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Latin American Studies program to be renamed to include Latinos

As a product of increasing student demand for a Latino Studies program as well as the recent emergence of Latino studies as a more developed academic subfield, the Latin American Studies Program at the college will be renamed the Latin American and Latino Studies Program effective June 1st. The movement for the program change was led in large part by Latin American Studies Program Coordinator Milton Machuca-Galvez, who will continue his leadership of the program for another two years.

“The name change recognizes, one, that Latin America is not an isolated entity – that the most recent development of Latin America is linked to the United States – and two, because of a series of historical circumstances – depending on which country – Latinos are present in the United States,” Machuca-Galvez said. “People who have links to Latin America are present here, and they are a force: an economic force, a political force, a social force. I think we need to make the connection between the two because one is not independent of the other. They are intimately connected.”

Prior to the name change, the academic focus of the Latin American Studies Program was centered almost exclusively on Latin American issues. According to Tom Stephenson, Provost at the college, the program was established in the mid 1990s by a number of faculty from a diverse range of departments who had a shared interest in issues of Latin America. While some courses – such as “Mexicans in Pennsylvania” – handled topics of Latino studies, the primary focus of the program was on issues pertaining to Latin America. However, according to Diego Armus, Professor of History at the college, these two topics are sufficiently unique to each warrant substantial academic study.

“First thing to take into account is that Latin Americans are not Latinos,” Armus said. “Latin American issues are not Latino issues. Both peoples and problems are mutually connected but are not the same. Latin America is an uneasy category that could be defined in geographical, cultural, historical terms, encompassing the vast and diverse areas southward of the Rio Grande. Latinos are Latin Americans who immigrated to the US as well as their descendants born in the US.”

Armus and Machuca-Galvez both explained that today, an increasing number of these descendants of Latin American immigrants are enrolling at the college, seeking academic instruction that can speak to both their Latino and Latin American identities.

“In many circumstances I hear that students want to understand where their parents came from,” Machuca-Galvez said. “Some of them have inherited the language, but nothing more than that. Students want to understand themselves, where they are coming from. I think at least at an intellectual level we can help them to understand that journey. How did that happen? How did they end up here?”

Maria Castañeda ’18, who was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. when she was three, explained that the name change is meaningful to her because it is indicative of a reorientation of the program that will allow her to engage with her experiences on an intellectual level.

“Though I identify myself as Mexican, and I don’t really identify myself as Mexican-American, still my experiences are very much shaped as a Latina in the United States,” Castañeda said. “The courses that I’ve taken in Latin American Studies that are related to Latinos have allowed me to explore the different sides of my identity and the history of Latinos in the U.S.”

Joelle Bueno ’18 agreed. “I’m a white latina, so I’m half Cuban and then I’m Jewish, so that’s always been something that I’ve had to understand and kind of understand what that means,” said Bueno. “Learning about Latino history would be really powerful for me in understanding my people even if it’s not directly my people.”

Bueno explained that throughout her freshman year, her experiences engaging with her identity at Swarthmore have primarily occurred in non-academic places.

“I hadn’t thought about it too much institutionally because it’s naturally something that’s important to me,” Bueno said. “I am Latina, and this year has been really interesting in that I’ve come into my own in a lot of ways. I’ve expanded ownership over my identity a lot and participated in Enlace, and I’m planning on going to Cuba and identifying with my background.”

Liliana Rodriguez, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the college, explained that Latino studies could serve as an important means for Latino students to understand their individual experiences within the context of what can be a difficult transition to college life.

“Like most elite colleges, Swarthmore is an incredibly rich place with a history of having catered primarily to wealthy, white families for most of its history,” Rodriguez said.  “Even today, about half of students come from the top income bracket in the country. That is a very different experience than that of the average American. Students from different backgrounds experience culture shock when arriving and for much of their time here. Ethnic studies courses, like those in a Latino Studies program, are one important way to help ease this transition because it provides students with the vocabulary to understand the systemic structures that impact their daily life.”

Armus explained that these concerns are particularly relevant with an increasingly large percentage of Latino students on campus.

“The growing presence of Latinos in the Swarthmore student body is not a novelty,” Armus said. “With their own organizations and clubs, Latino students are becoming a very active group able to verbalize their own demands, among them more Latino focused courses and more faculty with specific expertise on Latino issues.”

Castañeda agreed.

