A Century of Latin American Studies at Carolina
Carolina Passport, UNC Global Affairs
A group of 15 student leaders from Cuba participated in an exchange program through the U.S. Department of State in 1960. The program brought them to UNC-Chapel Hill for six weeks of sociology courses. Photo courtesy Beatriz Riefkohl Muñiz and Louis A. Pérez Jr.
Since the early twentieth century, Latin American studies has been one of the central pillars of area studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, enriched by frequent scholarly exchanges and the support of affiliated scholars and administrators. Like other area studies fields, Latin American studies at Carolina boomed during the post-war and Cold War periods, while over the last few decades, it has evolved beyond a traditional focus on nation states to engage with borderlands, diaspora, and transnational interaction.
The Beginning of Latin American Studies at Carolina
The establishment of the Inter-American Institute (IAI) in 1940 provided the first formal structure for curricular and program development in Latin American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. With the founding of the IAI, the smattering of course options in Latin American history, geography, and languages were organized for the first time into a cohesive subject of instruction.
In addition to forming the Latin American curriculum, the establishment of the IAI—which was renamed and reorganized as the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) in 1949—provided the framework for a series of scholarly exchanges with Latin American universities throughout the 1940s.
One of these, the Winter-Summer School Program, was among the earliest of its kind in the United States. It was organized by Sturgis Leavitt, professor of romance languages and a pioneer of Latin American studies at Carolina; University President Frank Porter Graham; and Víctor Andrés Belaúnde Terry at the University of San Marcos in Lima. The Winter-Summer School Program brought students from seven Latin American countries to Chapel Hill, where they participated in English-language courses and could enroll in any of the University’s regularly scheduled courses. The program’s organizers billed it as an important milestone in “educational diplomacy,” while Graham wrote that he hoped that “the ramifications of its values will extend across two continents.”
UNC-Chapel Hill’s efforts to foster interpersonal and inter-institutional relationships with Latin America mirrored a broader national interest in the region during the 1940s, a period in which the U.S. and Latin American nations enjoyed close ties. The U.S. had strong commercial and trade as well as strategic interests in the region, and while many in Latin America remained wary of their northern neighbor, President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy promised reciprocity and non-intervention in the U.S.’s relations with Latin American nations.
Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill recognized the role that Latin American studies had to play in fostering these relationships. In a 1947 report
to the Rockefeller Foundation, Leavitt wrote that his field at Carolina had three goals: “to make contacts with North Carolina business firms interested in Latin American trade…to provide adequate training for men and women planning to enter government service in Latin America, [and] to encourage talented students to specialize in Latin American studies and make it a career.”
The Boom Years of the Cold War
UNC-Chapel Hill’s dedication to Latin American scholarship and inter-American exchange throughout the midcentury made it one of the premier institutions for Latin American studies in the southern United States. During the early years of the Cold War, public and scholarly interest, mirroring contemporary geopolitical concerns, shifted away from the region. The events of the late 1950s, however, soon made Latin America an important stage in the ongoing global struggle. As the maneuvering between the U.S. and the Soviet Union made the non-interventionism of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy untenable, anti-American hostility became increasingly visible in many places across Latin America. The success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the installation of Fidel Castro as the ruler of Cuba led many in the U.S. to fear that communism had gained a foothold in “America’s backyard.”
In terms of U.S. educational policy, the emergence of a North–South divide between the Americas translated into a greater need for linguistically proficient experts who were well-versed in Latin American politics and culture. From the late 1950s onwards, Latin American studies programs in universities throughout the United States enjoyed a new influx of federal and private funding.
In Chapel Hill, a 1959 ILAS report noted that “academic institutions can make substantial contributions in the fields of international relations and foreign policy.” With such expectations, the University expanded its offerings in Latin American studies to meet the new demand for regional proficiency.
