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Promoting La Cultura Hispana

Promoting La Cultura Hispana
ASU’s Hispanic Research Center advances the arts and works to produce homegrown talent in the STEM fields.

By David Pluviose

Launched in 1985 at Arizona State University, the Hispanic Research Center’s efforts to promote Latino and Chicano art and issues have flourished in recent years. In 2004, the HRC hosted the Arizona International Latina/o Arts Festival in collaboration with the Mesa Southwest Museum. “The Dreamer,” an exhibition piece by artist and film set designer Patssi Valdez, created quite a stir in the art world and was most recently featured as a key backdrop for the 2007 ALMA Awards.

Another artist featured prominently in the numerous books and other media produced by the HRC is Alfredo Arreguín. His work is currently being displayed as part of a prominent exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The HRC’s director, Dr. Gary Keller, says many artists featured in HRC publications and exhibitions have now been able to support themselves solely through rapid sales of their artwork promoted by the HRC.

“We have done more for Latino-Latina art than any other university or organization in the U.S.,” Keller says, noting that the HRC’s Bilingual Review Press is the largest university-affiliated publisher and distributor of Latina-Latino books in the country. Keller says the Bilingual Press has published hundreds of original books and distributes over 1,000 titles produced by other presses. The Bilingual Press also produces the literary/scholarly journal Bilingual Review.

Keller adds that the HRC is currently embarking on two major projects focused on the cultural interpretation of biodiversity and “good” bandits in popular culture and history.

“We’re doing a lot of work on the popular conception of noble bandits or people who we consider revolutionaries, but some Anglos consider bandits — characters like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. We don’t consider them bandits. We consider them model revolutionaries,” Keller says.

Keller adds the HRC is focusing on the study of birds as part of its biodiversity project. This project will embark on scientific analyses of birds on a molecular level, also analyzing birds from a cultural and artistic perspective.

“We’re going to analyze the eagle not only as a fabulous success in conservation, but we’re going to be evaluating the eagle as the national symbol of the United States, the national symbol of Mexico and the national symbol of Costa Rica. … This is something in cultural studies that will bring Latina-Latino interests into the international domain,” Keller says.

Ramping Up STEM Efforts
The HRC has also founded a mentoring institute for students and faculty aimed at boosting the number of students that pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields overall, with a particular emphasis on underrepresented minorities. The initiative aims to support both graduate and undergraduate research, facilitating peer groups designed to help undergraduate students ace gatekeeper courses like organic chemistry and calculus.

Dr. Antonio Garcia, the associate director of the HRC and a professor of bioengineering at ASU, says the HRC’s work to produce homegrown talent in STEM fields is critical as other nations have ramped up their STEM efforts considerably. Nevertheless, Garcia says what a nation like China has not been able to duplicate is the extensive system of community colleges the United States has, and this gives the U.S. much more depth in the sciences. Garcia says the HRC aims to strengthen STEM field study in all levels of higher ed through its partnership with El Paso Community College.

“Engineering has to look at the global competition and decide what we do best in the U.S. and how to position ourselves, because our educational system here is very local. We want to educate everyone, give everyone opportunity — that’s our strength,” Garcia says.

“We try to measure ourselves with more focused efforts. In other countries they only want to get top students and leave everyone else behind. Those approaches are apples and oranges,” he says pointing to the popular conception that China produces some of the world’s best engineers. “When you look carefully at what they’re producing, they’re producing some excellent people at the top schools, but they don’t have two-year schools; there’s no middle.”

Keller says the STEM peer-mentoring program within the HRC is critical, because students interested in pursuing STEM fields can easily get knocked off track by gatekeeper courses. In particular, Keller says the HRC develops problem sets for STEM students that are more challenging than problem sets they actually face in the classroom.

“A B+ is not a win. A B- is definitely not a win. We need these students to get A pluses and As, so that then they’ll be accepted into graduate school and Ph.D. programs. That’s not easy to do unless they really excel,” Keller says.

Also, Keller says the HRC has partnered with the College Board and the Educational Testing Service for over 20 years in an effort to boost Hispanic achievement. In 2005, Educational Testing Service, the College Board and the HRC hosted the Latino STEM Conference which brought together leading minds to discuss how to boost Latino achievement.

Dr. Michael T. Nettles, senior vice president and chair of the Policy Evaluation and Research Center at ETS, says HRC is usually one of the first Latino research organizations ETS consults when weighing any issue concerning Hispanic performance.

“Their influence is enormous,” Nettles says of the HRC. “They have intellectual and research credibility, so that their knowledge and their passion and commitment are unmatched on these issues. When we are planning to address issues related to Latinos and particularly Chicanos, we think of the Hispanic Research Center, HACU and two or three other places first.”

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