Chicano Studies Department Attracts Hungarian Scholar

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

For the past three months, Fulbright scholar and university professor Tamas Vrauko has been at UTEP demonstrating just how much of a connection there is between his home country of Hungary and Hispanic culture.

Taking time off from his teaching duties at the University of Miskolc’s Institute of Modern Philology, Vrauko is working on a Fulbright-funded book that will enable a richer teaching of North American-based Chicano and Hispanic history, art, culture and politics for his students back home.Hungarian Fulbright scholar and university professor Tamas Vrauko is studying Chicano history at UTEP. Photo by Lisa Garibay / UTEP News ServiceHungarian Fulbright scholar and university professor Tamas Vrauko is studying Chicano history at UTEP. Photo by Lisa Garibay / UTEP News Service

“It will contain material which is largely commonplace for most people here, but is new to them [his Hungarian students], because they usually don’t learn much about Hispanic heritage or the Hispanic dimension,” he said.

Many people have expressed surprise to Vrauko over his work.

“I know they’re thinking, ‘What is a Hungarian doing here studying these things?’ And I say, ‘Believe me, there are many things in the past on which we can base our present observations and scholarly activities.’” For Mexico and Hungary, an intersecting past includes the rule of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Maximilian in 1864, which brought thousands of Hungarian soldiers and supporters to North America.

“And you may not know that Frida Kahlo’s grandfather was Hungarian,” he said while talking of his excitement over recently visiting Kahlo’s birthplace, Casa Azul, which is now an official museum.

“It is significant that scholars from throughout the world are coming to UTEP to develop Chicano Studies curricula for their universities or to conduct research on the Hispanic population,” said Dennis Bixler-Márquez, Ph.D., director of UTEP’s Chicano Studies department. He added that most research fellows have taken advantage of UTEP’s location and Latin American connections to visit Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, just the way Vrauko has.

As a child in 1960s Hungary, Vrauko was an avid reader of books by Karl Meyer, Thomas Mayne Reid and Zane Grey, historical fiction and nonfiction writers whose stories are set in the American West, Southwest and Mexico.

“I was fascinated by this world that they described. You could tell the owner of a horse by the saddle because the Spanish saddle was different from the Anglo saddle,” he said. He attributes his career path and scholarly focus to that childhood interest, which not only never left him but has become more relevant as the world becomes more interconnected.

“In the 1980s, people were watching Dallas every Friday night and they saw that the chambermaid was called Theresa, which was not an Anglo-Saxon name,” he recalled. “Some people wondered why. They had no idea that there are so many people [in the U.S.] who speak Spanish. In many places, it’s the majority language now.”

Spanish is also becoming very popular in Vrauko’s homeland as more and more Hungarian high schools introduce it as a foreign language for students to choose. There’s even a Mexican restaurant in his hometown in Hungary, which is a sign of the times. “Everything goes beyond borders [now],” he said. “Nineteenth century nation states are no longer, especially in the European Union.”

And while the nearest collection of Hispanic-American art and culture material to Vrauko’s university is at the Kennedy Institute in Berlin (roughly 650 miles away), Vrauko has been encouraged by another Hungarian university’s efforts to invite a lecturer from Mexico to instruct and enrich both faculty and students.

“It’s slowly taking root that North America does not only consist of the United States and French-Canadian literature,” he said.

So far, Vrauko has a 200-page single-spaced manuscript he plans to augment with many pictures he’s taken from his travels between California and El Paso/Juárez. The volume contains some history, starting with the earliest explorers and those who established Spanish rule in North America, but Vrauko stresses that it will also include a significant amount of literature.

“When our students study British literature, Irish literature is automatically part of the British literature curriculum,” he said. “But here, when it comes to American literature, Hispanic literature is not a part of the studies. Not even that part of Hispanic literature which is written in English, which quite a lot is.” And so Vrauko is making a special point to include works in his book like Luis Valdez’s trailblazing play Zoot Suit.

Vrauko agrees that Hollywood and U.S. pop culture influence curiosity in other parts of the world, mentioning that when the Dukes of Hazard film came out, it increased interest in the American South. The same goes now for a greater interest in Hispanic culture as Hollywood tries to diversify its offerings with more Latin-oriented content.

Vrauko’s work toward increasing an understanding of cultures that on first glance seem to have no connection is becoming all the more important as the world shrinks and boundaries disappear due to technology and geopolitical change. UTEP’s Chicano Studies department is thrilled to be contributing to that broadening of horizons.

“Other nations want their universities and government officials to develop expertise on the emerging American demographic profile and its attendant policy issues such as immigration, national security and economic development,” Bixler-Márquez said. “To date, scholars from Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Mexico, Cuba, South Korea and the U.S. have sent research fellows here under the auspices of the Fulbright Commission, the Social Science Research Council and their respective governments.”

Vrauko is eager to take all that he’s learned back home, knowing that there will always be a connection between two very distant places, one that many can continually learn from.

“One of the big avenues leading out of Budapest is called Mexican Avenue, commemorating those days when the history of Mexico and Austria-Hungary intersected,” he explained. “It wasn’t a very good period of history because many people died. But, it’s history, and we have to remember.”