Nuevos Americanos (cont.)
U. of I.'s Latina/o Studies Program
Since 1980, the Latino college population nationwide has tripled to 1.5 million. During that same time, the Latino enrollment at the University of Illinois has grown to 1,819, a four-fold increase over the 460 students enrolled in 1983. In the same 20 years, the number of Latino faculty has tripled from 20 to 65. Nowhere else on campus is that increase in both students and faculty felt more acutely than at 510 E. Chalmers Street, home of the College of Liberal Arts and Science's Latina/o Studies Program.
Director and LAS associate professor of anthropology Arlene Torres says the increase of Latino students at the University has definitely placed more emphasis on the Latina/o Studies Program.
"We're a bit different than most departments," Torres says. "Although our main goal is to promote excellence through teaching, research, and service—because the region is experiencing rapid growth in its Latino population—we have an additional responsibility to introduce faculty, students, staff, and the broader University community to relevant topics regarding the Latino presence. We are a resource for people to find out about the Latino community."
The program, founded in 1995, has 23 faculty members involved in a broad spectrum of research, such as Latino literatures, Chicano history, colonial and post-colonial culture, and ethnic identity formation. The program was a long-sought outgrowth of La Casa Cultural Latina—a cultural center for Latina/o students founded in 1974 in response to the 1960s civil rights movement. At the time, La Casa was one of 43 affirmative action programs inaugurated on campus to create a more welcoming environment for unrepresented minority students and introduce other students to cultural diversity.
Latino students at U. of I. come mainly from various Chicago neighborhoods, but there the similarities end. A kind of pan-Latino identity has emerged in recent years. Torres says students arrive from a variety of backgrounds and, in fact, might define their ethnicity as Polish/Puerto Rican or Irish/Cuban. "I'm always struck by the different backgrounds that the students have and the students who are grappling with clinging not just to one identify, but to multiple identities, and wanting to celebrate all of those identities that make up who they and their extended kin are."
Torres sees her classes not only filled with Latinos but also students from a palette of ethnicities who seek diverse educational experiences. The classes, she says, "create wonderful spaces for dialogue about our commonalities and our differences.
"We need to continue to convey to Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and all students that the University of Illinois is a safe place to study and grow intellectually, and that this place always says, ‘You are welcome.'"
By Stephen J. Lyons