En La Lucha y ‘Palante’

Speaking About Latin@ Studies at Harvard

by | May 22, 2000

As members of the Harvard community of student learners, we have realized that in order to get the administration at Harvard to listen to the concerns Latin@s are raising, students must come together to develop and propose an agenda that outlines a well-crafted call for change. This pending proposal, already under way, needs to get the support and financial backing from students, allied faculty, Harvard alumni/ae as well as generous organizations and donors. Institutions such as Cornell have instituted Latino studies programs, with top-notch faculty and resources. What must students and faculty do to make Latin@ studies vital at Harvard? Can Harvard survive if it continues to neglect an increasingly growing sector of the United States population? How can a Latin@ mobilization campaign hold the University accountable to Latin@ communities, students and alumni/ae?

In this article, we provide a glimpse of some of the efforts underway for making Latin@ studies a central issue on campus as debates continue to be heard everywhere around us discussing the struggle for adequate representation and recognition. Has there really been a “Latin” explosion as Nueva York magazine recently proposed with the brown and golden cover displaying the beautiful Jennifer López? Have Latin@s really “made it” in this country? What about the “brown” men and women that continue to serve students’ meals on campus, the janitors who clean after us, and the peoples who manicure the lawns?

This struggle to be recognized has been a driving force behind most Latin@ campus organizations. In fact, the issue has been haunting the University since the late 70s; the myriad voices from various ethnic groups at Harvard have become increasingly audible in the last 10 years, but will the University listen? It is also important to examine exactly what it is the administration hears, because “the Master” often tends to hear what it is convenient, denying any kind of real engagement with “others.” This is another way in which such systems of power silence, erase and cover over important issues. Listening can sometimes be easily mistaken for genuine and accepting gestures of “diversity,” accountability and responsibility. It can mask deep-rooted racisms and a long history of devaluation.

With invigorating urgency, both Latin@s and non-Latin@ students are realizing that their concerns can no longer be dismissed. The Kennedy School of Government’s Latino Caucus and the Divinity School’s Nueva Generación are two groups that have persistently attempted to foment institutional changes in their respective faculties, as well as at Harvard in general. Through Concilio Latino, undergraduate and graduate Latin@ groups across the University united under an ethnic label for the sake of coalition and solidarity. While “ethnic” groups continue to cluster and organize under common ethnic labels such as “Latin@,” they increasingly demand representation and elaboration; they require that their cultural and social productions be recognized for their specificity and complexity within the rubric, “Latin@.” This has often been one of the common topics of conversation regarding ethnic organizations on the Harvard campus. In order for la lucha to survive, we must continue to dialogue across difference, across spaces, and disciplines. But beyond the discursive and descriptive level of “solidarity,” we need practical mobilization, supporting letter writing, media exposure and coverage, monthly meetings and generous donations to bring about real change. The issue at stake is not just about inclusion, but about real recognition.

Ethnic organizations are demanding recruitment of Latin@ students, faculty and resources. This discourse challenges the university on an institutional level. The other more local grass-roots effort centers on creating institutional memory. The diversity of conferences at Harvard dealing with Latin@ issues such as bilingualism, immigration, comparative economies and social productions attest to a positive, yet slow, pull in the right direction. A major April 2000 conference on “Latino Cultures in the 21st Century” under the leadership of Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is an excellent example of the supportive and tireless efforts of active faculty at Harvard, as was Doris Sommer’s conference on “Bilingual Aesthetics,” (see page xx) and her April symposium on Latin@ cultural productions.

Collaborative efforts between faculty and graduate students are another important part of “the agenda.” The issues which are staged in each of the aforementioned events cut across the theory/material divide and affect real people, real lives in the world. The numerous scholars from across the country bring a wealth of perspectives that continue to make important interventions in Latin@ lives and discourses.

