Students Find Success in Spanish Debate

Climbing a mountain can be a grueling task that involves a team of people who have trained for the trek.

Aaron Donaldson is a communications professor at Humboldt State University who uses the metaphor of climbing a mountain while training students for debate competitions by saying that every event is like a peak. The higher the stakes, the higher the mountain is for the team to climb.

“That [debate] wasthe first time I got to talk about social justice issues in Spanish and that was crazy cool,”

Diego Ortiz is a double major in critical race, gender and sexuality studies and psychology who has competed and won while debating against a lawyer at an event in Oregon. The Huntington Park, California native said that although it’s rewarding, it can be a tough task having to translate concepts to another language in the beginning.

“[Beating the lawyer] was fun,” Ortiz said. “It’s definitely exhausting and you have to build your endurance for it.”

The Spanish-speaking students who participate with the debate team have been competing for less than a year. There were four students who competed in Spanish last semester with majors ranging from psychology to political science.

The team will be competing in events that will be in the style of British Parliamentary debate, which opens up different opportunities for the team to compete against graduate students and travel.

Yolena Ramirez is a senior who said she feels like she’s able to to represent the student body that’s Latinx in debate by being able to pull in her first language. Ramirez came away winning third and second place in two events at the 87th Mahaffey Memorial Forensics Tournament on Nov. 12. The third place victory in a Spanish division debate came with teammate Estrella Corza.

“I think that’s super, super important for students who want to compete in academia and break that barrier,” Ramirez said.

The Humboldt State debate team had students make it all the way to the World Universities Debating Competition (WUDC) in Mexico City. The event was held from Dec. 27 through Jan. 4.

Donaldson said that although ivy league and elite colleges run the table, it didn’t stop his team from having the opportunity to talk about issues surrounding Israel and Palestine with students from Tel Aviv or apartheid with students from South Africa.

The debate coach said that the WUDC is like Mount Everest when considering the mountain climbing metaphor.

“We go to compete at the most incredible tournament. World’s is a level of competition that is just impossible to describe,” Donaldson said. “It’s very privileged space.”

Donaldson also serves as the director of the campus intercollegiate debate team. He says that debating involves students having to navigate conflicts. Since the students often debate in the Pacific Northwest, Donaldson says, it can be a white-dominated space where students encounter what he referred to as white fragility.

“That space of experiencing that is not new to a lot of our students. What is new is the opportunity—a seven- minute block—where they get to stand up and say, ‘Here’s what I have to say about that,” Donaldson said. “Then you have to try to articulate that anger or frustration and extend the argument that needs to be made amidst that noise.”

Ortiz is also the coordinator of the debate team, overseeing all the students who debate in either language. He said that the confidence gained from debating in Spanish has opened doorways of communication to his family in another country.

“My family speaks Spanish. That [debate] was the first time I got to talk about social justice issues in Spanish and that was crazy cool,” Ortiz said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is cool.’ So now I could talk to my uncle in Mexico. I could talk to him in Spanish like, ‘What’s going on in the politics in Mexico? What are some social justice issues?’ I think it’s really cool.”

Donaldson said that the hills the team must climb involve a lot of discipline, preparation and luck, but victory is not the goal.

“Rather than trying to win, we’re just trying to get to the top of the mountain and see what’s up there,” Donaldson said. “We’re not trying to conquer the mountain. We’re just trying to get up there to look and say, ‘I did it. We did it. What of you?’”

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