Latinx Identity in the Georgetown Classroom

Latinx Identity in the Georgetown Classroom

By:
01/25/2017

Chris Wager (SFS’ 17) thought he could learn all he wanted to know in Georgetown’s classrooms. But when he developed an interest in Chicano studies, the academic field of Mexican-American culture and history, he found scant opportunities to study his own heritage through his Georgetown coursework. Although a flexible major and supportive professors allowed him to explore his interests, it was only when Wager took a semester off his junior year and returned home to Texas that he finally learned about Mexican-American literature and history in a classroom setting at a local community college. Wager did not take a class at Georgetown with a tenured Latinx professor until this spring semester, the last semester of his senior year.

Realizing what they miss because they are unable to engage with their Latin-American heritage in a classroom setting, Wager and his fellow Latinx students now seek an ethnic studies department, along with more professors of color. For Wager, classes focused on the Latinx experience and population within the U.S. represent a chance for Latinx students to see their own ethnic identity reflected in Georgetown classrooms.

Georgetown’s Main Campus Executive Faculty approved the addition of a diversity requirement to the core curriculum in the spring 2014, and in the fall 2016, University President John DeGioia announced the creation of an African-American studies major. However, there are few curricular offerings on the study of Latinx history, culture, and role as a population within the United States, and neither faculty nor the Provost’s Office are aware of plans to increase the number of classes or professors specializing in these topics.

For some students and faculty, this gap in Georgetown’s curriculum is a lost opportunity for students to learn about both their heritage and a demographic whose size and importance are growing rapidly in the United States.

Monica Valle (COL ‘18) and Rosa Alcazar (COL ‘19), co-chairs of Mexican-American student group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán de Georgetown (MEChA), said that many of their high school friends on the West Coast have the opportunity to learn about Latinx history and experiences at their colleges.  According to Valle, the MEChA constitution includes as one of its goals the establishment of a Latinx Studies program at Georgetown, although students have not actively pursued this in recent years.

“When I talk to my friends [at other schools]and I hear about these classes I get a little sad because I always thought I’d be taking these classes,” Valle said. “I get here and I see there’s this hole and it’s kind of disappointing.”

Many peer universities offer Latinx studies courses for undergraduates. Notre Dame, Princeton, Stanford, Northwestern, Harvard, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of California at Berkeley all offer major courses of study in ethnic studies that encompass the Latinx experience, while San Francisco State University has an entire College of Ethnic Studies with a Latino/Latina Studies Department.

Proponents of Latinx Studies view Georgetown’s lack of a specific focus on the U.S. Latinx experience as a dangerous omission.

“Competitor schools like Notre Dame have Latin theology, politics, sociology, but the other major Catholic institution whose big claim to fame is politics doesn’t have anyone studying the exploding demographic of the country,” said student organizer Kevin Magana (COL ‘15). Thirty four percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center.

Ricardo Ortiz, chair of the English Department, is one of the few undergraduate professors at Georgetown who teaches about the Latinx experience within the United States. He says that his class, “US Latin@ Literature & Culture,” is always near or over capacity, and never dominated by English majors.

“There are always students who just want it because it’s finally a class about their own culture,” Ortiz explained. “There are students from other departments in the College, but definitely from SFS and definitely from MSB who know that if part of the career they want is to have any relationship to anything about Latino culture in this country, they’re not likely to get it anywhere else at Georgetown.”

Ortiz wants more comprehensive course offerings covering the history, culture, and social and economic experiences of U.S. Latinxs and believes that when it comes to Latinx studies, Georgetown is not leading the pack. “I think depending on who you compare us to, we are either just within the curve or behind the curve,” he said.

As of fall 2016, 7.7 percent of Georgetown’s domestic undergraduates identified themselves as Hispanic or Latinx according to the Office of Assessment and Decision Support. The university does not collect data on the race and ethnicity international students, who make up 13.5 percent of the undergraduate student body.

Furthermore, as the Latinx vote becomes increasingly important in the United States, some students and faculty feel that one of the most political universities in the country lacks classes that explore a growing population, according to Magana.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2060, Hispanic people will make up 28 percent of the population, 119 million people, a significant increase from 17 percent of the U.S. population and 56 million people in 2015. Hispanic refers to people of Spanish-speaking origin, including Spain, while Latinx encompasses people of Latin American origin, including Brazil, so while there is overlap between the two terms, they are not identical.

While the reasoning behind other ethnic studies programs revolve around minorities’ exclusion from the historical record, the argument for Latinx studies is built looking towards the future. “Our compelling rationale for why there needs to be more of this isn’t because of a lack of attention on a past that needs more attention, but our ability to be prepared for a future that’s coming,” Ortiz added.

For Ortiz, Latinx studies is an academic discipline that could cost the university the enrollment of talented Latinx students in the future. College students specifically are expected to be less white and more Latinx in the near future than previous generations, according to Ortiz.

For Latinxs, the distinction between U.S. Latinxs and Latin Americans has implications for curricular richness, faculty representation, and the unity of Latinx student activism. Some Latinxs see these communities as having divergent experiences, meaning that the presence of solely Latin American faculty or classes can be insufficient.

Georgetown does offer a Latin American Studies certificate for students in the College and regional studies options for students in the School of Foreign Service, but no ethnic studies or major course of study focused specifically on Latinxs.

