Sharing Culture With Latin American Student Leaders


In January and February, the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona hosted 20 university students from South America as part of the Study of the U.S. Institutes, or SUSI, a program that involves indigenous and Afro-descendant student leaders from Latin America in a five-week certificate program sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Students come to Tucson for four weeks and then swap places with SUSI students in Amherst, Massachusetts, from the Institute for Training and Development. Then both groups meet up in Washington, D.C. The program runs twice a year, with an additional cohort of students that arrives in the summer.

The institute is designed to improve the students' understanding of the U.S. and to develop their leadership skills. Students learn about civil rights in the U.S., Native American tribes and Mexican-American communities in Arizona, and they participate in leadership for peace workshops and hands-on training in sustainable technologies.

These young people are chosen by their embassies to participate in the program because they already are engaged in cultural, political and environmental activities in their countries. Most of them do not speak English but do speak two or three languages, including an indigenous language. They are honored to be chosen for the opportunity and excited to learn about the U.S.

Since 2008, the UA program has been coordinated by Marcela Vásquez-León, director of the Center for Latin American Studies (LAS) and associate professor in the School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Alberto Arenas, associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies in the College of Education. The two take turns leading the program. This winter, Vásquez-León is in charge.

Program coordinators and graduate students from LAS and the College of Education help everything run smoothly. Undergraduate students whose families live in or near Tucson act as mentors.

"The United States benefits from a program like SUSI because we bring the best and brightest to the UA, students who tomorrow will be political, economic and cultural leaders in their home countries," Arenas said. "These Latin American students acquire a firsthand knowledge of the U.S., learn about its successes and challenges, and ultimately have a more realistic view of the U.S. Upon returning to their home country, these students become the best ambassadors of the U.S."

Developing Intercultural Leaders

During their stay in Tucson, the students visited a Tohono O'odham reservation and a Yaqui school, heard from a representative from the Native Nations Institute and visited the "Paths of Life" exhibit at the Arizona State Museum. They also learned about civil rights issues related to Mexican-American and African-American communities. "They see the struggles of minority groups in the U.S.," Vásquez-León said.

"Before coming to this country, I thought the United States did not have problems," said Rafael Gareca Lema, who lives in Tarija, Bolivia. "In Latin America, we have the idea that the United States has power and prosperity in all ways, so when I come here I see the problems Americans face every day and I got concerned about the importance of all people in all countries."

The students attended a variety of workshops addressing such topics as: How do you talk to a politician? How do you advocate for change? How do you fight against discrimination? They listened to talks from UA professors, including anthropologist Antonio Bacelar da Silva (about race), political scientist Jennifer Cyr (democracy), historian David Gibbs (foreign policy) and sociologist Daniel Martinez (border). The students picked buffelgrass, learned about environmental sustainability and visited the garden at Manzo Elementary School. They also made it to the Grand Canyon.

"It was the first time I saw snow falling. It was amazing and beautiful," Héctor Díaz said. "I met beautiful people, too. I made so many friends, and I expect this experience will make me a better person."

Mia Carvalho Guimaraes, a UA undergraduate student double majoring in public health and Spanish and Portuguese, has been a mentor in the program five times.

"I learn so much from my mentees, so I just keep coming back," she said. "They inspire me because of the things they do in their own community."

Advocates for Change

The Latin American students come from a variety of majors — education, law, medicine, psychology, communication. "What they have in common is that they are young people who are already involved in community change," Vásquez-León said.

Díaz, from Asuncion, Paraguay, is Nivaclé and helps the younger people in his community write and speak the language. Romina Pomain Rodriquez, from La Paz, Bolivia, works with the elderly and at her church. Gareca Lema is from Tarija, Bolivia, and helps poor and sick people in his community. Navvab Jasmine Cordova Bravo, from Puno, Peru, volunteers with literacy projects and helps develop campaigns to help the community deal with the cold.

Translating for Cordova Bravo, Vásquez-León said, "She is descended from Quechua. She said she realizes the worth of her culture. When she goes back, she wants to get really good at her language."

Alex Gutierrez Castillo, also from Peru, studies communication and publicity, but after hearing talks at the UA he said he is "falling in love with anthropology." He volunteers with the cultural ministry in the area of interculturality, working with the Afro-Peruvian population, "making our population more visible and showing the importance of the population historically."

The students all spoke of their desire to be agents of change in their countries.

"With all the tools our teachers have given us, we can do something to make our societies better places to live in," Pomain Rodriquez said.

The Center for Latin American Studies recently received a new grant from the State Department, which will provide about $400,000 a year for the next three years. Marcela Vásquez-León will direct the project, which will focus on cultivating female leaders and is titled "Study of the U.S. Institutes: Women's Leadership for Indigenous and Afro-Latina Women."