Office Hours: Anita Johnson

Matthew Knowles


What do banana plantations, Spanish ex-presidents, Moroccan muggers and the descendants of pirates have in common? All of them constitute vivid memories for Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Anita Johnson. A professor who has seemingly spent more time abroad than in her United States home­land, Johnson has visited Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in pursuit of culture and adventure far and wide. Now at Colgate Uni­versity, she takes these experiences to the classroom and uses them to spark interest in her students.

Professor Johnson first dis­covered her passion for lan­guages while attending high school in Boston. She originally took Latin, but the administra­tion convinced her to switch to Spanish. The change was easy for her, and she enthusiastically took to learning the language. When she entered, and won, a city-wide essay contest during her junior year, she wrote about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I wrote that I wanted to be a foreign relations ambassa­dor, learn languages and travel around the world,” Johnson said. She may not have become an ambassador, but the rest of it was not too far off.

In college, Professor Johnson studied abroad in Spain with a focus on the emerging arts. She arrived there shortly after Fran­cisco Franco had died and Spain became a democratic society. During this time, an artistic re­naissance of sorts was occurring as the country became a much more liberal place.

“All of these playwrights who couldn’t openly talk about their work under Franco were very ea­ger to talk about what they had done all of these years, so I readily got interviews with playwrights,” Johnson said.

Not only did she speak with playwrights, but she spoke with actors and actresses as well. At one point during her research in Spain, she became seriously strapped for cash. So, she decided to speak with administrators at an academy about the creation of an English language immersion program for small groups that took place in very nice locations, like hunting lodges, around the country. They approved, but she could never have known who she would end up teaching.

“I ended up teaching the ex-president Adolfo Suarez, who was the first president elected after Fran­co kicked the bucket,” Professor Johnson said. She and a colleague taught him at his private residence in a medieval style town in the mountainous region, with just the three of them and his bodyguards.

A bit later in life, Professor John­son took the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, live at a banana plan­tation and teach Spanish and Eng­lish in the local school. After her stint there was over, she decided to travel from San Jose, Costa Rica to Newport Beach, Cali. via the Pan- American highway, by herself. The year was 1977.

“It was extremely dangerous,” Pro­fessor Johnson said. “But I had hitch­hiked in Spain before and I thought, ‘how different could it be?'”

Along the way, Professor John­son went to local nightclubs in Guatemala, viewed still-unexplored Mayan ruins poking through the trees from a prop-plane and vis­ited small islands off the coast of Honduras. These were the kinds of islands where Caribbean pirates would bury their treasure, and where they would eventually settle down. According to Professor John­son, their descendants still lived on the islands and even still spoke an older dialect of “pigeon-English.”

Professor Johnson eventually made it up to California, but not without numerous other inci­dents, including a run-in with some Californian surfers explor­ing the Central American coast. But this was only one of her many adventures. Professor Johnson has also been held at knife-point in Morocco, only to later meet and be hosted by the king’s son, who was also a star soccer player. None of this even includes her extensive travels in Brazil.

Currently, Professor Johnson teaches Romance languages and Spanish theater. She lives in Ham­ilton with her 10-year-old Chinese daughter, an orphan whom she adopted in her infancy. She still visits Spain quite frequently and contributes to several journals on Spanish drama. Although her life may have settled down from her youth, Professor Johnson contin­ues to inspire her students with her personal experiences.

Contact Matthew Knowles at [email protected]