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Cynthia Duncan, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus
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Spanish and Portuguese
Wayne State University
Spanish and Portuguese; Latin American Studies minor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Wayne State University


Dr. Duncan is retired, but can be reached at

Throughout my career, I've been interested in the fantastic and magical realism in Latin American literature and film, and much of my research has centered on the way these texts interrogate and interact with conventional representations of realism. I'm also interested in popular culture in Latin America, which has led me to explore soap operas, romance fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy as important forms of cultural expression. I'm especially attracted to transgressive literature and film because I see them as attempts to push back traditional gender and racial boundaries and question social norms that shape social and individual identity.

I continue to look at work produced by and about women in Latin America, with an emphasis on Mexico, the Spanish Caribbean, and the Southern Cone. These novels, short story collections and films not only look at "women's issues" but also reclaim and reconstruct national history from the point of view of those who have been traditionally excluded. They address imbalances in power and offer alternative ways of thinking about personal and public history.

For the past five years or so, I've become increasingly interested in testimonial literature in Latin America and how it overlaps with oral history. Currently, I'm collecting patakis (folktales) and refranes (proverbs) associated with the Lucumi religion in Cuba. These stories and sayings shed light on the worldview of Afro Cubans from the 19th century onward, and also reveal a wealth of information about the development of the Afro-Cuban ritual language which continues to be used today. I'm looking at how the proverbs are derived from Lucumi divination practices, and what their role is in shaping the cultural identity of a particular community such as the one in Palmira. Related to this project, I continue to analyze film and literature as an expression of Afro-Cuban culture, especially in terms of how Afro Cuban religion is represented in cultural texts.

Current Research

My current research deals with Afro-Cuban culture, specifically the collection and interpretation of oral histories, folklore and proverbs associated with the Regla de Ocha/Ifa religious tradition in the region of Palmira, Cuba.

I have also collected and am working on an anthology of oral histories dealing with the Special Period in Cienfuegos, Cuba (1990-2000). These are stories of personal struggle and strategies for survival, both material and psychological, during a period of extreme economic hardship and social instability.

I continue to do research and writing on Latin American cinema and literature, with an emphasis on works by and about women.


I teach courses in both Spanish and English, focusing primarily on Latin American culture through an interdisciplinary lens. In Spanish classes, I address the needs of native speakers of Spanish, heritage speakers, and students learning Spanish as a second-language in a variety of language-oriented classes such as grammar, composition, conversation, and reading comprehension. I teach grammar in a cultural context with a focus on the development of communicative skills. My composition classes help students improve vocabulary, syntax and grammar through practical "real-life" writing assignments that help students understand different tones and registers for formal and informal writing. I also teach upper division courses dealing with women in Latin America, the history and culture of Mexico and Cuba, courses on Latin American film and literature, and research methods. In English, I teach similar courses dealing with the cultures of the Spanish-speaking world, including Latinos in the USA and the Caribbean diaspora.


  • I have been involved with the Tacoma-Cienfuegos, Cuba Sister City group since its creation in 2001.
  • In addition, I belong to professional associations like the Modern Language Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and the Asociaci├│n Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hisp├ínica.

Academic Service

  • I am involved in the Sister City organization in Tacoma.
  • I have taught and taken groups abroad for the Osher Lifelong Learners program.
  • I was instrumental in setting up the cultural interchange between the Northwest Sinfonietta and the Concierto Sur chamber orchestra in Tacoma and Cienfuegos, Cuba.
  • In addition, I have been guest speaker at local colleges and cultural institutions in the area.
  • I have also organized and chaired panels at professional meetings, such as the Hispanic Literature and Film conferences at Tulane University and at Florida International University.

Honors and Awards

  • Royalty Research grant, 2008
  • Founders Endowment Grant, University of Washington, 2005
  • Simpson Center for the Humanities Grant, University of Washington, 2003
  • Founders Endowment Grant, University of Washington, 2002

Scholarly Interests

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