El primero (the first)

The 1947 El Ateneo Espanol (Spanish Club): (left to right) Lois Gunden Clemens ’36, sponsor; Gabriel Coll ’47, president; Pauline Clemens Fisher ’48, vice president; Wyman Sundheimer ’49, treasurer; and Joyce Manges Yoder ’49, secretary.

By Joe Springer, curator, Mennonite Historical Library. This story originally appeared in the spring/summer 2015 issue of The Bulletin.

When Gabriel (Gabe) Coll ’47 arrived on the Goshen College campus as a junior history major in the fall of 1945, he found himself flooded with requests to talk about his homeland, Puerto Rico. Coll, the first native Spanish speaker enrolled in a degree program at Goshen, was also the only one of 284 students on campus that fall for whom English was not his first language.

By Thanksgiving, Coll had taken on the task of writing a series of “Letters on Latin America” (eventually 10 in number) for The Record. His “key point” of departure in his writings: “What is Latin America? Who are the Latin Americans?” His letters ranged broadly. He wrote about ethnic diversity and sharing Latino culture with other cultures in ways that fertilize “new cultural outgrowth by mixing itself into it.” And later on, he commented on Puerto Rico’s blend of aristocratic/ conqueror, native and slave heritages. He contrasted values, comparing Santa racing on his sled to the “non-rushing, non-hurrying” three Kings of the Bible. He shared about variation in linguistic “personalities” of different countries and new literary trends. Himself a Baptist, Coll used one letter to report favorably on Mennonite hospital work in Puerto Rico, and another to evoke eloquently the Catholic spirituality characteristic of much of Latin America. He spoke of the blight of dictatorships and of the irony of U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico.

The next fall, Coll was joined by four other Puerto Ricans, six Europeans and two Lebanese, who, together with a group of foreign-born children of North American missionaries, formed the college’s first Intercultural Club. Their goal: “to get acquainted with American culture and life and have American students get acquainted with foreign countries.”