By: Nicole Cordero
Throughout the course of their years in college there are few classes that students remember fondly and even fewer professors whose personality and teaching methods manage to gain a special place in their lives beyond the classroom. Dr. Julia Cristina Ortiz Lugo is one of them. She is not only dedicated to educating students to be future professionals, but makes her best effort to forge good Puerto Rican citizens.
Dr. Julia Cristina Ortiz Lugo was born on Christmas Eve in Mayagüez to a family nucleus composed of her father, Raúl Ortiz Castillo, her mother, Dora Avilés Lugo, and her sister, Maribel Ortiz Lugo. She had a very stable and happy childhood. She came from a middle-class family, and was raised by hardworking parents. “Having a working mother makes a difference in life; she was a very important example for me.”Ortiz Lugo was educated at the Colegio de la Milagrosa in her hometown. After graduating she went to the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. In college, as many first-year students, she realized she had chosen the wrong major and changed her concentration from medical technology to Spanish where she felt “like fish in water” because of the appreciation for her first language that a high school teacher instilled in her.
Reflecting upon her past in the comfort of her office at UPRM–a colorful space filled with portraits of Afro-Puerto Rican people, family photos and some of her favorite quotes—Ortiz Lugo confesses that in her youth she could have been dedicated to the cultivation of the land, cooking or cabinetmaking.
As a Spanish major in college she took classes with the person would become one of the most influential people in her life and career: Professor Emerita María M. Solá. Ortiz Lugo’s face lights up and overflows with admiration and gratitude when she recalls her mentor. “That professor taught me almost everything important to know in life: from looking at my country from a different perspective and understanding literature from another view to learning the values of solidarity, social responsibility, justice, empathy and equity.”
After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hispanic Studies, she moved to New Orleans with her now husband Raúl José Feliciano Rivera, who is today also a professor of literature. At Tulane University she completed her doctorate in Hispanic literature with a minor in Brazilian literature.
She began her teaching career as an intermediate- and high school- level teacher at her alma mater after graduating from her bachelor’s degree. She taught again at La Milagrosa when, as a doctoral student, she returned to Puerto Rico to give birth to her son, Raúl José Feliciano Ortiz, who now has a Ph.D. in media studies and communication.
After completing her doctorate Ortiz Lugo returned to Puerto Rico and worked in various academic institutions until 1986, when she returned to her other alma mater to join the faculty of the Hispanic Studies Department at UPRM. Ortiz Lugo, who in recent years has devoted her time to conduct further research about her master’s thesis project on Afro-Puerto Rican folk storytelling and has developed an interest in anthropology, currently teaches the entry-level Spanish courses at UPRM because she’s committed to first-year students and to the importance and values of these basic courses.
Her goal as a professor is to ensure that her students “have the opportunity to see other versions, to raise different questions and get different answers.” After all these years at UPRM she claims that she still sees herself represented in her students.
During the interview, the professor, whose trademarks are her short hair and contagious laugh, took a deep breath, sighed and laughed at some of the questions. Yet, she answered them after reflecting for a few seconds. This was the case when she faced the question: What is the greatest satisfaction you obtain from your job? For Ortiz Lugo, her vocation is a way giving back to her country what it gave to her. Her satisfaction is to “see the bright faces of the students when talking about things that they had never had the opportunity to hear or argue about,” issues that she considers are important in students’ lives.
Christine Rodríguez is one of those students whose face was illuminated by the professor. She is a microbiology major who took “Spanish 2” with Ortiz Lugo in 2012. Rodríguez has nothing but kind words to describe that experience: “I must admit that next semester my brother starts in college and I’ve already mentioned several times that there is no better choice in this life than to take classes with Julia Cristina.”
Laura Aponte Díaz, biology student, who took Puerto Rican Ethnicity with professor Ortiz Lugo in her first semester of college in 2012, said that “the professor implements the collective idea, opens the forum to students to participate and express their views.” Aponte remember classes where professor Ortiz Lugo formed a circle with all students and thereby gave her class like that and one special occasion that “she gave us a reading to analyze and allowed us to give the class as she sat among students like one of us; this really helped the students feel comfortable in this transition between high school and college. Aponte emphasized, “one cannot always concentrate only on academics; there are times when you need to be forging yourself as a human being and need other tools that we normally do not receive with all professors, but professor Ortiz Lugo manages to give them to us.”
Furthermore, Roberto Carrera, a biology major who took “Spanish 1 and 2” in his first academic year in 2011-2012 said: “she changed my perspective of college life and I learned many things that I apply to all of my classes. I carry what she taught me, a class that was really useful and vital in my education.”
Ortiz Lugo, with the composure that distinguishes her, wearing comfortable clothes and shoes without a lot of jewelry but always a colorful brooch on her blouse, says her favorite students are “humorous ones, as they provide a relaxed atmosphere to the class without departing from the purpose of it.”
When asked about a memorable anecdote in her long teaching career at UPRM, very honestly she replied with a glow on her face that “the most exciting and beautiful moment in my career was the day I had breakfast with a group of former students, as never ever I have imagined doing anything like this.”
Professor Julia Cristina Ortiz Lugo, with her charismatic personality, has managed to emulate in the eyes of her students what she admired in professor Solá: to make the students learn to “look at the country from another perspective and understand the processes from literature with another look, social behaviors such as solidarity, social responsibility, justice, empathy and equity. ” That is why the students who have taken classes with professor Ortiz Lugo consider themselves part of a privileged group.