Alicia Partnoy, a professor of Spanish in the LMU Modern Languages and Literatures Department, has lived an incredible life of perseverance and courage, which has shaped her into a passionate social justice advocate. Her relentless commitment to making a difference in the lives of others is needed now more than ever and will feature prominently in her work as the 2020-21 Daum Professor in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.
Created from a legacy received from Harry M. Daum, Class of 1938, the Daum Professorship is given annually to a tenured full professor in BCLA who has exhibited a record of excellence in teaching and advising, scholarship or creative work, as well as service and leadership to the department, college, and university.
Partnoy was one of the “disappeared” in what is known as Argentina’s “Dirty War” – a term coined by the dictatorship itself to justify the massacre. She spent three years as a political prisoner, including three months in the “Little School” concentration camp, suffering from torture and starvation. Having survived these atrocities, Partnoy arrived in the U.S. with her young daughter. Once here, Partnoy recounts, “solidarity helped us rebuild our lives and continue my struggle against the dictatorship.” She documented her trials in “The Little School,” a collection of vignettes that denounce the situation, which included the birth of children in captivity who were taken from their families by the perpetrators.
Partnoy’s research focuses on non-hierarchical models and structures, an approach that transforms marginalized individuals and groups from subjects to be studied into active participants in scholarly work. When studying or partnering with marginalized communities, Partnoy explains, “It is not unusual to hear a scholar dissect the words of marginalized populations, and apply theories to analyze their behavior.” Contrasting this approach, Partnoy prefers to engage with her subjects. “They sit at the table with us when we are presenting to an audience and are given a forum to challenge our findings if they disagree with the scholarship on the basis of their experience,” says Partnoy.
As someone who suffered imprisonment and exile for fighting injustice, Partnoy has genuine insight into complex problems the world is currently grappling with and finds great inspiration in “the youth demonstrating in our streets, and the Black Lives Matter movement fighting against centuries of oppression and discrimination.” She also identifies with those who are seeking refuge in the United States like she did: “Today, thousands who sought asylum in the US are kept in horrendous situations, children are separated from their parents, and places that can be labeled concentration camps hold immigrants.” Alicia amplifies the voices of these immigrants and asylum seekers. As she put it, “I study and teach the words written in these situations, words drenched in resilience and resistance. I have published my scholarship mostly in English, and my Daum project now involves translating that work into Spanish, so it can go back to my birthplace.”
As both a survivor and a researcher of other survivors, Partnoy’s work occupies a unique space where scholarship and creativity go hand-in-hand: “In my case, creative work and scholarship fuel each other and in turn nurture and are nurtured by my activism. I see my writings and academic pursuits as venues to help me expose and combat social injustice.” As part of her work as the Daum Professor, Partnoy originally planned to bring to campus survivors of human rights abuses in Nepal and Argentina, as well as colleagues who have helped to translate her work into Hebrew, Bengali, French, and English. Partnoy has also worked closely with her students over the years to “[translate] into English the words of human rights victims in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and the U.S.” Even though COVID-19 and travel restrictions have changed some of her Daum research plans, she also notes that as a poet she is trained to “produce beauty when working under constraints,” and hopes that our virtual environment will make it easier for her to collaborate with former students now scattered around the world.
Our country is struggling to work through deeply entrenched issues of inequality, and we have seen and continue to see inspiring acts of activism and protest confronting racism and brutality. But, along with action there must also be reflection. Alicia Partnoy works for change through her research and poetry, which deepens our understanding of injustice, strengthens our bond with those who have suffered, and contributes to reforms that bring about meaningful and lasting change in our society.