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Letter from the Director

Kira Kamilla Smiley, MA in Earth Systems
Sep 24 2019

Letter from the Director

This is the third time I am writing a letter for Enlace, which means I have now finished a full term as director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford. It has been a privilege to live and learn in the wonderful space of Casa Bolívar. I had been asked to serve another term, in order to consolidate some of the initiatives we have started, and I must confess I accepted most selfishly because I enjoy our community so much. Our wonderful staff, bright students, stimulating faculty, visiting professors and scholars, guest speakers, and audience members who engage and participate in our events—all of you make our center a thriving hub of ideas and public debate. We are grateful to you and for the support CLAS receives from Stanford Global Studies, Stanford University, and our generous funders, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Tinker Foundation. You make us thrive.

This past year, we hosted several Latin American scholars whom I admire immensely. Any of us who has had the privilege of interacting with them during their time at Stanford will agree that they have significantly enriched our experience and understanding of Latin America. Cristina Rivera Garza, in a fortunate collaboration with the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, came to us as the William H. Bonsall Visiting Professor in the Humanities. One of the most accomplished Latin American writers of her generation, Cristina is an insightful historian who has spearheaded the creation of Spanish creative writing programs in U.S. higher education. As our 2019 commencement speaker, Cristina shared a beautiful reflection on our Center’s relevance and role in the world. We look forward to her new book on the history of cotton.

A dear childhood friend, Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, professor at the Colegio de México and former director of Mexico’s National Archives, the Archivo General de la Nación, was nominated by CLAS as an International Fellow at the Humanities Center. As an economic historian, she straddles the worlds of the humanities and the social sciences, demonstrating that it is possible to keep those dialogues of cross-fertilization open. Anyone who attended her talk on the history and technology of tortillas will never see the most ubiquitous Mexican object in the same way; they will understand how their preparation has shaped and been shaped by the role of women in Mexican society.

Anthropologist Lynn Stephen, then president of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), was our 2019 Latin American Perspectives Lecturer. She shared with us her scholarship and deep commitment to justice in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. Lynn is an innovative researcher who is pushing the boundaries of data presentation and analysis as well as knowledge production through collaboration with the actors that shape the social realities we seek to understand. Her weeks in residence enriched the life of our community—she trained some of our students in anthropological methods and advanced an agenda of successful movements for women’s justice in the most unlikely settings. 

Finally, the outgoing vice president of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), Santiago Levy, delivered a keynote address at a conference we organized with the King Center on Global Development to address the challenges of employment, poverty, and growth in Mexico. Santiago is the architect of arguably the most successful poverty relief program in Mexico, Progresa-Oportunidades-Prospera, a conditional cash transfer program that has lifted millions out of destitution. I know of few scholars who have had such an impact on the lives of so many.

These three women, and one man who believes women are the engines of social change, highlight how much we lose when academic activities fail to achieve some degree of gender balance. I am proud to say that, throughout the time I have been leading the center, I have worked very hard with our staff and colleagues to ensure that all of our activities reflect the reality of our diverse world. We must continue to redress the many obstacles women have faced in the pursuit of their professional careers, and I remain deeply committed to this goal as a priority for CLAS.

This past year, our center has been thoroughly engaged with the broader Latin American studies community in the United States. Our Associate Director, Elizabeth Sáenz-Ackerman served as the president of the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, which fosters global competency, language proficiency, and cultural awareness of Latin America and the Caribbean. We have also been engaged with LASA, welcoming then LASA president Lynn Stephen and former president Charlie Hale,  as well as Aníbal Pérez Liñán, the editor of the Latin American Research Review, to speak at our weekly seminar. At the annual LASA conference, we have continued to take the lead in organizing the Tinker Foundation Reception, which brings together the five centers that host Tinker Visiting Professors. Additionally, we continue strengthening our commitment to teaching indigenous languages through our consortium with UC Berkeley, UCLA , and the University of Utah through the Latin American Indigenous Studies Alliance.

