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The Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies launched in Fall 2021. It emerged from combining two dynamic units on campus: The Center for Latin American Studies and the Latino and Latina Studies Program. CLACX, however, is an intellectual project in its own right, more so than just the merger of two administrative entities. Our work entails examining connections between both fields—Latinx Studies and Latin American and Caribbean Studies—to rethink big scholarly and public-facing questions from comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives. We are lucky to build from the numerous existing strengths of the respective units, while at the same time working to build new areas of excellence, with a particular interest in Latinx Studies in the South. Historian Celso Thomas Castilho heads the center, working in tandem with an experienced and accomplished team that includes anthropologist Avery Dickins de Girón (executive director, PhD), Latinx literary scholar Gretchen Selcke (assistant director, PhD), Colleen McCoy (outreach coordinator, M.Ed), and Alma Paz-Sanmiguel (administrative staff).

Center for Latin American Studies

In 1947, Chancellor Harvie Branscomb established the Institute for Brazilian Studies at Vanderbilt with funding from the Carnegie Corporation as part of a cooperative grant with four other institutions– Tulane University, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the University of Texas at Austin. In the aftermath of WWII, the United States government sought to establish academic programs that would produce specialized knowledge about countries around the world, with a particular emphasis on Latin America. The Institute at Vanderbilt was the first of its kind in the United States. While a well-known and highly regarded institution at the national level, Branscomb sought to bring the world into Vanderbilt and, conversely, Vanderbilt into the world. To accomplish this, he began hiring faculty specialists from across disciplines that would train students to become experts in the history, language, and culture of the region. The first faculty leaders in the initiative were T. Lynn Smith, Professor of Sociology and first Director of the Brazilian Institute; Earl W. Thomas, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages; Reynold E. Carlson, Associate Professor of Economics and United Nations economic consultant on Latin America; and Alexander Marchant, Associate Professor of History, who was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro and worked with the American Embassy in Rio de Janeiro from 1945-1947. The early years of the Institute were heavily influenced by Cold War-era foreign policy and its faculty were influential in government policy– both from the US and the Brazilian side. The Institute was so unique that Brazilian President Eurico Dutra, at the time a sitting head of state, requested to visit Nashville after meeting with President Truman in Washington, D.C. in 1949.

By 1961, funding sources and intellectual interests had shifted and the Institute for Brazilian Studies expanded into the Graduate Center for Latin American Studies (GCLAS), with an emphasis on the Southern Cone. As a result of the influential directorship of economist Reynold Carlson in the 1950s, GCLAS worked closely with the Graduate Program in Economic Development (GPED) at Vanderbilt, established in 1956. Vanderbilt received a USAID/Ford Foundation grant in 1965 to create graduate economics programs in São Paulo, Brazil and the initiative was jointly administered by GPED and GCLAS. At the same time, William Nicholls, a faculty member in the Department of Economics, became the Director of GGCLAS in 1965 and remained there until 1977. The transition to the Graduate Center for Latin American Studies proved highly successful, facilitating diversified funding sources and a growing list of affiliated faculty. GCLAS began recruiting PhD candidates in the 1960s after receiving National Defense Education Act federal grants. These funds provided critical support for students and faculty to study lesser-commonly-taught languages like Portuguese and Nahuatl, in addition to Spanish. The 1970s saw the addition of undergraduate courses on Latin America and a push to build up the Vanderbilt Libraries collection on Latin American topics.

In 1981, GCLAS was renamed the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) and came under the leadership of Enrique Pupo-Walker. Pupo-Walker, a specialist in Latin American and Spanish literature, brought a renewed sense of purpose and vision to the Center. Under his guidance, CLAIS was chosen as a training program for US military cultural attachés bound for service in Latin America. Through the creation of international student exchange programs and hosting multi-disciplinary international conferences, Pupo-Walker reconnected the Center with Latin American scholars and gave the program global visibility. His co-editorship of the renowned Cambridge History of Latin American Literature series brought numerous writers and artists to Vanderbilt’s campus.

The program emerged as the Center for Latin American Studies in the early 2000s. Renowned historian Jane Landers directed CLAS from 2000-02, becoming the first—and still only—woman to hold that position. She again served in that capacity in 2011-12. Acclaimed Brazilianist historian Marshall Eakin was the Acting Director in 2004-05, instituting the famed gateway course “LAS 201,” now “LAS 2101.” Landers and Eakin spearheaded international exchanges between Vanderbilt and Brazilian students through the FIPSE-CAPES program from 2004 to 2014. Jointly administered through the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the Brazilian Ministry of Education, the program brought 35 students to campus.

In 2006, and under the direction of anthropologist Edward “Ted” Fischer, CLAS was first designated a National Resource Center on Latin America by the US Department of Education. The center maintained this comprehensive NRC status throughout four grant cycles to the present. Through Title VI funding, the center expanded its mission to develop and provide educational programming for the university, K-12 educators, and the general public about Latin America. This growth included the hire of Avery Dickins de Girón as the Center’s executive director in 2008 and an outreach coordinator, held by Colleen McCoy since 2017.  The Center used an interdisciplinary collaboration model to bring together scholars from every school and college at Vanderbilt and build research projects that have broad and sustainable impact.

Through Title VI funding and community engagement, CLAS organized professional development workshops, summer institutes, and cultural arts events to engage K-16 educators and community stakeholders both locally and nationally. Key local partnerships have included Metro Nashville Public Schools, Frist Art Museum, Cheekwood, Nashville Children’s Theatre, Nashville Public Library, and the Global Education Center.  Collaborative programming has ranged from Cheekwood’s annual Día de los Muertos festival, exhibits at the Frist Art Museum (for example, “Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas” in 2013, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection,” in 2019), and original performances (for example, “The Amazing Twins” marionette show with NPL, “Return to Sender” with NCT, and Nashville’s first opera in Spanish “Florencia en el Amazonas, with Nashville Opera).  Partnerships at the national level include ReadWorks (a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing reading comprehension for K-12 students) and the Américas Award (for quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinx) with the Library of Congress. During this same period, CLAS established strong partnerships with Minority Serving Institutions, supporting public programming and curriculum content development with Tuskegee University, Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University through Title VI funding.

View some of the performances here:

For over twenty-five years, the Center has administered Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grants that support language instruction to complement the Latin American Studies curriculum for undergraduates and graduates at Vanderbilt. An initial focus on Portuguese instruction and the development of a major in Spanish and Portuguese was followed by the introduction of four semesters of K’iche’ Mayan instruction. In 2016, a new digital classroom and partnership between Vanderbilt, Duke University, and the University of Virginia instituted a program of distance language instruction between students at these universities. This expanded Vanderbilt’s language offerings to include Haitian Creole.  In collaboration with Tulane University, CLAS developed and continues to support summer language programs for the study of Portuguese in São Paulo (2011) and K’iche’ Mayan in Guatemala (2006).

Under the direction of LAS Bibliographer Paula Covington, Vanderbilt’s Latin American Collection became a signature strength of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library.  The core Latin American collection holds 400,000 items and approximately 2300 serials. Reflecting LAS faculty research and teaching, the collection has depth in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mayan resources. It also includes the J. León Helguera Collection, Manual Zapata Olivella Collection, and the Delia Zapata Olivella Collection.  Since 2006, Title VI funding has been used to digitize these collections, as well as to expand LAS acquisitions and fund Covington to travel to Latin America to purchase recent publications and special collections.

Over the first decades of the twenty-first century, the center gained national prominence in Guatemalan and Mayan studies, deepened partnerships with universities in the US and abroad, and built areas of excellence in Colombian, Peruvian, and Afro Latin American studies. The center grew to have over 130 affiliated faculty members working on Latin American issues and instituted a program of external faculty affiliates representing partner institutions in the United States and Latin America.

Latino and Latina Studies Program

Founded in 2013, the Latino and Latina Studies Program at Vanderbilt University was spearheaded by Gertrude Conaway Professor of Spanish William Luis and then Associate Professor of English Lorraine López. In their proposal to the Dean of the College of Arts and Science Carolyn Dever in May 2012, Professors Luis and López proposed the Latino and Latina Studies Program (LATS) as a multidisciplinary program that considers the presence of Latinx and Hispanic people as an integral part of US culture and history. As part of its mission statement, LATS courses were designed to explore Latinx experiences, mainly in the United States, but also as they intersect with other national and geographic boundaries across the disciplines. Beyond demonstrating investment in Latinx students, scholars, and faculty members and providing support to the current Latinx population on campus, the Program offered much-needed resources to existing departments and programs on campus by disseminating information and facilitating outreach to the growing Latinx population in this community and region. LATS effected measurable increases in student and faculty participation, outreach, and university-wide collaboration.

The first cohort of LATS undergraduate students finished their courses of study in 2016. Under the helm of founding director William Luis, the Program added a Graduate Certificate in Latino and Latina Studies and worked to secure University resources. As part of these efforts, the Program closely collaborated with the Afro-Hispanic Review to bring scholars and artists to campus. As part of these efforts, LATS hosted Día de la Raza events to offer a more inclusive interpretation of “Columbus Day” and closely collaborated with campus partners including the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center.

In 2017, Gretchen Selcke was added to the faculty as assistant director, the first full-time faculty hire by the of the program. LATS quickly partnered with the Owen Graduate School of Management, the Office of Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence, and the Office of Active Citizenship and Service to increase Latinx visibility and opportunities at Vanderbilt. The Latino and Latina Studies Program initiated the Latinx Graduates Recognition Ceremony, “Raíces y Sueños,” or “roots and dreams,” to celebrate the achievements and successes of all graduating Latinx students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional). This celebration, now supported by the Student Center for Justice and Identity, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and the Provost’s Office for Inclusive Excellence, is attended by Conexión Américas representatives, members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and City Council Members.

During the academic year 2018-2019, the program launched the “Estamos Aquí” initiative while Gertrude Conaway Professor of English Lorraine López served as Interim Director. Under this rubric, LATS courses featured cultural production by Latinx authors and artists sharing their experiences. Notably scholars and writers visiting the campus included Daniel Alarcón, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Carmen María Machado. The Program also invited Afro Cuban artist Olivera Rubio to campus in early January for installation and display of his work. The exhibition opened on January 18, 2018, drawing more than one hundred guests, including members of the community. Olivera Rubio remained in Nashville until mid-February, to meet and collaborate with Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff.

In August of 2019, Gretchen Selcke was appointed to director of the Latino and Latina Studies, and the program’s university-wide visibility continued to expand. During the 2019-2020 academic year, LATS brought the documentary The UNAFRAID to campus with the Department of History, hosted visits by writers Jaquira Díaz and Daisy Hernández, collaborated on the Aponte exhibition, and hosted Dolores Huerta on campus with the Vanderbilt Association of Latin American Students (ALAS). In addition, LATS celebrated the first successful cohort of interns with Conexión Américas. Interest in the LATS Graduate Certificate Program blossomed, and the Program welcomed certificate enrollments from graduate students from professional schools. LATS developed and expanded outreach to Vanderbilt’s Latinx alumni. This outreach included spearheading a welcome reception for incoming LATS students, creating a Latinx Alumni Network (VAHLA) with the help of Beth Porter in alumni development, and holding a Latinx Alumni event on Reunion weekend. These efforts became the SomosVU initiative, now an official part of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion 2019-2020 Report.