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Tributes paid to Dr Erica Segre 1963-2021

Image copyright: Eugenio Polgovsky

Trinity Fellows, Professor Emma Widdis and Dr Carlos Fonseca, pay tribute to their vibrant colleague, Dr Erica Segre, whose legacy lives on in her writing and the generations of students she inspired.  

Erica Segre, Fellow of Trinity since 1998, and Affiliated Lecturer at Newnham, passed away on 21 April after a long illness. As a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American culture, Erica led generations of students in Trinity, and across Cambridge, in their discovery of the wonders of art and literature.

Under her guidance, our students were introduced to the photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, the paintings of Roberto Matta and the poems of Rosario Castellanos, among so many others. In her hands, these works gained a sense of urgency and a vitality which made her teaching memorable.

Erica’s loss will be felt by all members of Trinity. In her presence, the College became more visibly the multi-lingual community that it is: she sparked constant and vivid conversations with students, staff and Fellows in all their languages; she invited artists and writers from all over Latin America to Trinity for conferences, fellowships, film screenings, exhibitions and discussions. She turned the College’s face resolutely outwards and her legacy will be felt for generations to come.

Erica Segre, photographed by Eugenio Polgovsky, in her room at Trinity for an exhibition of Fellows' portraits in 2017.

Erica had an extraordinary range of scholarly interests across literature, visual art, film and photography. Her pioneering work on the history of Mexican photography, for instance, was field-changing. She wrote Intersected Identities: Strategies of Visualisation in 19th and 20th Century Mexican Culture (Berghahn Books), and many important essays on Latin American visual culture. Last year she edited a collection of essays México Noir: Rethinking the Dark in Contemporary Writing and Visual Culture, a topic on which many of us heard her speak with so much insight.

A native Italian speaker, whose family roots also led to Greece, and whose professional life was committed to South America, Erica was truly polylingual. With her husband Simon Carnell, she was also a translator of modern Italian literature (including a prestigious prize-winning translation of The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti). Todo está a la vuelta del camino, she would often say, and she was right: everything was just around the corner. Her translation of Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland came out only last month, and her rendering into English of Guido Tonelli’s Genesis will be published next year.

During her illness, Erica was as prolific as ever, writing numerous scholarly articles and essays, as well as emerging as a poet herself. In her poetry, the reader moves as if visiting a gallery populated by the works of the artists she cherished: paintings by Wifredo Lam, photographs by Matta-Clark, performances by Pina Bausch appear in her verses.

Photo: Graham CopeKoga

Erica was deeply interested in the relationship between culture and identity. This relationship wasn’t just an academic subject for her; it was a fully-lived commitment and one that she passed on to her students. Her legendary College rooms in Great Court, with avant-garde periodicals and art objects on display and their deep magenta and yellow walls, were a hymn to the vibrancy of her beloved Mexico and Latin America. The rooms – and Erica – held generations of undergraduates in thrall.

Dr Jean Khalfa, Trinity Fellow and Senior Lecturer in French, said:

One aspect that always struck me is the atmosphere she created. The pleasure of entering her study, with its extraordinary range of colours, books, works of art, and talking to her, was that of stepping into another world, some extension of the Americas, where literature and the visual arts were not just objects of academic study but forms of life. Her astonishing range and generosity and this atmosphere she spontaneously created, certainly changed many students’ lives.

Her colleague in Newnham, Dr Sheila Watts, Lecturer in German, recalled that same room, and the sense of adventure it created for students and friends: ‘I remember her inviting us (students and colleagues) – so poignant – to a Mexican Day of the Dead event, with candles and masks, so very atmospheric.’

Dr Mara Polgovsky, former Junior Research Fellow at Queen’s College, now Lecturer at Birkbeck, said: 

Erica’s presence in my life was profoundly transformative. She was singularly generous and the most erudite of mentors. Her extraordinary library recalls Warburg’s; her knowledge of both Mexican art and European modernism bears few comparisons. Playful and associative, her use of language installed bilingualism and poetry in the everyday. Over the years a friendship evolved and I encountered a woman for whom there were no boundaries between writing and life. And so she wrote on until her last days; her poetry collections and more await our discovery.

Erica’s warmth and vitality were perhaps her greatest gifts to Trinity students, and rooted in a belief in the ethical power of culture. At graduation, Erica would give departing students beautiful blank journals to accompany them on the life journey ahead.

Photo: Graham CopeKoga

Trinity’s Senior Tutor, Professor Catherine Barnard, said: Erica was a much loved and committed teacher. She inspired generations of loyal students with her passion for her subject. She will be very sorely missed.

Erica had no fear of sincerity, or of expressing and valuing passion. She exhorted our graduands to seize life by both hands; and to allow art and literature to accompany them on their journey.

Faithful to the legacy of her beloved artists, Erica was not afraid of challenging established patterns. She believed in the value of bending the rules. She was proud to let her young children gather flowers on Trinity’s Avenue, or to play on its lawns. She was a firm believer that the College should adapt to meet a changing world, and thoroughly committed to Trinity as a place of inclusion.

Erica was well known to many members of staff, including in the Catering Department, where many staff are bilingual. Donato Cimmarrusti, Servery Supervisor at Trinity, said: ‘I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dr Erica Segre, who was a much appreciated member of College, a dedicated person who always took time to speak with everyone and who will be remembered with great affection.’

As part of the College’s celebrations of 40 years since the admission of women as undergraduates in 2019, Erica suggested commissioning her former student Sonum Sumaria – now a filmmaker – to make an editorially independent film about the experiences of women in the College over those four decades:  ‘It Felt Like a Revolution.’ Erica, Sonum said, ‘was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. So eloquent, intelligent and encouraging. She brought the vibrant and revolutionary spirit of Latin America to Trinity College and I will always remember her as a strong independent guerrera.’

Photo: Graham CopeKoga

Trinity Fellow Adrian Poole, Professor Emeritus of English at Cambridge, said:

Erica was always opening doors. Whenever we talked, she would introduce me to a new idea, an unexplored vista, a hitherto unknown artist. Eugenio Polgovsky, for example, the gifted young filmmaker and photographer who became our Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts. When he died, so early, I worked closely with Erica on the memorial event for him, a labour of love and of grief. Amid the terrible sadness of losing Erica herself now, it’s a consolation to read her beautiful tribute to Eugenio’s art in the volume of essays edited by his sister Mara. She gave so much, as colleagues and students will testify. Such a sensitive, passionate, generous soul.

Erica is survived by her husband, the poet Simon Carnell, and their two children.

Alumni have contributed their memories and tributes to Dr Segre.

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