Wager views the current Latin American course offerings as ill suited for studying Latinx culture and history within the United States. “The Latin American Studies Certificate has such an international affairs focus that it doesn’t lend itself to the study of U.S. Latinos outside of a very international affairs lens but a white colonizing lens as well,” he said.

Valle and Alcazar see a divide between the international students and Latinx students with immigrant backgrounds in the United States, both socioeconomically and racially. These divisions can limit the unity and impact of Latinx students pushing for changes at Georgetown.

The presence of Latinx faculty is an issue distinct from Latinx studies, but one that affects the experience of Latinx students in the classroom as well.

Gwen Kirkpatrick, the chair of the Spanish department, expressed frustration with the lack of hiring of U.S. Latinxs in particular. “We had a position that would have more than likely attracted a U.S. Latino and it wasn’t filled,” she said. Kirkpatrick is still waiting for the position to be filled. Vice Provost of Education Randall Bass did not have information on the specific position and therefore did not comment on the opening.

“If you’re talking about U.S. Latinos, the university counts Spaniards and foreigners,” she continued. That brand of diversity, Kirkpatrick says, does not attract disadvantaged students in the same way as hiring U.S. Latinx faculty might. While she sees the number of Latinx students and spaces for those students on campus growing, there are still too few U.S. Latinx professors.

“I just want Georgetown to look like America,” Ortiz said, “I want it to look like the world.”

According to self-reported faculty demographic data from 2015, there were 65 Hispanic or Latinx faculty out of 2,454 total faculty; just under 3 percent percent of professors describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino, compared to 55 percent who identify as white. Of those professors, 43 are full time faculty. While this data is not entirely complete or comprehensive since faculty must voluntarily report their racial identity, these numbers show Georgetown just below the national average for Hispanic faculty, which was 4 percent in 2013.

According to Ortiz, U.S. Latinx faculty can have different identities and experiences than Latin Americans from other countries. “On some level they may seem to register in the world as Latino-American, but they don’t necessarily touch that history of marginalization or oppression in the same way,” he explained. Although Ortiz is Cuban-American, the immigrant culture of Los Angeles and its history has shaped his identity as a U.S. Latino, including his role in power dynamics that are not consistently present throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Antony Lopez (COL ’14), a student activist involved in the Cura Personalis Initiative (CPI), a student movement for diversity initiatives at Georgetown, felt that he could not identify with his non-Latinx Georgetown professors during his time in college.

“I think it’s really important to see people who look like you or have similar backgrounds in these positions,” Valle said. Having Latinx teachers throughout her pre-college education made Valle consider college as a real possibility, though she has never been taught by tenure-line Latinx faculty at Georgetown. Alcazar also said that she has never had a Latinx professor, a problem amplified by her computer science major, a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field historically bereft of Latinx representation.

Bass said that the Provost’s office continues to focus on diversity in hiring faculty.

According to Bass, a Latinx Studies initiative would most likely emerge from a faculty proposal, as other interdisciplinary major and minor programs have done in the past, often spurred by student interest. While student organization tied to other diversity initiatives, like the recent core curriculum requirement, has been present in the past, efforts to increase Latinx faculty representation or achieve a Latinx Studies program have failed.

The movement for the Engaging Diversity requirement, a two-course diversity requirement for all incoming Georgetown students,  involved Latinx student activists, especially when the CPI formed in 2012 with leaders from student groups, including MEChA, the Black Student Alliance, Georgetown Solidarity Committee [Full disclosure: Jensen is a current GSC member but was not involved with the group at the time], Hilltop Tacos, and Phi Alpha Iota. According Lopez, their initial goals included a permanent Latinx house, Chicano studies, and more U.S. Latinx-tenured professors, as well as the diversity requirement.

The Main Campus Executive Faculty approved the diversity requirement following the student campaign the Last Campaign for Academic Reform [Full disclosure: Jensen was a member of LCAR]. In spring 2014, CPI surveyed students on their knowledge and desire for ethnic studies at Georgetown. Of the 234 respondents, a majority “strongly agreed” that “Georgetown ought to have a program in American Ethnic Studies,” and that “American Ethnic issues will become an important topic in the coming decade.”

Despite the potential for support, significant challenges face Latinx studies proponents. Some Latinx activists see their community as lacking the cohesiveness of other ethnic or racial groups. “The African-American students have been very united for a while,” Magana said of his experience organizing Latinx students. “We are close to 50 years behind their movement. The community is so diverse socioeconomically, ethnically, racially that it’s hard to have a united front.”

Even during Magana and Lopez’s time at Georgetown, they said it was difficult to unite Latinx students behind one single issue or platform. After activists like Lopez and Magana graduated, the Latinx-focused academic and faculty changes they hoped to see did not materialize.

Valle and Alcazar see the one-year-old La Casa Latina, a house primarily for Latinx students, as an opportunity for Latinx students to come together to discuss issues like academic offerings on their history. “We just need to organize,” Valle said. “I know for sure that people are interested, a lot of us have talked about it.”

Latinx students describe Latinx studies as a means for liberation and self-knowledge.

“There’s a lot of power in knowing your history,” Valle said. ”A lot of us come from disadvantaged backgrounds to these institutions that aren’t meant for us. There’s power in knowing where you stand in something.”

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Cassidy Jensen


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