The first-ever academic department in the U.S. to take a comprehensive look at the lives, cultures and histories of Mexican American and Latino populations has been established at The University of Texas at Austin.
The Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies (MALS) will ultimately offer undergraduate and graduate degrees that focus on the interdisciplinary study of people’s movement along the Mesoamerican migration corridor. The department’s curriculum will be a resource to students across many disciplines seeking to gain an in-depth understanding of the country’s changing demographic landscape.
The new department builds on the 44-year history of Mexican American Studies at UT Austin and will serve as the cornerstone of a three-part entity that will include the existing Center for Mexican American Studies and a planned Borderlands Research Institute that will support research and community-based data-collection projects. All will be part of the College of Liberal Arts.
“UT’s Center for Mexican American Studies has long been a leader in the field,” said Bill Powers, president of The University of Texas at Austin. “Establishing an academic Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies will ensure that UT is the best place for Latino studies in the United States.”
Mexican American and Latino populations continue to grow in influence in both Texas and the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 marked the first time in the country’s history that students classified as Hispanic enrolled in college in greater numbers than non-Hispanic white students.
“The integration of Latina/o Studies into an already stellar Mexican American Studies academic curriculum is designed to prepare students to be Latino-serving professionals in a nation with vastly shifting demographics. With departmentalization, we can better serve our students with dedicated faculty, holding them to the highest standard of excellence in the classroom and beyond,” said Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, chair of the new department. “The value of a Mexican American and Latina/o Studies education is found in the ways we teach students to problem solve in a culturally competent and ethical manner.”
Currently, about 25 students major in Mexican American Studies. In the new department, the university hopes to double that number in a year and double it again the following year. The department is opening with six faculty members — including some with degrees from top institutions such as Cornell, Stanford, the University of Chicago and UCLA — and it plans to add an additional six in three to five years.
“For more than four decades, Mexican American Studies has devoted itself to providing the very best disciplinary training possible concerning the history and culture of Mexican-origin people and Latinos, more broadly, who together presently make up 33 percent of the state’s population,” said Domino R. Perez, director of Mexican American Studies. “During the planning phase, we knew we wanted to implement a shared vision for the future of Mexican American Studies, one generated by UT students, faculty and staff that would benefit not simply one ethnic or racial group, but one that would help prepare the future leaders of the state and nation.”
The department will offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees this fall. Doctorates will be offered in 2016-17, pending approval by state higher education officials. With degree tracks in Cultural Studies, Policy, and Language and Cognition, MALS faculty members and affiliates are leaders in the study of immigration, race, gender, sexuality and social class. Students in UT Austin’s Mexican American Studies program have gone on to careers in the nonprofit, education, social service, governmental and academic sectors, all with an eye toward working with Latina/o populations.
MALS will work closely with UT Austin’s Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), the Benson Latin American Collection, as well as with faculty members from the departments of African and African Diaspora Studies, English, History and Government, and the College of Education.
“This new department will bring together some of the nation’s finest scholars from a variety of academic disciplines and further advance our college and university as a national leader in the study of Mexican American and Latino populations,” said Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “This department will be an invaluable asset to the state and nation as they face future challenges and opportunities that come with demographic change.”
Mexican American Studies at UT Austin originated in the late 1960s following dialogues among students and administrators and activists from the community. The Center for Mexican American Studies was launched in 1970 after students proposed the center to administrators with the help of faculty members Drs. Américo Paredes and George I. Sanchez.
Feature image: Domino R. Perez, director of Mexican American Studies; and Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, chair of MALS.