In 2013, plans to expand the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Mexican American Studies into a full-fledged department were slowed — temporarily, it turns out — when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed $1.5 million in state funding that lawmakers had approved for the new offering. In a statement issued at the time, Perry said that if the Department of Mexican American Studies was a priority, the university could fund it using other sources.
Last week, the university announced that it had decided to do just that using money from the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, the University Budget Council and the College of Liberal Arts. University officials heralded their new Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies as the first of its kind in the country and a major step forward for the school, which has had a Center for Mexican American Studies since 1970.
The department will offer bachelor's and master's degrees starting this fall and hopes to add doctoral degree programs in two years. It will initially have six faculty members, though the university hopes to double that number in three to five years. There are currently about 950 students taking courses offered by the department and about 25 students majoring in Mexican American studies. Officials hope to double both figures by next year. The long-standing Center for Mexican American Studies will continue to operate as the programming arm of the new department.
Mexican American studies courses have also been a hot topic in K-12 circles. Earlier this year, the Texas State Board of Education declined to make it an official elective option for high schoolers, but allowed school districts to decide whether to offer the course.
Nicole Guidotti-Hernández has been tapped to serve as the chairwoman of the new UT department. Last week, she spoke with The Texas Tribune about the new department — why it was created, what it adds to the university, how it fits into the state's political climate and what jobs its graduates are likely to get.
The following is a transcript of the conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Tribune: UT-Austin has had Mexican American studies for more than four decades. How will this new department be different?
Nicole Guidotti-Hernández: Mexican American studies has indeed been on the UT campus for 44 years, and it has been a center. One of the key differences between a department and a center is that a center does not own its own faculty. And really, at the institutional level, it limits the autonomy of the unit. So one of the most important things about our departmentalization of Mexican American and Latina/o studies is that we’ve been able to hire our own faculty that we can tenure. What that means is greater stability in the curriculum for students, greater course offerings and really a kind of legibility in the curriculum.
The secondary thing about the expansion of the curriculum with the addition of Latina/o studies is that it allows us to account for historic Mexican-American populations alongside long-standing and rising groups like Central Americans, South Americans and people from the Caribbean that have a particular history in Texas. Obviously, Houston has one of the largest Honduran, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan populations in the United States, but it also has a sizable Brazilian and Venezuelan population. One of the things having the department does is allow us to account for those people living in Texas and the demographic and ethnic and national shifts more broadly in Latino populations.
At some level, in order to be national leaders, we have to respond to the call of these changes in the field, because they are indeed reflected in the changes in demographics.
TT: Much has been made about how this is said to be the first department of its kind in the country. Why has it taken so long for such a department to be created?
NGH: It’s a tricky question. I think it has to do with the constellation of previous leadership. I think it has to do with the fact that the field has kind of exploded in terms of the number of positions both nationally and within the state. The field has sort of arrived as a kind of legitimate disciplinary player in university and national landscapes.
One of the things that also allowed this department to be founded at this particular moment is the support of the administration. We did not have to protest to have this department, which is not the typical history of an ethnic studies unit. Instead of battling with the administration, we’ve been supported.
All of these factors together have given rise to this department at what I think is a very critical political moment. Look at the fact that data shows that the majority of children under the age of 18 in the United States are Hispanic. Or look at the fact that kids in K-12 schools in Texas are majority Latino for the first time in history.
We’re emerging at a moment when there’s a kind of political and social and intellectual necessity to think about these questions not just as social problems but as emerging populations that are here to stay and are part of the fabric of the nation. I think that Mexican American and Latina/o studies is a problem-solving field in the sense that we can train young Latino-serving professionals to be better social workers, to be better city planners, to be better nurses and doctors, to be bilingual educators, to be socially informed and politically responsible and ethical while doing that work.
TT: Given the governor's veto last session and other discussions in the state, are you expecting to face an uphill political battle in Texas?
NGH: That rider basically made it all the way to Perry with bipartisan support. I think there’s a very clear sense that Mexican American and Latino/a Studies has a place at the table in the future of Texas. I think the governor’s decision was to say, if they want it, they can pay for it. I don’t necessarily think it’s about Mexican American studies being under siege. Rather, he was sort of daring our president to pay for it. And he did.
TT: You've said you want to double enrollment in your classes. How will you bring students in?
NGH: We have information sessions, we actively recruit them, we have them enroll in our classes and develop an interest. As department chair, I’m actually going to be going to all of the classes that belong to us and talking to students about what a potential major in Mexican American Latina/o Studies can provide in terms of career options.
And with the possibility of Mexican American studies being available at the K-12 level, it also allows us to think about a pipeline between K-12 education and what we’re doing in the department so that students come to the university prepared to major in this field of study. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity.
TT: What are the career options for graduates of this department?
NGH: Actually, one of our most well-known alums is the director of communications for the Democratic Party of Texas. So, I would say politics, nonprofits, social services, education and the arts. That is the majority of the places where students get placed. We’re hoping with the medical school that we can have an institutional link with them so our students can go into the medical school and be Latino-serving doctors with the right amount of prerequisites and preparation. That’s just a smattering.
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