A Conversation with Professor María José Zubieta
Janet Lee: So to start off, who are you and what do you do at NYU?
María José Zubieta: My name is María José Zubieta. I teach Spanish language and Spanish/English translation in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese. I started to teach at NYU in 2000 as a part-time Adjunct Professor! I don’t know if a lot of professors who teach at NYU today started as part-time faculty, but I did because I was writing my PhD dissertation and I didn’t want a full-time job. In 2001 I was hired as a full-time Language Lecturer, and in 2009 I was promoted to Clinical Assistant Professor.
JL: So where were you a graduate student?
MJZ: I was a graduate student at UCLA in the Spanish and Portuguese Department.
JL: What kind of student were you in undergrad?
MJZ: That will be a long answer. Let me give you my background first. I am an immigrant from Uruguay. I came to the U.S. when I was 12. I didn’t know any English, so I started middle school as an ELL student. Neither one of my parents finished their college education, which means that when they arrived in the U.S. my father had to do typical immigrant manual labor. My mother knew English, so she was able to find work as an office assistant. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished high school, but I liked to study. Not knowing what I specifically wanted to study out of high school, I got an Associate’s Degree from Los Angeles Pierce College. When I took English literature courses at Pierce to complete the requirements, I discovered that I really loved to read novels, poetry, and literary theory. I also took French to complete the language requirement, so I decided to major in French and English for my Associate’s Degree. Afterwards, I went to California State University, Northridge for my Bachelor’s, and at that point I knew that I wanted to study literature. I started as a French major but then I found out there was a Spanish Department, and I was thrilled, I loved the idea of studying Latin American literature in Spanish. And that’s how I majored in Spanish Language and Literatures. In sum, I guess I was the kind of undergrad who paved her way as she went!
JL: Why did you choose Spanish literature instead of French literature?
MJZ: I think I quickly realized it would have taken a lot more effort to complete a B.A. in French than in Spanish. Also, reading and writing in Spanish was natural for me, and I wanted to connect with my Uruguayan self. My father was a political prisoner in Uruguay, and after he was released, my family moved to Argentina. I was seven years old at the time, and we lived there until I was twelve, which is when we moved to the U.S., to Los Angeles, to be more specific. When I started school in L.A., I felt out of place because I didn’t know any English, I didn’t have anything in common with my classmates. This was a difficult period because I constantly fantasized with moving back to Uruguay. When I started college, I realized that studying literature in Spanish was a way for me to connect with my culture and identity.
JL: So outside of the classroom, what kind of stuff did you do?
MJZ: I worked as a full-time legal assistant when I was doing my undergrad, which means that I took classes at night. I had no time for fun, I worked during the day, took classes at night, and spent the weekends studying because I wanted to complete my Bachelor’s Degree in four years. It was difficult, but I was able to do it because I was very passionate about what I was doing. I was lucky because I studied exactly what I wanted to study, and I enjoyed my education.
JL: So after graduation, did you know you were going to continue in academia? Was that something you were always aware of?
MJZ: When I finished my B.A., I didn’t want to look for a job because I had recently been a full-time employee. As I graduated cum laude, my professors at CSUN advised me to go to graduate school. I was thrilled at the thought because my dream was to be able to go to school during the day and to study full time. I was accepted in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA, and I immediately started to teach as a graduate student. I liked it so much that I knew I wanted to teach for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I still think I want to teach for the rest of my life.
JL: When you were an undergrad, were there any people in your life that really influenced you?
MJZ: When I went to Pierce College, I took a U.S. history class. The professor who taught this class was and still is a role model to me, because she was so very passionate. When she was teaching, she threw herself into the subject, and you could tell by the way she taught and how she explained U.S. history that she truly enjoyed teaching. You could tell she wanted to influence her students to be as passionate as she was about U.S. history. I went into the class thinking it was a requirement, but she taught me what a huge impact a professor can make on her students. I had no particular interest in U.S. history and it wasn’t what I studied, but she made me want to learn more, and I still remember things from her class. When I think back, my history professor at Pierce College is who I want to be in a classroom. Her first name was Elaine, she made all her students call her by her first name, even though she had a PhD, so I don't remember her last name. Sadly, she died the semester after I took the class with her.
JL: How did you get to NYU?
MJZ: When I arrived in New York in 2000, I emailed the Director of the Spanish Language Program at that time, Judith Némethy, I sent her my CV. She immediately called me and gave me a class to teach, I have been in the Spanish Language Program ever since.
JL: What would you tell your undergrad self?
MJZ: That's an important question, especially because I see what a difficult time some of my undergraduate students have. I was fortunate because no one in my family had a lot of expectations of what I would do with my education. Also, I paid for my education, so I didn’t have anybody pressuring me to get the best grades. In fact, I failed my first Algebra class at Pierce College because I don’t have a mathematical mind, whatsoever. The second time I took it, I got an A. But, interestingly, I didn’t feel like a failure when I failed the class the first time, I didn't have the pressure of getting good grades, unlike my students today. Because I didn’t stress over grades, I was able to explore many different areas in college. For example, I studied drama and acted in two plays. I got credit for doing the plays but it was much more work than a regular class, as I had to memorize my lines and go to the rehearsals every night. Despite the amount of work, it was a lot of fun and I discovered I'm a talented actor! So I want to tell my undergrad self to do exactly what she did: to be true to herself and to do what she loves most. That’s what helped me become the happy and successful professional I am today. It’s a challenge to start teaching new groups every semester, but I love that challenge. I love being able to explore different styles of teaching to accommodate different styles of learning. So, to sum it up, to my undergrad self and to everyone who is an undergrad today, I strongly recommend they pursue their true passion and care a little bit less about other people’s expectations.
JL: Favorite coffee shop?
MJZ: I want to say Think Coffee, because it’s the coffee shop I go to the most. I like the food and the coffee there, and it’s in a convenient location when I walk to my office from the subway station.
JL: Favorite restaurant/cuisine?
MJZ: My favorite cuisine is Japanese-Peruvian fusion, by far, which is only available in Peru. My husband is Peruvian, so I get to eat Japanese-Peruvian fusion when we go to Peru every year. The restaurant I’ve been to the most close to NYU is Otto. I like their wine selection.
JL: Any books you liked?
MJZ: Many, many books. It's difficult to come up with just one book, but if I must choose a book that was particularly important for me, not only on the scholarly level, but also at the personal level, it would be Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Hopscotchis about how leaving your home country transforms a person indefinitely because your mind is forever divided into two places -the place you live in and the place you left. It’s also an experimental book because you don’t read it from beginning to end, you “hopscotch”. At the end of each chapter the reader is told to go to a different chapter than the one that follows. In a way, that’s how the mind and life of an immigrant works. Life as an immigrant follows an unconventional route where you need to create and recreate your life in ways you were not expecting.
JL: Who is your favorite superhero?
MJZ: I would say Nakia from Black Panther. She is a very strong figure in the movie because she is Black Panther's driving force. I identify with her because I did not choose an academic career the way my professors in graduate school thought I would. They thought I had everything that's needed to be a scholar, but I chose a teaching career and made that decision knowingly because I love to work with people, I don't like to work alone, and I don't enjoy the spotlight -well, maybe a little, when I'm in the classroom. Nakia is out of the spotlight many times, yet she is the driving force for the success of her tribe, she’s the one who leads the women to safety and confronts the enemy tribe, but doesn’t want to be the center of attention. I think she does this because she believes she's doing what she wants to do the most, which is to fight for the group, and I identify with that.
JL: Beach or mountains?
MJZ: Beach. I just went Mancora in Peru and loved it!