Professor Wins Colombia's Highest Honor for Excellence in Literature

Growing up on a farm in the Amazon jungle in Colombia, Manuel Cortes-Castaneda was surrounded by horses, which he often rode into town with his large family, and other wild animals. He vividly recalls his father reading “Arabian Nights” at bedtime and even at a young age developed a love for hearing, reading and eventually writing poetry.

It was his fondness for horses that helped him feel at home when life’s twists and turns, including marriage to a Kentuckian, brought him to the Bluegrass State and Eastern Kentucky University in 1992. But it was the professor’s penchant for writing poetry that took him back to his homeland in December 2014 – to receive Colombia’s highest honor for excellence in literature – the José Eustasio Rivera Award, Tierra de Promision (Rivera is one of the South America nation’s most celebrated poets and novelists, and Tierra de Promision is Spanish for ‘Promised Land.’).

Cortes-Castaneda, who teaches Spanish language courses in EKU’s Department of Foreign Languages and Humanities, was invited by the Colombian government to be honored during their centennial anniversary of Colombian literature. The award came with a gold medal and goatskin scroll. While in Colombia to accept the honor, he also spoke at universities about the creative process and gave poetry workshops to high school teachers and students.

He estimates that his poems number more than 2,000, many of those collected in a series of published books. His works also include numerous short stories, as well as essays and articles about poetry, short stories, films and general culture.

“I feel more free to write poetry than any other literary form,” Cortes-Castaneda said, noting that his work neither follows any recurring themes nor is particularly Colombia-centric. “I write about the human condition. I try to express myself for everybody.”

For the past 23 years, the promised land for Cortes-Castaneda has been Kentucky and the Richmond campus of EKU, where he challenges and inspires his students to learn more than just a new language. “We try to show students that the best way for them to know about themselves is to understand cultures from other points of view,” he said.

He also appreciates EKU’s commitment to students and the faculty’s personalized approach to student success. “(Eastern) really cares about people, and really cares about the learning process and tries to personalize one’s education and help everybody in different ways.”

As appreciative as he is of the honor from his homeland, he says his greatest reward is simply the opportunity to “do my job and to do it well.”

Whatever the language and whether standing in front of a classroom or sitting at his computer composing his latest masterpiece, Manuel Cortes-Castaneda has certainly done just that. 

Published on January 29, 2015

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