Professor Receives National Cultural Award in El Salvador

SOCORRO, N.M. November 1, 2011 – Professor Dr. Rafael Lara-Martinez is flying high. The professor of Spanish is headed to his native El Salvador this week, where he will receive the National Cultural Award from the President.

Dr. Rafael Lara Martinez on a recent trip to El Salvador. This photo was used in the official government announcement about Lara Martinez winning the National Culture Award.
 A photo composite of Rafael Lara Martinez.

“I’m very happy,” Lara Martinez said. “Of course, I am always going to be happy about this. My country is recognizing me for my publications and achievements. I did a jump of happiness, dance and sing.”

The official announcement said that the selection committee wanted to select a winner who actively works to keep alive the Salvadoran culture and embodied the spirit of strengthening the national identity. This year's award also takes on special meaning because 2011 is the bicentennial of El Salvadorans proclaiming independence.

Click here for the official Salvadoran government announcement (in Spanish).

Lara Martinez earned his bachelor’s in Mexico and his master’s and doctorate from the Sorbonne in France. A faculty member at Tech since 1994, he has devoted his career to the literature of El Salvador and the indigenous languages of his country.

His academic masterpiece is the book, Pipiles de Izalco, a text devoted to the native language of El Salvador, which is related to the Ute languages spoken by Native Americans in the Four Corners region.

He has also published several anthologies of nearly-lost works by El Salvadoran literary writers. He won the National Culture Award based on the body of his work in literature and linguistic anthropology.

“The award is given to a person who has contributed to Salvadoran culture and historical memory,” he said. “This is a lifetime achievement award.”

The awards ceremony, set for November 3, coincides with the celebration of national independence, which is November 5. Lara Martinez said he is pleased to be able to take part in the bicentennial of Central American independence.

Regarding his academic and literary research, he is especially proud of his work to preserve the native language of pre-Columbian peoples of El Salvador. The government still does not officially recognize the native peoples, Lara Martinez said, because then the government would have to recognize their rights to ancestral lands.

His work has lended academic credence to the language, culture and mythology of the Pipil history in the region. He said his book, Pipiles de Izalco, was intimidating to the general reader because of its academic nature. So, he has reformatted the book to be accessible to high school and college students. The new edition will be 100 pages and cost $5 – a far cry from the original 600-page tome.

 Rafael Lara Martinez cuts the cake at a special celebration at Fitch Hall on Monday. The professor will be the capital city of San Salvador to receive his award from the nation's president on Thursday.

He will present the new version of Pipiles de Izalco at a special opening Friday afternoon. He has another new book that he will be unveiling at two universities on Thursday morning, just hours before visiting the Presidential Palace.

Lara Martinez won the Distinguished Researcher Award at New Mexico Tech in 2003 – the only time a professor in the humanities has won the award.

“For him to win that award at a technical institution is an amazing recognition,” said Dr. Peter Gerity, vice president of academic affairs. “I value him as one of our most recognized and accomplished faculty members at New Mexico Tech. On top of everything else, he is one of the most personable people and an excellent teacher.”

Gerity, who has worked in El Salvador, said the academic and government leaders in the country have universal respect for Lara Martinez and his work.

“I am very pleased that El Salvador is officially recognizing his work and giving him this award, which is very competitive,” Gerity said.

Dr. Mary Dezember, associate vice president of academic affairs and fellow professor in the CLASS Department, said Lara Martinez is very deserving of these prestigious accolades.

“To be presented an award of this magnitude and significance by the President of El Salvador is a great honor for Rafael, for the Department and for New Mexico Tech,” Dezember said. “Our institution benefits from Rafael’s dedication to cultural and literary research.”

Lara Martinez said he is thrilled to be able to visit the Palace – a building he has seen many times from the outside. He is also looking forward to greeting President Mauricio Funes, who was a classmate and friend of Lara Martinez’ younger brother when they were in Jesuit school. President Funes regularly visited the home of Lara Martinez when they were boys.

Lara Martinez is a prolific writer. His publications include the collected the works of the Salvadoran guerrilla-poet Roque Dalton and Pedro Geoffroy Rivas. He co-authored Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador with Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching in 2007. Other works include La Tormenta Entre Las Manos: Ensayos Polémicos de Literatura Salvadoreña in 2000; Ensayos Sobre Antropología y Literatura: Entre Ciencia y Ficción in 2004, and Balsamera Bajo La Guerra Fría in 2009, just to name a few of his publications.

Lara Martinez is an energetic and enthusiastic writer and researcher, despite a recent battle with cancer.

“I have a lot of energy,” he said. “I don’t worry about cancer. In the spirit of el dia de los muertos … I know I will die; it’s inevitable. I just worry about writing a new book. People send me e-mails about cancer and I don’t read them. I’d rather read poetry and listen to good music. I leave the medicine up to the doctors and don’t worry about it.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech