1 June 2022

Dear colleagues,

The last year has been a strange one. We all helped bring Rutgers out of the pandemic closure and into a slow-moving transition into a sense of normalcy. The Center for Latin American Studies, like the other area studies and research centers, has been part of this movement.  We also faced additional challenges: our faculty constituents are very busy already with their primary commitments in departments, graduate and undergraduate programs, not to mention their postponed research agendas. Despite these difficulties CLAS moved to develop a denser profile while sustaining the resources and practices established before my first year as Director.

I would like to highlight a some of the programs and efforts that we consolidated with support from multiple participants including graduate students, faculty and various assistants.

As Director of the CLAS I developed some signature collaborations with a focus on Puerto Rico. These projects include a working group of historians, collaborations with the library of the University of Puerto Rico and the Archivo General de Puerto Rico, as well as a digitalization and bibliographic work aimed at facilitating research on Puerto Rico.

This year we inaugurated thematic working groups. Brazil, Hemispheric Indigenous Studies, Caribbean Studies, Andean Studies, and Colombian Studies--each nurtured by a small but dedicated group of graduate students and faculty. I am sure these groups will thrive next year and perhaps we will organize one or two more and will continue to support events organizing that originates in these groups.

CLAS supported many events, some of them organized organically from the new working groups, others from specific faculty interests our courses. Talks and presentations were facilitated by the zoom platform and other times held in hybrid mode. We look forward to a better balance of in person and online only events in the future. Of note were the workshop with research librarians (organized by Professor Marcy Schwartz), support for the British Latin America conference (coordinated by Yesenia Barragan and other colleagues from the History Department), the series of talks on Hemispheric Indigenous Studies (organized by Camilla Townsend), and many other events.

Considering how everyone was busy and stressed this year, we held many and amazing, well-attended events. Yet, when I look at the other Latin American Studies Centers that I am familiar with I am sometimes embarrassed by the limitations of our resources.  Yet, considering our modest resources, we have achieved what has eluded most Rutgers area studies centers (I hope our Dean is looking at this and will help us adjust the resource formula which still does not reward ambitious growth).

We have always had the research grants for graduate students (and in the past, faculty) and under Ulla Berg’s leadership we managed to increase the funding that we have offered for these. This year we formally decided to not include faculty in the process because most faculty already have access to research resources, some of which have accumulated during the past two years. This allowed us to fund all 13 student applications.

Thanks to Ulla Berg’s work we have a model in which we earn additional income from Winter and Summer sessions. This represents additional work for CLAS staff but in the past and this year it produced increased revenue for the modest programs we run including the research grants. As agreed with, SAS we also pay four of the five PTL-taught courses we offer each year. In exchange for this SAS funds most of the costs of our Post-Doctoral Associate. Our ability to continue with the research grants supplement and our own courses is in doubt, however, as it depends on the income from Winter session, and this last season was not generous with us.  I will be addressing this need in my next meeting with Dean Masschaele.

I would like to thank the outgoing Postdoctoral Associate, Dr. Jennifer Trowbridge for her work and presence in the last two difficult years. She presented more than three times on her work in different forums, taught a specialized class on Central America and Mexico (as well as our Introduction to Latin America) and carried out a very productive CLAS-sponsored dissertation-to-book manuscript workshop in the Spring semester. This is something that we do with our postdoctoral associates to help them transition their publications agenda.

I also would like to welcome our new Post-doctoral Associate for 2022-2024, Dr. Briana Nichols.  Ordinarily, I would wait until august or September to do this, but Briana has already been present and plotting different forms of collaboration. As an anthropologist with training in education who works on Guatemalan communities and migration issues, she extends our commitment to the study of Mesoamerica and hemispheric connections. We look forward to her teaching and supporting her research and publication work.

This year I made a major effort to update our website. The website is a critical source of information but also, as I see it, a call to participate, innovate and collaborate—a critical nexus of community in the absence of sustained in-person interaction. I invested a lot of time motivated by the need to highlight the work that we were all already doing within the Center and among its many participants. At Rutgers it is familiar for us to leave much work invisible, and it is often harder to bring together people and projects that should be connected. 

With the help of our staff, we highlighted events and news items, while the wonderful Laura Gordon and the SAS web management team helped me design sections and further train me in Joomla. We added information on our undergrad rep, grad rep, graduate courses, program assistants, LASA, other Centers in the region, and some research guides. We should do a lot more work in this area in the next year and I will need the assistance of faculty to help build our dialogues and information. The product looks a lot better.  It has more complete including pages for graduate students, more robust news, a fuller faculty listing (including the many new faculty affiliates—I recruited something in the order of 15 new affiliates since last summer).  And to declutter your Inbox we inaugurated a biweekly compendium of online events at sister Centers for Latin American Studies.  I look forward to further improvements of our communications and connections building next year.

Our teaching continues with multiple sections of our introduction to Latin America, and we have convinced the dean over the last couple of semesters to fund an online version of the class taught remotely by a colleague based in Puerto Rico. We have also offered the Mexico and Central America course and the Latin American politics course. Of course, we cross this many other courses, but we don't have sufficient courses listed to offer a complete curriculum. We have a lot of faculty with an interest in Latin America but who don't teach consistently Latin America-specific courses and this is a big limitation to our offerings and our program.

One of the things I learned this year is that our graduate students have great potential to become more active. Our efforts to reach out to graduate students involved listing them (with photos!) on our website and creating a separate graduate student email list. CLAS has supported their work through the working groups by funding speakers. We are also beginning to provide guides and information on the website that link to Latin American Studies as professional practice, and politically from our position in the north. Graduate students will help us develop these materials and additional partnerships and collaborations with the institutions with which they collaborate.

Soon enough we will request more resources from SAS and perhaps even find some of our own through grants and foundations, as coordinated by our Executive Committee. Next year I look forward to a film series, more engagement with the undergrads as we urgently need to recruit majors and minors, the recruitment of additional staff to handle a collaborative project funded by Rutgers Global and continued collaborations with Puerto Rico and the Latino Studies Research Initiative. I also expect continued requests for support from the various Working Groups. I will be working to bridge graduate students closer to the Center by posting presentations of their work, something that has been postponed twice, and we will likely wrap up those presentations into a Rutgers Latin America research conference that will include faculty as well, as recommended by the CLAS Executive Committee.

Increasingly, our students have roots in Latin America--parents or grandparents—and they are interested in themes that overlap and connect with the work of the Departments of Latino & Caribbean Studies and Spanish and Portuguese. We need to find ways to encourage those themes and collaborations further with the work of colleagues in all departments.

I encourage all faculty to consider participating in the governance and development of the Center’s agenda and goals. Only half of the faculty completed the survey that I posted last semester as a source of data.  I will be offering it again in early Fall of 2022.  Consider sending me suggestions for programs—we need to develop enduring collaborations with colleagues in Latin America and we might as well start with those that are organic to existing faculty work. If you have specific ideas for projects don't hesitate to write and consider that collectively many of us have a lot of experience building coalitions that can raise multi-sponsored, large budget events.  I encourage colleagues to join our EC and new grad and undergrad representatives in advising me next year on how to govern and develop the Center.

I thank Maria Ealey, our administrator, for her extraordinary work this year which involved covering for two positions. Also, our student assistants Jesse and Cheyenne, as well as graduate students Rosa Cordero, Kiran Baldeo, Javier Gonzalez Cortez, Laura de Moya, and Joshua Anthony.  Our Executive Committee members this year, Laura Lomas, Laura Cuesta Rueda, Ulla Berg, Marcy Schwartz, Isaias Rojas Perez, Kenneth Sebastian Leon and Andrea Marson provided advice on ongoing efforts to raise funds, design programs and increase faculty participation. I thank them for their input and look forward to implementing their recommendations.  Our instructors, Gabriel Aleman, Geisa Rocha, Sandra Medina and Andres Gonzalez Saiz kept our students busy and our major and minor alive. 

I will finish with some preaching and calling out. Perhaps I send too many emails… but after all of the work (and emails) that we have done (and sent)….what I often hear back are crickets (or coquíes, depending on my mood)…and all the same, not enough faculty engagement or responses. So, allow me to urge you all of you to engage more with the Center’s communities and projects, in whatever form you think is appropriate. We need to do a lot more to bridge Latin America and Rutgers.

I look forward to the next year and to carrying out some of these conversations in person, and with good food, with all of you.

Aldo Lauria Santiago