Latina/o Studies Working Group Sparks New Initiative at Rutgers University–Newark

Lawrence Lerner
973-353-1944

Rutgers University–Newark is known for its remarkable diversity, ranked as having the most diverse student body in the U.S. for 18 consecutive years by U.S. News and World Report.

Part of that heterogeneity comes from its Hispanic full-time undergraduate population, which grew to 25 percent by the end of last year, making RU-N eligible for designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS) under Title V of the Higher Education Act.

The range of countries these students and their families hail from is no less remarkable: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Ecuador, just to name a few.

So, it’s hardly surprising that a new initiative is underway at RU-N—the Latina/o Studies Working Group (LSWG)—aimed at building a scholarly and cultural foundation for both students and faculty alike, while forging ties with community partners in Newark, other parts of New Jersey, and the greater New York metropolitan area.

The organization, composed of RU-N faculty and staff, is getting off the ground with a promising Fall 2015 lineup of arts programming and lectures.

LSWG’s Latina/o Arts Festival will take place at RU-N on Oct. 14, and its Lourdes Casal Speaker Series will kick off on Nov. 18. Dana Library will host an exhibit, “Newark ’74: Remembering the Puerto Rican Rebellion,” from late November to early February (with a closing reception on Feb. 3, 4-6pm).

The group will also bring together faculty and graduate students pursuing Latina/o Studies to discuss interdisciplinary works-in-progress that address the culture, politics and history of Chicana/o, Latina/o and Latin American forms. These will take place at CUNY (Oct. 29) and RU-N (Nov. 12).

“Latina/o Studies in this region grows out of the struggle for recognition by groups representing the Hispanic Caribbean diaspora that dates to the 19th century,” says LSWG Co-Director Laura Lomas, professor of English at RU-N. “Scholars come to this work from many disciplines: history, literature, political science, economics, psychology, law. The field has generated new methodologies that have built on and transformed traditional disciplines.“

And there are signs that the field is growing with the founding of the Latino Studies Association in 2014, says Lomas, who co-directs LSWG with Jason Cortés, Director of American Studies and Assistant Professor of Spanish at RU-N. And just this fall, an interdisciplinary Latin American & Latino Studies minor, based in RU-N’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, was launched.

Recognizing these changes and demographic shifts, RU-N’s Office of the Chancellor's Seed Grants program awarded LSWG $75K to get these new scholarly and cultural programs off the ground. The group is receiving additional support from the Dean's Office of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences–Newark.

The Latina/o Arts Festival is the centerpiece of LSWG’s fall series. Music headliners include the all-female mariachi band Flor de Toloache and Afro-Colombian hip-hop artist I.N.T.I. They’ll perform on RU-N’s Norman Samuels Plaza on Oct. 14 (2:30-4pm). There will also be a Community Health and Educational Resources Fair with nonprofits from across the city, plus local Latin delicacies and crafts.

The Festival continues later that evening with a public Conversatorio—or lecture and conversation—featuring Felipe Luciano, the legendary artist-activist, journalist and media personality who in the 1970s co-founded the Last Poets spoken-word music group and New York’s Young Lords Party. Luciano, who currently serves as Director of Communications for Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, will give a talk on the past, present and future of Latina/os in Newark, the state of New Jersey, and the U.S. at RU-N’s Ackerson Hall Atrium (5-8pm).

“This event is about celebrating Latina/o culture and history—and about commemorating decades of struggle for recognition, celebrating Rutgers University–Newark’s status as an eligible Hispanic-Serving Institution, and getting inspired by the role Latina/os are playing in the future of Newark and beyond,” says Lomas.

“As an anchor institution of the city of Newark, Rutgers—and LSWG—are reaching out to take the lead on research and programming for and about Latina/o communities on campus and citywide, while partnering with local community-based organizations,” she says.

Those partnerships—along with creating a space for Latina/o Studies scholarship, research and cultural programs—are at the heart of LSWG’s broader mission.

The group is producing the Latina/o Arts Festival in conjunction with NJ-TV, the Mayor of Newark’s Office of Community Partnerships, and WBGO, and it’s looking to collaborate with local organizations such as the Newark Public Library, ASPIRA, Ironbound Community Corporation, FOCUS Health Center, and La Casa de Don Pedro on future projects, while formalizing ties with nearby Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) such as Bloomfield College, NJIT and Essex County College.

At the Newark Public Library’s NJ Hispanic Information and Resource Center, for example, retired RU-N Emeritus Professor Olga Jiménez Wagenheim is currently working on an ambitious oral history project, documenting Latina/o migration and life in New Jersey.

“So there’s an obvious synergy there, where students can gain experience in Oral History collection and preservation, while providing essential work enrich, preserve and disseminate this important archive,” says Lomas.

She also acknowledges the crucial support from RU-N’s administration and community partners in getting LSWG off the ground.

“We were fortunate to receive this seed grant, along with support from the FASN Dean’s Office, and look forward to continuing our work in line with RU-N’s Strategic Plan under Chancellor Nancy Cantor,” she says. “This is a very exciting time to be at Rutgers University–Newark, and collaborating with the wealth of organizations in Newark who have long served the Latina/o community will only strengthen the initiative and its impact.”

For more information on LSGW’s Latina/o Arts Festival and other programs, please visit www.facebook.com/LSWGRUN.