White House honor for lit prof

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Roberto González Echevarría was awarded the National Humanities Medal in March. View full image

When Roberto González Echevarría’s mother used to put him to bed, she read to him from Plato’s dialogues. She was a PhD who taught philosophy at the local instituto, and “she wanted to make me a Sterling Professor,” jokes the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature. When he received the title—Yale’s top academic honor—about a decade ago, he thought it the highest summit he could achieve. But on March 2, he climbed higher, receiving a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, together with nine others honored for their achievements.

González Echevarría was born and raised in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. He moved to the States at 16, received his PhD at Yale in 1970, taught here briefly and then at Cornell, and returned to Yale for good in 1977. Fluent in Spanish, English, French, and Italian, he is the author of many works, including Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative; The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (he played semi-pro ball once himself, as a catcher); and Love and the Law in Cervantes, which had its origins in the DeVane Lectures he delivered in 2002.

The recipient of so many honors, González Echevarría says he strives to remain humble, using Cervantes as his guide: “I always think of what Don Quixote tells Sancho Panza when Sancho Panza is named the governor of Barataria.” He offers a rough translation: “Don’t think for a moment, Sancho, that you have received this honor because you deserved it, but only because God has arranged for things to go your way.”

González Echevarría says he never got into this business for the laurels; he simply loves literature and teaching. “Everything I do, I would do for free.” Then he remembers Yale’s president, and adds: “I hope Rick Levin doesn’t read this.”  

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