Ana Cara

Featured Folklorist, Folklore Works
Head shot
Courtesy of Ana Cara

Ana Cara recently retired from Oberlin College, where she taught in the Department of Hispanic Studies. She holds a PhD in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in various academic journals, including the Journal of American Folklore, the Latin American Research Review, and World Literature Today, and as chapters in several books. She is the co-editor (with Robert Baron) of Creolization as Cultural Creativity, and the recipient of three NEH grants.

Tell us about a current or recent project that has been or is especially important to you.

I’m currently engaged in a project which, on the one hand, is a new endeavor, but which is also based on many decades of research centered around the themes of my ongoing work: creolization, verbal art, and the relationship between folklore and literature. The project is a book on Jorge Luis Borges’s milonga poems.

The term milonga, in Argentine folk tradition, refers to a musical form, a type of dance, and to (often improvised) rhymed poetry sung to milonga music, usually played on the guitar.

Curiously, Borges—the internationally recognized Argentine writer, known for his complex, highbrow stories and poetry—published a book of original milonga poems at age of 65, titled Para las seis cuerdas (For the Six Strings), which alludes to the guitar. When I discovered these poems, many years ago, as an Argentine living in the U.S., Borges’ work resonated with me. Some of his stories, and certainly his milongas, spoke to my Argentine experiences, to my family history, and to a strong folk tradition, which had also led me to the study of folklore.

As I reflected on Borges’ milongas, I was absorbed by the following questions: Why would an erudite writer produce a volume of folk poetry? Can an erudite writer, in fact, write folk poetry? How are orality and improvisation rendered in writing? Are Borges’ milonga poems circulated in oral tradition? What cultural work do his milongas accomplish, in his own oeuvre and in Argentina’s literary and folk tradition? How do his milongas relate to Borges’ lifelong search for an Argentine criollo (creole) voice? The recent Nobel Prize in Literature bestowed on Bob Dylan further underscore these questions.

As I’ve indicated in my articles on “creole talk,” although Argentina doesn’t have a creole language as such, there is a way of speaking, a kind of discourse, shaped by criollo cultural norms and dynamics in which various forms of criollo verbal art are voiced, including milongas. As a result, the criollo nature of Borges’ milonga poems poses certain challenges when translating these verses into English. I’m also currently working, with poet David Young, on the translation of Para las seis cuerdas.

Why is this topic important to you?

One of the big events in my life was leaving my home country and becoming an immigrant. I have a family history of immigration: my maternal grandparents immigrated to Argentina from the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia, at the time), and my paternal grandfather immigrated to Argentina from Spain. My parents immigrated to the U.S., and since I came with them, I am an immigrant as well.

This experience shaped how I positioned myself between two cultures and two languages. It also made me very aware of distance, absence, and time. Letters seemed to take forever, traveling to and from friends and family. This occurred, of course, before the existence of the internet, social media, or WhatsApp. At a young age, I became keenly aware of cultural differences and the dynamics involved in negotiating those differences.

Over my lifetime, I’ve learned to see those differences not as something to be resolved, but as a reality to be acknowledged and embraced. That awareness and sensibility further gave me important insights on how creolity works.

I experienced “creole talk” first-hand in family settings because, in addition to my immigrant grandparents who lived with us and spoke to me in Czech, I had a Creole grandmother who was quite a character and a great criollo verbal art improviser. She was a poet of sorts, and she modeled for me that way of talking. Consequently, I derive great pleasure from this kind of verbal art and am interested, in the case of Borges, in writing about how he employs “creole talk” in his writing.

Beyond my personal engagement in these topics, I believe that the contribution of folklorists to the study of how different cultures employ words, language, and verbal arts is central to understanding the human experience. Interestingly, the etymology of “milonga” comes from the Bantu term mulonga, signifying “word,” or “wordiness.” 

How has your project evolved since you began?

When I first considered writing this book, I imagined it more as an ethnography. As my ideas developed, however, I became more interested in issues concerning the relationship between literature and folklore, and the role of creolization in the verbal arts.

At the time I began my folklore studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the early seventies, the field was in enormous flux, embracing important paradigm changes. The curricular focus was largely anthropological and sociolinguistic, emphasizing performance and context, and moving away from the notion of folklore as a collection of texts. Consequently, there was little interest, at the time, in pursuing the study of folklore and literature, which is what I was interested in. In fact, I almost dropped out of the program. Fortunately, I ended up one semester in a class on “Creole Literatures” taught by John Szwed, followed by a field trip to Argentina, during which I visited and interviewed Borges at his home. I have, since, carried out many field projects in Argentina, talking to musicians and oral poets. Most recently, I travelled there with folklorists Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan (from City Lore) to film guitarist-singers, whose improvised poetry, called payadas, is closely related to milonga songs. The footage from this trip is part of a documentary titled In the Moment: Poetry Improvisations from Around the World.

What have been the primary or notable challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

I’ve been very fortunate in my life and work, and have faced few real difficulties. As I mentioned, emigrating from my native country produced some challenges, but today I consider it a privilege to be able to move back and forth between two cultural identities.

So, in answer to your question, I’ll address the challenges (and benefits) I encountered while teaching at a small college that didn’t have a Folklore Department. I feel fortunate to have taught at Oberlin College, a progressive institution with outstanding, creative students. I was first hired into a Romance Languages Department, with few opportunities to teach folklore courses. So, I embarked on creating a Hispanic Studies Department with a broader, interdisciplinary program, whose range of courses include the study of culture, as well as literature and language. My challenge was to form an intellectual community for myself and others, where I could continue my work in folklore, learn from fellow faculty, and create a folklore-related curriculum.

I turned that challenge to my advantage by engaging in “Private Readings,” Independent Projects, and Honors Theses in folklore with students from various departments. This, in turn, engaged me with faculty from different disciplines (such as Dance, Theater, Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Creative Writing, Translation, Latin American Studies, English, and the Conservatory of Music) whose research and teaching interests bordered on folklore, and with whom I could develop folklore-related programming on campus. Additionally, I carried out field projects with students locally and abroad. We did fieldwork on Santería and salsa music in Lorain, a city next door to Oberlin, which at one point had one of the highest per capita Latino populations in the U.S.. During  several semesters abroad in Mexico, Spain, and Cuba, I had exciting opportunities to mentor students in their field projects. Also, during two different semesters in London I taught courses on tourism, the visual arts and tradition, and the city’s diverse ethnic neighborhoods; here, also, students engaged in fieldwork and produced mini-ethnographies.

In sum, what may have seemed like a limitation at first, resulted in a rich teaching experience, excellent collegial ties, and a fertile learning environment.

Produced by Alexandra Sanchez

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