The History of Latin American and Latino/a Studies at Vassar College

by Katherine Hite, Associate Professor of Political Science, Leslie Offutt, Associate Professor of History, Maggie Negrete ('10), and Julia Nissen ('11)
January 2011
Program Website

The Latin American and Latino/a Studies program at Vassar, which originated in 1986 with the establishment of the college's Latin American Studies program, grew out of a more generalized academic interest in the region that dated to at least the 1920s and gained traction in both academic and governmental circles after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. More than 150 Latin American studies programs had been established by the 1970s1, and Latin American area studies centers became loci of important political debates regarding the US presence in the region. Over time and through intense exchanges between Latin American and US scholars, Latin American studies became increasingly sophisticated as a disciplinary field for the study of economics, politics, culture and society.

As part of the greater civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, US university students also began to demand ethnic studies programs2. These early Latino Studies programs often focused on the Latino populations that constituted their respective regions—in the southwest and west, Chicano-focused programs that drew on that region's historical experiences, while in New York City, Puerto Rican and Dominican communities served as the foundational influences on Latino studies.

At Vassar College, several years of discussion among interested Latin Americanist faculty led to the creation of the Latin American Studies program in the fall of 1986. Prior to the program's establishment, students wishing to major in Latin American Studies did so through the Independent Program. Founding members of the program included Colleen Cohen, Lucy Johnson, and Charles Briggs from Anthropology; Brian Godfrey, from Geography; Leslie Offutt, from History; and Karen Stolley, from Hispanic Studies. Karen Stolley served as the first program director from 1986-1991, followed by Brian Godfrey from 1991-1994 and Leslie Offutt from 1994-98. While Professor Stolley has since joined the faculty of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University, and Charles Briggs has moved to the University of California, San Diego, other founding members continue to be active in the program. Over time, the number of LALS participating faculty has increased three-fold, and today includes founding members Colleen Cohen, Brian Godfrey, and Leslie Offutt, as well as David Tavárez of Anthropology, Tracey Holland of Education, Joseph Nevins of Geography, Michael Aronna, Mihai Grunfeld, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, and Eva Woods of Hispanic Studies, Timothy Koechlin of International Studies, Katherine Hite of Political Science, and Carlos Alamo, Light Carruyo, and Eréndira Rueda of Sociology.

Our first majors entered the program as sophomores in 1986, and two years later four students graduated from the program. The greatest number of senior majors was fourteen in 1997, and the most recent graduating class (2010) had seven majors. In 2005, the program chose to include "Latino/a" in the program name to reflect the growing Latino studies scholarship and interest amongst Vassar students and faculty. The inclusion of "Latino/a" acknowledges a post Cold War conceptual re-mapping of the area studies field, the impact of immigration, and the intense interconnections among Latino/a America and US political economies, cultures, and societies.

As reflected in the array of participating faculty, Latin American and Latino/a Studies at Vassar College has always been a multidisciplinary program constituted of courses within Anthropology, Economics, Education, English, Geography, Hispanic Studies, History, International Studies, Political Science, Portuguese, Sociology and most recently, Media Studies. This is best reflected in the introductory course and senior seminar. Every year different professors assume these classes and tailor the material to their areas of expertise, recent scholarship, and in the case of the senior seminar, to the interests of the majors.

Because of the rotating focus of the introductory course and the multiplicity of courses that satisfy the program curriculum, majors can create personal areas of expertise within the major. Their specializations are bolstered by the importance of study abroad within the program. Students have traveled abroad for university study in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru, as well as with various abroad programs that have focused on topics such as Anthropology, Political Science, public health, and social justice.

In addition, participating LALS faculty have led International Studies trips to Cuba, Chile, Brazil, the Antilles, Peru, and Bolivia. During spring 2010, professors David Tavárez (Anthropology), Collen Cohen (Anthropology) and Leslie Offutt (History) organized an indigenous-focused course and exploration of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatán, Mexico.

Hispanic Studies has sponsored Spanish summer immersion courses in Mexico and Peru. Every other year for the past six years, LALS faculty member Joseph Nevins has offered the popular Border Dynamics Geography course that includes travel to the US-Mexican border. Work abroad has led many students to return to Latin America as ESL instructors, NGO advocates, to continue their studies, or simply to maintain the important connections made with host families and friends. LALS majors often focus their senior theses or projects on issues raised while abroad or with the aforementioned Vassar programs and courses. Thesis topics have included: liberation theology, Chicana women's movements, human rights and memory politics, political and social movements based in the Caribbean, Central, South America, and the United States, and local Hudson Valley-based topics regarding immigration, work, and education. Beginning in the fall of 2009, LALS majors were offered the option of completing a senior project in lieu of a thesis. One major from the class of 2010, Christopher Root, choose to develop a project that grew out of his work as an EMT serving the growing Hispanic community in the Mid-Hudson region, producing a training program for local EMTs who lacked the language skills (and sensitivity) necessary to fully serve that clientele. US Latino/a studies programs have their origins in the joining of university students with grassroots organizers to create multidisciplinary curricula recognizing the contributions of Latino communities. The senior project reflects that spirit.

LALS faculty members encourage students to develop a more sophisticated set of understandings of the political, cultural and economic complexity of the region and of the region's relationships with the world. LALS emphasizes that students attempt to understand, from Latin and Latino/a America, global theory, patterns of movement and linkages, and questions of power and struggle. Program participants engage closely with studies and on-the-ground local realities across a range of countries, and they examine the intense interconnectedness of our own communities and nation with Latin America.

The commitments and goals of the LALS program square quite well with the many tenets of Vassar's mission, the first of which states: "To develop a well-qualified, diverse student body which, in the aggregate, reflects cultural pluralism, and to foster in those students a respect for difference and a commitment to common purposes3." LALS works to raise awareness among a broad array of students and faculty regarding courses and initiatives that provide both content and approaches that nurture appreciation and respect for difference.

Additional Vassar mission tenets include: "[T]hrough curricular offerings to promote gender and racial equality and a global perspective," and, "To maintain and support a distinguished and diverse faculty." Several LALS-affiliated courses, including Latinos in the United States, Introduction to Latin American and Latino/a Studies, among others, both "promote gender and racial equality and a global perspective," and are taught by both senior and early career "distinguished and diverse faculty." For the past twenty-four years, the Latin American and Latino/a Studies program has sought to explore such issues through a multidisciplinary approach that challenges students with critical theory, language and experiential learning.

References

  • 1. Drake, Paul and Lisa Hilbink. (2003). Latin American Studies: Theory and Practice. Location: Global, Area, and International Archive. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0tp5r5m8.
  • 2. Poblete, Juan, ed. (2003). Critical Latin American and Latino Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
  • 3. Taken from the 1998 Vassar College mission statement.