Introducing: Professor Ignacio Sánchez Prado
That’s not to trivialize a life replete with struggle, a fight from the Mexico City somewhat-itinerant household of a single mother to the St. Louis abode of a Washington University assistant professor of Spanish and international area studies. A romcom is simply what Sánchez Prado would prefer.
“A lot of mainstream culture I don’t like, I guess because melodrama doesn’t work for me—because my teenage years were so rough,” Sánchez Prado said in his Ridgley Hall office. “Movies like ‘War Horse’ were made for my dislike. I don’t like anything that could be described with the word ‘heartwarming.’”
But Sánchez Prado isn’t the Scrooge of the feel-good movie. He’s just been there for the live-action version.
“After being in a situation like [in dramas],” he said, “everything takes a different perspective. I don’t want to say it was horrible—my mom did a very good job of sheltering me from the rougher edges of that situation—but that’s why I don’t believe in melodramas.”
After his mother lost her job as a secretary, Sánchez Prado spent his adolescence bouncing from one relative’s house to the next. Though his mother faced discrimination as a single mom entering middle age jobless and homeless, the family never lived on the streets, and Sánchez Prado never had to leave school. His mother placed a premium on learning: She struggled to fund a private-school education so her son might attend a top-flight university.
Thanks to his mother’s sacrifice, Sánchez Prado excelled in school. He attended a private Mexican university, where he considered becoming a math major, and later the University of Pittsburg for graduate school, where he obtained his doctorate in Hispanic languages and literature under the tutelage of Wash. U.’s William H. Gass Professor in Arts & Sciences Mabel Moraña, professor of Spanish and international area studies and director of the Latin American studies program.
“I met Ignacio Sánchez Prado almost 12 years ago, when he was still an undergraduate student at the Universidad de Puebla,” Moraña wrote in an email to Student Life. “From the beginning I was tremendously impressed by his incredible knowledge of world literature and literary theory.”
After returning to the United States, Moraña contacted Sánchez Prado. “We admitted him into the graduate program, where he was the youngest and most brilliant student until he finished his PhD, under my direction, at 27 years of age.”
“We were particularly impressed by the range of his knowledge, his ability to absorb theoretical debates and to elaborate original, ambitious critical projects,” she wrote.
Following her move to Wash. U., Moraña encouraged Sánchez Prado to apply for a professorship in St. Louis. “Nacho, who was just notified last Friday that he has been granted tenure at Wash. U., has…enriched our department and our university with his kind and generous personality, his incredible talent and productivity, his creativity and unlimited intellectual energy,” Moraña wrote. “He has an outstanding career ahead of him, and we are truly privileged to be part of his intellectual trajectory.”
“Because of the way my education happened, I feel I must pay it forward,” Sánchez Prado said. Even in classes with more than 100 students, he tries to get to know students through individual interviews. He said, “For me, teaching is not just the classroom—though that is important. It’s about the learning experience and mentoring.”
In addition to shining in traditional academics, Sánchez Prado has also fostered a love of film.
“Since my teenage years, I’ve always liked a lot of romantic comedies,” he said. “A movie ticket in Mexico now costs between three and five days of minimum wage, so obviously the audience for Mexican cinema is no longer the popular classes…The romantic comedy exists in Mexico not because it shows values or anything like that. It’s just because they have this Americanized middle class that goes to the movies…that usually doesn’t want to see Mexican movies.”
Patrons dimmed the lights of traditional Mexican cinema in favor of American stylings, and Mexican production companies scrambled to retain an audience.
“In the 1990s, romantic comedy was very successful in the United States,” Sánchez Prado said. “Basically, my research in that area is about how Mexican directors appropriate that and create some cultural specificities aimed at the middle class.”
Sánchez Prado sees movies not just as visual storytelling but also as a link to the culture that produced them. He says, “I like to make people think about the culture and politics that are in everyday life.”
Sánchez Prado proffers an example: “There’s this movie called ‘500 Days of Summer’…There’s this guy who studied to be an architect but he’s really working in a Hallmark-type company writing greeting cards…His whole relationship and breakup with [Summer] is his whole time as an unemployed person, and when his relationship with her ends, he gets an interview with an architecture firm. He meets another girl at the interview, meaning that when he integrates himself into the real job market he finds the one. So it’s really a movie about the recession and unemployment.”
Acting as a sociologist of sorts, Sánchez Prado analyzes film through a cultural lens. “My students always say that I ruin cinema for them just because I see right through it,” Sánchez Prado says. “As an audience member, you’re trained to be engulfed emotionally. I’m interested in the mechanisms that create that emotion. Some of them are economic. Some of them are social…Some of them are trivial—like what theater they open in.
“I read the movies, but I also see the social elements that are inside of that. The practice of culture matters…Culture is not what we want it to be; it’s what it is.”
Sánchez Prado’s film criticism acts as a correlative of his greater message: Think. The romcom isn’t just about the boy getting the girl—it’s also about the economy or the theater it’s screened in. Sánchez Prado counsels, “Even if you’re not a humanities student, think, ‘What are the consequences of x, y and z?’…Don’t swallow everything the books tell you—think if it’s true, who’s writing it, why. People who think are the people who change things. If the people who are in position to think don’t, then who else will?”
Sánchez Prado pauses before continuing. If his life really were a romantic comedy, this would be the moment the sagacious adult bestows advice upon the misguided, lovelorn protagonist. He holds the mirror of reality up to the privileged person before him. He says, “I always tell my classes, not everyone can think. You don’t have the right to be stupid.”