It was an ordinary day for most students at Johns Hopkins University. Classes, exams, meetings – the routine routine.
But there was nothing mundane about it for Ester Gimbernat González, a young, ambitious literature student from Argentina.
Filled with anticipation, she stepped for the first time into the campus library, a vast place where every section was lined with books she wanted to read or catch up on.
“When the doors opened, I was so happy, I couldn’t leave,” she said. “I was in heaven.”
That was 1971. In time, González would enroll at Hopkins, earn a Ph.D, form lifelong friendships with her literature classmates and then embark on a career that eventually led her to the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), where today she shares her enduring passion for great books as professor of Hispanic studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies.
Her résumé is filled with honors. In 2000, the school picked her for the Lucille Harrison Award, its highest honor, for a long career of professional excellence in teaching as well as in professional activity and service. In 2007, her Introduction to Hispanic Literature was named one of the top 10 Spanish literature courses in the nation by the College Board Advanced Placement’s course study conducted by the Educational Policy Improvement Center. The course has been a model for National Advanced Placement high school courses, both for content and teaching practices. The class introduces students to prominent contemporary writers and includes theater, novel, short story and poetry in translation.
“I’ve taught this course a long time. I didn’t realize it was something different. So I was surprised,” she said.
“In my class, we read and talk and write about Spanish literature. It’s a very demanding class. I choose one novel they have to read that is written in Spanish. They cannot take a novel that has been translated into Spanish. They have the final exam on that novel.
“That adds something to that course. It’s a big, big change. They start the class, and the first two weeks they hate me. They finish the class, and they love me, saying, ‘Please send me a list so I can read more like this.’” González has also written four books on writers in Argentina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries and contributed to two other books. To promote their works, she has invited them to UNC and other western campuses.
And she is editor of Confluencia, a Hispanic magazine of culture and literature. Not only has González used her contacts with poets and novelists to bolster its reputation, but she also has encouraged young writers and artists to publish therein, achieving a mix that now includes contributors from Asia, Europe and Australia.
“The journal was very small and modest when I took over in 1993,” she says. “I believe it’s come a long way. We don’t have a lot of subscriptions, but you can read it in many ways,” including online. “It’s an important part of my life.”
González isn’t the only academician in the family. After studying at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina, in the early 1970s, her husband, Luis Jorge González, enrolled in the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Md. (Ester earned a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins). He taught for a few years at Peabody and in Austin, Texas (Ester taught at the University of Texas), before accepting a position with the College of Music of the University of Colorado (CU)-Boulder in 1982 as a professor of composition and music theory (Ester took a job at Northern Colorado).
During Luis Jorge González’s distinguished career, he has won the coveted International Wieniawski Composition Competition with his Unaccompanied Violin Sonata. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978-79) and has received commissions from the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Colorado Music Festival, American Guild of Organists, Cosanti Foundation, Austin Music Festival, and many universities and performing ensembles.
The Gonzálezes’ son is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at CU as well as a musician.
“He developed both of our interests,” Ester said. In 1971, Luis had accepted a 10-month fellowship to study at Peabody and, because he lacked a visa that allowed him to return to Argentina and leave again, the Gonzálezes didn’t plan on staying in the U.S. “My plan was to stay in Argentina,” Ester said. “In Argentina, there were hard times politically. It was dangerous.”
Instead they stayed in the U.S., a change in plans that altered their lives, setting Ester González on course to become an American academician, a process that began with her first tentative visit to Hopkins’ library. “I couldn’t understand English at all – when I went to the library the first three or four times, I couldn’t find the books. One day, I got on the elevator and went down to the fourth floor. When the door opened and I saw all those books ... it was like Dante’s Inferno, you go down, down, down – except that it’s a paradise.
“I couldn’t leave the library; I lived there for four years. I was there from eight in the morning until night. I had my desk, and I studied and studied. We were a very small group. Just 12 students in Romance languages. They are my family in this country. They are still very close friends.”
After earning a master’s degree and Ph.D., González accepted a position at the University of Texas in the early 1980s, presenting a dilemma for the couple.
“Luis didn’t have a job; he didn’t have a visa. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation and went to Argentina, and I stayed in Texas. I’m a happy person, but it wasn’t a happy situation in Texas.”
The decision that changed their lives occurred when Luis accepted a position in Boulder and Ester took a job at Northern Colorado, about an hour’s drive from Boulder.
“At UNC, I felt right at home from the start,” she said. “I love it here. I love to teach, and I feel so young.”
Meanwhile her husband’s music has been widely performed throughout the United States, and in South America, Europe and Japan. The Gonzálezes’ Boulder home, however, looks more like a library than a conservatory.
“My library has spread to three rooms.”