Meet Dr. Tim Altanero, Professor of Spanish!

by Alexa Haverlah, TLED Content Marketing Intern

Dr. Tim Altanero

Shock & Awe

ACC Professor of Spanish Dr. Tim Altanero’s colorful, art-filled Zoom background is just as immediately eye-catching as the work of Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, one of many artists Altanero mentions he likes to show to students.

Botero’s unmistakably large subjects literally take up their entire canvas space, forcing the viewer to consider their sheer monumentality. According to the British Auction House Christie’s, Botero has insisted that he does not paint “fat people”; rather, he paints “volume” and “sensuality of form.”

Botero is also known for his whimsical, humorous style, which Altanero utilizes to initially pique students’ interest in Spanish. Fewer people know of Botero’s political works, such as his Abu Ghraib series.

Amazon.com: Get Custom Art Fernando Botero - Abu Ghraib, Poster Art Print Wall Decor - Size 14x24 Inches: Posters & PrintsBOTERO AT BERKELEY: Fernando Botero Abu Ghraib | Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS)In a straightforward approach, the series reproduces the brutal torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by the United States Army and the CIA, which came to the public’s attention in April 2004.

Accompanied by a trigger warning, Altanero shows the series to facilitate a connection between his students’ personal lives, some of whom are veterans having served in the U.S. War in Afghanistan, and this seemingly random artist in Colombia.

Now that he has their attention, Altanero prompts questions that refine students’ critical thinking skills. Questions like, Why is an artist in Colombia interested in this topic? hold their attention as they contemplate.

This is at the core of Altanero’s teaching: look for the unusual to grab students’ attention. Then, make it relevant or personal so they can begin building the connection.

“You have to, or it’s just this abstractness,” says Altanero.

License To Be Strange

Born into a family of immigrants, Altanero was one of the first to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in the family and the only one to have a Ph.D., which he calls “basically a license to be strange.”

“I wanted to reach the top,” says Altanero of continuing his studies. In graduate school, he remembers mostly reading literature, complete with deep symbolism that Altanero says he always managed to get wrong. He didn’t enjoy it because he felt disconnected from his main passion: people.

“‘When you’re high up in the clouds, you often can’t see the people on the ground,’” says Altanero, referencing an African saying. It refers to the many low-paid workers working not just on the ground but under it (mining) while their bosses spent their time in tall buildings. The saying is an allegory for how management can be so distanced from those it manages that it doesn’t even see them.

Altanero learned many sayings like these while living in South Africa, completing fieldwork and research for his doctorate in Germanic Studies. In addition to his studies, Altanero taught at a rural, Christian university in Potchefstroom, Northwest Province. Post-apartheid, the school was still attended mostly by white children, causing Altanero to feel disconnected again from his surroundings.

By chance, Altanero met and befriended the owner of a record store, who introduced Altanero to his community in one of the Muslim Indian townships surrounding the city. As an honorary member of the community, Tim became Tarik, or Gibraltar in Spanish, a deviation from the Arabic name and meaning “mountain of Tariq,” a nickname he earned by being as hard (headed) as rock.

Altanero’s Indian friends were mostly merchants. As Indians, they couldn’t participate in professions because they would need to seek approval from the South African government to attend training schools, and certain professions like accountant or doctor which required training were reserved for whites.

For his dissertation topic, Altanero’s university suggested topics like vowel movements or vowel shifts in Afrikaans. “This is all so disconnected from people,” thought Altanero.

The wife of the record owner offered that Altanero study their community. Here was the chance to blend the personal with the pedagogy, an opportunity to bridge the gap Altanero had long felt between his academic studies and his passion for people.

Miss Connection 

For his students, Altanero strives to bridge the gap between the study of the Spanish language and the study of Hispanic cultures through art, food, and humor. One of his assignments asks students to practice ordering in Spanish at a local Salvadorian restaurant, El Sunzal. El Sunzal is perfect because students can’t fall back on familiar Tex-Mex favorites like tacos or enchiladas.

When Altanero found out his students were bringing their parents or going in groups to the restaurant because they assumed it was dangerous, he recognized a familiar disconnect. With it, too, though, Altanero knew there existed the possibility for connection between the students and the Salvadorian staff, and moreover, between the foreign and the friendly. 

“Watching Spanish be so distant from [them], maybe [they’ll] never learn it fluently, but a few words, a couple of smiles, and not being afraid to walk into El Sunzal… it can go a long way,” says Altanero. 

Another artist Altanero likes to discuss with students is Frida Kahlo, although ironically not about her art. Altanero prefers sharing her backstory with students, of the bus accident that left her in pain for the rest of her life, of her toxic marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who was cheating on her all the time (even with her sister!), of her possible affair with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, killed by ice pick, and of her affinity for cats, especially ones with six toes. 

“These are things that will shock a student and make them laugh,” says Altanero. 

But Frida Kahlo’s dramatic life is not just comedic relief for a wide-eyed, disbelieving audience. Sharing Frida’s life stories makes her relatable. It’s in this way that Altanero transforms the unusual, the abstract, the “other” into the familiar, the interconnected, the human.

Connect with Timothy Altanero via email: taltaner@austincc.edu


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