It is with profound sadness that we share the news of the unexpected loss of Dara Goldman, professor of Spanish and director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society.
Dara joined the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1999 as a specialist in 19th and 20th century Latin American literatures and cultures, with an emphasis on the Caribbean. While her main focus was the literature and culture of Cuba and Puerto Rico, she had a wealth of knowledge not only about the Hispanic world, but also Latina/o studies and world literatures.
She was a voracious reader and had a tremendous intellectual curiosity. Dara attended innumerable conferences, workshops, and symposia on campus in part because she was genuinely interested in so many issues, but also because she wanted to support the work and efforts of other colleagues.
Her wide-ranging interests were reflected in her affiliations with the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), the Program in Comparative and World Literature, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, the Department of Latina/Latino Studies, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretative Theory, the Center for Global Studies, and the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program.
Dara’s work centered on literary and cultural expressions that engaged both the local and the transnational. She was the author of Out of Bounds: Islands and the Demarcation of Identity in the Hispanic Caribbean (Bucknell University Press, 2008) and a great number of articles in top journals in her area of expertise. Her current scholarship focused on wide-ranging topics such as Latin American detective fiction, music and mobility, gender in reggaetón, and coloniality and displacement in Hispanic America.
In the past decade or so, she had started to work on Jewish cultural production in Cuba and had a part in shaping the evolving role of "diaspora" and diasporic studies in contemporary cultural studies. Those two topics were very close to her own life and identity.
Dara spoke Spanish like a native speaker, and many people thought she was Cuban or Puerto Rican. With her characteristic wit, she would often joke that she was a Jewish woman who took a wrong turn at diaspora. But jokes aside, she could be at the same time a Jewish woman from New Jersey and an adopted daughter of Puerto Rico and Cuba, two cultures that she knew intimately and loved very deeply. In fact, Dara called her mother, Karen, “mamita” (a term of endearment equivalent to “mommy”) and when she spoke, she seamlessly code switched between English and Spanish.
Her commitment to Jewish culture was evident not just in the crucial work she did as director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, but in her recent scholarly publications as well as her social engagement. In her last trips to Cuba, Dara worked with the local populations (of all denominations) and authorities to bring resources to Jewish communities in the island. In doing so, she managed to build bridges between people with very different ideologies and beliefs. That ability to listen and negotiate with different positions and points of view was at the very core of who she was, and was the reason why she was trusted and respected.
As everybody who knew her can attest , Dara loved all kinds of music: from opera to reggaetón. In that, as in everything else, she was not bound by categories (and it is not a coincidence that the title of her first book was “Out of Bounds”).
Neither was she limited by hierarchies of taste. In the many well-deserved tributes written for her in the past few days, various people referred to her love of dancing: she had numerous “dancing parties” at her house, where people from very different departments and disciplines came together to eat, laugh, and dance. Only Dara could pull that off!
On those nights, she always started off as the great host that she was, talking to people and making sure they had food and drinks. But after a while, she would just kick off her shoes and start dancing. It was fitting that Dara met her husband, Itai, in a ballroom dance class. That is one of the many things they had in common. Others were: being brilliant, but also unassuming, generous, funny, and kind people who were devoted to their families.
So many people in Dara’s home department and the School of Literature, Cultures & Linguistics had playlists and even CDs that Dara had created especially for them. She listened to people, what they liked or did not like, and generously spent time putting together the songs they preferred.
She taught courses on Latin American music often, courses the students loved. One of her mottos was from the Puerto Rican singer Hector Lavoe’s song, “Que cante mi gente” (Let my people sing). Dara’s people were from all over the world, as she could interact with anybody from any cultural background, race, gender, religion, ideology or class. She was exactly the same warm, welcoming, and understanding person with anybody.
Dara was as involved in service and community engagement as she was to research and teaching. She was naturally gregarious and engaging, but she also had a profound sense of commitment to the academic communities she was a part of while she worked at the University of Illinois. Her official administrative roles included director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (2005-2006 and 2011-2015) and director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, from 2018 until her death. Her service to the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the School of Literatures, Cultures & Linguistics and the University of Illinois was extensive and covered all administrative areas. In this, as in everything she did, she acted with great selflessness, and purpose. Her generosity was boundless.
Teaching and student mentoring were also salient aspects of Dara’s academic trajectory, where she showed her love and commitment to the profession. She taught a variety of courses in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese on topics that ranged from gender and sexuality in Latin America; to the representation of Latinas in contemporary literature and film; to music and self-expression in Latin America. Her classes were very popular and rigorous. She was an outstanding teacher, selected for the List of Teachers Consistently Ranked as Excellent for more than seventeen semesters.
In fact, Dara always selflessly offered to teach any course that was most needed by our students so they could advance in their degrees. She directed many independent studies in addition to her regular teaching load. In fact, she served on 43 dissertation committees and directed and co-chaired eight dissertations. In sum, students admired Dara for her great intelligence and her wealth of knowledge (which she readily shared), and they loved her for her boundless empathy, constant care, and kindness towards them.
The Department of Spanish and Portuguese will not be the same without Dara. The school will not be the same either, nor CLACS, nor the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, nor the university. Our loss is great, but we will remember Dara for the wonderful colleague, teacher, and friend that she was. She left her mark wherever she went and always did so with a great sense of humor. We were all enriched by her fierce intelligence, her collegiality, her generosity, and her joy. The echoes of her inimitable, hearty laughter will resonate within our halls for a long time.
Our clocks stopped suddenly at 4.45 p.m., May 13, 2022, when Dara’s heart gave out. She had given so much to so many, in her much too short life. And after all is said and done, it is her heart that we most remember, because she put so much of it into everything she did: her scholarship, her teaching, her mentoring, her love for her family and friends.
One of the many songs Dara enjoyed was one by Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz, “Corazón partío” (Broken heart), whose lyrics ask for band aids for a broken heart. That’s what so many of us need now.
We know that Dara is now in a place full of music, laughter, beautiful words, love, and views of her beloved Caribbean Sea, where she can also watch over the family that she loved so much: her husband, Itai; her parents, Clifford and Karen; her sister, Elissa; and her in-laws.
Her memory is already, and will always be, a blessing for all of us.
If you would like to contribute to the scholarship memorial fund that Dara's family has set up in her name, please click here.