Merger of two programs unites Latino and Latin American studies

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

Mark Overmyer-Velázquez will head the new El Instituto. Photography by Daniel Buttrey

Mark Overmyer-Velázquez will head the new El Instituto.
Photography by Daniel Buttrey

 Two academic programs in Puerto Rican, Latino, and Latin American studies will merge on July 1, creating a new CLAS institute that integrates domestic and global perspectives on issues such as race, migration, identity, politics, labor, economics, social justice and human rights.

The new center, named El Instituto, will combine the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, currently housed in Academic Affairs, and CLAS’s Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. El Instituto will provide a central space for research, scholarship and teaching programs including more than 65 faculty throughout the university.

“In U.S. academia and in the world in general, there has been increased attention on Latino studies and hemispheric connections with Latin America,” says Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, who will direct the new center. “One of our tasks with El Instituto is to reflect that shift, building on the robust strengths of our faculty.”

Some current research from the two programs that will contribute to the new institute’s projects include exploring the challenges faced by Latino migrant workers, masculinity and sexuality in Latino populations, racial inequalities in the Caribbean, citizenship in Puerto Rico and immigration from and within Latin America.

Together the two centers produce academic and popular books, and they are funded by national foundations such as the Tinker Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Fulbright Foundation.

“We are very excited about this venture and the expanded intellectual and research opportunities it affords,” says Marysol Asencio, interim director of the Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. “As part of a united new unit, we will be in a good place to contribute significantly to the larger CLAS community.”

With Latinos becoming the dominant minority population in the U.S., Overmyer-Velázquez says El Instituto will provide CLAS with the ability to address issues within this rapidly diversifying group.

“What drives this is the intellectual perspective – seeing where both of these fields are going in a comparative way,” says Overmyer-Velázquez. “There’s so much overlap in everything that we do.”

Founded in 1974, the Center for Latin American Studies was the first area studies program at UConn and it was born out of U.S. foreign policy concerns. It offers undergraduate majors and minors and master’s degrees in Latin American and Caribbean studies, making UConn the only New England college to offer such a combination of programs.

The Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino studies developed out of Latino civil rights struggles in the U.S. Formally created in 1991, it offers a minor in Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, and its grassroots mission is to understand more clearly the Latino experience in the United States and Puerto Rico.

“I see this merger as a winning proposition from so many perspectives for both CLAS and UConn,” says CLAS Associate Dean Anne Hiskes. “By recognizing the increasing permeability and flux of political and cultural borders, the new institute places CLAS and the University at the forefront of national trends for intercultural teaching and research.”

Graduate and undergraduate students and their research projects are really what have brought the two centers together, says Overmyer-Velázquez. The projects often involve studying abroad, which helps students make connections between their own lives and life in the Southern hemisphere.

“They’re thinking more globally about what it means to be an American citizen,” he says.

Having been born in the U.S. and raised in Canada while half of his family is from Mexico, Overmyer-Velazquez says that the merger also speaks to him personally.

“This institute gives us a better way to think about the historical struggles and successes peoples have,” he says. “It will harness the richness of the researchers at UConn.”

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