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Latin American and Latina/o Studies Program offers students global perspective

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To help the University address the growing need for diversity in curricular offerings, the Latin American Studies minor began in 1971 with seven women and four men. Today the minor, now called Latin American and Latina/o Studies, enrolls 27 students, with four men and 23 women, and has more than 50 affiliated faculty and staff from across campus.

Sociology Professor Maura Toro-Morn credits Jo Ann Rayfield, retired Latin American historian, for helping develop and maintain the program through its early stages. In 2007, Toro-Morn became the first director in the more recent history of the program. She has  been a major impetus in solidifying the program, drawing faculty and students to make the minor one of the most popular programs across the University. Toro-Morn is currently on leave from the position for a research sabbatical.

“Since its inception, the Latin American and Latina/o Studies program has been central to the University’s mission and educational outcomes,” Toro-Morn said. “Our program offers students a perspective of the world that is in keeping with current globalization trends.  We offer students an understanding of the historical links that always existed between North and South America, a critical perspective about current political and economic issues facing Latino families across the hemisphere and, most importantly, a connection to McLean County’s local Latino community.  Although we do not have an office space on campus that we can call our own, we have accomplished a lot in the last five years.”

Interim Director Rocio Rivadeneyra, a psychology faculty member, said many students pursue the minor to learn more about the cultures and histories of Latina/o peoples across the Americas, which increases their cultural awareness and understanding.  She said with the changing U.S. demographics, understanding Latino/a culture is imperative.

Rivadeneyra said there are two components to the major, curricular and programming.  The curriculum calls for 24 hours to complete the minor and, while there are several core courses, depending on students’ major fields of study there are many electives to fit individual preferences.  The programming changes yearly, with some core events such as the Latino Cultural Dinner (a collaboration with University Housing and Mboka Mwilambwe) to some new events such as the Latin American Encounters concert, which was organized by graduate student Carlos Avila to feature Latin American composers.  Rivadeneyra said they bring in prominent Latina/o speakers such as Federico Subervi, professor and director for the study of Latino media and markets at Texas State University-San Marcos, and Tony award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Illinois State University student Jessica Beltran agrees that the courses in the Latin American and Latina/o Studies minor and the programming events helped her to connect with her heritage as well as challenged her to see things through a different lens.

“How Mexicans are viewed in the U.S. has been a problem for a long time,” Beltran said. “From my experiences in Mexico and Europe, there is a value for different cultures in those countries.  Often in the U.S., if we see a foreigner, we tend to shut them down. We have such a diverse population in the U.S., but we are so closed.”

Beltran, a speech pathology major, decided to pursue a Latin American and Latina/o Studies minor after taking a class with Toro-Morn to help her acquire a cultural emphasis she felt she was lacking. That decision led her to an independent study in Mexico, production of a documentary about Latina stereotypes in film and, most importantly, a new appreciation for her heritage.

“The Latin American and Latina/o Studies minor helped me to connect with my Latina identity better,” Beltran said. “I am able to listen to the news and think with another perspective.  My mom is an anthropologist, and I thought I was prepared for variable ways of thinking, but the minor helped me realize how many stereotypes I was holding myself.”

Beltran said a women’s and gender studies class she took with Toro-Morn prepared her well to travel to Mexico for an independent study. “The language was the easy part compared to being a woman in a very traditional culture,” she said.  “Without the gender class, I would have been lost.”  She said the small class environment allowed students to interact more and learn from each other about gender inequality in Mexico and helped her understand women’s roles in the very traditional Mexican culture.

Beltran is writing a vivencia (personal account) about her experiences in Mexico, where she said she stopped worrying about classroom learning and stepped into the culture to make good friends and to nurture her Spanish heritage.

Beltran said although her mother’s family was from Argentina and her father had a Mexican heritage, her upbringing in Chicago emphasized her American heritage, perhaps at the cost of her Latina heritage.  While appreciating his Latino heritage, her father felt that it sometimes held him back, and he asked Jessica and her brother to appreciate their American roots and lifestyle. The Latin American and Latina/o Studies minor provided a bridge between the two cultures.

Rivadeneyra said Beltran’s experience is a good example of what the minor is all about.  She said cultural understanding frames the minor and makes things more accessible to students.  A goal for Rivadeneyra and Toro-Morn is getting dedicated space, resources and a tenure-track position to allow the program to grow.

“Given current demographic trends in the U.S., it is very likely that more and more Illinois State students will be like Jessica, namely U.S. born Latinos,” Toro-Morn said. “In that way, our program is vital to their recruitment and retention.”  She pointed out that in cooperation with Illinois State’s newly re-invigorated program in Ethnic Studies, there is the potential to offer students a new perception of the American experience that is transformative at so many levels.

Growing up as a Latina in Los Angeles, Rivadeneyra said she was one of a few Latina/o faces in college, but she remembers “looking for those faces, and when I found them, how important that was for me.” Rivadeneyra said when she came to Illinois State eight years ago, she felt overwhelmed with all of the students who found her Latina face and came to her for mentoring, not just Latina/o students, but also first-generation white American students and other minority students.  She said while protecting her time for teaching and research, she always found time for mentoring.

“My family always believed that education is the pathway to the American dream,” Rivadeneyra said.  “Being a face for younger Latinos is important to me as well as showing them what they can achieve through their college education.”