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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
UCF Rethinks Its Latin Studies Program
The results: More courses and more research on the local Hispanic population.
By Víctor Manuel Ramos | Sentinel Staff Writer
26 September 2004
The Latin American studies program at the University of Central Florida is expanding course offerings and refocusing research efforts, largely in response to the region's growing Hispanic population.
Students will delve into local Hispanic culture as part of their work and should eventually be able to major in the field, said new program director Luis Martínez-Fernández , who chaired the Department of Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University before joining UCF in the past few weeks.
"Researching that population is one of the biggest challenges, but also one of the biggest opportunities because nothing has been done," Martínez-Fernández, 44, said of the local community.
Students will document the growing presence of Hispanics in the Orlando metro area --which alone has more than 340,000 Hispanics, according to the 2000 census -- as well as in the surrounding Central Florida counties.
Martínez-Fernández is particularly interested in the well-established Puerto Rican community and "Orlandoricans," a term he and others use to refer to those born and raised in Orlando who can trace their cultural roots to Puerto Rico, as the so-called "Newyoricans" do in New York City.
"For example," he said, "we don't know what the encounter of Puerto Ricans from the island and Puerto Ricans from New York has been like as they come to Central Florida."
The expanded program, which will cost UCF about $235,000 a year, has been renamed Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies. Previously known as Latin American and Iberian Studies, the change signals a shift from Spain and colonial history to looking at the most populous Hispanic groups in Florida and their more current history, here and abroad.
Demographics at the university helped fuel the change, said Kathryn Seidel, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The university's Hispanic enrollment makes up about 12 percent of the more than 41,800 students who identified their race or ethnicity on college applications.
"There was high demand from students," Seidel said, "and the more courses we offered the more students we had."
The university, however, is playing catch-up in some regards.
Other Florida universities have Latin American studies programs and some of their scholars have specialized in researching Hispanics in their regions.
Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, said UCF's strengthened program would be a welcome addition.
"I am delighted that the program is starting, because there is a very vibrant community of Latinos in Orlando," Gamarra said. "It was only fitting to have a good Latin American program to match that."
UCF senior Andrea Céspedeshas signed up for whatever Latin American courses were available during her college career. A Spanish major, she chose the field as a minor because that was her only option. She said she is excited about any new offerings.
"I'm thinking about moving to California or even Mexico to get a master's degree in Latin American Studies. . . . If I had the option here I would be the first one to sign up," said Céspedes, 26, who is from Colombia.
"I'd like to have a more in-depth look at Latin American culture because learning from the past you can understand your present."
At the outset, the UCF program has about 30 faculty members who teach approximately 50 courses, although not all are offered every semester.
Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés, an UCF associate professor who specializes in Caribbean Hispanic literature and culture, said she looks forward to more options and expanded cultural activity for students and faculty.
She is developing two new courses -- one to be an interdisciplinary class on community issues like identity, education and language; another to discuss Latin American art and popular culture.
"It's really exciting," said Rodríguez Milanés. "We have so much more ground to cover."