I was a student both of Professor Juan Roura-Parella and his wife, the lovely Teresa. Professor Roura taught me about aesthetics and philosophy, Goya’s black paintings, the poetry of Antonio Machado, and what it means to be a political exile. The lovely Teresa taught me classical Spanish guitar, to move gracefully, and how to look elegant in high heels.
I was born in Cuba and grew up speaking Spanish with my family in New York. When I went to Wesleyan University in 1974, I was not yet eighteen. I’d never gone to camp or lived on my own. My mother was in tears. But my father was irate that I was going to college against his will; he believed a girl should wait at home until a man came to marry her. After a tense, scary, and silent three-hour drive from our rental apartment in Queens to the leafy campus in Middletown, Connecticut, I couldn’t wait for Mami and Papi and my younger brother, Mori, to drop me off at the dorm. I was eager to start living an independent life in the grand feminist style I’d been hearing about in the news, maybe not burn my bra, but stand tall, brave, and sure of myself, and never have to depend on a man to take care of me.
I was dying to leave home—or so I thought.
It didn’t take long, following the departure of my family, for me to feel lonely and lost. I felt different from the other girls; they seemed loud, wild, and very rude. Even though an old boyfriend from high school was there too, we no longer saw eye to eye. His presence made me feel embarrassed. I was pathetic and clumsy around him and he looked at me with pity.
So I became very solitary. But rather than dissolve into a crack in the wall, I sauntered around in silky white blouses, wavy skirts, tall boots, and wide-brimmed felt hats. I wasn’t sure whom I was channeling. I just knew I wanted to be elegant. All the girls then were wearing flannel shirts and torn jeans and construction boots. I didn’t want to look like them. But at the same time, I felt defeated. I knew everyone thought I was weird.
And then I met Professor Roura and the lovely Teresa. Somehow I found my way to Professor Roura’s class on “Art Style as a World View.” Professor Roura captivated me from the very start. When I was in high school, I had often sought to escape from the dreariness of our lives as struggling immigrants by taking the subway to the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum. I’d seen a lot of Spanish art, especially works by El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya, and in Professor Roura’s class, I began to acquire a historical and cultural context for works I’d admired, but not understood. He taught me about the dark side of Spain—the witches, Saturn eating his children, the infirm, the insane, the murdered.
I was eager to continue learning with Professor Roura, and the next semester he agreed to teach me one-on-one about art and philosophy in a tutorial at his home. Professor Roura had been a student of Dilthey, so we read a lot of his work, but mostly we spoke about the meaning of life. During these visits, I learned that the lovely Teresa taught classical Spanish guitar. I’d brought my guitar from home, but abandoned it in the corner of my room at the dorm. I knew how to play flamenco and also a few Joni Mitchell songs. I was getting rusty, so I took her up on her offer to take private lessons.
So began my relationship with the Professor and His Wife. Afternoon after afternoon, in my tall boots and big hats, guitar in its case, I’d stroll across campus, past houses and trees, down long streets and short roads, and up a hill until I reached their apartment, climbed the stairs, and found myself in the magical place that was their home. Lesson followed lesson: an hour to an hour and half conversation with Professor Roura about abstract concepts, and then forty-five minutes to an hour of playing Spanish classical guitar with the lovely Teresa.
Sometimes the lessons were interwoven, as when Professor Roura, trying to explain what he meant by the concept of grace in art, turned to the lovely Teresa, who was setting out dishes for our five o’clock tea, and said, “There is grace. Teresa is grace,” and he smiled at her lovingly and she back at him with the same love.
At the end of the lessons, there was always the delightful reward of five o’clock tea. Not only the tea itself, but a delicious cake baked by the lovely Teresa, subtle in flavor, and scented with lemon or orange. Professor Roura liked the orderliness of the British, and five o’clock tea was a custom he much appreciated. He was a great believer in maintaining a sense of balance in life, in taking everything in moderation. It was fine to have one slice of cake a day, but no more than that, and not at an arbitrary time, but at exactly five o’clock with a cup of tea.
