History | the Ethnic Studies movement
A Brief History of  the Latino Studies Program

by Elbert Garcia

Students of Latin American descent had been trying to establish some form of Latino Studies program here at Columbia since the late sixties. Over the years there were various attempts at proposals and administrative structure, but for several reasons, these proposals did not pan out. (Come down to the Program Office 660 Schermerhorn Extension,   to see some of these proposals.) 

As it stands, the current major behind the Latino Studies Program was approved  on April 3, 1996,  on the third day of what would be a fifteen day hunger strike in support of establishing an Ethnic Studies Department on Columbia's campus. The accepted proposal was a combined effort of the Student-Faculty Committee for Latino Studies, who worked on it for approximately for four months. Before that, students bajo el leadership of Marcel Agueros, had submitted a more ambitious proposal that to the university in Spring of 1995.

That drive was sparked by the denial of tenure of a highly popular Latin American Civilization teacher, and the lobbying of students afterwards. Originally the Student Committee for Latin American Studies proposed a number of things, one of which was the establishment of an interdisciplinary program in Latino Studies as well as a restructuring of the relationship between Latin American Studies, the Institute for Latin American Studies, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

The proposal of 1995 is historic in a number of ways. First it built on the work of Nancy Lopez, who labored on a thick proposal that for some reasons never made it to Hamilton Hall. Second, it was shopped and tweaked by the existing Latino organizations at the time. Third, it called for an academic program that would examine a truly LATINO experience in that it would examine the similarities and difference of the various Latino subgroups through assume foundation in Latin American Studies and Spanish as well as five core classes and a set of supporting classes in existing departments. As Marcel Agueros   and  the Student Committee for Latin American Studies  wrote on April 17th, 1995

The core of the core of the program should include:

     ---Latino History. This class, in the History department, would address such topics as the patterns of immigration, roles in US history, and development if identities of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other South and Central American immigrants. This is the course in which students should come to contextualize clearly the origin and presence of Latinos in the United States.

    ---US imperialism in Latin America.  Included under American History, this class should cover the active role of the United States in the politics of the American continent over the past two centuries,. While technically not directly about Latinos, the history studied here is essential for understanding the interactions of the US and its southern neighbors--interactions which are often at the heart of the immigration from these countries here.

    --Latino/a literature. Offered in the Spanish and the Portuguese department, this class would focus on the writings of such authors as Saundra Cisneros, Piri Thomas, the Nuyorican poets, and other writers who have dealt with the Latino experiences in the United States. this class should be offered in English, with the option of reading the original language (if of course they were not written in English.)

    --and finally, Myth of the Latino. This key class, in the Sociology Department, would deconstruct the differences and commonalties of Latino communities. Just as with Asian Americans, Latinos come from different backgrounds, and their communities are by no means homogenous; it is essential to understand how different Cuban and Brazilian Americans (for example) are to speak intelligently of their pasts, presents, and futures.


Among some of the the supporting classes that the committee proposed was separate Puerto Rican and Mexican American history class, Latino Political Movements (offered in the Political Science Department) regional Spanish (which would take a look at the different dialects of Spanish and language spoken by Latinos.) and a Latino music and culture class.

Interesting is the fact that the drive for a better Latin American Studies program took a back seat to the establishment of a Latino Studies Program. However this was not   just a result of 'forgetting' or straying away form the original goal. Indeed I   remember many a conversations with Mr. Agueros  and others who noted at times with some pain that the fight could not be fought on both fronts. However I believe that as a strategy people believed that in the long run, the establishment of a Latino Studies Program would do much to stabilize the Latin American Studies Program. The fact is that Latino Studies and Latin American Studies, cannot grow without each other.

Clearly, it was not perfect. (For example no mention was made of Dominicans, perhaps because el Grupo Quisqueyano was to be established officially a couple of weeks later.) The proposal as you can see from the current major description went through some changes, no doubt to avoid any types of political discussions with the College's Committee on Instruction. However it provided the foundation for the spirit behind the current Latino Studies Program: that is an interdisciplinary program with roots in Latin America and 'classic' Ethnic Studies that attempts to break existing stereotypes and promote an better understanding about the centrality of the Latino experience across all disciplines and fields. It is a spirit that currently drives this latest incarnation of Latino struggle at Columbia.