As a new student at Holyoke Community College (HCC) in 2018, Alexandra Santiago started out as a communications major.
But last fall she signed up for a class at the college that took her in an entirely different direction. That was Teatro Nuestro, a Learning Community course that explored identity through the literature, culture, history, politics, movements and influence of people of Mexican, Central-American, South-American and Caribbean descent.
Teatro Nuestro – “Our Theater” in English – combined two classes from different academic areas: Introduction to Theater and Introduction to Latinx Studies. The latter was the first course in the college catalog with the prefix LAX, which denotes Latinx Studies, an interdisciplinary program introduced at HCC for the fall 2019 semester.
“I wanted to learn more about the history of where I come from,” said the 21-year-old Santiago, who moved to Holyoke from Puerto Rico after Hurricane María devastated the island in September 2017.
By the time the course concluded in December, Santiago had switched her major to Latinx Studies. She will be taking two more courses required for her new major during the spring 2020 semester, which starts Jan. 27: “Latinx Literature,” an inter-institutional honors class co-taught by HCC assistant professor of Spanish Raúl Gutiérrez and Sony Coranez Bolton, an assistant professor of Spanish and Latinx and Latin American Studies at Amherst College; and “Latinx Politics,” taught by HCC political science professor Mark Clinton.
“I found that I was interested in politics,” said Santiago. “With a major in Latinx Studies, I can focus on that. I want to advocate for Latinx people, in some way or another.”
Teatro Nuestro was co-taught by HCC theater professor Patricia Sandoval and Gutiérrez, co-founder and chair of the Latinx Studies program. Gutiérrez said he hopes more students like Santiago will decide to pursue Latinx Studies, which is offered as a concentration option to an associate degree in liberal arts.
“It makes perfect sense for HCC to have this program because we are an HSI” – federally recognized Hispanic Serving Institution – “and we have a large population of Latino students, or Latinx students, especially those from Puerto Rico,” he said.
The Latinx Studies program grew out of a $120,000 Bridging Cultures grant HCC received from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2015. The goal was to help the HCC faculty incorporate Latinx Studies material into existing courses with an eye toward new ones.
“In three years, we trained 15 faculty members to be more inclusive and more responsive, adding Latinx Studies material into their coursework,” he said, “whether that be a history class or an English class, for example. In the process, we were creating curriculum.”
The result was courses that became cornerstones of the new major: Latinx Literature, Latinx Politics, History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and Introduction to Latinx Studies. Requirements for the major also include an internship or Latinx civic engagement project and electives from a wide variety of other areas of study, such as anthropology, sociology, communications, history race and ethnicity, and Spanish. The program prepares students for transfer to a four-year institution for those who want to complete their bachelor’s degrees and pursue careers such as community organizing, law and advocacy, city and urban planning, politics and policy, counseling and international relations.
“The great thing about Latinx Studies is that you can go in any direction,” Sandoval said to students on the first day of class.
Gutiérrez will teach three sections of Introduction to Latinx Studies during the spring 2020 semester: one college-level class on campus; one for students in HCC’s alternative high school program, Gateway to College; and a third at Holyoke High School.
“My plan is to create a pipeline of students,” he said. “I want to do the groundwork and build the foundation for the program. By reaching out to high school students I hope that when they graduate they will decide to come to us.”
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