Marc Blanchard, UC Davis professor of 39 years, passed away on Nov. 8 after a struggle with cancer. He is survived by his wife Raquel Salgado Scherr and his daughter, Lauren Blanchard.
Blanchard was known as an energetic and innovative professor of comparative literature, and is remembered for creating one of only six exchange programs to Cuba. He accomplished this by forging a relationship with Casa de las Americas, a Cuban organization that promotes international culture exchange.
His work abroad extended from Latin America to Europe, where he also taught courses in France. Katharine Simmons, recent graduate of UC Davis, remembered his unique outlook on travel and teaching.
“He wanted us to be active participants in traveling, not just idle spectators or tourists,” Simmons said. “He wasn’t one for visiting tourist attractions or anything; he wanted students to really understand the culture of the places we went.”
Getting the program started wasn’t an easy task. Professor Pablo Ortiz worked with Blanchard for several years co-teaching classes in Havana.
“The main problem was negotiating the embargo, getting the license to go from the Department of the Treasury and being able to pay Casa de las Americas for the wonderful service they provided,” Ortiz said. “Marc knew everybody and was really well known in Cuba … that solved many problems.”
The program is ten weeks long and covers a variety of teaching material, from music and literature to the educational programs in a socialist government, as opposed to a democratic government. Cuba has a highly effective education system and boasts one of the highest literacy rates of any country in the world, said education professor Thomas Timar.
Timar will be taking the helm of this year’s program in the interest of studying how Cuba’s system succeeds.
“I think it’s great for students to experience a culture that is very different from what they know,” Timar said. “Students will have the opportunity to study the education system in Cuba and to compare that to our system in the U.S.”
Before Timar took leadership, the program was co-taught by professors Bettina Ng’weno and Beatrice Pesquera.
Pesquera also worked closely with Blanchard and remembers him as a brilliant academic and a socially committed individual who took action for what he believed in.
“If there were workers, laborers, that went on strike, Mark was there with them too,” Pesquera said.
Cuba has engrained itself in the memories of those who have experienced the country firsthand. Pesquera recalls students being challenged by the differences in culture and society.
“You know, they’re really confronted by ideas like, what is free press, what does democracy mean, and so on,” Pesquera said. “They’re in a society where they don’t have anything considered ‘normal’ here … you turn on the TV here and you’re blasted by the new iPod, whatever new gadget they’re selling. Not in Cuba.”
Students adjust to a society in which interpersonal communication is much more common. People on the street are fascinated by Americans studying in Cuba, and frequently talk to them if they happen to be out in public – something that takes some getting used to, Pesquera said.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the many differences in culture, the program remains extremely popular, and the country continues to exert its hold on those who have returned to the United States.
“I might return one day,” Professor Ortiz mused. “I love La Habana.”
More information about the program can be found online at quarterabroad.ucdavis.edu/program_havana.cfm. Courses taken can be applied to the education minor, but all interested students are encouraged to apply.
A public memorial service for Blanchard will take place on Jan. 7, 2010 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the AGR Alumni Center.
BRIAN GERSON can be reached at email@example.com.