Major Move Ahead?

December 22, 2006

Students minoring in Central American studies at California State University's Northridge campus probably have heard the story from their parents -- about how decades ago, students stormed the campus and demanded that administrators add minority professors and incorporate ethnic studies into the curriculum. 

This generation has seen an increasing number of Central American courses (22) at the college and a burgeoning population (roughly 2,500) of students with ties to the region. The next step, many hope, is for Northridge to offer a Central American studies major, which university officials say would be the first in the country.

Northridge’s Central American studies program, which began in 2000, already has about 550 students taking courses each semester and more than 100 who have declared minors, according to Beatriz Cortez, the program's coordinator and an assistant professor. The minor program advertises itself as a way for students to understand their heritage or to work with Los Angeles County's growing Central American community -- totaling roughly 500,000 people, according to 2005 Census Bureau estimates.

“It has been a pleasure to see such a demand because of such a large number of students with Central American origins,” said Cortez, who is El Salvadoran. “They were taking classes in other departments and there was a feeling that their own experience as Central Americans wasn’t being addressed.”

Northridge's College of Humanities unanimously approved the proposed major this fall, and the college's educational policy committee, which reviews all curricular changes, will weigh in this spring. For the Central American studies major to become official, the Cal State chancellor's office would have to give final approval. (The program would become official one year later, though students could start taking classes right away.)

Elizabeth Say, dean of the College of Humanities, said word could come as soon as next fall. She doesn't expect anything to stand in the way of approval. "[The major] falls well within the college's mission statement and is the next logical step for this program," Say said in an e-mail.

Cortez said growing support from the region's Central American population, student groups and the Chicana and Chicano studies department at Northridge has helped move the process forward. David Rodriguez, chair of the Chicana and Chicano studies department, which has lobbied for the new major, said the influx of Central American immigrants to Los Angeles has made a fuller Central American program necessary at Northridge.

"There's certainly wide-ranging support," he said. "Otherwise the minor wouldn't have gotten to the point where it is -- where people are asking for major status. We're very excited about it and hope eventually it can have a departmental status."

Classes in the Central American studies program are designed to be interdisciplinary, dealing with subjects such as religion, immigration and social movements. Current courses include “The Central American Diaspora” and “Survey of Central American Literature and Art.” Cortez said the program has developed 10 new courses, which have been approved by the College of Humanities and would be a part of the new offerings in the fall.

"It’s a privilege to be able to help contribute to the development of the field,” Cortez said. “This is an emerging discipline.”

Colleges across the country have for some time offered individual courses that deal with Central America, but Cortez said the trend has been to focus on the national identity of each country instead of taking a holistic approach.

Charles R. Hale, president of the Latin American Studies Association and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while he isn’t familiar with Northridge's major proposal, he supports area studies programs that take an interdisciplinary approach. 

“Within the Latin America region, I am generally not in favor of nation-state centered approaches as a final resting place, i.e., Mexican studies, Argentine studies, Bolivia(n) studies,” he said in an e-mail. “Although deep contextualized historical knowledge of a given national space is important, the nation can often be a highly restrictive and limiting unit of analysis. 

"Central American studies would seem partially to avoid that trap through a regional perspective; but the danger of parochial blinders is still there," Hale added. "One factor that would mitigate this danger, it seems to me, is a strong focus on transnational Central American populations; another is if they have strong thematic concentrations within the major."

Keeping a broad lens is just the point, Rodriguez said.

“These aren’t enclaves interested only in their own selves," he said. "This is about comparing with the rest of society."

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