20 Questions with César Pérez, History and Spanish Teacher

Create something every day, if you can. It is a gift to be able to do so, as history and Spanish teacher César Pérez well knows. You might write a novel, like the adventure romances that captured his imagination growing up in Cuba. You might paint masterpieces, like the Stygian works of Goya that fill his favorite museum in Spain. You might even (re)create yourself, as he once had to do... Learn more about Mr. Pérez through his twenty questions below. 

1. What’s your #1 piece of advice for Commonwealth students? 

You never need to feel overwhelmed, ever; there’s always someone willing to lend a hand when you’re struggling. Learning to ask for help is one of the most important skills that we teach. 

2. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

Nulla dies sine linea, my father-in-law’s motto. Originally referred to the great Greek painter Apelles who would never let a day go by without drawing at least one line, in my father-in-law’s case it refers to the fact that no matter how busy we might be with urgent matters, we should never stray too far from the things that are really important for us, especially those creative endeavors that make life more interesting or tolerable. 

3. What does your ideal afternoon entail? 

A long walk in nature with my kids and my dog, ending at an ice cream place. 

4. If you could teach any class aside from your own, what would it be? 

I’d love to teach a World Cinema course, starting with silent films. 

5. Whom do you most admire? 

I admire most people who confront totalitarian power, even when there seems to be little hope that they will succeed. Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, Rosa Parks, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Vida Movahed, the anonymous Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. 

6. When and how did you first become interested in history? In teaching? 

I was fascinated by medieval lore as a child thanks to Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Spanish “romances” (ballads). I read The Name of the Rose in tenth grade, and I became obsessed with heresies for a while. Around that time, I read Love in the Western World, by Denis de Rougemont and the classic Philippe Ariès study about Western attitudes toward death, and I was hooked. All those books, by the way, were all but impossible to get in Cuba, and I had access to them thanks to my high school Russian teacher, who encouraged me to pursue humanities although I was a STEM nerd in a STEM-heavy school. He was also my biggest inspiration to become a teacher, after dabbling in journalism for a few years. 

7. What is your favorite aspect of your work? 

That I get to witness first-hand the intellectual and emotional growth of the students during their Commonwealth journey, a process that is rarely linear—which makes it even more rewarding. 

8. How do you define success in your classes? 

If any of my students read this they will laugh, since I’m quoting Jorge Luis Borges once again, but when asked about teaching he said that you can only teach, not a subject, but the love of that subject. I cannot teach what the students don’t want to learn, or they’ll only learn superficially. If I can instill in the students a real gusto for the subject, then they’ll learn on their own a lot more that I could ever teach them, and the class is a hit in my book. 

9. What book do you wish you had read sooner? 

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. I read it soon enough, when I was in my teens, but I was so painfully ill-equipped to really understand it that I got a little disappointed. I read it again in graduate school and I was utterly dumbfounded by its infinite strata of meaning and by its immeasurable humanity, to say nothing of the glorious polyphony of genres, voices, characters, literary devices of every conceivable sort that appear there almost casually, just driven by the telluric push of the story. I wish I had re-read it earlier.

10. Coffee or tea? 

Both! I used to not drink coffee at all, but having a baby when you’re in your forties will make you do strange things. 

11. Pen or pencil? 

Pen. As smooth as possible, please. My handwriting is borderline terrible, and only a very smooth pen makes it readable. 

12. Fall, winter, spring, or summer? 

I’m a man for all seasons. 

13. Scripted or improvised? 

Improvised, if possible. 

14. What is your favorite museum? 

That’s a tough one, but I will go with the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Most of the work of Diego Velázquez, my favorite painter, is there, and then there’s El Greco, Goya’s Black Paintings, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”… Other museums might have more masterpieces than El Prado, but these talk to me in a way that has only intensified in many successive visits. 

15. What is your favorite mode of transportation? 

A bicycle, although I have been too busy to ride consistently for the last five years. 

16. What is your favorite paradox? 

I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but it is the one that has had the most impact on my life: the paradox of exile. I had to lose everything, including my “original” identity, in order to achieve a modicum of freedom that would allow me to be “someone,” and even, hopefully, “myself.” 

17. What do you bring to a potluck? 

It depends on the season, but I will usually bring some Cuban food unless the potluck is in Miami, in which case I’ll have to improvise…

18. If you could have dinner with one person—alive or dead—who would it be? 

My grandfather, Silverio Rodríguez, who was a character straight out of a Cervantes’ novella. 

19. If you could join any past or current music group, which would you want to join? 

Irakere, the pioneers of Latin Jazz, and especially in their first iteration the most fearsome collection of virtuosos ever assembled. Of course, I could not play anything and I’d just look around in awe. 

20. What three words best describe Commonwealth students?

Funny, quirky, complex.

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