OSWEGO — The Paraguayan Ministry of Education in August bestowed a medal on Tracy K. Lewis, a SUNY Oswego professor of modern languages who has helped focus attention on the little-publicized South American country as it made its way out of dictatorship to parliamentary democracy.
Lewis’ good friend, Paraguayan novelist and Universidad del Norte President Juan Manuel Marcos, told Lewis the medal is the highest honor the ministry can confer.
“I was very moved by this gesture, to say the least,” Lewis said. He received the honor in a ceremony during an August symposium at the university in Asuncion.
Winner of a 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, Lewis said his interest in the people and nation of Paraguay began when he met Marcos, then a political exile teaching in this country, at a conference in Louisiana in the 1980s.
“He and I became very close friends,” Lewis said. “To this day, Juan is my closest collaborator and one of my best friends.”
In 2001, Lewis translated Marcos’ 1987 novel “El Invierno de Gunter” (“Gunter’s Winter”) from Spanish to English. It was then only the third Paraguayan novel ever to be translated to English.
“That was, from their point of view, historic,” said Lewis, who noted translators in more than a dozen other languages have used his work as a basis. “Since Paraguay is a country not very many people pay attention to outside of Paraguay, they’re very appreciative of outsiders who take a real interest in their culture. So I became very caught up in that aspect of it. I really feel like I’ve been able to contribute something.”
Out of dictatorship
For 35 years, until 1989, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner ruled Paraguay. Memories of the regime run deep, Lewis said, and he recalled a Paraguayan at a party lifting his shirt to reveal a foot and a half long scar and saying, “You want to see what Stroessner did to me?”
“It’s a country that’s had a lot of political turmoil over the years, but watching the way they have tried to manage their transition out of dictatorship has been fascinating — the way they’re trying to implement democracy on their own terms and not as an imitation of the way we do it here,” Lewis said.
For example, Lewis pointed out, Paraguay is a bilingual nation — Spanish and Guarani –and determined to remain so. Guarani is the only indigenous language of the Americas whose speakers include a large proportion of non-indigenous people, he added.
“They do very interesting things, very interesting experiments in bilingual education,” he said. “That cultural dynamic is very interesting to watch and I think we can learn a lot from it ourselves.”
SUNY Oswego provides many avenues for students to gain intercultural experience –inside the classroom and out, at home and abroad — and Lewis said learning about a country such as the landlocked Paraguay, sandwiched between two regional powers in Brazil and Argentina, has great value.
“It gives us a point of comparison, a point of contrast,” Lewis said. “It allows us not only to see the way other folks live, but it allows us to see the ways that folks whom we might think are very different are not, in fact, so different.”