‘A more just world’

With over 30 years of Latin American and Latinx studies at Penn, the academic program is now being made into a center.

A woman in front of a microphone speaks to groups of seated and standing students
Tulia Falleti addresses the crowd at the Center's fall almuerzo, or lunch. 

Nikole Bonillas Félix, a senior, recently took a class on Mexican history and delighted in recounting its content to her family. Originally born in Nogales, Mexico—a border city in the desert hill country about an hour and a half south of Tucson, Arizona—the family immigrated when Bonillas Félix was a child, and they now live in Laredo, Texas. Although Bonillas Félix arrived at Penn with designs on a “strictly STEM” education, she found herself taking more and more of the interdisciplinary classes that Latin American and Latinx Studies (LALS) offers and is now double majoring in biology and LALS. Being involved in LALS, Bonillas Félix says, “changed my perspective in how I wanted to approach my career.”

Six students sing and play musical instruments
Junior Nikole Bonillas (far right) plays with Fuerza, a group she established in 2019 “to create a safe space to celebrate our culture through musical perfomance,” she says. The group plays a variety of styles, from pop to salsa and mariachi.   

With over 30 years of Latin American and Latinx Studies at Penn, the academic program was established as a center in July. The Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies (CLALS) offers a certification for graduate students as well as an undergraduate major and minor, the popularity of which has doubled in the last five years. Creating a center for LALS will create “far more visibility” for the study of Latin America and Latinx communities, not only on campus, but also in the wider world, says center director Tulia Falleti, the Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science. “The University, I think, more clearly will become a destination to study the region and Latinx populations,” she says

Creating the center adds another level of legitimacy, says Tamar Lilienthal, a junior working on a double major in LALS and cinema studies. “When you tell someone you major in Latin American studies, the looks are telling,” she says. “I think people have trouble sort of picturing what's the point of this area of study, and what do you do with it?”

For Lilienthal, Latin American and Latinx Studies has integral importance to her future career in the film industry. “First and foremost, one of the biggest conversations in American cinema today is representation,” she says. Lilienthal—“Brazilian on one side, Uruguayan on the other”—grew up speaking Portuguese in her family home in Coral Springs, Florida. “The conversation about representation and about really depicting Americans in all of their forms and backgrounds is really huge for me,” she says.

Three masked students pose together
Establishing a center for Latin American and Latinx studies is a marker of legitimacy, says Tamar Lilienthal (far right), and will create more opportunities for student engagement. 

Lilienthal has also enjoyed learning about Latin American cinema history. “We in the U.S. have a very Hollywood-centric view of film,” she says, while in many Latin American countries, film has been used as a political tool. “The creativity that goes into hiding messages in your media is fascinating,” Lilienthal says, and gives her an entirely different perspective that she can take into her own work

“What I want our Center to become is an institution of excellence,” says Falleti. “We want to offer our students the history, the diplomacy, politics and economics, arts and letters, the cultural studies approach that we need to understand Latin America. And hopefully, perhaps this is just my bias, also to work towards policy changes.” Falleti hopes that CLALS will become a mecca for those looking “to tackle the big problems or challenges or opportunities that Latin America and Latinx communities in the U.S. will face in the 21st century,” she says.

CLALS is unique in that it focuses on both Latin American and Latinx communities, Falleti says, “and out of that intersection or synergy sometimes emerge very interesting projects that don’t have homes elsewhere.”

Through an external speaker series grant, the Center allows professors to invite special guests in Latin American and Latinx studies to their classes. This semester, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Grace Sanders Johnson hosted Nadève Ménard for a conversation on Haiti, while CLALS lecturer Veronica Brownstone invited Geo Maher to speak on abolition in Latin America.

Four masked people stand together in the McNeil Building
Emilio Parrado, Tulia Falleti, Catherine Bartch, and Anabel Bernal Estrada in the McNeil building, the Center’s home. 

CLALS also offers an interdisciplinary research clusters program, wherein faculty can apply with colleagues from another department to explore a research topic of common interest from an interdisciplinary perspective, for example the African diaspora in Latin America, or socioenvironmental and territorial justice.

Santiago Cunial, a political science doctoral student from Buenos Aires, Argentina, is involved in the territorial justice interdisciplinary research group, led by Falleti and Kristina Lyons, assistant professor of anthropology and environmental humanities. Cunial enjoys interacting with people from other departments through CLALS. “We discuss things that have political consequences, in terms of discussion of territories, access to land, extractive industries, and the rights of indigenous populations,” Cunial says.

The discussions go beyond academic curiosity, Cunial says, as group members are invested in the outcomes. “Most of the people that are part of the Center have political motivations beyond actually conducting rigorous research. We all have these kinds of problems in our minds that we want to try to solve in order to create a more just society.

Amy Offner, associate professor of history who cross-lists with LALS such courses as “Capitalism, Socialism, and Crisis in Twentieth-Century Americas” or “Huelga: the Farmworker Movement in the United States,” has noticed this intention as well. “The students that I’ve worked with in LALS have impressed me for their genuine commitment to understanding the society and politics that they live in,” Offner says. “They are not just trying to add another line to their resumé, but have gone on to do really interesting work in many parts of Latin America and in the United States to try and build a more just world.”

CLALS also engages in building a more just world through community outreach. One of the Center’s main partners is the Centro de Cultura Arte Trabajo y Educación (CCATE), based in Norristown. CLALS associate director Catherine Bartch, along with Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology Emilio Parrado and associate professor Amalia Dache in the Graduate School for Education, were recently awarded a joint grant in partnership with Obed Arango and Holly Link of CCATE. The $50,000 grant will foster engaged research along with programming that focuses on reducing inequities in college access among Latinx Communities.

One of the ways CLALS does this is through the Penn Model Organization of American States (OAS) program, says Bartch. Most students involved in the Penn Model OAS program have come from families making $50,000 or less and more than 75% have been people of color. Through Diplomacy in the Americas, an ABCS course, undergraduates work with high schoolers from the Philadelphia School District and from Norristown to prepare them for participation in a national high school debate, held annually in Washington D.C. drawing more than 300 students from all across the Americas.

While the world is more standardized and interconnected than ever before, there are still regional particularities, says Falleti. “Globalization has not actually made the need for regionalized knowledge any less relevant or important.” It’s important “to really comprehend the local cultures, histories, ways of doing things that might be different, even if we all have access to the internet,” she says.

Bonillas Félix has found taking classes that correlate to her lived experience as an immigrant impactful. “It’s very intertwined,” Bonillas Félix, who originally planned to become a trauma surgeon. In taking the classes offered by CLALS, she learned “there’s more than just having a scalpel and saving people’s lives that way,” she says. With one foot in science and the other in humanities, Bonillas Félix hopes to open a new landmark along the barbed wire-lined borderlands: a pro bono medical clinic offering health care to those in need.