A committee of five Latin American studies professors submitted a proposal for a new major in Latinx and Latin American Studies (LLAS) to the Committee on Educational Policy on Saturday, March 25, and it is currently under review. If approved, the LLAS major, which has been advocated for by Latinx student movements for decades, will be offered in the spring of 2018.
According to the text of the proposal, the LLAS major will be “an interdisciplinary program designed to critically examine the diverse histories and cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and U.S. Latinxs.” The major was proposed by Rick López, Solsiree del Moral, Leah Schmalzbauer, Mary Hicks and Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez.
If approved, LLAS will become a program major. It will not be a department — it will not hire its own professors or offer its own courses — but it will group together all courses relating to Latino and Latin American studies that other departments may offer and allow students to receive major credit and recognition for taking those classes.
“Having a major is going to guarantee that these types of courses about Latinx identity, Latin American identity [and] Caribbean identity are going to be offered every year and every semester, not sporadically throughout the years,” said Hugo Sanchez ’17, a member of the student committee that worked on the major proposal.
Once the CEP approves the major, it will then go to the Committee of Six. Once the major proposal is approved by that committee, it will be sent to all the faculty, to be discussed and voted on during the monthly meeting of the Committee of the Faculty. According to Schroeder Rodríguez, the proposal is unlikely to reach the Committee of the Faculty before the fall of 2017.
However, he is optimistic about the chances of the major being passed. “I don’t see the faculty as a whole being against this,” he said. “There is a good energy on campus regarding this major. When I talked informally to faculty about this, the recurring comment that I get is, ‘It’s about time,’” Schroeder Rodríguez added.
The CEP is currently communicating with the five professors as they review the proposal, which has already been revised once to incorporate the CEP’s prior feedback. The proposed title for the major was originally Latina/o, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, but has since been changed to Latinx and Latin American Studies. On April 14, the CEP will meet with the five professors to ask more questions.
The Road to LLAS
According to Sanchez, students have advocated for a Latino studies major for decades. But the movement has happened in waves, as student involvement changes with each graduating year and organizers face a perceived lack of support from the administration.
The most recent wave of student organization around the proposal began in spring 2014. Since then, a small committee of students has met weekly, conducting research to present to the administration in support of the creation of the major. They compared Amherst’s major offerings to those of similar colleges, and found that all the other NESCAC colleges have a major, minor or both in a field related to Latino or Latin American studies.
Students also compiled a spreadsheet of all the courses related to LLAS that the college had offered in the past 10 years to demonstrate students’ longstanding and increasing interest in the topic. According to the proposal, the number of these courses offered has increased from five to over 40 in the past 10 years. Since a Five College Certificate in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies was created in 1990, 106 Amherst students have earned the certificate, making up 72 percent of all students who earned certificates.
In the fall of 2015, Schroeder Rodríguez joined the college Spanish department and soon became the head faculty member organizing the major proposal. He reached out to department chairs of various departments that offer courses related to Latino and Latin American studies.
“Basically, I facilitated conversations among people who had already been talking about this in order to get everything on paper and submit it to the different committees that it has to go through,” Schroeder Rodríguez said.
Forming a “Latinx Consciousness”
The college has undergone a rapid demographic change in the past decade. Since 2006, the number of students who self-identify as Latin American, Latino or of Caribbean origin has doubled, according to the proposal. This has also impacted the student movement for a Latinx major.
For Sanchez, courses on Latino and Latin American topics are a means of understanding his identity at Amherst and within the United States.
“I’m a first-generation person of color from a working-class family, so this idea of coming to college is very new to me … I was lost when I got here,” he said. “Not only in terms of ‘what am I going to do after college?’ but I was also lost in the sense of realizing my identity.”
Sanchez found it challenging to transition from a majority-Latino community to Amherst, a historically white institution. “Trying to fathom my position within the broader context of the United States was very difficult,” he said. “It did create a barrier for me in terms of adjusting to the college experience and making myself feel comfortable on-campus.”
In the fall of 2015, students in the Latino affinity group La Causa invited Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein to a club meeting, where they presented her with a formal statement on the “Latinx condition” at Amherst College.
“We do not feel that we have a space or a cohesive Latinx identity on this campus,” it read.
One of the forms of support for which the statement pressed was a Latino studies department. “Since spring of 2014, La Causa has headed the movement towards creating a Latinx Studies Department. Unfortunately, due to administrative obstacles and hindrances, the goal … seems to have dissolved,” the statement said. “By not moving toward the development of an actual Latinx Studies Department … [the] administration seems to be implying that … the Latinx experience and contributions to academia are insignificant and not worth examining on a scholarly level.”
Students in La Causa will submit a new statement to the CEP supporting the proposed major.
“Having a major would be that thing that would undoubtedly build a Latinx consciousness on campus,” Sanchez said. “And by that I don’t mean identity … but also a consciousness: this thing people can cling onto so you know, when you come here, [that] you don’t feel alone, you don’t feel marginalized.”
The Administration Post-Amherst Uprising
Although the most recent push for a Latino studies major began before the campus-wide protests known as Amherst Uprising occurred, Sanchez and Schroeder Rodríguez see the Uprising as an important turning point for the movement. When one of the demands listed by student organizers for the administration included a major for Latino studies, word began “filtering through the crowds that people wanted this major,” Sanchez said. The major proposal form mentions Amherst Uprising in the its background section, saying that the Uprising “injected new urgency” into the discussions of developing a Latino studies major.
“After Amherst Uprising, I think that’s when the administration went like, ‘Okay, I think these people are actually serious. There’s something we’re missing here,’” Sanchez said. “To me, being a student, it couldn’t be more obvious, but to them, unfortunately, they needed that smack in the face to realize, ‘Oh. We need to do something to help.’”
According to Sanchez, the college approved hires for professors specializing in Latino or Latin American studies in the English, religion and Spanish departments. He said the college also approved contracts for professors in Asian American and Pacific Islanders Studies and Educational Studies.
“I don’t think I could’ve imagined that [in] my first year, second year,” Sanchez said.