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Then & Now: Celebrating 75 Years of Latin American Studies

This article was originally printed in the February 2006 issue of CLASnotes.

UF students post an Inter-American RelationsSociety meeting announcement outside of the UFlibrary in 1959.
UF students post an Inter-American Relations
Society meeting announcement outside of the UF
library in 1959.

At the University of Florida’s commencement ceremonies June 2, 1930, President John J. Tigert announced the creation of the Institute for Inter-American Affairs (IIAA), and as a demonstration of UF’s commitment to international good will, awarded an honorary degree to the Cuban Ambassador to the United States, Orestes Ferrara. Over the next 75 years the institute evolved into what is known today as the Center for Latin American Studies. In honor of its first conference—held in February 1931—the center is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month. February also marks the 75th anniversary of The Plaza of the Americas.

Back in 1931, some naysayers thought it novel that UF, a small land-grant institution in the Deep South, would seek to become a leader in foreign relations. President Tigert wanted to show that UF’s location and its curriculum of applied arts and sciences made it especially suited to such work. In the summer of 1928, even before he had arrived in Gainesville, Tigert began to discuss his plans for a Latin American program at UF with Leo S. Rowe of the Pan American Union. Though Tigert had little background in Latin American affairs, he understood from personal experience the importance of international study. He had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and was later an educational officer with the US Army in Europe during World War I. Having served as US Commissioner of Education (1922–1928), he was well aware of the growing interest in foreign affairs in the nation’s academic, political and commercial centers, anticipating the “Good Neighbor Policy” of the Roosevelt Administration.

During Tigert’s first year as president, a small delegation of journalism students visited Havana with the support of the Associated Dailies of Florida, and upon their return, The Alligator proclaimed on April 6, 1929, “First International Good Will Mission of Florida a Success.” Tigert recognized his plans would require political support in Florida, as well as external funding from private foundations, and he carefully promoted his ideas in the press. His efforts were eventually rewarded with many more favorable reviews, in Florida and beyond.

Rollin S. Atwood, a 26-year-old assistant professor of economic geography, was named acting director of the institute. One of his responsibilities was to oversee international exchange agreements and the enrollment of foreign students from Latin America and elsewhere. During the 1929–1930 academic year, there were only four international students at UF, among a total enrollment of 2,257 (three from Cuba and one from France). After Tigert announced the institute would provide support to foreign students, the total rose to 13 in 1930–1931. This included eight students from Latin America, and efforts were made to recruit more.

The institute also was active in outreach work. The university’s new radio station, WRUF, was used to educate the general public about Latin American cultures. On Pan American Day, April 14, for example, the programming included Latin music and interviews with students from the region.

In 1933, just three years after the founding of the institute, Tigert’s efforts were widely recognized when an international association of veterans of the First World War presented a medal to UF for its efforts to promote peace through education. The Carnegie Institution also made a grant to fund Atwood’s research in Guatemala. In 1951, the functions of the institute were absorbed by the School of Inter-American Studies, which in 1963 became the Center for Latin American Studies.

Today, the center has 20 center-based faculty and professional staff members, and nearly half of the center’s 140-plus affiliate faculty, spread across 50 departments and schools, are in CLAS. It offers an undergraduate certificate and minor in Latin American studies (LAS), as well as a master’s degree and graduate certificates in Latin American, tropical conservation and development and translation studies. In 2004–2005, 11,790 undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled in 326 Latin American content courses, and more than 300 students pursued graduate work related to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Carmen Diana Deere has served as the center’s director since 2004 and says that among her main initiatives have been the development of the center’s first-ever Strategic Plan and its plan for the upcoming UF Capital Campaign. “Working together with the deans and directors of more than a dozen campus units, we have put together a comprehensive plan for Latin American studies that targets some 30 endowed chairs or professorships across the campus —both in the core disciplines of CLAS and other colleges and in innovative cross-campus programs,” explains Deere. “With CLAS, we are in the process of building a Latino studies program that adopts a comparative approach to the study of different Hispanic/Latino groups in the US and that is grounded in the study of the interdependence between the US and Latin America. Towards this end we filled a joint position this year in Latino politics with the Department of Political Science.”

Since 2000, the center’s research and training programs have received more than $10 million in external grants. UF now has 110 international linkage agreements in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries. The “jewel” of LAS at UF is its Latin American Collection, housed within the Special Collections unit of the Smathers Libraries. It is the sixth largest in the nation and the largest collection internationally on the Caribbean.

Latin America Today

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Latin American studies at UF, the Center for Latin American Studies has organized a commemorative event on Thursday, February 16 at 4 pm in Emerson Alumni Hall. UF’s Latin Americanist emeriti faculty will be honored, and Arturo Valenzuela, a political scientist and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, will deliver the keynote address on “The US and Latin America in the Post-Cold War Era: More of the Same?”

Valenzuela is the former senior director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council and served as deputy assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs in the State Department under the Clinton Administration. A specialist otn the origins and consolidations of democracy, Latin American politics, electoral systems, civil-military relations, political parties, regime transitions and US-Latin American relations, he has advised on political and constitutional reform issues in Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Columbia.

The talk is free and open to the public. For more information, please call 392-0375, ext. 800.



Paul Losch, Assistant Librarian, Latin American Collection


Courtesy Latin American Collection, UF Libraries

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