MEXICO AWARDS SEYMOUR MENTON
On Jan. 11, 2012, Professor Emeritus Seymour Menton received the Order of The Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest honor to a foreigner, for his contribution in the education and dissemination of Mexican culture and literature in the United States, Latin America and many parts of Europe.
Professor Menton’s education began in New York, where he became inspired to study French while still attending high school.
“I originally wanted to study French, but then World War II happened and France was no longer France. With that, interest in French plummeted and I decided to study Spanish instead,” Professor Menton said.
Menton acquired his bachelor’s degree in Spanish from City College in New York and won a scholarship to study in Mexico’s most prestigious university, Universidad Autonoma De Mexico (UNAM).
“I would avoid saying good morning to other American students and I pushed myself to be bilingual,” said Professor Menton about his desire to be fluent in Spanish.“And then after waking up one morning, I had dreamt in Spanish, [and] that’s when I knew I was fluent.”
Professor Menton worked hard to gain teaching experience while studying in Mexico and accompanied the people he was living with in Mexico on teaching expeditions.
“It was there where I also taught English to other teachers,” he said, reminiscing about his early teaching experiences.
Upon completing his master’s degree at UNAM, Professor Menton returned to New York to teach and work on his doctorate at New York University. During his time there, Professor Menton taught junior high school in a run-down area of New York but then received a job at Dartmouth College in 1952, and he went on to teach there for two years.
“They first wanted me to teach with a Castilian accent, but I only knew how to speak Mexican Spanish, so I convinced them to allow me to teach it that way,” he said. Professor Menton then went on to teach at the University of Kansas for 11 years, where he met and married his wife, Cathy.
The couple remained in Kansas until one day, Menton was called to become the department chair of the Spanish department at the University of California, Irvine.
“The school hadn’t even opened up and they wanted me to be the head of the Spanish department. There were no committees back then so I basically wrote the entire department on my own,” Professor Menton said.
“It was a great opportunity to take all the ideas that I had been gathering until then and put them into effect to teach Spanish language and literature the way it should be taught.”
Professor Menton taught at UCI until his retirement in 1994, but stayed close to UCI as a guest lecturer until 2010 due to health reasons. During his years at UCI, he contributed to the growth and spread of Mexican and Latin American literature in the community and brought guest speakers in the arts and sciences to promote Mexican culture and pride.
“People in the States often think of the Mexican people as one made of peasants,” he said. “I want to fight this kind of mentality and thus I brought guest speakers to lectures at UCI to show another side of Mexican culture. I would also bring these guests to high school teachers of Mexican descent in Garden Grove to promote Mexican pride, since most of them didn’t really know their culture very well.”
Professor Menton’s ambition to break stereotypes is one of the main reasons why he has worked very hard to promote Mexican and Latin American culture and literature, and why he has had many travels around the world. His resume of teachings and travels across the Spanish-speaking world is astonishing as he has taught, lectured and given conference papers in Spain and almost every single Latin American country.
Menton’s travels around these areas of the world have also inspired him to write. He has become a successful author and best-seller. His most famous work, “El Cuento Hispoanomericano,” (The Hispano-American short story) was published in 1964 and has hit its 10th edition with over 4,000,000 copies sold. Menton’s latest publication, “Un Tercer Gringo Viejo,” (A Third Old Gringo) was published in 2005. This work is 90 percent autobiographical with a few bends of truth, but it is a tale of what he has learned in his travels.
Menton has published 14 books 84 articles and 84 reviews. In addition, he has met with many famous Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Because of Menton’s enthusiasm in the Spanish language and culture and his work at the scholarly level, this professor has been granted many awards in the Latin American world, with the Order of The Aztec Eagle being the latest one.
“There’s many people in the States who travel to Europe, but very few who go down south. There seems to be an erroneous mentality about Latin American people because here in the states, we see them as maids or gardeners,” he said.
“It’s that mentality that I wish to fight and show that there’s more than that.”