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Film Helps Renew Interest in Latin American Studies

Running an institute that aims to encompass the varied topographies, geographies, ethnicities and societies from the Gulf of Mexico to Tierra del Fuego is no small feat, which is why Thomas J. Trebat, adjunct professor in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and acting director of the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), was happy to receive some help this year from an unexpected source.

"The release of The Motorcycle Diaries has certainly renewed interest in Latin America," he said with good humor. "The scenery is in the movie is so beautiful. Everyone wants to visit once they see it."

And for the eight professors who comprise the permanent staff of ILAS, all of whom discovered the beauties and mysteries of Latin America long ago, the film, based on the journals of Ernesto "Che" Guevera during a cross-continental journey as a young man, is a case of art imitating life.

ILAS is one of eight regional studies programs housed at SIPA. It originally was created to give students from a variety of disciplines insight into and training in Latin America. But the institute's focus has changed radically from the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time, America's youth reeled in shock over the assassination of democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, and also from the Reagan era of the 1980s when many Central American countries were often cast as hostile neighbors.

"Originally, we were training and sending out government and business people into the international community and they were doing international public service or business," said SIPA Professor of Political Science Douglas Chalmers. "We offered a way of training people in Latin American studies, and so we would give a certificate for people who took courses in a variety of areas, such as economics and history and language as well as political science to give them a broad background in Latin America. It had to change, though, because now we have people coming to the institute who are from Latin America, or have spent a lot of time there. So we expanded and we offer help and networking to academics doing research in a particular field."

Three years ago, Professor Albert Fishlow added the Center for Brazilian Studies to ILAS. It was a necessary component, he felt, for any institute purporting to represent Latin America. It also coincided with a major change in Brazilian politics -- in November 2002, Brazilians elected a grade school dropout and ex-factory worker from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party) as president. Socialist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva immediately set to work improving his country's economy and raising its international profile. With Argentina still recovering from a massive fiscal crisis, there was room in Latin America for a new economic powerhouse, and Lula has proven himself eager to fill the void. Nearly three years into his presidency, Brazil stands poised to join the United Nations Security Council, should it decide to expand.

All of this benefits the students who come to ILAS cultural events and want to utilize the institute's career services -- a very useful resource, said Trebat, for anyone looking for a job that requires some kind of Latin American specialization. Students can also apply for fellowships and grants that allow them to spend summers south of the border, either honing language skills or conducting research. In addition, they have access to classes offered by visiting Tinker Professors, educators of renown in Latin America who teach at Columbia for six months at a time.

Ultimately, said ILAS staff, the hope is that by studying what sets Central and South American countries apart from each other and the rest of the world, students will come to understand more about what the Northern and Southern hemispheres have in common.

"The two regions really are joined at the hip," Trebat said. "But we could say they are facing in different directions. A major issue here is to more effectively call attention to the reality that we have 500 million neighbors who have a lot to offer us but whose per capita income is 25 percent of that in United States. Places like Columbia have always risen to the challenge of how to promote greater understanding of traditions and ties we share."

Published: May 11, 2005
Last modified: May 10, 2005

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