In Spring of 2019, Dr. Eugenio Matibag Retired from The Department of World Languages and Literature. USLS sincerely thanks Dr. Matibag for his amazing contributions to the department and the program. He is an exemplary colleague, professor, scholar, and friend, leaving a legacy that will long be remembered amongst many in the US Latino/a Studies Program. Although we will miss him, we wish him the best as he embarks on a new adventure in what promises to be a very active “retirement.” Below please find his insightful reflections of an important part of his 32-year career at Iowa State University.
“Why Latinx Studies Matter: Reflections on My Years in the Program”
Eugenio Matibag, Professor of Spanish Emerita, Iowa State University.
Now that I am retiring from my professorial position at the end of the Spring 2019 semester and after thirty-two years of service at Iowa State University, Dr. Lucía Suárez, the director of the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State, has asked me to reflect on my years of participation in the program.
To begin with, by way of an illustration: The Puerto Rican Student Association of Iowa State honored me, in November of 2017, with an invitation to deliver the opening address for their annual cultural night celebration. In the audience were many Puerto Rican students, some of them my students in classes, and their friends and families. On that night I was glad to be able to share what I knew of Puerto Rico’s history, culture, and natural beauty, and I wished also to give a supportive response to the devastation recently visited on the island by Hurricane María. The title of my talk on that occasion was “Morning in the Tropics: Se Levanta Puerto Rico” (Puerto Rico Arises). I spoke on how Puerto Rico had become a “free associated state” of the United States after the Spanish-American War of 1898; on what was unique about Puerto Rico’s insular geography and Hispanic people; and on why Puerto Ricans had a place of pride in U.S. history. I brought up the fact that we were currently celebrating Veterans’ Week, and in Chicago, U.S. military veterans of Puerto Rico had gathered to honor the soldiers and voice their demands for sufficient aid to the hurricane-stricken island. Speakers at the event reminded the audience that 330,000 veterans are Puerto Rican, and that 35,000 Puerto Ricans are currently serving in active duty in the U.S. military. One speaker was Corporal Tomás Lozada, who fought in the Korean War as a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment of Borinqueneers—all of them Puerto Rican Marines. The Service Employees Union bulletin that published this news added that since the end of the Korean War, a total of 1,119 Puerto Ricans have given their lives in service to the United States.
My relationship with students from Puerto Rico and my work in conveying knowledge about their country illustrates what I think is an important aspect of my role as a member of the faculty in the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State. Having taught the Introduction to Latino/a Studies, USLS 211, during three years, I noted that about half of the students enrolled in that course were coming from Hispanic family backgrounds. As we studied the history and culture of the 56 million Hispanics in the United States, I became keenly aware that this history and culture were not simply an academic subject and a prerequisite for graduation, but much more: this history and culture constituted a personal patrimony and heritage for the Latino and Latina students in my classes. Moreover, this patrimony and heritage belonged not only to them, but to all of us in class, Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike, insofar as the Latino/a experience was part of a legacy that, as journalist Ray Suárez has stated it, “shaped a nation.” As we learned about Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominican Americans and all other Americans of Latin American and Hispanic descent—we were learning about ourselves as Americans.
I became involved in the Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State in 1999, at a time when Dr. Héctor Ávalos was building the program within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. At the time, I was busy researching and teaching Latin American literature and culture and teaching classes in Spanish language, and I was called upon to help review Dr Ávalos’ scholarship on the U.S. Latino/a experience. Some years afterward, Dr. Avalos allowed me to teach a course in my own department, titled U.S. Hispanic Writing. In 2005, Dr. Ávalos published his Introduction to the U.S. Latina and Latino Religious Experience, and in that collection of essays he included my own contribution, “Religion among the Dominican Americans.” The essay had to do with the religious practices of Dominicans engaged in the “circular migration” between the United States, principally New York and New Jersey, and their Caribbean homeland.
By that same year, in 2005, U.S. Latino/a Studies became a program overseen by our Center for American Intercultural Studies, of which I was the director until 2012, and in which I collaborated on various projects with Dr. Avalos. At CAIS, we coordinate the curricular and programmatic advances of U.S. Latino/a Studies with those of the programs in Asian American, African American and American Indian Studies. In 2016 I was overjoyed to learn that Dr. Lucía Suárez would join our Spanish Faculty in the Department World Languages and Cultures, and that with her hiring she would assume the directorship of U.S. Latino/a Studies. I already knew of Dr. Suárez’s international reputation as an outstanding scholar of Caribbean and Latin American literature and culture. At the same time, the Spanish program welcomed another new colleague to our group, Dr. Megan Myers. Like Dr. Suárez and myself, Dr. Myers had published new research on the relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two countries occupying the island of Hispaniola. And so I found myself in the company of like-minded Caribbeanists, or “Hispaniolists,” with all of us investigating in varying degrees the relations between the Hispanic Caribbean peoples and the Hispanic peoples of United States. With the participation of historian Dr. Brian Behnken on the U.S. Latino/a Studies faculty, I knew that the program was on the right track.
And under the excellent direction of Dr. Suárez, the U.S. Latino/a Studies has continued to make a significant contribution to the intellectual formation of our students as they face the challenges of living in an increasingly diverse and globalized world. In our classes in U.S. Latino/a Studies, students have explored numerous rich and relevant issues addressing the Latino/a experience in the United States, concerned with Hispanic immigration and citizenship, food, music, sports, literature and art. Readings and discussion in our courses have focused on such topics as the Bracero Movement, the Zoot Suit Riots, Chicano mural art in Los Angeles, and the cultural impact of such cross-over musical artists as Selena Quintanilla, Gloria Estefan and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
At this point I would like to bring up a curious key term that emerged in the academic discourse on Latino/a Studies during the time I was teaching and researching Latin American and Hispanic literatures. That key term was Latinx. Literati and cognoscenti recommended the use of Latinx as a way of avoiding having to use the wordy “Latino and Latina” in references to Hispanic peoples of the United States. Especially troublesome was the “gendered” bias of the standard Spanish collective plural “latinos,” ending as it did with the “masculine” inflection “-os” regardless of whether the referent was men only or a mix of men and women. Latinx , I learned, was the concise and non-sexist alternative to the phrase “Latinos and Latinas.” and I’ve heard Latinx pronounced as either “Latéen-Ex,” or “Latin-Ex.” Because I have always believed that language gives a form to our thoughts, I think it’s good idea to popularize such a general term, because it refers to all peoples of Latin American or Hispanic descent, inclusive of the masculine and feminine forms of adjectivation, but also bypassing the masculine/feminine differentiation of people and avoiding the recourse to the masculinist “Latinos.”
So let us spread the word: All of us who have contributed to the founding and the continued growth of Latinx Studies at Iowa State now look forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of the program at our commemorative symposium. The symposium is set for September 28 2019, and the event promises “to engage memory, incite conversation, and encourage cross cultural connections throughout the ISU campus, Iowa, and the Midwest.” I have every confidence that the program will continue to develop and grow under the inspired leadership of Dr. Suárez and the brilliant participation of Drs. Myers and Behken, and I know that it will do much to increase our students’ understanding of our increasingly multiethnic and multicultural America.