Congress Highlights Pitt’s Prominence in Latin American Studies

Issue Date: 
June 13, 2016

Brazil is in political turmoil just two months before Rio de Janeiro hosts the Summer Olympics. And the Zika virus has raised concerns about the safety of the Olympic athletes and spectators.

Venezuela is running out of food, medicine, and electricity as its economy spirals downward.

A U.S. cruise ship docks in Cuba for the first time in 40 years.

There has been no shortage of news headlines about Latin America this spring. And the region’s current events lent added importance to the recent international congress of the Pitt-based Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in New York City. LASA2016 attracted more than 6,000 scholars, dignitaries, and students from around the globe late last month as the group marked its 50th anniversary. About 60 percent of the association’s members—professionals, universities, and other institutions engaged in the study of Latin America—are based outside the United States.

Ariel Armony (Photo by Emily O'Donnell)Pitt was a key player in the four-day congress. Not only did more than 40 Pitt faculty and graduate students attend or present papers, the conference program was cochaired by Ariel Armony, director of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies (UCIS). Armony helped to organize talks by Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís as well as American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky and others.

“It was very important and meaningful for Pitt to get that public recognition in such a forum,” said Armony, adding that the current LASA president thanked Pitt in his opening remarks during a special event at the United Nations.

The University’s Center for Latin American Studies, which is one of UCIS’s six centers, has gained international recognition for the breadth and excellence of its research, education, and outreach activities. In particular, Armony cited the Center for Latin American Studies’ research on the topics of democracy and democratization; social history and cultural studies; and comparative archaeology, among others.

For example, Pitt Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures John Beverley studies testimonio, which is Spanish for “testimonial narrative.” These are first-person accounts told by nonwriters and eventually published in book form, and are akin to traditional storytelling. The interviewees frequently recount human rights abuses, so the narratives highlight issues of social justice and equality.

Scholarly journals and publications have also helped put Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies in the limelight. In January, for example, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Pitt professor of political science, was named editor-in-chief of The Latin American Research Review, the most prestigious multidisciplinary journal in the field. 

“This journal has a tremendous influence on future research about Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Scott Morgenstern, director of Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies. “It sends a signal to scholars about methodologies as the scholarly community changes, and about what is interesting to people around the world. It’s an opinion leader on how Latin American studies will be shaped.” 

Pitt also publishes Cuban Studies through the University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Bolivian Studies Journal. The Center is especially proud of Panoramas, an online news magazine featuring commentary written by students and experts from across the globe. Scholars who have published recent articles write a two-page summary for a lay audience, and students and faculty contribute commentary on current events. Managed and edited by the Center for Latin American Studies for the past five years, the site registers more than 8,000 hits a month.

In addition to Pitt faculty studying what’s happening in Brazil and Cuba and other hot-button issues, there is much more basic research under way, be it about Latin American documentary filmmaking or public health. 

A contingent of Pitt scholars will travel to Beijing this fall to discuss the role of China in Latin America. And a public forum on the political, economic, and public health crises in Brazil is planned for later this month.

“Pitt is regarded as a leader in Latin American Studies,” said Armony. “And for me, being at LASA2016 was an extraordinary way to both reinforce and be a witness to that perception.”