Our Employee Open House with tamales and coffee has continued to expand each year. We are grateful to all of the service workers who keep our grounds, dining halls, residences, and other spaces across campus in such beautiful shape. Thanks to the commitment of Quechua instructor Marisol Necochea, our Quechua Night has become an established gathering place for many members of our community. This year, Marisol and some of her students lead a Quechua working group, offering weekly meetings open to the entire Stanford community to learn about the Quechua language and culture. We hosted film screenings and a variety of cultural events. We also continued our collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, ANUIES, and ITAM to host indigenous students from all over Mexico for a summer seminar on “Global Risks in Latin America.” Our Spring Fiesta was devoted to Brazil this year. It was beautiful to see so many people come to enjoy food, music, and each other’s company.

Our Tinker Visiting Professors, Magna Inácio, Véronique Lecaros and Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández), in addition to our Nabuco Visiting Professor, Silvio Candido, as well as our Fulbright visitors, shared their knowledge and enthusiasm with our students and scholars. We supported students through research travel grants to Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. Through various collaborations, we were also able to provide internships in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. Through these opportunities, we know we are investing in the Latinamericanistas of tomorrow.

We have learned so much through the conferences, seminars, and workshops that have taken place over the past year. Although there is not necessarily an order in the way our events fall together, to me they can be summarized in a narrative arc as follows. We started the year by thinking about our indigenous origins through In Tlilli in Tlapalli. Despite being decimated by epidemics and climatic cataclysms, indigenous peoples sometimes rebelled, and sometimes staged their own foundational narratives, as we were reminded by Nicole Hughes, the latest addition to our community of scholars. Another community formed under the auspices of Stanford CLAS, with support of the U.S. Department of Education, are the indigenous language and culture scholars who meet regularly, in person or virtually, to advance in their pedagogy and promote the teaching of indigenous languages.  Our working group on long-range development in Latin America continued exploring issues debated at Stanford and the London School of Economics, with a third meeting at the Universidad de los Andes (Uniandes) in Bogotá. Additionally, we learned from lucid speakers about land reform, the slavery of the metate, and how indigenous women transformed the justice system in Guatemala.

The turmoil of our region was explored through sobering perspectives that shed light on the violence and dislocation that continue to take place in Venezuela as well as on the punitive justice that has been sought as a result of citizens’ frustration and anger. At the same time, the memory of torture centers in Buenos Aires and the state of prisons and religious conversion in Perú have provided more nuanced perspectives regarding forgiveness and criminal justice. We held the IV Positive Peace Conference at Stanford and a Tinker Conference on “Populism and Impeachment” as well as a moving memorial for the 1968 student massacre in Mexico in partnership with the Centro Chicano y Latino. We explored the challenges of authoritarianism, U.S. hegemony, and democratic consolidation, and we learned how these and other social issues were sublimated by Cuban artists. We learned about African American tourism in Bahia, Brazil. We held a Teachers Summer Institute on “Latin America during the Cold War” in partnership with the Graduate School of Education’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching. A pervasive theme this last year was migration: we learned firsthand from Ana Minian about her deservedly praised book, brought empathized with the hardships suffered by Hondureños, and gained perspective on the plight of Central America. We also learned about the ruthlessness of the legal services fraud in the U.S., and our MA students formed a migration research working group, bringing inspiring leaders to campus.

In closing, I want to share with you some words from the commencement speech Cristina Rivera Garza gave to our MA graduating class. As she explained her interests in female empowerment and immigration, she told us about why writing (and education) compel us to look beyond ourselves:

When we do, when we invite ourselves to engage in this mirrored game, writing takes us by the hand and leads us far away from indolence: the eternally comfortable position among those committed to the status quo … Indolence—the incapacity to feel pain or someone else’s pain, which in Spanish is dolerse—is militant indifference. When we say that a book or a work of art or a ravishing sunset moves us, what we are actually saying is that they have liberated us from indolence.   

I invite all of us, with Cristina’s inspiring words, to move beyond indolence and stubbornly insist with her that it is possible to teach, learn, study, and feel together about the plights and victories in Latin America, because they are also our own.