“Can I talk about how I was raised by bears?” Michelle Escobar asked as she set her tray down to begin our interview over dinner at Val. For anyone who’s known Escobar at Amherst, this imaginative albeit unhelpful introduction comes as no surprise.
Escobar is a Theatre and Dance and Spanish double major at Amherst, which speaks to a lot of things about her nature: she’s energetic, spunky, animated and always up for a little performing.
Not actually raised by bears, Escobar was born in Portland, Ore. to Panamanian parents, Kariely Zulu Chanis and José de la Cruz Escobar. She spent her time at Amherst pursuing a challenging double major, which was an unexpected and largely rewarding experience for her.
Learning ‘A Language that was not my Own’
Her passion for Spanish was primarily cultivated by a high school English teacher. “He basically adopted me,” Escobar noted. “He taught me all about magic realism, and I thought it was insanely cool. I started writing poetry about where I came from. I’m Panamanian but I grew up in the States, so when I got to Amherst I started taking Spanish classes. I got really interested in Spanish literature and history.”
“At first, I was very insecure about speaking Spanish because when I would travel to Panama, everyone would make fun of my accent. I kept thinking, ‘How can I communicate in a language that isn’t really mine?’ I set a goal at Amherst to master it.”
Escobar took “Spanish for Heritage Speakers,” a class meant for students like her, with various degrees of Spanish proficiency and no formal training, students who often have trouble learning a language on paper after having learnt it conversationally.
Escobar embraced the challenge and undertook an immersive study of the language over the course of her four years at Amherst. One of her most formative experiences was taking a class taught by Spanish professor Nina Scott. “I took a class with her last year, and I have never been so excited to study Spanish.”
Professor Scott has now instructed Escobar in two upper-level literature classes on Colonial Spanish American literature and serves as her advisor. Scott remarked, “the word ‘effervescent’ is a good one to use to describe Michelle. She injects warmth and humor into a class. No matter how dead tired she might have been from all of her acting gigs, she would show up to my 8:30 a.m. class, sort of shake her body and mind into place, twist her hair into a tidy ponytail and be ready to operate. She is creative and funny, but also intellectually bright and insightful. She is an extraordinary person in so many ways and a joy to have in class.”
“I’m not afraid to open my mouth and say anything in Spanish now,” Escobar explained. “That’s huge. I used to be horrified. I used to be afraid to raise my hand. Now I can write and have the courage to speak.”
Escobar: The Actress
Escobar’s performative talents were recognized since her elementary school days, when she landed her first role. “I played the little red hen when I was seven and that started a very fruitful career,” Escobar narrated. “The play was called ‘The Little Red Hen.’ It was my first feature role. My parents forgot the video camera. I was devastated.”
Escobar’s passion for theater developed more substantively during her years at a unique high school, the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, a school that couples academic rigor with a focused study of performing and visual arts. “It was really great because it was really small,” said Escobar. “Everyone was super interested in his or her art.”
When the college application process began, Escobar thought she would matriculate at a school for theater. When her search narrowed, she decided Amherst had the best financial aid package and enrolled despite acceptances to theater conservatories. What she didn’t realize was the impact Amherst’s theater department would have on her life: “I didn’t fully appreciate the theatre department here until I took a semester off to study at Tisch in New York. It was an amazing experience, but it is not as great as this college. The department here pays such careful attention to its underclassmen. I have built a great support system of artists here. Everyone knows what you’re working on and there is this huge collaborative spirit between you, the professors who serve as your mentors and your peers. It’s incredible.”
Escobar completed her senior thesis in Theatre and Dance this spring after starring in her senior production “2 Washington Square” in the Fall of 2011. The thesis, a 1960s adaptation of Henry James’ novel “Washington Square” written by Amherst’s playwright-in-residence Connie Congdon, largely explored issues of race and class. “I played a character named Catherine Sloper, whose mother was white and whose father was Latino. It became an intensely personal process for me. In preparing for this, I had to explore my own standing at Amherst College — being Panamanian, having dark skin, not having loads of money. It was difficult to think about those things about myself. I had to examine where my self-worth was coming from when I did this thesis.”