Despite the rising tension in inter-American relations, scholarly exchanges and partnerships within Latin America continued at Carolina throughout the Cold War. In 1960, a State Department-sponsored program brought fifteen Cuban students to UNC-Chapel Hill to participate in six weeks of sociology programs. The program’s organizers saw this as another particularly valuable experience in educational diplomacy, noting in their final report that “the warm welcome that awaited [the Cuban visitors] and the pleasant atmosphere of our college community created in them a new appreciation of the American character, while the academic instruction received bred respect for the intellectual and cultural standards of our country.”
Globalizing the Field
Since the end of the Cold War, the Latin American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill has again been transformed, reflecting the way that globalization has reshaped scholarly approaches to area studies over the past several decades. The dynamics of inter-American migration in particular have meant that the traditional focus on the nation state has receded in favor of new ways of thinking about movement, borderlands, and diaspora.
This shift in scholarly focus has also been reflected in institutional change and development. UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University collaborated to found the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which first received Title VI National Resource Center and Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) funding in 1991 and has since remained a federally designated National Resource Center. In 2007, ILAS was again reorganized and renamed as the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA).
The current ISA director and J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History Louis A. Pérez, Jr., sees ISA’s reorganization as a reflection of the current state of the field. After the end of the Cold War, Pérez says, “the old paradigm of area studies – Latin American studies as a geographic field – wasn’t working anymore.” The idea that the Latin American world began and ended at the U.S.-Mexican border gave way to a more nuanced consideration of how demographic change, movement, and migration had transformed Latin communities in the north and south alike. “The idea now,” Pérez says, “is that we are studying the Latin American experience in the Western hemisphere.”
The linking of communities in the U.S. and Latin America through familial, financial, and cultural ties has transformed the Latinx presence at UNC-Chapel Hill. As of 2019, 8.5 percent of the undergraduate population and 6.8 percent of the graduate population at Carolina belonged to the Hispanic community – statistics that have increased markedly over the past decade. In 2019, the University’s Board of Trustees approved the creation of the Carolina Latinx Center to foster scholarship, service, and community engagement, while also providing a communal space for Carolina’s Latinx students, faculty, and staff.
Josmell Perez, who ran the Carolina Latinx Collaborative within the Office for Diversity and Inclusion for nearly a decade, will serve as the new center’s director.
Like the student population at UNC-Chapel Hill, the population of North Carolina identifying as Hispanic has also recently risen, to 9 percent as of 2014. New service- and community-focused programs at Carolina have driven outreach into the state’s Latinx communities. Much of this work has taken place under the guidance of the Latino Migration Project, directed by Hannah Gill, which supports research on topics related to migration in the Americas and organizes K–12 outreach and public engagement events. An important initiative of the Latino Migration Project is Building Integrated Communities (BIC). Founded in 2010, BIC works with local municipalities to develop plans for the support and integration of Latinx immigrants into the community. So far, the cities of Winston-Salem, Sanford, High Point, and Greenville have participated in the program, while Siler City and Chapel Hill are in progress.
As the world has transformed over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, so too has the field of Latin American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. The transformation of area studies scholarship in the post-Cold War period has been accompanied by a broadening of the University’s community outreach and public service mission. Faculty, students, and staff dedicated to the study of the Latin world no longer look only to the nations beyond the borders of the U.S., but also to their own local communities in Chapel Hill and North Carolina.
Through the programming of ISA, as well as initiatives such as the Latino Migration Project, UNC-Chapel Hill has continued to build on its strengths as one of the premier institutions for the study of Latin America in the U.S. South.
Scovell, the first in her family to attend university, said she always looked up to her professors’ knowledge and knew that she wanted to join their ranks one day.
“I thought I would follow in my communication major, but French was always there,” Scovell said. “There was never a point I woke up and was really interested in it, but more like an ‘oh, I can pursue this as a career [and] not just because I like it.’”
This story originally appeared in the 2020 issue of Carolina Passport magazine.
December 5, 2023