My favorite “shithole”—in the words of President Donald Trump—is El Salvador. It is a country of more than 6 million people squeezed into 8,000 square miles. In rural San Vicente, on the farm where my mother grew up, the sky is so clear and devoid of pollution that stars shine brightly. Textbook descriptions of the Milky Way make sense, as one looks up to see one star stacked upon another, endlessly. El Salvador is founded on the Nahuat state of Cuzcatlan, indigenous lands that have produced artists, thinkers, and poets who’ve given the world handbooks for achieving social justice. One of the country’s most important poets wrote, “I believe the world is beautiful / and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”
But, the U.S.’s biggest headlines involving El Salvador are extremely narrow in scope. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited in July to meet with Salvadoran law enforcement officials about gang violence. It’s the country to which politicians claim they are going to deport all gang members of MS-13. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who’ve lived in the United States for more than 20 years are losing legal status. Meanwhile, the president insinuated that El Salvador is a “shithole.”
People must be ignorant to believe that El Salvador is a place that is fully and unequivocally irredeemable. Ignorance is the soil in which white supremacy sinks its roots before becoming a full-fledged ideology. Ignorance reduces El Salvador to a “shithole,” and Harvard is doing very little to curb it.
Studying El Salvador at Harvard is difficult. The Salvadoran Civil War might occupy a week of a history syllabus. Salvadoran immigration may be mentioned in passing. But taking a class solely focused on El Salvador—or Central America as a whole—is impossible. This is largely because Harvard still does not have a formalized Latinx Studies program. This academic gap presents both the problem and a potential solution.
Latinx Studies was first proposed at Harvard in 1972 as Chicano and Puerto Rican Studies. Since then, the field has drastically changed. While the 1972 proposal focused almost exclusively on Mexico and Puerto Rico, the field now includes scholarship on immigrants from a variety of Caribbean, Central American, and South American countries. Leading scholars’ understanding of the relationship between the United States and Latin America has dramatically evolved.
This presents a problem for establishing Latinx Studies on campus. It’s difficult to convince high-caliber Latinx studies scholars to come teach at Harvard when we have no department or clearly designated resources to support their work. At a panel last spring, I asked Asian American Studies scholar Lisa Lowe how to deal with the lack of infrastructure left by years of inaction. Her answer was simple: Harvard should try doing something new to deal with an ever-changing field.
Central American Studies could be this “something new” Harvard desperately needs. The field, as scholars Beth F. Baker and Ester E. Hernández write, is “an interdisciplinary field that bridges ethnic studies and area studies,” focusing on the region that includes countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize. The field itself is still developing.
The only Central American Studies department in the country, established in 2000, is at California State, Northridge. Scholarship in Central American Studies is happening at other universities, but often without much support. “[M]ost scholars focusing on US Central Americans have labored on their own without infrastructural support,” Baker and Hernandez write. “These teachers are breaking ground in their fields… and their own disciplines.”
This problem offers Harvard an opportunity. Even if Harvard were to establish a traditional Latinx Studies program, like the one that was founded in West Coast universities in the late ’60s (or Yale in 1982), it would not necessarily be attractive to academics comfortably settled in their own Latinx Studies programs. Central American scholars, on the other hand, are seeking institutions that are serious about supporting their scholarship. Harvard could be that institution.
If the funds were allocated for a Latinx Studies Center, with an explicit focus on innovative scholarship in Central American Studies, scholars would have motivation to bring their talents to Harvard. A cluster-hire of any number of leaders in the field to staff such a center—like the ones proposed in 1971, 1979, 1993, 2001, and 2005—would bring Latinx Studies to Harvard. Harvard could finally fill a gap they’ve had for decades, while also bringing together a cohort of scholars to embark on new, exciting scholarship the University could be proud of.
These new hires, combined with the handful of scholars already doing work in the field of Latinx studies at Harvard, would finally have a place with the space, resources, and support system to finally bring a robust program to campus. The future of Latinx Studies could be Central American Studies. More importantly, we could be creating that future at Harvard.
Two years ago, in the first piece I ever wrote for The Crimson, I made a critically incorrect assumption about Latinx Studies at Harvard. I wrote that, “Harvard can’t afford to fall behind now, and we won’t let it.” The sad truth is that Harvard has fallen 50 years behind. But as the United States grapples with Central American immigration, biculturalism, and the ugly presence of white supremacy, it’s critical that Harvard catch up. When it does, maybe we’ll have elected public servants who don’t think of nations like El Salvador as “shithole countries.”
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. '19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House.
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