Tribute to the Late Rev. Edward L. Cleary, O.P.
A Study Abroad Experience Made Profound by a Scholar-Mentor
Editor’s Note: Ethan Gentes ’13 (Durham, N.H.), a history and Spanish double major and a member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program, recently returned from a study abroad semester in Argentina and wrote the following reflection as a tribute to the late Rev. Edward L. Cleary, O.P. Father Cleary, professor emeritus of political science, taught at Providence College from 1993-2011, retiring shortly before he died last November. A Dominican priest for 54 years, he was a scholar in Latin American affairs, particularly the Catholic Church, religion in general, politics, and human rights. He directed PC’s Latin American Studies Program for a dozen years and wrote or co-authored 14 books, including The Rise of Catholic Charismatics in Latin America (University Press of Florida, 2010).
Not only was Father Cleary the first professor I met at Providence, but he also served as my mentor right from our very first email conversation while I was still a senior in high school navigating the college selection process.
My PC admissions interviewer had suggested that I contact Father about our mutual interest in Argentina (I had never been to Latin America at the time but had a passion for Spanish language and Latin American politics.) and right off the bat Father sent me copies of his favorite books on Argentina to Hawaii, where I was living at the time, so we could start debating politics as soon as I arrived in Providence.
Freshman year, Father invited me to sit in on his Latin American Studies senior seminars. The discussions were great – human rights, political clientelism, and the absolute lack of accountability in Argentine politics were the main topics. Every time we went to see Father he would give us more realistic and more compassionate perspectives on Latin America than we found in our political science readings, which analyzed people from a distance and often oversimplified the extreme complexity of the problems that Argentines face. To paraphrase Father’s mantra, “You don’t know anything until you know what life is like for people on the ground.”
There was nobody better to tell us about life on the ground in South America than Father Cleary, with his decades of first-hand experience that spanned the worst of the military dictatorships up through to the bumpy transition to democracy. The more stories I heard from Father, the more my fascination with the Southern Cone of South America grew, and the more I grew certain that I needed my own first-hand experience.
As I write this article, I have recently returned from an incredible semester abroad in Buenos Aires. Sadly, Father is no longer with us for me to tell him some stories of my own; when he died last year, I lost my first mentor and friend at PC. However, I was very fortunate to have recorded an interview with him about his decision to become a Dominican at our last meeting, so I at least can keep his voice, in addition to the priceless lessons he taught me.
An enlightened visitor
Looking back, I realize how incredibly lucky I was to have had access to Father’s immense knowledge on Argentina. I went to Buenos Aires with a huge leg-up on the other foreign students (not just Americans) who flock to the city for its steak, nightlife, and café culture. In a sense, it was a burden not to be able to enjoy the many charms of Argentina without being acutely aware of the corruption, poverty, and suffering always lurking in the background, but if anything, I got to know the real, complex Argentina.
Whether debating the current state of the enigmatic Peronist Party in my political science courses at private Argentine universities in wealthy parts of the city, or traveling through the endless Pampa (where genetically modified soy has replaced the romantic gaucho) with my girlfriend on one of our many journeys to other parts of the country, Father’s lessons were always in the back of my mind. Who controls this country’s incredible wealth? Why must the middle class and poor alike confront the same financial insecurity? Why is Brazil booming, while Argentina continues to limp along? Why is everyone a Peronist?
Of course, not everyone in Argentina is a Peronist. In the course of doing research for my senior history thesis, I came into contact with a historian and retired politician from the Radical party, which despite its name is (or was) the voice of the moderate middle class in Argentina. This gentleman confirmed to me one of the things Father Cleary always taught – that Argentina, like the U.S., is a country of immigrants looking for a better life. The problem is that corruption, mismanagement, and greed in all levels of government have put the Argentines in the same situation that their ancestors wanted to escape in Europe.
Don’t get me wrong – I had an absolute blast in Argentina and think studying abroad is absolutely necessary for the kind of grassroots perspective that Father always advocated. I have come away from the experience more mature and with a much greater depth of knowledge than before I went.
Now, as a senior at Providence, I have come almost full circle and have a balanced understanding of Argentine history and politics, thanks largely to the original guidance I received from Father Cleary. When I return to Latin America, and if I live and work there someday, I will go with Father’s lessons close to heart.
— Ethan Gentes '13
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