life before the departure. What was that life?”

Ugarte senses he is wired to view the world the way he does: “The relations between Africa and Europe, Equatorial Guinea and Spain, the colonized and colonizers, blacks and whites, the marginal and the privileged, are all of intense interest to me at a level that transcends the purely intellectual and/or professional.” Using migration as the narrative thread for sharing his research, Ugarte hopes his readers “will not only discover new texts, ideas and artifacts... but also perspectives on those phenomena that challenge his or her way of thinking.”

Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo is an émigré from Equatorial Guinea who, in a sense, embodies Ugarte’s ideas on the complexity of the migrant experience. Ndongo-Bidyogo is an eminent political commentator and the best-known novelist from Equatorial Guinea. Because the former European colony is considered by many a repressive dictatorship, Ndongo-Bidyogo lives in exile. He and Ugarte met at a professional conference, then became friends. Through Ugarte’s effort, Ndongo-Bidyogo arrived at MU in 2005 and remained for seven semesters as a visiting professor. Ugarte made Ndongo-Bidyogo’s writings accessible in English by translating them from Spanish.

Ndongo-Bidyogo says that when he arrived in Columbia, “I was impressed that such a distinguished university professor as Michael Ugarte had contact with somewhat marginalized environments, such as those in which African-Americans reside. His defense of all just causes—which many categorize as lost causes—honors him. I admire the way he merges his words with his acts. This is why it did not surprise me that he supported anti-neocolonialist efforts on the part of Africans.” (He corresponded with Illumination in Spanish.)

Exile and emigration are part of a continuum documented by Ugarte, who notes that the various points on the continuum share this: departing the home nation for reasons beyond yourself. The exiles and émigrés of Equatorial Guinea share this, too —they view Spain as both the colonizer and the refuge.

Pull Quote: ‘... the colonized and colonizers, blacks and whites, the marginal and the privileged are all of intense interest to me at a level that transcends the purely intellectual and/or professional.’ —Michael Ugarte

Ugarte was born in New Hampshire to parents who had left Spain in part to escape the repressive political climate of the Franco dictatorship. Ugarte’s father, who spoke excellent English, became a professor of Spanish at Dartmouth College. Ugarte’s mother did not speak English well, he says, and found adjusting to wintry New Hampshire difficult. She eventually reached a level of comfort with her new role as homemaker and faculty spouse.

Ugarte majored in Spanish and philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. He felt attracted to the academic life while still an undergraduate. He chose graduate school at the University of Washington in part, he says, to study with a professor who critiqued societies from a Marxist perspective. After earning his master’s degree, Ugarte returned to New Hampshire, where he established a bilingual education program for Latino high school students.

But the lure of academe would not fade. He enrolled as a doctoral student at Cornell University, where his dissertation analyzed the political essays and fiction of Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants, these men among them, begin their long journey to Spain with a trek through the Sahara.

A migrant worker at prayer outside of an aid center in Jaen, southern Spain.

A newly arrived worker picks strawberries inside a greenhouse in Huelva, Spain.

Undocumented migrants, recently disembarked from the boat they used to flee the African mainland, seek shelter on Fuerteventura Island, off the coast of Morocco.

Top to Bottom Thousands of undocumented immigrants, these men among them, begin their long journey to Spain with a trek through the Sahara; A migrant worker at prayer outside of an aid center in Jaen, southern Spain; A newly arrived worker picks strawberries inside a greenhouse in Huelva, Spain; Undocumented migrants, recently disembarked from the boat they used to flee the African mainland, seek shelter on Fuerteventura Island, part of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco.

The choice of Goytisolo followed naturally from Ugarte’s fascination with those treated unfairly by governments. Ugarte noted that the writer’s fame is largely due to the condition of his exile: “Goytisolo has said on several occasions that had he not taken up residence outside Spain, he would never have written the novels that have made him an international figure... His move to Paris allowed him to assimilate certain literary concepts that were not part of the intellectual climate of Spain.”

Newly minted doctorate in hand, he landed a faculty position at tiny Augustana College in Illinois. Ugarte liked the job but worried about the limited research opportunities. He came to MU in 1979, turned his dissertation into a book, Trilogy of Treason: An Intertextual Study of Juan Goytisolo, and eventually became a member of the University’s tenured faculty.

Tenure never meant complacency in Ugarte’s mind. He joins protests against foreign wars in downtown Columbia. He travels to Fort Benning, Georgia, to speak out against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a Department of Defense facility that has provided military and police training to authoritarian regimes in Central and South America. He also finds time to write letters to local media outlets, as he did recently to protest continued American military involvement in Afghanistan.

Ugarte’s review of Juan Gonzalez’s book, Harvest of Empire, published in The Nation, gives voice to Ugarte’s own form of intellectual activism. He embraces Gonzalez’s notion that Hispanic immigration—legal and otherwise—to the United States has for decades served the economic interests of American elites, even as many of these same privileged citizens seek to demonize Spanish-speaking migrants. The hypocrisy of this position notwithstanding, Ugarte argues, the demographic shift set in motion by the arrival of Hispanic workers may ultimately accomplish something politics seems incapable of doing: a cultural rapprochement.

“The much-mentioned statistic that, by the mid-21st century, one in four US citizens will be Hispanic is simply one projection out of many that point to the writer’s hope... that North America will come to know the other America, so that it will cure itself of its scorn,” Ugarte wrote. 

Looking for peaceful solutions also extends to Ugarte’s place in academe, often quite literally. When the peace studies degree program seemed destined to dissolve in the early 1990s, Ugarte stepped in to serve as its director—this despite his admitted ineptitude with office routine. Under his leadership the program thrived. Ugarte drew new students by cross-listing peace studies courses with those of other departments and gaining “writing-intensive” certification. He also lined up prominent speakers who drew audience members from around the campus and the rest of Columbia. Ugarte is now deeply involved in MU’s new Afro-Romance Institute for Languages and Literatures of the African Diaspora. Four of the speakers traveling to MU under the Institute’s auspices grew up in Equatorial Guinea, including Ndongo-Bidyogo.

Ugarte could not have predicted how his life would mingle with that of Ndongo-Bidyogo, who departed Equatorial Guinea for Spain in 1965. From the start, Ndongo-Bidyogo understood that, in many ways, his was the quintessential immigrant success story. He finished his secondary education in Valencia, then studied African history at the University of Barcelona. He became a journalist in Spain, covering his homeland’s rocky transition from dictatorship to democracy and publishing one of the first studies detailing the post-colonial carnage in Equatorial Guinea.

But Ndongo-Bidyogo felt anxiety about those he left behind. Furthermore, he says, “those of us Guineans who live in Spain have become victims of major hostility; this enmity comes from Spanish support of Equatorial Guinean tyranny.”

In 1985, six years after a government coup that seemed, at first, to promise a modicum of democracy, Ndongo-Bidyogo returned home to become director of a Hispano-Guinean Cultural Center. He retained that job for seven turmoil-filled years, all the while speaking out against mounting repression. In 1992, he resumed his journalism career, a move that further angered those in power. His reporting eventually forced him to flee, seeking refuge in neighboring Gabon before returning to Spain in 1994.

Why are such stories important for students and others in the U.S. to hear? Ugarte has a ready answer. “The cultural and historical issues emerging from tiny Equatorial Guinea serve as a window to an understanding of the realities that will define the cultural, economic and political currents of the 21st century. I don’t think I would be overstating my case if I submitted that the literature and culture of Equatorial Guinea provides an inroad to the consciousness of an age.”

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