The Value of a Latin American Studies Program
Published on September 11, 2020
Hispanic Heritage Month, which lasts each year from September 15 to October 15 in the United States, brings awareness to the contributions, experiences, and challenges of Hispanic and Latin Americans — both now and throughout history. But you can only learn so much in 30 days.
While Americans of Hispanic descent represent only part of Latin America, the study of Hispanic culture and history is often included in the larger field of Latin American studies. In these programs, you'll learn about the rich experiences and traditions of a variety of Latin American countries and peoples, study languages like Spanish and Portuguese, and develop a deeper understanding of the lives of contemporary Latin Americans as well as Latinos/as and Hispanic people living in the United States.
To learn more about the advantages of a Latin American studies program, we interviewed Alex Borucki, a history professor and the director of the Latin American Studies Center at the University of California, Irvine.
Interview With a Latin American Studies Specialist
How would you describe the field of Latin American studies to a prospective student?
In the United States, the field of Latin American studies gathers scholars from various disciplines to explore new theories and methodologies and to examine how "things" Latin American bring new data and new theory about the world we live in.
“[T]he field of Latin American studies gathers scholars from various disciplines to … examine how ‘things’ Latin American bring new data and new theory about the world we live in.”
UCI offers an undergraduate minor and a graduate emphasis in Latin American studies. The minor and graduate emphasis are meant to be combined with a disciplinary-based major or a Ph.D. in departments such as anthropology, Spanish, and urban planning, as well as with ethnic studies majors such as Chicano/Latino studies and African American studies.
Formed by faculty and students from Latin America, the United States, and beyond, the UCI Latin American Studies Center constitutes a hub for "things" Latin American — a network connecting scholars, students, and the larger local communities.
What value do you believe this field brings to the United States' cultural context?
I'm a historian, so I can tell you about the shared histories of the United States and Latin America, from the beginnings of U.S. history to today. The histories of Cuba and Brazil are very similar to — and strikingly different from — the United States in terms of slavery and race, including how race was created and recreated in relationship to slavery and post-abolition.
“Examining Latin America … opens up American students’ eyes to the unnatural and historical formation of categories of race and discrimination.”
Examining Latin America from the United States opens up American students' eyes to the unnatural and historical formation of categories of race and discrimination, in which place mattered in the past as it matters today.
Latin America is a complex cultural and historical entity born in blood and fire from the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the New World, and which encompasses territories and peoples from North, Central, and South America. Emerging out of a series of conquests, free and coerced migrations, and other contacts and conflicts, Latin America is transcultural, multilingual, and multiethnic.
One may wonder whether the West was born in Latin America, since Latin America has been a vital part of the formation of the modern world, even as the region continues to function as a source for the expression of economic, political, and cultural alternatives to Western formations.
What is the relationship between this field and the Latin American immigrant experience?
One of the pillars of Latin American studies is examining the movement of people, ideas, and commodities between Latin America and the United States. Both the immigrant experience and the setting of Irvine in the borderland — we're just a two-hour drive from Mexico — remain central to how we understand Latin American studies at UCI.
UCI is a U.S. Department of Education-designated Hispanic-serving institution, with over 25% of students identifying as Hispanic or Latino/a. Through the curriculum, research, and programming initiatives supported by the LAS Center, we stand as one of the pillars contributing to the enhancement of the experiences of Latino/a, Hispanic, and Chicano/a students at UCI.
What skills can you gain in a Latin American studies program?
It's not just about skills, but also knowledge. If you lack knowledge while applying your skills to a certain situation or problem, you're essentially operating in the dark.
Latin American studies offers knowledge produced both in Latin America and the United States about this region, and prepares students for critical thinking and analysis of their own disciplinary skills in relation to Latin American societies, histories, and cultures.
What kinds of classes do Latin American studies students typically take?
At UCI, undergraduates minoring in Latin American studies typically take one mandatory course on the past and present of this region, taught by the history or Spanish department. They also take courses in the social sciences, the humanities, and social ecology that examine Latin America from different disciplinary perspectives.
The minor is flexible in the way that we plan for students to avoid taking more courses than they need for their major and general education requirements.
“[Undergraduates minoring in Latin American studies at UCI] take courses in the social sciences, the humanities, and social ecology that examine Latin America from different disciplinary perspectives.”
For the graduate emphasis in Latin American studies, all students of a single cohort take the core course — a yearlong seminar that meets once a month — and two approved electives that are related to the study of Latin America. Many students take one of the elective seminars within their home departments as coursework that satisfies their degree requirements. One of these seminars must be from outside the student's home department.
The graduate core course allows students from different disciplines to come together around the exploration of a single topic. These workshops are conducted as regular academic conferences, and all enrolled students are required to take active participation. Students present their current research insofar as it loosely corresponds to the theme of the workshop; they also participate by acting as chairs or discussants of particular sections.
Most workshops introduce a guest speaker from outside UCI — particularly from academic institutions between San Diego and Santa Barbara — allowing students to network with locally based professionals.
What type of student should consider enrolling in a major or minor in Latin American studies?
At UCI, undergraduates minoring in Latin American studies also major in a discipline in the social sciences, the humanities, or social ecology. Usually students minoring in Latin American studies use this minor to get a rounded education on Latin America as they major in Chicano/Latino studies, international studies, history, film and media, urban planning, or sociology.
For graduate students, the emphasis in Latin American studies is vital for those who plan to conduct field research in Latin America. This means that as part of their education, they have to live in Latin America while collecting data and interacting with Latin American scholars living there for their own research. Latin American studies is essential for preparing graduate students for these experiences.
What careers does a Latin American studies degree prepare you for?
For graduate students, I want to share with you this testimony of Christina García, an alum of the LAS graduate emphasis who now works as an assistant professor at the College of Charleston.
For undergraduate students, Latin American studies prepares you to conduct work on Latin America, which includes the multiple aspects of the relationships between Latin America and the United States, and the lives of Latin Americans in the United States.
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