His passion for order was part of his identity as a Catalan. I learned that los catalanes were not the same as all the other españoles—their worldview was much more cosmopolitan and liberal, and intellectual. Professor Roura told me the story of how he and Teresa fled Catalunya after the Spanish Civil War. They couldn’t tolerate life under the regime of the dictator General Franco, who’d forbidden the Catalans from speaking their language. It was because of Franco that they’d journeyed to Cuba and then to Mexico, where the high altitude tugged too much on Teresa’s lungs and made it difficult for her to breathe. So they’d decided to settle in the United States, where they were very happy. Very happy, indeed. There was, I thought, a touch of sadness in Professor Roura’s voice as he told the story. Eventually he’d returned with Teresa to Tortellá, his hometown in Catalunya, and spent summers there, where I visited them once, but it was too late to recover the time spent away. He had been far from home for decades. He had learned to live in exile.
I knew something about the meaning of exile. My parents, after all, were exiles from Cuba. They’d left because of their opposition to Fidel Castro. But they were exiles in a different way. They had never called themselves exiles. They weren’t intellectuals. They didn’t read books and didn’t like classical music of any kind. They watched a lot of TV, wore excessive amounts of cheap cologne and perfume, and got together with other Cuban friends to tell jokes, laugh, eat Cuban sandwiches, and dance the cha cha cha. They fled a socialist revolution that sought equality and social justice, so they were “worms.” But Professor Roura and the lovely Teresa, who fled the rule of fascists and their oppressively Catholic military regime, could never be called “worms.” They were sophisticated exiles—refined, intelligent, thoughtful, polite, and worldly.
I wanted to be a sophisticated exile too, just like Professor Roura and the lovely Teresa. I was searching for a new home, and even new parents, and they opened their arms and took me in. They were known to adopt a student every now and then who’d made a favorable impression on them, and I was grateful I’d risen to that enviable position.
How wonderful to have a father who believed girls should be able to read and discuss philosophy. How wonderful to have a mother who stayed beautifully slim because she walked everywhere rather than getting in the car, and embodied the very meaning of grace.
But even Professor Roura could be harsh. I remember once telling him that I was writing poems. He said many young people wrote poems, that this was totally commonplace. The real poet is the one who remains sensitive and keeps writing long after his or her youth has passed. These words haunted me then, and haunt me still, for I gave up poetry to become an anthropologist. Although I still write poems occasionally, what Professor Roura said is, unfortunately, true of me: I didn’t have enough sensitivity to remain a poet into my older years.
And the lovely Teresa, she was always giving, always smiling, full of esperanza, of hope. One day, while I was in the living room with Professor Roura, she emerged from their bedroom with a box. Inside was a stunning pair of high-heeled pumps, soft beige with pointy toes and stiletto heels. “Please take them,” she said. I couldn’t believe she was giving me such a personal gift. I took the shoes and kept them, never gave them away, never wore them, held on to them like treasure.
On an instinctive level I knew that Professor Roura and the lovely Teresa took in students like me because they were mourning their inability to have children of their own. Once, when I asked if they’d thought of having children, a dark shadow fell like a curtain over Professor Roura’s face. Then he explained, as Teresa quietly and swiftly left the room, that Teresa had suffered more than one miscarriage. He’d almost lost her. “We shall not have children,” he announced. She was everything to him. Losing her would be the end of him.
The lovely Teresa was younger and she outlived Professor Roura. Many years passed and I was out of touch with them for much too long, for which I will always be sorry. I saw Teresa again in Mexico City while I was there doing fieldwork. She was visiting her sisters, and through a friend in common I learned she wanted to see me.
It was a moving reunion. Teresa was frailer, but still lovely, full of heart, as always. She told me how Professor Roura had spent his dying days, asking her to recite the poems of Antonio Machado. And together the lovely Teresa and I recited the lines I’d learned from him as a young woman: “Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”
(Note: I wrote this piece two years ago as a memorial for Professor Roura and the Lovely Teresa. I thought I would share it on my blog in honor of Catalunya soon preparing to vote on its independence referendum.)