Home » Five Minutes WithSpring 2008

Five Minutes With … Norma Antillon

by Mardy Fones No Comment

For Antillon, strangers are just people she has not yet transformed into friends.

“Norma Antillon is the glue that holds us together,” says Ted Fischer, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS). “She is our public face, the person who shepherds students through the program. She knows where our alums are and what they’re doing, and through her, gives them a tight connection to the center. When alums call, they always ask about Norma.”


Antillon’s ebullient personality and willing spirit are her trademarks. The native of Guatemala doesn’t mention it, but she’s been known to help visiting scholars by personally paying their apartment deposits until their funding comes through. She has a large collection of letters, photos and cards from former students, who keep in touch with her long after they have graduated. The grandmother of 10 is the kind of woman who takes a homeless woman to lunch on a weekly basis. For Antillon, strangers are just people she has not yet transformed into friends. Her official title is administrative assistant, but it should be premier go-to person for the center.

How did you come to work at Vanderbilt? At CLAIS?

This is my second time at Vanderbilt. I came in 1958 with my husband who was pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry. After he received his degree, we went back to Guatemala. Later, after I was divorced, I sent my daughter to Nashville…I could get a visa to work and I came back. I heard about an opening in CLAIS and I’ve been here for 22 years.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I am privileged to work with faculty who are experienced in Latin America, speak Spanish, and several of them, Portuguese. Not only are they great academics, they are special, excellent people. The students are diverse, interesting, and they will be teaching and influencing young people to study and to care
for others. I have a lot of contact with the students and it keeps me young.

Spanish is your first language. How did you learn to speak English?

My father was the Guatemalan ambassador to Washington, D.C., so I went to the American School in Guatemala.

What do you like to do?

I love to travel. My first international travel was when I was only 17. I received a scholarship to a college in Briarcliff Manor, New York. That changed my life forever. Since then, I have traveled within the U.S. quite a bit and have been to Venezuela, Peru, Central America, Paris and Israel. I go to Guatemala every summer to see my son and his three children, and also my aunts who are in their 90s.

What do you like best about Nashville?

The region’s change of seasons, particularly fall, is one of my favorite things. Guatemala is called “the land of eternal spring.” We don’t have fall or the kinds of trees that flower and leaf out in the spring. I love to walk at Radnor Lake. The Vanderbilt campus is so beautiful, it’s like working in a park. Every day when I walk from the parking lot, I rejoice in the beauty of the campus. And I talk to the campus groundskeepers. They’re very nice people.

How do you spend your free time?

I love to go shopping at the Farmers’ Market. It’s an informal United Nations. And I visit my five grandsons in Franklin. They have a ping-pong table and my grandsons were surprised that I know how to play. But the youngest—he’s four-and-a-half—has been begging me to play soccer with him.

I’m always busy with my church. It’s very international—we have members from 12 Latin American countries. I’m a consejero (part counselor/part teacher). I help people who want to be baptized. I also teach a Sunday school class for older members and visit new members.

What’s the biggest difference between life here and in Guatemala?

In Guatemala, families live in the same city. Children go to college in the city where their families live, and they don’t leave their parents’ homes until they marry. That’s the kind of thing that holds families together, but you can’t do that in the U.S. because of the distances.

Are you still a citizen of Guatemala?

I couldn’t vote in Guatemala because I didn’t live there and I couldn’t vote in the U.S. because I wasn’t a citizen, so I became a U.S. citizen in 1996.

Do you like to read?

Yes. I love libraries. Also, what the Ph.D.s write about is incredible, but if you haven’t read the Bible, you’re really missing something. For many years, I read anything that came into my hands, but I never got anything out of it. Now I only read spiritual material. The last book I read was 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life by Don Piper.

Do you have a secret vice?

I’ve been watching The Young and the Restless soap opera for 10 years. We watch it at lunch in the copy room. I go home to Guatemala for three weeks every summer, and when I come back, I haven’t missed a thing on the show.

Do you plan to retire anytime soon?

Everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to retire. I keep asking God the same question. In the end, I think it’ll be technology that gets me out of here. Even my grandsons do things on the computer I don’t understand. At Christmas, my son gave me a combination telephone/answering machine. It had 60 pages of instructions. I told him to take it back. When I’m home, I just want a phone I can use by picking it up and saying “Hello?”

Photo by John Russell.

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