CLAS New Heads Series: Sam Martinez

Samuel Martinez, professor of anthropology and director of El Instituto, outside of Beach Hall on September 6, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Samuel Martinez, professor of anthropology and director of El Instituto, outside of Beach Hall on September 6, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

The CLAS New Heads Series talks with incoming heads and directors of departments, centers, and institutes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We ask them questions about their department’s research, education and outreach mission, and how they fit into the multidisciplinary context of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Professor of Anthropology Sam Martinez began as director of El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies in August 2018.

What would you say are El Instituto’s areas of strength in your field?

El Instituto stands out nationally for the seamlessness and harmony with which the field of Latinx and Latin American studies have been united. When El Instituto was formed in 2012 by joining the former Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies and Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, a process of intellectual exchange had already been growing the two faculties together for years before.

What interests students in studying Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American studies?

Our undergrads and grads have in common with most of our faculty that they seek to turn their family heritage identification with their Caribbean or Latin American origins into an aspect of their professional aspirations. The MA program in Latinx and Latin American studies stands out nationally among similar programs as a talent incubator for students seeking jobs in business, government, or the philanthropic and foundation worlds, or who want to go on to do doctoral study in a specialized field.

What are the most loved classes taught in Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies?

I will pick no favorites, but our students are often impressed with how much our faculty’s teaching grows directly out of their work and life engagement with Latinx identities. We don’t just study it; we live it. Whether it’s about media, migration, education, or human development, our teaching brings forward how different the big issues of our day look from a standpoint internal to our communities, rather than the external standpoint of politicians, policymakers, and pundits.

What types of jobs do students pursue after attaining a Latino and Latin American studies degree at UConn?

The next step for students at both levels may be academic administration, international business, teaching, humanitarian and development aid, or doctoral study in the humanities or social research disciplines.

Have there been recent changes in El Instituto that have strengthened the Institute? 

An important part of the faculty’s dynamism comes from its younger half, including Associate Professor of Political Science Charles Venator, Associate Professor of Economics Jorge Agüero, Assistant Professor of Sociology Daisy Reyes, and Assistant Professor of History Emma Amador. Thanks to Venator, UConn hosts the Secretariat of the Puerto Rican Studies Association. Agüero brings important contacts with the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Reyes is an emerging leader in the study of Latinxs in higher ed. And Amador’s arrival renews a special, decades-old UConn legacy of having a leading historian of Puerto Rico on the history faculty. The Puerto Rican diaspora is crucial to our institutional identity, in keeping with the central place of the Puerto Ricans to Connecticut’s immigration history.

What do you see as upcoming challenges or opportunities for El Instituto?

It’s challenging to provide effective support for our faculty’s efforts to get external grants and manage them effectively once obtained. In a time of diminishing budgets, the grant and fellowship competitions take on magnified importance to our ability to keep on delivering on our teaching, service and advising missions.

Are there any common misconceptions about the field of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American studies?

The most common misconception is that Latinx studies and Latin American studies are the same thing. The two fields emerge from histories that are almost polar opposites: Latin American studies grew to maturity in the Cold War era through funding justified by the role that world regional knowledge could play in support of the United States’ new role as a global bulwark against the spread of socialism.

Latinx studies, by contrast, grows out of the same urgent postcolonial claims for recognition and equal and respectful inclusion that drove the rise of Black studies and Native studies.

Where do you see your field going in the next 10 years?

Here at UConn, I foresee an ever-closer merger of theoretical influences and research approaches bringing us closer to the faculty in our sister institutes, particularly the Africana Studies Institute, the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

What first interested you in Latin American studies?

Primordial to it all was my own identity as a Cuban-American who commuted on a daily basis between the Spanish-speaking world of the home and the English-dominant world of school and the street. The rest was a string of mostly very lucky accidents.

What’s your favorite place on the Storrs campus?

Mostly not places, but trees. There are trees on campus which remind me of good family moments – both my kids grew up living in Storrs – and trees whose splendor reminds me of my ephemeral, replaceable status as a human and on Earth. I feel good to be reminded of both.

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