Julia Escobar Villegas: Language is a Bridge, Peace is a River

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School

A headshot photo of a smiling woman with dark hair and glasses.

Julia Escobar Villegas, 4th year PhD student in the Department of Romance and Arabic Languages and Literatures and 2021-22 winner of the Graduate School Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship

“Learning languages for me is like my way to know the world. I love learning how to name [the things around me] and seeing the world from scratch. Learning languages is more than a profession for me. It is a lifestyle.” 

As she speaks, I can hear the passion in Julia Escobar Villegas’ voice. Throughout the course of our conversation, I am struck by the level of insight she clearly holds for the world around her, and I have to believe that this has grown from language. Julia speaks six different languages: being from Colombia, Spanish is her native tongue, and her education growing up was bilingual in Italian. Throughout the years, she has also learned English, Italian, French, German, and some Portuguese. Research has shown that compared to monolingual people, multilingual individuals are quite adept at understanding nuanced interpersonal situations and, on average, display higher levels of empathy. This effect is true even for those who are bilingual, so as someone who speaks six languages, I can only imagine the depth of understanding of perspective and the adeptness at code-switching that occurs within Julia’s mind. She has an uncanny ability to identify connections between people, their environments, and their cultures, and put these connections into words that are positively poetic.  

Language has defined Julia’s life and career for a long time. She discovered her passion for language learning at an early age. Living in Medellín, Colombia (prior to her journey to UC), she became interested in translation work through her involvement several noteworthy projects. She was hired by the local government in Medellín for a public works project where novels were translated into Spanish and placed in the metro system for passengers to enjoy during their travels. Julia was hired to translate A Royal Game by Stefan Zweig from German to Spanish; this was particularly exciting because Zweig happens to be one of her favorite authors. “The inner experience of the translator is something we don’t usually talk about,” she tells me. “It was a very intimate dialogue with the author […] You make many different choices about language, about everything. Who are you translating for? In what context? I was thinking about Medellín […] It was beautiful for me. Sometimes I go to the metro system and see people having that book I translated.” 

It strikes me as she says this that translation is so often misunderstood as a direct, straightforward, word-by-word process, but the reality of this work is so much more intricate and breathtakingly subjective. As English author Anthony Burgess once quoted, “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” Julia likens the act of translation to serving as a bridge, a very apt metaphor considering the subject matter of her dissertation (discussed below). As a young woman, Julia was hired to translate the blog of an Italian traveler in South America; through this work, she was navigating and bridging cultures on multiple levels, both within the language itself and the content of the traveler's encounters with the natural environment and indigenous populations. “It was in that translation job when I started asking myself many questions about, for instance, the foreigner’s views of my own country, or also thinking about how this is similar or different to the chronicles of the 16th century […] That work forged many of my research questions now or throughout my studies about travelling, colonialism, tourism, [and] relationships among cultures.” 

It is because Julia’s research is built upon the foundation of these questions, and centers around her home country of Colombia, that her passion for her dissertation is so easily evident. Julia’s work examines literary and colonialist representations of Colombia’s main river, the Magdalena, analyzing cultural understandings of the river’s function both as an integral part of the area’s biodiverse ecosystem and associated ecological crisis as well as a nexus for human conflict and peace-making processes. “I am interested in exploring […] how Colombia has related to its big river, how the river has played a role in Colombia’s history and Colombia’s culture, and more specifically how we imagine and relate to the river,” says Julia. As she points out, Colombia is known globally for its incredible cultural diversity as well biodiversity and range of ecosystem types. Unfortunately, it has also seen a long history of violent conflict—as Julia describes it, a significant aspect of Colombian history has involved her country searching for common threads and navigating the process of unifying an environment where both the people and land are quite distinct. Julia sees the river as a unifier and symbol of hope. “A key point in [my research] is not only the river, but its connection with all the other bodies of water. There is a big aquatic net that I call the metaphor of the ‘national fluvial tree’. There is a tree of water, and I analyzed the potential of this metaphor to reimagine our sense of community of belonging.”

An old fashioned map of some rivers.

A colonial map of the Colombian province of Antioquia depicting the area's river systems.

Julia walks me through the textual timeline of her work. She examines firsthand geographical accounts of the river written by 16th century European explorers, sources she calls “colonial imaginaries.” Through these accounts, she traces how colonialism “shaped the marginalization of certain communities and the treatment of nature as a resource”. Julia’s work then incorporates the work two 19th century Colombian novelists, perspectives which represent the nation navigating its newfound independence and reconciling/reimagining its years of colonial oppression. Some 20th century accounts outline the river as a symbol of Colombia’s war and destruction as well as environmental crises and organismic extinction; as Julia points out, human conflict entered the river directly because the Magdalena was used as a means to dispose of bodies of the dead, and all this conflict and human activity led to environmental degradation. Finally, Julia’s work examines current efforts to reconcile the nation’s past, including a project of rescuing and burying bodies from the river, which Julia sees as a “potential to establish a dialogue with those who have disappeared.” Overall, she seems hopeful about the future; as she says, “Maybe nature can be an intermediary among us, and we can reshape social relations.” 

Hearing Julia describe her work is nothing short of inspiring. I can’t help but wonder how it is possible to take on ideas this big and all-encompassing, connecting symbols and forging new understandings, within the limits and the scope of a doctoral dissertation. It has not been without its hurdles, she tells me. “The pandemic was a turning point, a professional and personal turning point for everyone. And I had many crises during my dissertation. If someone before would have told me, ‘You will write your dissertation and you will have to face a global pandemic, you will have to face this uncertainty’ […] I would have said I am not going to be able to do it.” Julia got through her dissertation, and the Dean’s Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship application process, with support from others as well as her unfailing sense of perspective. “Every application, you can see it as a requirement, or you can see it as a as a strong opportunity for you to reflect on your work, to elaborate your ideas, to make a strong plan,” she tells me. She also views the graduate school’s Summer Dissertation Workshop (a requirement for Dean’s Fellows but open to all doctoral students) as key component to her success due to its emphasis on supportive accountability and tutelage regarding the writing process. “I would really recommend the workshop,” she tells me emphatically.

Julia plans to defend her dissertation this summer in order to graduate from UC in August. What’s next for Julia? She is currently weighing her options within the job market, but wherever she goes, she will prioritize her passions. “It doesn’t matter the context, whether completely independently or joined to an institution, I will always be learning a new language […] Teaching, writing, and learning a language is something that I will be doing; let’s see what opportunities open for me.”

A river winds through a valley.

The Magdalena River in Huila, Colombia