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Roberto Ampuero standing in his office with bookshelf in the background.
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ROBERTO AMPUERO An author and teacher helps a community tell its stories, connecting cultures in the process.

Roberto Ampuero is from Chile, and he sometimes feels compelled to introduce himself with a caveat: “I am Roberto Ampuero. I am from Latin America, but I am legal here.”

“The image of Latin Americans has been reduced to a cliché,” says Ampuero, a University of Iowa lecturer who teaches creative writing in Spanish through the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “There is a tendency to simplify cultures, and many people in the United States have a one-dimensional sense of Latin Americans. They picture us only as people jumping over the border.”

Ampuero strives to convey a broader view of Latin American people and culture through his writing. He’s authored five novels about a detective named Cayetano Brule and four novels about Latin American professionals living abroad, work that’s been translated into nine languages. He also writes columns for the New York Times syndicate and the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.

Last fall, in an effort to help others share their culture through literature, he volunteered to teach a free creative writing course for the community. The majority of students in the outreach course were Latin American immigrants.

To recruit them, Ampuero tacked up posters in Latin American restaurants around town. Six adults from Guatemala, Mexico, and other Latin countries signed up and spent one night a week learning strategies for narrating fiction, character and plot development, and dialogue building—the same concepts Ampuero teaches his UI students. The class wrote short stories in Spanish, often drawing on their memories and cultures.

“We had students in the class who had never attended a university in their countries. This is the first time they could receive a class taught by a university professor,” says Ampuero, crediting the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the University’s International Writing Program for their support.

Ampuero earned a doctorate in Spanish from the University in 2006, after working for many years as a foreign correspondent in Cuba, Germany, and Sweden and spending three months as an IWP fellow in 1996.

“The outreach class had two meetings with writers from the IWP, and my students said, ‘It’s incredible—we have met Latin American authors here that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet in Latin America,’” he says.

The class created a book of their best stories, and some of their work will be published in El Heraldo Hispano, a Spanish-language newspaper based in Mount Pleasant, starting in January. The newspaper’s publisher, Oscar Argueta, was a student in the course.

Ampuero’s next step is to translate the stories into English and publish them online so people who don’t know Spanish can read them. He also is encouraging his students to go beyond nostalgic writing and reflect on about where they are in their lives today.

Word about the course has spread in the Spanish-speaking community, and 30 more immigrants have requested that Ampuero teach the course in Des Moines in the spring.

“We have Spanish-speaking people living and working among us, but we don’t know anything about them—what kind of people they are, what kind of life they have, what concerns them,” Ampuero says. “It’s not because we’re bad people. It’s because we can’t communicate, or we don’t know how to build a bridge. Writing and sharing stories like these is one way to connect.”

Story by Nicole Riehl; Photo by Tim Schoon

Jan. 7, 2008