Tufts University

Cultural Context

Ruben Salinas-SternWith the creation of a Latino studies minor and a continuing commitment to community outreach, students and faculty at Tufts shine new light on Latino life, culture and history.

When Sebastian Chaskel finished the final project for his Urban Borderlands class at Tufts, he didn't just hand in a paper to his professor, Deborah Pacini Hernandez. Having spent the semester recording and analyzing the stories of El Salvadorean immigrants from the town of Yucuaiquin now living in Somerville, the junior hopped on his bike and distributed the project to the community members with whom he had worked.

"They told me that I had done something which meant a lot to them. They felt very empowered to see the history of their community and their migration in a book, and they all asked me for extra copies to give to their friends," says the international relations and anthropology major, a native of Colombia who had previously worked with Pacini Hernandez to record the stories of Colombian immigrants in East Boston.

In the four years she's taught the class at Tufts, Pacini Hernandez says Urban Borderlands has given students like Chaskel the chance to "partner with the community rather than use the community as a laboratory." It has also facilitated the creation of a knowledge base on the lives of Latinos in Cambridge and Somerville. In addition to being distributed to the community members they interviewed, students' ethnographies—which have focused on everything from problems with medical translating to the efficacy of Latino youth programs—are published on Tufts' Digital Collections and Archives.

"It was a rare opportunity as a student to get outside the classroom and into the community to conduct actual hands-on research and interviews," says 2005 Tufts graduate Marisa Romo. "It challenged us to really investigate and utilize our community resources."

"We continue to find courses, research and scholarly focus on Latinos in practically every department and program at Tufts."

— Claudia Kaiser-Lenoir

Romo, who now lives in California and works in the civil rights department of the Anti-Defamation League, was the first Tufts student to graduate with a minor in Latino studies. She pushed for the program as a member of the joint student-faculty Latino Studies Curricular Transformation Project.

"We came up with a model that everybody—particularly the students—was interested in: a free-standing program that rested on two supports, one of which was Latin American Studies and one of which was American Studies," recalls Pacini Hernandez, who spearheaded the process of instituting the minor along with Assistant Professor of Spanish Mark Hernandez and Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Adriana Zavala.

The minor also requires a community-based "capstone" research project or internship, such as that offered through the Urban Borderlands class. The program's interdisciplinary core has been hailed by its instructors.

"It has been a source of endless surprise to find how crucial the Latino experience has become as a focus of relevance in practically every discipline," says Associate Professor Claudia Kaiser-Lenoir, acting director of Latino studies while Pacini Hernandez is on sabbatical this year. "We continue to find courses, research and scholarly focus on Latinos in practically every department and program at Tufts."

A Major Minor

Response to the establishment of the minor—described as "a real milestone" by Tufts Latino Center Director Ruben Salinas Stern—has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I really appreciate the way the Latino studies program at Tufts is set up," says junior and University College of Citizenship and Public Service Scholar Julia Goldberg, who grew up a half-hour from the U.S.-Mexico border in Tuscon, Ariz., and worked as a Spanish-English medical translator in high school. "You can have a continued relationship with communities and ideas that have touched you."

The semester after she took Urban Borderlands, Goldberg—whose project assessed Somerville's medical multilingual interpreting services based on oral histories gathered from immigrants, interpreters, doctors, community organizers and administrators— ran a health fair for immigrant women.

"Seeing the response I got from people I had interviewed for Urban Borderlands was just incredible," she says. "It really validated the work I did that these people continue to participate in my work and in my life."


Associate Professor Claudia Kaiser-Lenoir

Marisol Rodriguez, head of Tufts' Association of Latin American Students, has also taken Latino Studies classes at the university.

"All of the Latino studies classes I have taken have been both memorable and eye-opening—as much as I think I know going into a class, I'm always humbled by the fact that I learn new things from every single class I take," she says. Rodriguez values the comprehensive way the program addresses the "long and complex history" of Latinos in the U.S. "The better we understand other people's culture, history and struggle, the better relationships we can have with them, and the more prepared we are to help each other."

Romo says she's proud to call herself a product of the program. "Tufts has the potential to be a leader and inspiration to other universities across the nation because the unique design of Latino studies really reflects the heritage, history and culture of the current Latino population."

Dynamic Diversity

That population—both on a campus and national level—is ever-evolving. "When I started at Tufts in 1993, 170 students identified themselves as Hispanic," says Stern. In the 12 years since, he says that number has more than doubled, to approximately 360.

That uptick mirrors a national trend. According to the 2000 census, Latinos represent the largest minority group in the country. These populations, Hernandez explains, are no longer limited to cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami, but are also found in nontraditional receiving areas, like North Carolina.

"In order to be 21st-century world citizens," he says, "all students—both non-Latinos and Latinos—need to be knowledgeable about Latino populations in order to function in this rapidly changing world."

A key component of being knowledgeable about Latino populations is recognizing that the term "Latino" can be oversimplified, says Pacini Hernandez.

"Everybody—Latino and non-Latino alike—needs to understand that there are huge differences between a Dominican and a Mexican and a Salvadorean and a Peruvian, and that there's a huge difference between somebody whose family has been here for generations, and somebody who arrived 10 years ago," she explains.

The Latino student body at Tufts reflects that range of diversity. "It's challenging to build community when you have so much diversity," says Stern, who worked mostly with recently-immigrated Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in Boston schools before coming to Tufts. "Here, we have a lot of bicultural, biethnic, biracial students—it's an incredible mix."

"I think the strength of the community really comes from its diversity, but it's up to the students to utilize that."

— Marisa Romo (A'05)

"Being of Mexican descent from California, I was searching for students like me as I usually found at home," Romo remembers. "But instead met mostly Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, etc. I think the strength of the community really comes from its diversity, but it's up to the students to utilize that."

Under Rodriguez's leadership of the Association of Latin American Students, that's exactly what Tufts students are doing. "I think the key to creating a more connected community at Tufts is for different organizations to work together," she says.

As director of the Latino Center, Stern has taken a similar approach. "The Center is about supporting students and establishing a strong Latino voice and presence on campus," he says, adding that the strengthening of that voice and presence has come from addressing the Latino experience on multiple levels. "We wouldn't want to just be doing things 'on our own.'"

That commitment to cultivating a strong but not insular Latino community at Tufts reflects the fact that there's no longer a clear line between where "on our own" ends and "the rest of the world" begins.

"As a Latin Americanist, it is no longer possible for me to only look south of the U.S. border when discussing the region of my expertise," says Kaiser-Lenoir. "I have to look for Latin America here as well."

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently editor-in-chief of the Tufts Daily, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at the July 2004 Democratic National Convention. A songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Homepage photo of Sebastian Chaskel by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Story photos by Brian Loeb (A'06).

This story originally ran on Mar. 13, 2006.