History of LALS at UIC

History of LALS at UIC: A Program Birthed in the Maelstrom of Change

The Latin American and Latino Studies Program (previously LASt, Latin American Studies Program) is rooted in student and neighborhood protests against overcrowded, often rat-infested schools, in which Spanish speakers were set back several years, or relegated to the cloakroom where the teacher seldom visited; against playgrounds occupied by mobile teaching units and dominated by race-baiting bullies; against teachers who told Mexican students that Pancho Villa was a bandit and Puerto Ricans that they had no history, against administrations and faculty with no proficiency or interest in Spanish and no knowledge about Latin American/Latinx cultures; against high schools that 70 percent of Latinx students abandoned before graduation.

In 1967 Puerto Rican students organized at Tuley High School in Humboldt Park and Mexican students at Harrison High. They drew strength from neighborhood organizations newly mobilized around issues of education, health care, immigration, housing, day care, work, welfare and police brutality. Here, new actors (students, mothers, nuns, priests, Vietnam vets, gang members, university professors, and teachers) shared fresh ways of seeing and acting. Federal government anti-poverty grants provided support. Inspiration came from sister movements: Black Panther community programs, Corky Gonzalez’s Crusade for Justice out of Denver, and Chicano blow outs in the schools of East Los Angeles. Eventually during the 1970s, Chicago protestors renamed two high schools, Roberto Clemente in Humboldt Park and Benito Juarez in Pilsen, and opened two alternative high schools, the Rafael Cancel Miranda High School and Latino Youth Alternative High School, all attentive to Latin American language, histories, cultures, and social Issues.

Emerging leaders from the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities met at Loop College. Fed up with experiences of invisibility, misrepresentation, and derision, they formed the Organization of Latin American Students. OLAS had two goals: to preserve Latin American culture and to improve conditions in home communities. OLAS published a newspaper with the Black Student Alliance and sought internships with Loop businesses and community organizations. Members participated in welfare rights demonstrations and farm workers’ boycotts. They organized and spoke at high schools and community centers where they strengthened ongoing demands for quality education and cultural dignity.

In 1971, a group of OLAS students entered the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. For youth who had never imagined going to college, UICC was not welcoming.  The student body and faculty were overwhelmingly white. The campus’ Brutalist architecture resembled an archipelago of wartime bunkers built over the demolition of working-class neighborhoods, Mexican, Italian, Greek and Black. While it claimed an urban mission, it was separated from the city by thick walls.

Student mobilizations—of blacks, Latinos, and whites associated with Students for a Democratic Society and its offshoots—demanded an expansion of the urban mission to include education and justice for people of color. Several OLAS students enrolled in the Teacher Corps Program and ASPIRA, federally funded through anti-poverty resources, to prepare youth to teach in Latinx schools. Visiting professors exposed them to the literature of anti-colonial struggle and Latin American history. The readings gave them greater clarity in relation to their fight and their goals and provided an outline and core of a Latin American Studies Program (LASt) which a broad group of activist students demanded and won in a minimal concession from the administration in 1972-3.

UICC administration gave the Spanish Department control over the program. It would not have its own teaching faculty. The Spanish Department appointed a very conservative director and set up a course on Latinos in Chicago taught by a very conservative instructor. The students rebelled and got the director and instructor fired. The students taught the course themselves and won from the university the right to hire a new director and a new professor. They demanded and won the autonomy of Latin American Studies as a separate unit within the university.

In the summer of 1973, UICC students and faculty chose Otto Pikaza to direct the program. A professor at Roosevelt University, he was an inspirational instructor in the Teacher Corps program. Simultaneously, the UICC struggle surged with new mobilizations of youth and political actors from Latinx communities demanding more recruitment. Between 1973 and 1976, students and faculty won and fleshed out three inter-related programs. Autonomous from other departments but linked with them, Latin American Studies forged a curriculum that would analyze power structures of imperialism, class, race, and gender in Latin America and the United States and give students the tools to affect social and political change in favor of a more just, diverse, and democratic society. The Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services program-LARES (1975) would recruit Latinx students and provide support for successful completion of their university degrees. The Rafael Cintrón Ortiz Cultural Center (1976) would celebrate theater, music, painting, and writing, while addressing community, national and international issues, including support for liberation struggles in South and Central America.

