Born of out the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Latino studies programs have become a dynamic segment of U.S. college curriculum in a diverse set of institutions from Berkeley to Harvard. Programs differ widely in terms of course offerings, but each provides an interdisciplinary study of the history, culture, religion, and literature of Latin America (a fluid term that often includes Caribbean studies). They fit into the larger body of ethnic studies – including African American studies and Native American studies – tackling issues of injustice and inequality as well as contemporary developments across the region.
Though the number of Latino Studies programs continues to multiply, and long-standing programs continue to grow, many people still ask why they are needed. To answer this question, we were honored to speak to Dr. Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas, newly appointed chair of Latin American studies within the Black and Hispanic Studies Department at Baruch College. Dr. Ramos-Zaya raised three important reasons for why we need programs like this now more than ever:
We’re a global society in an increasingly global world. It becomes more important to expand students’ understanding of histories and culture in an increasingly global society, especially in the U.S. where Latinos are the fastest growing “minority” population.
If there has been a moment of history when we’ve really needed this department, it’s now. As we become more of a global city and country, I cannot imagine not having departments like this. In the case of Latinos, we have the fastest growing population of U.S. born and immigrants.Even though people interact with Latinos in their daily lives, there’s very little awareness of what Latinos are in terms of their history, their politics, their national diversity, their diversity along racial lines and gender lines.
A growing Latino college population. Along with the rapid growth of the Latino population in this country, has come a steady increase of Latinos in higher education. Many of these students are hungry for opportunities to learn more about their cultural history and contributions.
There are more students of Latino backgrounds that are in college now that are themselves interested in learning more about their own backgrounds and seeing their own histories and their own values represented in the curriculum, so I think departments like this provide that kind of knowledge production.
Diverse faculty provide essential support to students of color. Programs like these meet another essential component of college life – student support and mentorships. In institutions that have been and continue to be predominantly white, having access to professors who share similar experiences and backgrounds can make a tremendous difference for Latino students.
Departments like this are more than just academic units. We offer mentorship to students that other departments might not offer. Even students from other majors and minors would end up here because they feel more of a connection to the faculty. Some students will flatly tell you the reason why I stayed and why I didn’t drop out is because of the people in those departments, because I felt like I could go there and had people that cared.
Textbooks, curriculum, and course offerings have always been limited, reflecting the preferences and sometime biases of institutions and the faculty who teach there. Ethnic studies programs like these help ensure that the diversity that defines this country is reflected in what we teach our students.
Check out the works of Dr. Ramos-Zaya:
Street Therapists: Race, Affect and Neoliberal Personhood in Latino Newark ( to be released January 2012)