“Since we have more Latinos on campus, we need to change the department to fit the needs of the students,” she explained. “I know a lot of Latinos – at least the ones I’ve talked to – said they wanted courses that related more to their experiences in the United States, so in that way the classes are changing with the influence of the incoming students.”

This is not the first time that the Latin American Studies Program has pursued a name change, however. In 2011, in order to reorient itself with a greater focus on Latino issues and better serve student needs, faculty in the program petitioned the Curriculum Committee to change the name of the program, but their request was denied due to insufficient resources both financially and in terms of faculty. Four years later, however, the situation is different.

Stephenson explained that the name change was approved this spring largely because it was clear the program was handling a wider scope of material.

“The name change arose from a recognition that the program has expanded its curriculum to better reflect the integration of Latino research and scholarship into what is now clearly an interdependent Latin America-Latino experience,” Stephenson said. “It reflects a growing recognition of a curricular reality ‘on the ground’ and is also a statement about about how globally interdependent the field has become.  In that sense the student interests and the curricular and faculty realities are reflections of the same phenomenon, and it is important that we’re responsive to that.”

According to both Armus and Machuca-Galvez, a significant impetus for the college’s acceptance of the name change may have been the establishment of Latino Studies programs at several peer institutions in recent years.

“The intention has been to do at Swarthmore what has already been done in similar programs at many of our peer institutions, among them Vassar, Amherst, Dartmouth, Pomona, as well as many larger ones like the University of Pennsylvania,” Armus explained. “And what they have done, even with limited faculty resources, is to acknowledge the existence of this emerging field and incorporate it in the agenda of the already working Latin American Studies programs.”

Most notably, in 2013, Haverford and Bryn Mawr combined their Spanish Departments and Latin American Studies programs to create a joint Latino, Latin American, and Iberian Studies Program. Machuca-Galvez says he plans to work with coordinators of this program in order to facilitate the growth of the new Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the college. In the past, he explained, students have filled in the gaps in curriculum of the Latin American Studies program at the college with coursework offered at Bryn Mawr and Haverford.

“I’ve looked at some of the classes they offer, but the courses here have met my needs so far, so I haven’t felt the need to take classes elsewhere.” Castañeda said. “I have heard from other students that their program is much more developed than ours, though.”

Still, Machuca-Galvez does not believe that reliance on the Tri-college consortium can be seen as a legitimate solution.

“I think they complement a lot of the things that we do here,” said Professor Machuca-Galvez. “But it seems to me that the biggest challenge for us is the distance. For our students to go there takes a lot of commitment and for their students to come here takes a lot of commitment.”

In an effort to resolve the shortcomings of the program, faculty in the Latin American Studies program have worked to promote the visibility and expansion of the program over the past two years under the leadership of Machuca-Galvez. With the added resources of a number of new Latin American Studies faculty in the Spanish and Education departments as well as in the Sociology and Anthropology Department, Machuca-Galvez has worked to expand the curriculum of the Latin American Studies program in order to address a greater diversity of student interests in new and exciting ways. A large part of this work has been the effort to incorporate the experiences of Latinos living in Philadelphia into the program’s study.

“In the past 10 years, the presence of the Latin American population there has grown exponentially,” Machuca-Galvez explained. “We are lucky that we have this community there. It is vibrant, changing, and promising. Students can learn a lot, and we can help a lot… It’s good that we have these communities that are so close and so willing to share.”

Going forward, Machuca-Galvez plans to add a number of courses, including a course on Mexican food in Philadelphia that will involve field trips to Kennett Square, a largely Latino neighborhood. Efforts like these to make the Latin American Studies program more relevant to the experiences of Latinos in the United States have had a meaningful impact on his students.

“In the past I know the program has bounced around between a lot of people, but it really has meant a lot to me, and to the other students I’ve spoken to, that Milton is there as a mentor and someone to help us out,” Castañeda said. “Milton really cares about the program and him being in charge is a huge plus for the program.”

Machuca-Galvez explained that his dedication to the program stems in large part from his personal experiences.

“I see this as a way I can make a contribution,” Machuca-Galvez said. “As a minority, I would like to solve all of the ordeals that I have been through. We have this saying in spanish, ‘Nadie aprende en cabeza ajena’ — nobody learns in someone else’s head — so you have to go through the experience, but if the program can help to ease that experience, if the students can have a clear intellectual understanding of where they are coming from, so they don’t feel lost in any situation where they are a minority, so they have a sense of who they are and a sense of pride and heritage. That’s why the name change is not just cosmetic. It’s more profound.”

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