En la lucha for educational and historical change, in 1996 the members of Nueva Generación, the Latin@ student organization at HDS, devised a plan for action based on the scarcity of Latin@ students, faculty and staff. Signs such as “Latino Religions/Not Offered” and “The population in the United States is rapidly becoming Latin@: Who will minister to them?” filled the ivy-covered walls, the classrooms, the floors, and restrooms of HDS. This effort opened discussion between the administration and the organization. The mobilization made HDS aware of its blind spots–its deficiencies in the areas relating to Latin@ religions, theologies and lives on campus and in the country. This campaign culminated in the appointments of visiting Latin@ scholars with the efforts of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program, the Center for the Study of World Religions and the HDS Dean’s Office. The other component of the Nueva Generación initiative continues to be the need to establish tenure track positions for scholars working with Latin@ theologies and communities. Also, the struggle for institutionalizing a Latin@ memory is a working project. The dialogue between the students and the administration established a promise of support and action; this has included an annual conference dealing with Latin@ studies since the signing of an agreement with Dean Ronald Theiman, the previous Dean of HDS.

Interestingly, students across Harvard continually argue that a common trend and parallel phenomenon runs through Harvard University vis-à-vis the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and HDS vis-à-vis the Center for the Study of World Religions. It is a fact that both Centers support, encourage and fund work dealing with Latin@s, but their earnest efforts can help divert any real engagement with real diversity, i.e. hiring tenured Latin@ faculty. The support of research Centers as important and necessary as the Center for the Study of World Religions and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies are important. The burning question that numerous students think and share among themselves but are afraid to ask in public, however, is what does it mean that one can attain the money to organize and to plan an event such as a symposium or a conference, but with no substantive faculty attendance? Can this be construed as a way in which “Harvard” gets away with ignoring the real engagement with difference as well as the sensitive concerns, the articulate issues and questions raised at such events? If such Centers recognize the crucial need and identify the merit in Latin@ scholarship, why does “Harvard” continue to turn a deaf ear to the voices that keep sounding out across campus? It has been recently voiced by students that part of the way Harvard evades such real engagements with difference is by “graduating” its “problematic” students.

One of the main challenges plaguing Latin@ student groups is the real fear of disintegration and collapse of student leadership and participation. The common concern revolves around the lack of a central area of shared-space, or a center for housing and fostering campus-wide interaction and collaboration across campus organizations. Leaders from various organizations are concerned with the lack of institutional memory. Hence, the Latin@ studies initiative seeks to obtain and maintain institutional resources to have access to office space and monies for materials–phones, computers, typewriters, copy machines, etc. Part of what these groups have attempted to accomplish is the establishment of an institutional memory of Latin@ events, social functions and activities. Events such as the “Latino Welcome Day,” sponsored by Concilio and its affiliates, the Cinco de Mayo Celebration organized by the Latino Caucus at the Kenedy School of Government, as well as the Día De Los Muertos Celebration hosted by Nueva Generación at HDS are some of these efforts. Latina/os Unidas/os at the Graduate School of Education has facilitated the very successful “Latino Graduation” for two consecutive years. While these events have been initiated by particular Latin@ organizations they have worked in collaboration through Concilio Latino, as well as other networks, and this has strengthened the dialogue, as well as the mutual support of organizations across Harvard.

Our aim, then, is to continue the call for coalitions with faculty, with other leading student and professional organizations, as well as institutes and programs across the country, something the visiting lecturers as well as Harvard faculty have been pursuing in recent years. Another recent course of action for bringing Latin@ studies and concerns to the Harvard administration centers on the Harvard/Radcliffe alumi/ae mobilization project, based in Whittier, California and organized by Harvard alumni/ae. In conjunction with this and other luchas, Latin@s are in the process of creating an administrative position with supporting staff in an effort to institute a formal Harvard Latin@ alumni association. The aim is to forge a Latin@ advisory board, to create two centrally managed databases, to establish an official newsletter and to create a fund to endow Latin@ faculty at Harvard. The other aim is to establish a Latino Studies department and to increase Latin@ student enrollment across the university.

Spring 2000

Miguel Segovia is a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School working on the intersection between women’s studies, Latin@ cultures and postcolonial theory. Miguel is working with Doris Sommer as a teaching Fellow for Spanish 194: Latino Cultures. He is also an elected Represenative in the Student Association Executive Committee, the HDS student government and is co-chair of Concilio Latino and Nueva Generacion. Carolina Recio, the recipient of a fellowship from the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard, contributed to this article.

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