Latinx studies finding a home at Holyoke Community College

  • Raúl Gutiérrez, a professor and foreign language coordinator at Holyoke Community College, poses for a photo outside of Maurice A. Donahue Building in Holyoke in 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2020 10:14:54 AM
Modified: 1/24/2020 10:14:42 AM

HOLYOKE — When classes resume at Holyoke Community College next week, the school will embark upon its second semester offering what faculty believe is the only Latinx studies program at a Massachusetts community college.

But for Raúl Gutiérrez, a professor and foreign language coordinator at HCC, the commonly held definition of “Latinx studies” does not tell the full story of what the field encompasses — something he wants his students to understand by the end of the first day of class.

“The goal will be for them to have an understanding that Latinx studies is basically just another name for American studies,” Gutiérrez said, “and that Latinx history is nothing more than American history.

“Basically, you have the idea that Latinx folks are new arrivals, but you have seventh- or eighth-generation folks in the Southwest or in California or the south,” he added, “or even here in Holyoke, you had Puerto Rican folks arriving in the 1940s.”

The program was made possible when in 2015, Gutiérrez and his colleague, Mónica Torregrosa, netted a $120,000 Bridging Cultures grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand the college’s Latinx studies offerings. This fall, the college officially began to offer the classes as part of an associate degree in liberal arts with a concentration in Latinx studies, which currently has seven students enrolled. The term “Latinx” is a gender-neutral alternative to Latino.

The interdisciplinary degree draws from subjects including anthropology, Spanish, communications, sociology, history, political science and women’s studies, and all students enrolled in the concentration take Introduction to Latinx Studies and Latinx Literature courses.

When creating the Latinx studies concentration, which focuses on the experiences of Latinx people in the United States, Gutiérrez said he and Torregrosa wanted to establish a program that represents both the college and its surrounding community — 27 percent of HCC students identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to HCC student profile data, which designates the college a Hispanic-serving institution. Additionally, 52 percent of Holyoke residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to 2019 U.S. census data.

This representation is vital, Gutiérrez said. While the program is likely the first of its kind in the state, he sees its creation as “not about being a maverick” — instead, it is filling a void in essential course offerings.

“It’s about seeing what I wanted in college,” he said. “I saw myself in the material, and I was more successful because of that.”

Miren Neyra Alcántara, a first-year student at Holyoke Community College, said that as a native of Mexico, the course material was part of what attracted her to enroll in the Latinx concentration. The program also pairs well with history or women and gender studies programs, she said, which she intends to pursue after graduating from HCC.

But the concentration also carries value for non-Latinx students, Neyra Alcántara said.

“I think as a Latinx person, you gain knowledge on your own history, representation and even confidence about your history,” Neyra Alcántara said. “And as a non-Latinx person taking this course, I think they will learn that Latinos have been in the states for over 500 years, and given insight into what it means to be Latino.”

Gutiérrez said non-Latinx students have even more to gain from the program, as Latinx people have already lived many of the experiences discussed in class.

“I always say that I wish that this would be required of all students at HCC,” Gutiérrez said.

This cross-cultural understanding is particularly important among “contentious times like now,” he said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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