In honor of her recent appointment as the inaugural chair of the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at UT (MALS), we sat down with Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández to talk about the founding and future of MALS, the unique features of the program, and what Latina/o Studies contributes to scholarship and the community more broadly.
Tell us a little bit about the history of the Center for Mexican American Studies and the founding of the Mexican American and Latina/o Studies department. What do you think is important about the work of the Center and Department at UT and beyond?
These two questions are actually connected. The Center for Mexican American Studies was founded in 1970 under the leadership of Americo Paredes, who was a public folklorist and conducted interdisciplinary anthropological work. He was a student at UT and trained with J. Frank Dobie, one of the most renowned American folklorists. Another really important person who was here was Jovita González, the first woman to be the president of the Texas Folklore Society. When the Center was founded, the mission was to serve the community through intellectual work, so one of the reasons we are doing all the press about the new department is because we feel we are not just an academic unit but that we have a political and social obligation to communities of interest here in Austin, in Texas, and nationally. When I say “the community” I don’t just mean Mexican American or Latina/o communities but wonder instead, what is the responsibility of this department in preparing the state of Texas and the nation for dealing with the exploding Latina/o demographic.
I actually think that we have a real opportunity to show that academic departments can help set the stage and problem solve for questions that emerge on the political scene. I’m not saying we have all the answers or that we should be writing policy, but why can’t research and teaching inform public debate? Also, why can’t the students we train be the people that end up becoming those key decision makers? One of the things I’ve been stressing in a lot of recent interviews is the value of the degree in terms of training students to be Latina/o professionals. I told a journalist that we’re not here to teach people to be Latina/o, that’s something they learn how to do on their own. This major, this degree, this program, its emergence as Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, is a recognition of the historic Mexican American population in the state of Texas, of newly emerging Latina/o populations from Central and South American and the Caribbean, and also a recognition of their long term histories. For example, there’s a Puerto Rican community in San Antonio–why? Because of military bases. We can link that back to the Jones–Shafroth Act of 1917, where Puerto Ricans were given citizenship and could join the U.S. military to fight in World War I. That’s why we have a Puerto Rican community in San Antonio, because of militarization. There are direct correlates between Latina/o migration and historic population and U.S. foreign policy that I think we need to pay attention to. At some level, it is the political, social, and intellectual responsibility of the department to account for these histories. What we can do is provide students a stellar UT education but also give them the additional bonus by teaching them how to be ethical, how to recognize cultural difference so they can be responsible professionals no matter what they’re doing. That’s where I see the relationship between the MALS department’s public mission and the long-term history of the Center being linked.
The thing MALS brings to the table that is different than, say, an area studies model of Latin America where you study Mexico or Chile or the Dominican Republic is that we’re interested in the diaspora question, the transit between there and here, “here” being the U.S. What happens here with those populations when, for example, Central Americans live next to historic Mexican American populations or African American population?. How do we account for these social relations? That’s what Latina/o Studies helps us do as a nation.
How do you see the MALS department growing in terms of research and teaching?
We have six faculty now. When we arrive at the optimum number it will be between ten and twelve, very similar to the size of the American Studies department. We’ll have a Ph.D. program, because you can’t have a research department without a Ph.D. program. One of the things we’re interested in is training students in a core discipline as well as the interdisciplinary field. For example, you could do Latina/o Studies and History, or Latina/o Studies and Psychology, or Latina/o Studies and American Studies. What that does is it gives a student formal interdisciplinary training in their field, and it also gives them a foot in a traditional discipline. I think that more and more it becomes critical to make sure students have as many advantages as possible for an ever-shrinking job market, and if we can provide two different kinds of training that are related to each other, then I think our students are going to fare better. The other thing I would say is that we are going to have small cohorts so that we can support our students better monetarily. What that means is that our students will be taking classes in departments like American Studies, like History, like English as a part of their training. On some level, what we’re doing is building on core disciplinary strengths across the university at the same time that we’re establishing our own individual research program that focuses on Latina/os but with interdisciplinary, qualitative, and quantitative methods.
The other thing I would stress at both the undergraduate and graduate level is that we are hiring faculty in the social sciences. One of the unique features of this program will be a quantitative social science training for grads and undergrads if they choose to seek it out, which is really unusual for Ethnic Studies programs. That makes me really excited and proud. We have some classes online for research design in the social sciences and for nonprofit evaluation using statistical methods at an intro level so that someone who may not have taken a Stats class can get their feet wet in quantitative methods. What we need is people trained in demography, in program evaluation, in things methods that have direct social imapct.
The other unique aspect of our department is a focus on language and cognition, which refers to bilingualism but not just the Spanish-English binomial. We want to think about how we account for the language usage of, say, Huichol-speaking migrants to the Houston area and the way they re-grammatize their language through English instead of Spanish. How do we talk to students about the fact that migratory processes don’t just change economic and political structures but also linguistic structures? What happens, say, when a Huichol-speaking migrant returns to their sending community with the binomial Huichol-English? How do you account for the re-grammatizations that happen as a result of return migration? This is just one of the key issues for our faculty in this concentration. Language is not just about bilingual education. Language is a complicated process; it’s how we construct meaning in the world, and Ethnic Studies has something to say about that. Those are the two components I’m most excited about in terms of research. We will be hiring a senior social scientist and that person will fit into some of those budding interests that are being developed in the department.
What are some of the collaborations you see MALS taking part in?
One of them would be around graduate courses. I think because of the smaller size of the program in terms of faculty, we could potentially share teaching classes and methods classes and students, which I is good. Historically, the Center for Mexican American Studies has funded American Studies students who choose to do a portfolio, so I would say that support won’t go away. There will still be opportunities for American Studies students to come over and train in the other unit. I am a 50/50 faculty member, so I think I will serve as a bridge between the units. People ask me why I’m not moving 100% into the new department, and it’s because I am an American Studies scholar as much as I am a Latina/o Studies scholar. It’s important to keep my foot in both worlds. The American Studies conversation is enhanced by Ethnic Studies, but I also believe in traditional disciplinary training. I see the value in teaching core works as part of the field formation in American Studies. Even though I work in this other field, I see the two projects as being related.
What are some of your goals for MALS going forward?
One of my concrete goals is to double the number of majors in our classes. Right now we have between 25 and 30, and I want to have 60. We have 948 students total in our classes, and I’d like to end the year with 1800. What’s been great about the recent media buzz is that it shows the interest and utility of doing this kind of work. The first question we always get is, “What kind of job am I going to get?” Well, let’s look at our students. We have students who are attorneys, we have students who run political organizations, who run nonprofits. They’re teachers, they’re faculty in institutions, they’re business owners, they work in television, they work at the White House. Our students have all these different kinds of career tracks. I think the degree is just as valuable as any other degree, especially if you look at our student placement record.