In the 1980s each unit worked to garner resources to build technical capacity to meet its mission from a still reluctant administration. For LASt, this meant winning faculty positions and enriching the curriculum on US Latinx communities. A more supportive administration with Latinos in key positions facilitated expansion in the 1990s that accelerated after 2000 under leadership of three women directors, Frances R. Aparicio, María de los Angeles Torres, and Amalia Pallares. During Professor Aparicio’s tenure (2000-2005), the program was renamed Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), expanding the name to reflect its curriculum and faculty research interests and to give visibility and legitimacy to the U.S. Latino component of the program. In collaboration with Palgrave and founding editor Suzanne Oboler, the Latino Studies Journal was also founded at LALS under Dr. Aparicio’s leadership. The journal, originally envisioned to offer mentorship to younger scholars through peer-review, has become a premier journal for scholars who specialize in Latinx Studies, promoting and legitimizing interdisciplinary approaches that are not usually validated in discipline-based journals. (In 2023, the Journal will celebrate twenty years!) Between 2004 and 2007 LALS hosted postdoctoral fellows sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation including Laura Ruth Johnson, Gabriela Sandoval, and Merida Rua.

One of the most notable LALS programs of the early 2000s was the Lecture in the Community Series, which brought outreach coordinator and community worker Marta Ayala into the fold. She has been instrumental in building and maintaining a link between LALS and the Latinx community organizations in Pilsen, La Villita, Humboldt Park and the suburbs. Panels about the American Girl Dolls debate in Pilsen, or about Puerto Rican Chicago, the politics of immigration, Mexican history in Pilsen, mothers and daughters in Mexican American communities, and the history of Guatemalan labor in the USA, among many others, allowed our Program to partner with Latinx community organizations and other urban institutions and to share our knowledge about our social, cultural and political realities with fellow Latinx outside of the ivory tower.  The events, which in 2002-2003 reached over 2,000 audience members, included academic presentations, musical performances, panel discussions, poetry and literary readings, and film showings. They were held at various community venues, such as Association House, Hispanic Housing, and the Corretjer Cultural Center in Humboldt Park, the Logan Square Public Library, the Instituto del Progreso Latino, Orozco Academy, the Rudy Lozano Library in Pilsen, and St. Augustine College, which attracted mostly a Peruvian and South American audience.  This exercise in public scholarship realized UIC’s urban mission and allowed for the public democratization of our knowledge production.

As we enter the 2020s, LALS continues to be an innovative force in mixing high-end scholarship and community engagement.  Due to the combined work of Amalia Pallares (now the Associate Chancellor and Vice Provost for Diversity) and Professor María de los Angeles Torres, UIC has secured a Mellon Grant titled “Crossing Latinidades” that will create a consortium of all Research One, Hispanic Serving Institutions.  The Chancellors of these approximately sixteen universities have already met and agreed to create an integrated pipeline producing and hiring Latinx Ph.Ds in all disciplines.  At the same time the Latinx Studies departments at these same universities have started to develop research collaborations across interested faculty.  If the origins of Latinx Studies in the United States began as local and regional initiatives (Chicano Studies in the West and Southwest, Cuban Studies in Florida, Dominican and Puerto Rican Studies in the East, and so on), soon, due to UIC’s leadership, LS may become far more hemispheric and interhemispheric than ever before.  In addition to the well-known interdisciplinary subjects in the social sciences and humanities that have always characterized LS, the grant is also encouraging the development of new subjects such as heritage language learning, creative writing, museum studies, climate change, and more.

Today the Latin American and Latino Studies program at UIC engages 12 regular faculty, 15 affiliated faculty, several lecturers, and graduate teaching assistants. LALS scholars work across disciplines addressing issues of race, gender, migration, inequality, and social movements in local and global context. In 2009, it initiated a master’s degree program with an internship component that is rooted in community organizations. Over the decades, and in conjunction with LARES and the LCC, the LALS program has contributed to the emergence of the Latinx community as a prominent, vigorous, and demanding actor in politics, social issues and artistic production at the local, state, and national levels.

UIC grads go on to pursue doctoral degrees, serve in elected office and public administration, work in medicine and health professions, in teaching, in community agencies and foundations, banking, industry, the law, as well as photography, painting, writing, arts promotion and museums. LALS has facilitated the carving of a vital place at the table of power and creativity only vaguely imagined but tenaciously sought by the protesters of 1967. Through the efforts of various generations of community and student social activists, the UIC Latinx community continues to play a major role in Latinx empowerment.

Contributors: Mary Kay Vaughan, Leonard Ramirez, Marta Elena Ayala, Esther Díaz Martín, Frances R. Aparicio, Ralph E. Cintrón

References and Further Reading

Updated January 2021 – This hxstory is an on-going collaborative project. Should you wish to contribute to this narrative and/or the LALS archives, please reach out!