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  • Vive Griffith

Meet Mateo Gonzalez

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Mateo Gonzalez was always drawn to literature, but before enrolling in El Proyecto Odisea—the Spanish-language program of the Odyssey Project—he’d never had to chance to study it formally.

Mateo Gonzalez, graduate of the Clemente Course Chicago's Odyssey Project, smiles in front of a piece of art

His education in his birth country of Mexico and later in his adopted home of Chicago was always technical, designed to support his career as a machinist in a manufacturing setting. That changed when he heard an advertisement for Odisea on the radio.

“At the time, I wasn’t doing anything extracurricular other than my job,” he said. His three children were grown and mostly on their own, leaving a peaceful and quiet house. “I was working eight hours and coming home early, so I was free to do other things. It sounded like an interesting way to spend my time.”

It turned out to be much more. The class kindled his love of literature, but also his love of writing. He knew he had an imagination, but it was in an early class that he discovered how people responded to that imagination on the page. A professor asked students to write descriptively and turn their work in to her. The following week, when Mateo entered the room a few minutes after class had begun, everyone started clapping.

“I thought it was some sort of punishment for arriving late,” he joked. Instead, the professor had shared his work with the class. “They said, ‘What you wrote was amazing.’ I was surprised. After that I started cultivating my writing more.”

He also cultivated his appreciation for culture and stories, saying that the class actually “kind of awakened the Mexican in me.” While offering Odisea in Spanish opens up possibilities for intellectual exploration for those who might not have the English skills to take other Odyssey courses, it turns out that the greater value is offering a space to dive deeply into the humanities through a Latin American lens. Mateo’s limited education in Mexico didn’t include studying Mexican culture, the Aztecs, or writers like Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, and Carlos Fuentes. It was an affirming and eye-opening experience.

“I see the world differently now,” Mateo said. “As a Mexican, as an indigenous person, I always had the belief that I was inferior. But this class gave me proof that I have value, and ever since then I feel more equal to other people. I embrace people more. I can have deep discussions with people, and even if I don’t agree with them, I can explain my point of view.”

Group photo of graduates of Illinois Humanities' Odyssey Project at the Long Overdue Book Group facilitator training
Mateo (back row) and other Odyssey Project alums at the Long Overdue Book Group facilitation training

In the years since graduating from Odyssey, Mateo has gone from someone who simply works his eight hours and heads home to someone whose life is shaped by stories and community. He enrolled in the Odyssey second-year course in English, and then he became a teaching assistant in Odisea, spending evenings in the classroom supporting students and faculty. He provides the link between professors and those who had never been in a college setting but are enthusiastic about learning and ideas.

Mateo also completed facilitation training for the Long Overdue Book Group and has been coordinating two different book groups, using literature from Albert Camus to Eduardo Galeano to create bridges in this time of isolation. And he earned a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a four-year course in the humanities. He’ll continue those classes virtually this fall.

“Yes, I am busy,” Mateo acknowledged, though it’s a kind of busy that reflects his intellectual curiosity and drive. “I still write, and I keep reading philosophy. Now I know what it’s like to be more connected with people. I discovered a side of myself I didn’t know was in me through Odyssey.”

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