The academic discipline of Latino/a studies examines the experience of the Latino/a population of the United States and is rooted in the inception of Chicano/a and Puerto Rican/Boricua studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The adoption of the panethnic term Latino/a recognizes the origins of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and members of other Latin American and Caribbean societies, thereby enveloping the heterogeneity of this diverse population. Latino/a studies programs in institutions of higher education have provided not only needed attention to the struggle of Latino/as in the United States but also academic legitimacy for Latino/a students and faculty and recognition of the interdisciplinary interests of Latinos/as.
The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s facilitated the implementation of Latino/a studies scholarship in U.S. colleges and universities. Activists fighting against systemic racism and discrimination provided an impetus for Latino/a students and faculty seeking scholarship that met the needs of Latinos/as in the United States. At the time Latinos/as were essentially invisible in mainstream white America. For instance, although both Chicanos/as and Puerto Ricans represented the two largest Latino/a subgroups in the United States, their incorporation by conquest resulted in their limited participation and integration into political, social, and economic institutions.
The systemic exclusion and historical underrepresention of people of color was reproduced in academic institutions of higher education. Scholars studying U.S. race relations regularly failed to take a critical view of the social, economic, and political disparities and realities of the Latino/a population. For example, scholars with research interests in the Mexican-origin population of the United States were “primarily concerned with understanding the reasons for the perceived inability of Mexicans to assimilate into American society in the manner of other ethnic groups, from Europe” (García, Lomelí, and Ortiz 1984, p. 1). Therefore Latino/a students and faculty sought to establish academic programs that rejected the colonizing ideology of white America, advocating instead the development of scholarship that provided students with critical knowledge and training of Latino/a culture and history (Rodriguez 1990; Muñoz 1984). The implementation of Latino/a studies programs concentrating on the issues affecting Latino/a communities and the development of resolutions that dealt with these were the goals of Latinos/as who were privileged to be affiliated with colleges and universities (Rodriguez 1990; Muñoz 1984).
With these issues in mind, Chicanos/as and Puerto Ricans paved the way for the development of Latino/a studies. Latino/a students and faculty pioneered changes at historically white colleges and universities, beginning with the creation of the first Chicano/a studies program at California State University, Los Angeles, in 1968 and following with Chicano/a studies programs at universities in the Southwest and Puerto Rican/Boricua studies programs in the Northeast. Despite these accomplishments, Latino/a studies programs have experienced a number of challenges. Marginalized within their respective institutions, programs have been underfunded, denied autonomy, and at times, subsumed within other programs in their respective colleges and universities (Cabán 2003).
Influential in the creation of Latino/a studies scholarship were Latino/a student activists who protested and participated in strikes that confronted racial and class oppression (Muñoz 1984); Latino/a faculty also played pivotal roles in the creation of Latino/a studies programs. Julian Samora (1920–1996), the first Chicano to receive a doctorate degree in sociology and anthropology—in 1953 from Washington University in Saint Louis—was particularly important in establishing the field of Chicano/a studies. In addition to cofounding the National Council of La Raza and creating the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Samora mentored hundreds of undergraduate students and supervised the completion of more than fifty doctoral degrees at the Notre Dame University. His accomplishments influenced studies in the areas of bilingual education and immigration. In 1989 Michigan State University established a Latino/a research organization in his name, the Julian Samora Research Institute.
Likewise Frank Bonilla influenced the development of Puerto Rican/Boricua studies. Anne Quach chronicled Bonilla’s U.S. military experience, describing how it motivated his pursuit of an academic career (Quach 2004). His own interests, along with those of other young social activists, spurred the formation of the Puerto Rican Hispanic Leadership Forum, thus paving the way for the establishment of Aspira (Quach 2004). Aspira is the first national nonprofit organization to empower Latino/a youth through the development of leadership skills that motivate Latino/a community advancement. These organizations, which seek to meet the needs of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos/as, originated from a response to the racism and discrimination that Puerto Ricans faced in the United States. Bonilla’s interests also focused on issues of globalization and immigration (Quach 2004). Both Samora and Bonilla, along with many others, were pivotal forces in addressing the needs of Latinos/as in the United States, and they mentored many others toward initiating change.
In spite of their turbulent beginnings, Latino/a studies programs have gained academic legitimacy and produced scholarship directed toward multidisciplinary interests (Cabán 2003). Traditionally social science scholars in the disciplines of sociology and political science, for instance, focused Latino/a research in the areas of politics, sociology, political science, and economics. However, the emergence of interdisciplinary research within the field has sprung from the very nature of the heterogeneity of the Latino/a origin population and resulted in a hybrid that acknowledges the diverse cultures and disciplinary interests of Latinos/as (Masud-Piloto 2003). By the 1990s Latino/a studies scholarship encompassed nontraditional areas of study, such as border studies, women’s studies, and performance and film studies (Masud-Piloto 2003). Further developments included the incarnation of “a multidisciplinary academic field that explores the diversity of localized and transnational experiences of Latin American and Caribbean national origin populations in the United States” (Cabán 2003, p. 6).
The origin of Latino/a studies scholarship was a response to the racial and class oppression faced by Chicanos/as and Puerto Ricans. Although programs face internal divisions and marginalization within their respective academic institutions, Latino/a studies programs continue to meet the needs of Latinos/as and to inspire students and faculty to examine various areas of research, thereby acknowledging the diversity of the Latino/a population.
SEE ALSO Boricua; Ethnicity; Immigrants to North America; Immigrants, Latin American; Immigrants, New York City; Latino National Political Survey; Mexican Americans; Nuyoricans; Politics, Latino; Race; Whiteness
Aspira Association. http://www.aspira.org/.
Cabán, Pedro A. 2003. Moving from the Margins to Where? Three Decades of Latino/a Studies. Latino Studies 1 (1): 5–35.
García, Eugene E., Francisco A. Lomelí, and Isidro D. Ortiz. 1984. Chicano Studies: A Multidisciplinary Approach. New York and London: Teachers College Press.
Julian Samora Research Institute. 2006. The Julian Samora Virtual Collection.
Masud-Piloto, Felix. 2003. Response to Pedro Cabán Latino Studies: Moving Forward while Looking Back. Latino Studies 1 (1): 43–46.
Muñoz, Carlos, Jr. 1984. The Development of Chicano Studies, 1968–1981. In Chicano Studies: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Eugene E. García, Francisco A. Lomelí, and Isidro D. Ortiz, 5–18. New York and London: Teachers College Press.
Rodriguez, Clara. 1990. Puerto Rican Studies. American Quarterly 42 (3): 437–455.
Quach, Anne. 2004. From the “Bulge” to the Halls of Academia: Frank Bonilla’s Hunger for Education Opened His Eyes to the World. Narratives 4 (2): 88.
Aurelia Lorena Murga