Latino Studies Program celebrates 25 years at Cornell

Twenty-five years ago, Latino studies programs were popping up all over the country, says Hector Velez, Ph.D. '83, in recognition of Latinos being one of the fastest growing populations in the United States.

At the request of former Vice Provost Barry Adams, Velez worked with students and faculty to establish the interdisciplinary Hispanic American Studies Program (HASP) at Cornell in 1987, later renamed the Latino Studies Program (LSP) in 1992 and moved to the College of Arts and Sciences. "We thought the move was a good idea, and it's worked out well," says Velez.

Cornell's program was the first in the Ivy League and on the East Coast, according to Michael Jones-Correa, professor of government and acting director of LSP.

While LSP courses now cover politics, law, language, history, art, literature, anthropology, music and issues ranging from health and education to racial and ethnic politics to Latinos and the American dream, "in 1987 there were very few courses we could cross-list and no faculty lines for programs," Velez recalls. In fact, the only HASP course was Velez's on Latinos in the United States, a course he still teaches.

Latino Heritage Month event

Almost since its inception, the Latino Studies Program (LSP) has held an annual unity event to celebrate Latino Heritage Month. Over the years the dinner has grown larger and more festive, and has become a key student-driven activity for LSP. This year's dinner, held Oct. 12 in Willard Straight Hall, was the central event of LSP's 25th anniversary celebration and included many alumni, students and faculty.

The anniversary program featured keynote speeches by LSP founders Hector Velez, Ph.D. '83, an LSP visiting scholar; Irma Padamsee, Ph.D. '84; and Vernon Briggs, Ph.D. '65, ILR professor emeritus.

"Our 25th anniversary celebration is a moment of recognition and celebration of what's been accomplished," Michael Jones-Correa, director of LSP, said about the event, which included student performances of music, dance and theater.

In honor of LSP's anniversary, the Latino Heritage Month display in Olin Library will be followed by a 25th anniversary digital display through Dec. 3.

The four-day takeover of Day Hall by a group of students in 1993 had a dramatic effect on LSP and Latino students at Cornell. The protest was sparked by vandalism of "The Castle Is Burning," a large installation created as part of a Hispanic art exhibit. About 100 students marched to Day Hall to demand protection of the artwork; when they couldn't get a meeting with President Frank Rhodes, they occupied Day Hall.

The university met many of the student demands, says Eduardo Penalver '94 (one of the takeover leaders and now a Cornell law professor), providing additional faculty for LSP and hiring more Latino faculty across campus. The College of Arts and Sciences subsequently added an advising dean of Latino descent, a role currently filled by Juliette Corazon, who holds weekly hours in an office provided by LSP.

"One thing that motivated student activism in the '90s was the notion that LSP would be a focal point for community," says Penalver. "We understood that LSP goes beyond the academic content area."

For minority students coming from single-culture communities, stepping into the diversity of Cornell can be overwhelming, and LSP provides an important gathering place. Weekly lunches held by LSP serve as a cornerstone retention program for Latino students as well as faculty and staff across the university. Says Jones-Correa. "It's been incredibly important to have this space where students and faculty can come together to create the sense of community which leads to the success of students. It's not just about individual effort; community works best when students have some kind of peer support."

In 1994 Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, associate professor of anthropology, became LSP's first joint appointment. She worked with Velez to restructure LSP with an increased emphasis on academics. The program now has a graduate and undergraduate minor and funds to support research projects.

"When we first started, I used to have largely Latino students in my courses; now I have students from all over Cornell, and more students are minoring in LSP who are not Latino. It's an acknowledgment that this is an important field of scholarship," Santiago-Irizarry says.

In the last 10 years, LSP has been strengthened with additional joint faculty and faculty lines provided through the provost's office and Arts and Sciences, says Jones-Correa, who notes that one of LSP's greatest accomplishments is "creating an intellectual and interdisciplinary hub that brings people with intersecting interests together."

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Media Contact

Syl Kacapyr