Ron Bashford, an assistant professor of Theatre and Dance, the director of “2 Washington Square” last Fall and one of Escobar’s closest friends in the department, reflected, “At its best, the art of acting is both personal and transformative — and this dynamic ability is just what Michelle achieved this year in her thesis project. What I admire most about Michelle, other than her obvious talent, is her tenacity. In her written thesis, she wrote movingly about her personal journey examining race and self-expression, in the play and in her life. I know she is going to create for herself a thrilling and illuminating life in the theater.”
On her thesis, Escobar explained, “I concluded that yes, those are issues that I am going to have to deal with, but things are evolving such that I can choose to be around people who celebrate it. That changed my outlook on life. Doing a thesis solidified my desire to pursue acting as a career, but it also changed my life. Rarely do artists get a chance to examine something they’ve worked on so thoroughly. It was traumatic and it was exhilarating, especially because it mirrored so directly my own insecurities about race and class.”
Escobar’s warm presence in the theater department is undeniable. Bashford and other theater professors remarked on the close relationship they formed with her. “She likes to text me a lot, which I find both annoying and endearing, depending on what time it is,” Bashford joked. Another theater peer, Brooke Bishop ’10, described, “once Michelle decides to do something, she does it with all her heart. What’s great about Michelle is her conviction to never stop growing. For her, there’s no obtaining acting, there’s no getting there, there’s only working toward it. And I know she will continue to do so for a very long time.”
Classmate and fellow theater major Elias Johanson-Miller added, “as an actor and a person, she is generous, funny, committed, talented, kind and very smart. I feel very lucky to have become friends with such a wonderful person.”
“The thing I’ve gotten the most out of this education is being able to say that human connection is so important,” Escobar concluded. “I love the strong connections I’ve made with the people who I’ve made art with. It’s why I make theater.”
Escobar will take the next year off to try her hand in the Portland theater scene, travel to visit her family in Panama and work in a karate dojo (“Karate is huge,” she remarks of the sport she started training for at age 12.). She is also looking to apply to graduate schools for acting for the 2012-2013 academic year.
“The good news about getting a graduate degree,” she said, “is that I could teach. I’d love to teach kids. They get along with me pretty well because we’re the same height. It doesn’t take much for them to trust me.”
Escobar leaves Amherst with a league of supporters behind her. The friends she’s made through her study of Spanish, her work in the theater and her other niches at Amherst couldn’t speak highly enough of her generosity, warmth, sense of humor and love.
“Michelle doesn’t take people for granted,” Bishop explained. “She reminds herself and the ones she loves how much she loves them every day.”
Her first-year roommate, Lem Atanga McCormick, who has remained close with Escobar for four years, reflected, “Simply put, Meesh is an amazing person and a spectacular friend. She really taught me the importance of trying new things, breaking out of my comfort zone and perhaps most importantly, being a free soul capable of staying true to myself even in the face of adversity.”
Another friend, Lamia Harik ’12, remarked, “Being friends with Michelle has opened my eyes to an entire world that I never thought I could partake in or understand. We come from such different backgrounds, but somehow she manages to use her relationships and experiences to put herself in someone else’s shoes. I think that is the best thing about her as a friend and person — her willingness to take what she has learned and apply it to someone else’s perspective.”
Escobar’s diverse background and interests, paired with her devoted interest in relating to others, allowed her to forge strong bonds with students and professors alike. Her lovely personality, great sense of humor and fierce loyalty maintained those bonds through her time at Amherst.
“I had a lot of ups and downs, but I really loved being here,” Escobar reflected. “It’s going to be scary to leave here and not have a community of artists right away when I leave here. That will be scary. I feel like we should all just move to the desert and make theatre in New Mexico. It’s very close to the sun there,” she jokingly calls over her shoulder as she buses her tray. “But seriously, Amherst totally changed my life. I have so many opportunities coming from here that I wouldn’t have coming from anywhere else. Everybody says that, but it’s true.”