Bridging Campuses -- and Cultures
An innovative sociology professor brings a Latin American perspective to students on both hills.
by Lorraine Berry
Vélez, center, introduces his students to new adventures -- and new worlds
Students at Cornell University approached the chair of the sociology department and asked him to create a new course, one that would speak to the experiences of Hispanic Americans. They got a quick response: that fall a new course debuted, taught by a graduate student named Héctor Vélez-Guadalupe. The year was 1977.
It was the first course on Latinos ever offered at Cornell. Twenty-eight years later, Vélez still teaches the course he developed -- the required introductory course for Cornell's interdisciplinary Latino Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences -- as an adjunct professor, and is an adviser to the program it inspired. His full-time job is as an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College.
Vélez is, you might say, his field's one-man suspension bridge between East and South Hills. His Sociology of Hispanic Americans course has been offered at IC for 10 years; its counterpart at Cornell is called Latinos in the United States. In the course he discusses cultural traits and social behaviors of Latinos as they fit within the larger U.S. culture. His students also study ethnicity and inequity, as well as social institutions such as mass media, language, education, and religion as they relate to Latinos. While looking at Hispanics in general, they focus on the four largest groups that comprise the majority of Latinos in the United States: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans.
Wait! Hispanics? Latinos? Which is the correct term? "Hispanic denotes a common history and common cultural aspects," Vélez explains, "whereas Latino is a more inclusive term. However, neither term is accurate as they do not really incorporate everyone." That is because Latin America was a name given to South and Central America by the French, and Hispanic refers to those of Spanish ancestry. But, for example, Hispanic wouldn't include Brazilians, as Brazil was settled by the Portuguese. Thus, neither appellation really covers it all. So Vélez uses both interchangeably.
The professor is also a bridge between the privileged worlds of the Cornell and Ithaca College campuses and the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. As part of his joint Cornell-IC course, Culture and Society: An International Field Experience, students spend three weeks doing "pure hands-on sociology" with Dominican workers.
Don't think of this as tourism for college students. "Tourism is one of the poisons of the Third World," says Vélez. "I despise tourism." His students are there to learn about the realities of life in an impoverished nation. "I tell them that they are not there to change people," he points out. "Students are there to observe, learn, and understand what makes people think. I tell them that they will experience a lot of laughing, crying, and bonding -- and they do.
"I take students to where even middle-class Dominicans do not go," Vélez continues. "I take them to the sugarcane fields; students see there that slavery is alive and well in the Dominican Republic. Students have a lot to learn from the people there."
When Vélez is not introducing students to such profound experiences(ICQ, 2002/2, Southern Exposure), or running back and forth between the two campuses for classes (among them one on religion and health, in which he discusses the various Latino religious traditions and the folk-medicine practices they inspire), he has plenty to keep him busy. He's writing a book on the history of Latinos at Cornell from 1865. On East Hill he serves on the advisory board for the Latino Studies Program; is the cofounder and adviser of Quisqueya, the Dominican Students Association; is an adviser for Sabor Latino, a Latin dance ensemble; is a faculty fellow at the Latino Living Center; advises Lambda Upsilon Lambda, the Latino fraternity; and is now on the steering committee of the Latin American Studies Program. On South Hill he served on the Faculty Council for two terms and on the All-College Review Board for Human Subjects Research, and he was an active participant in the Minority Experience Task Force that led to the creation of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He has been acting director of that office, adviser to student organizations Sociedad Latina and the African Latino Society, and a member of the advisory committee for the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. Professionally he is currently on the advisory board for the 14th and 15th editions of McGraw-Hill/Dushkin's Annual Editions: Race and Ethnic Relations. And, he notes, "One of the things I am most proud of is that I am one of the founders of the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County, which serves as a vehicle for the social, cultural, educational, and civic expression of the Latino community of the county."
By now Vélez has taught more than 1,000 students, on both hills. After the ICQ ran a story on his course in the Dominican Republic five years ago, many of his former students wrote to attest to the trip's -- and Vélez's -- profound effect on their careers and the very way they now choose to live their lives. What a fine tribute to the one-time graduate student who rose to a challenge posed by Cornell students back in 1977.
Photo by Thomas Hoebbel