In October 2020, Jennifer Rathbun, professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Classics, decided to reach out to a longtime work friend and Colombian author, Carlos Aguasaco. Rathbun saw the Academy of American Poets was accepting applications for the Ambroggio Prize, a $1,000 publication prize given to book-length poetry collections originally written in Spanish with an English translation, and thought Aguasaco’s book “Cardinal In My Window with a Mask on its Beak” would make for a good submission.
Rathbun said “Cardinal In My Window with a Mask on its Beak” was a different experience compared to the other 16 books she has translated in her career.
“[Aguasaco] did not have the collection finished — he had three-fourths of it finished, so he sent me that, and I would work on the translations,” Rathbun said. “And, as I would finish a section or a group of them, I would send them to him and say, ‘OK, is this capturing what you’re wanting in the Spanish?’”
Rathbun worked closely with Aguasasco to make sure all translations captured the meaning of Aguasasco’s poems and what they represent. The collection focused on immigrants and Spanish speakers in the United States and included 40 poems.
“Normally, when I translated a project, I couldn’t tell you that there’s a standard timeline,” Rathbun said, “but just for a point of reference, I did have a project that took me eight years, I had another project that took me 10 years [and] another project that took me five years.”
The poetry book was completed and sent to the Academy of American Poets at the end of December 2020. Aguasaco wanted the set of poems to focus on serving society by writing about experiences other people have faced, including historical figures and first-generation immigrants in the U.S.
“I was reading about these historical figures like Ota Benga … I saw the famous picture of a child in a cage that was being detained at the border following the orders of the former president of the United States, and I couldn’t resist the connection,” Aguasaco said. “It was so clear that 100 years ago, we had Benga in a cage and yet, one more time 100 years later, we had a child who was also in a cage due to the political situations, so I made the connection.”
After Aguasaco connected experiences from different generations, he realized he needed to write poems that shared the challenges immigrants face. Aguasaco thought more about the experience of immigrants, particularly within the U.S.
“[I wanted to] represent marginal characters that are experiencing the same transformation in this changing environment, so that was the first poem in the book, and then, I tried to think more and more about the experience of immigrants like myself but [who] didn’t have the benefits I had,” Aguasaco said.
Aguasaco came to the U.S. in 1999 with a visa sponsored by his wife. He didn’t speak any English and his first job was at a supermarket. Aguasaco said his wife helped him attend English-as-a-second-language classes at the International Center, an English language school in New York City, but he said not all immigrants have the same experience as him.
By 2020, Aguasaco learned enough English to become a Spanish teacher at Arts Integrated High School.
“I began thinking about those who have to cross the border due to other reasons, those who are fleeing gender violence and criminals, people who are fleeing due to the bands that are attacking them or people who are being displaced, even due to global warming or climate change,” Aguasaco said. “I found that in the desert, there are immigrants that die in the process.”
Aguasaco believes the different poems in the book create “beautiful images” when he’s writing from the perspective of different immigrants, but the poems, even when fictional, seem “painful and real.”
Rathbun said she believes people who work within language departments are “original diversity workers” because they help students and communities learn about diversity and can spread the word of diverse authors through translating their messages.
“Because we’ve always worked in and with diverse cultures and diverse languages … this particular award is so important because it’s the only one of its kind,” Rathbun said.
Rathbun recently looked at U.S. Census population projections and said the Hispanic minority in the U.S. will eventually become a Hispanic majority as the population percentage of non-Hispanic white people is predicted to shrink over the coming decades. With those numbers changing, Rathbun said she feels even more honored to be recognized with the Ambroggio Prize.
“This award, granted by the Academy of American Poets, is only one of its kind — it’s the only award in the United States granted to an author for work that is originally written in Spanish,” Rathbun said.
Aguasaco, being a first-generation immigrant, said he hopes to set an example for those in the Latinx and Hispanic communities. He also said he feels proud and honored to be able to share the stories of those who are unable to speak for themselves.
“It gives me hope for a better tomorrow, for a more inclusive and diverse society,” Aguasaco said. “It also makes me feel proud of the experience in the United States. I accept that my poetry highlights the contradictions of this nation … I do feel a big responsibility to open the door for other immigrants who understand the situation.”
Rathbun and Aguasaco received an email from the Academy of American Poets in March 2021 notifying them they had won the Ambroggio Prize. Both credited their award to the Latinx and Hispanic communities, to immigrants all over the U.S and first-generation students.
“I have two Hispanic children myself that are in college, and I know what type of challenges they face,” Rathbun said. “Feel empowered by your heritage and to feel empowered by your bilingualism at whatever level it may be.”