Finding balance and harmony in his daily life.
Scholar, visionary, advocate, father and soon to be ordained into a lay Buddhist order: Rhetoric Professor Nathaniel "Nacho" Cordova wears all of these hats and more. Meditation beads dangle around his wrist, and hanging down upon his chest is a necklace etched with the Chinese symbol for "harmony."
"I'm a Libra," Cordova says. "I never pay attention to horoscopes, but I like the Libra idea of a scale. You see, I have very Buddhist inclinations for balance, harmony and peace."
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Cordova has lived across cultures. He attended an American high school in Puerto Rico to hone his English language skills, and after graduation he moved to New York City, where his aunt was living at the time. By the age of 22, Cordova was a husband, father and the legal guardian of his younger sister, in addition to being at student at the University of Maryland. "My parents' health was ailing," Cordova says, "so first my sister came to the states and then my parents as well."
After earning his bachelor's degree in Spanish language and literature, specializing in translation, Cordova took on computing work to support his parents and family in the United States. He soon switched to the field of social services, managing care and brokering services for the Department of Human Development and the Area Agency on Aging in Fairfax, Va. Those jobs led to a position as project manager for the National Council of La Raza, the largest national constituency-based Hispanic organization and the leading voice in Washington, D.C., for the Hispanic community. Cordova coordinated student volunteers, staff training and transportation for elderly members of the Latino community.
"I definitely had clients who were in bad shape," Cordova recalls of his advocacy work. "Some of my own died. It was very sad."
And Cordova understands first-hand the struggles minority populations face. He shifted from Latino to American culture as a young man, and although he was equipped with sharp English language skills, he felt socially "hesitant."
"I was concerned about fitting in with my thick accent," Cordova says. "And I tried really hard to lose my accent, because I felt I needed to fit in - fit in, or else be marginalized."
Upon moving to the United States, Cordova became acutely aware of differences between Latino and American upbringing. He sensed a definite separation between Americans and their families. Children were often in debt to their parents and expected their teachers to cater to them - "a consumer mentality and expectation, which, in Puerto Rico, would almost be offensive," Cordova says. "Your parents provided for you because it was their duty. Never would a child owe his or her parents, or vice versa."
Racism and prejudice were also issues Cordova could not afford to ignore. He experienced discrimination because of his accent and appearance, and he dealt with the consequences of racist attitudes toward his parents, who were retired, injured and, because of their obvious "Hispanicity," denied housing. "You face a lot of racism and prejudice when you're different," Cordova says. "You realize it. You see it."
But Cordova also notes that being "different" has its advantages. "It allows you to stop and look deeply," he says. "To be mindful you must stop, contemplate and make sense of what is going on before acting. It also enables you to bring different perspective to issues, and you realize and respect deeply different worldviews."
When Cordova chose to return to school for his master's degree, he knew that he was making a major financial decision. He had made decent wages in both computing and social work and anticipated huge debt and less money to support his family if he attended graduate school. "But I thought back to what I'd wanted to do as a child," Cordova recalls, "and that was to be a professor."
And indeed a professor is what Cordova became. He earned his master's and Ph.D. in communication studies at the University of Maryland, an education that provided him with new tools to understand how public discourse mediates and negotiates political access and participation in society. Much of Cordova's research has focused on how discursive processes contribute to the development of public identities, personas or roles, which, in turn, shape the ways individuals and groups engage in civic and political action.
Cordova's dissertation examined Puerto Rico from 1938 to 1940, as well as more broadly from the late 1800s to the 1940s. Since the beginning of U.S. occupation, Puerto Ricans had been deemed not ready for self-government. But between 1938 and 1940, Luis Munoz Marin of Puerto Rico's Popular Democratic Party (PPD) led a victorious campaign that rallied a long-ignored peasant population. One particular strategy of the PPD was the use of political catecismo (catechism). Because catechisms seek disciples who will act in accordance with stipulated principles, Munoz was able to synthesize religious and political discourse. He bypassed the supposed illiteracy of peasant populations and appealed to them in a language that promised salvation.
"In essence, Munoz asked them (the people) to vote for the party as a means to achieve political salvation. He called them to fulfill their duty as good Christian men," says Cordova, noting that the Munoz campaign is a striking example of how the intersection of religious and political discourse may be used in the construction and mobilization of constituencies. "I've always been interested in how we gain political power to rise above oppression and how we can be really effective in social movements. And I'm a humanist, so I'm very interested in how religious viewpoints expressed in language shape how people think and act."
In fact, Cordova's spirituality, scholarship and personal history are closely intertwined. A practitioner of Zen Buddhism, he stands to be ordained into the Order of Interbeing, an Oregon chapter of the Community of Mindful Living (CML).
The Order of Interbeing was formed in the mid-1960s by Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleagues, who believed that Buddha's teachings were desperately needed to combat the hatred, violence and divisiveness that grew out of the Vietnam War. "The Community of Mindful Living is the DBA (doing business as) arm of the Unified Buddhist Church," Cordova says. "In short, it is the representative of Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen lineage in the U.S. The CML is a distinct organization from the Order of Interbeing (Tiep Hien), but both were founded and operate under Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition."
One value central to Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition is impermanence. "I try to live in the present moment," Cordova says, "but that is my practice. I try not to get too attached to agendas, but that does happen. We have to make plans and honor commitments. The key is figuring out how not to become attached."
Not surprisingly, when asked about his future, Cordova quickly reiterates his focus on living in the moment. But he does say that he plans to keep learning, studying, teaching and caring for his family's health. His most recent scholarly work explores "colonial memory" - that is, how the United States remembers its colonial relationship with Puerto Rico and how that collective memory is influenced by and diverges from Puerto Rican perspectives. "How we create shared representations of the past is important to understanding how we form political identities and enter political processes," Cordova says.
At Willamette University, Cordova has contributed significantly to cultural life on campus. He is soft-spoken and gentle, sensitive to his students' varied backgrounds. In addition to his tenure-track post in the Rhetoric Department, he is an adjunct professor for the Latin American Studies program and has been involved in the development of an ethnic studies program on campus.
In the realm of student life, Cordova has led guided meditation for the student organization Freaks and Geeks, and he is hoping to help students develop a mindfulness practice center on campus. "I've had wonderful opportunities that enrich me, experiences that give ferment to my thoughts and connect me to campus," he says. "In all areas of life, I absolutely want to make the world a better place."