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Hispanic Link News Service
Latino Think Tanks Gain Acceptance As They Seize Larger Roles
by AUTUMN DE LEON
August 6, 2000
As the Latino community bounds ahead numerically, economically and politically, the Latino social scientists and the think-tank institutions the community has spawned are emerging as essential partners in the drive for equity and recognition. Knowledge, we have learned, is indeed power.
Arturo Madrid, distinguished professor of the humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio, is among the pioneers who have watched the community's social thought finally plant some roots and its tree begin to bear fruit.
"Latinos have always been considered `the other,''' says Madrid, who was the founding director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif., in 1985. "But by connecting people who produce knowledge to those who shape it, we transform the thinking that has excluded Latinos from being central to U.S. policy.''
Today, more than a dozen recognized Latino think tanks are spread from coast to coast. They collect and crunch data, and provide analysis vital to the community's interests. Their research delves into subjects ranging from health assessment and penal reform to religion and cultural archeology.
As the need to tie Latino-focused research into policy change becomes more pressing, their work, though slowly, is gaining respect in academia and the mainstream media.
"There is a growing body of important research on Latino issues, but still a lot more needs to be done,'' says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of the Office of Research and Advocacy Legislation at the National Council of La Raza, perhaps the nation's most visible Latino think tank. "We need a lot more resources and funding to develop the capacity of our own researchers. Then what becomes critical is being able to tie this research to policy. We don't want just reports on shelves.''
The Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy is one of the newer think tanks. It grew out of a grass-roots movement that brought New England Latinos to the legislature seeking exposure on the state level. Its research is concentrated on the surrounding geographic area, rather than on specific policies.
Housed at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, the institute has an obligation to inform policymakers on the status of Hispanics in Massachusetts, says associate director Maryjoe Marion.
"Cropping up more and more,'' says Marion, "are research institutions that are not university-affiliated that provide services to communities -- both ethnic and geographic.'' The institute publishes an annual update on Hispanics in Massachusetts that covers education data by town. It runs community outreach programs in conjunction with its research.
Apart from its grass-roots beginning, the institute shares something in common with many other university-based think tanks -- membership in the Inter-University Program for Latino Research.
The Inter-University program consists of 16 centers (all but one, the Smithsonian Institution, being university based) with a multifold purpose -- to increase the intellectual presence of Latino scholars and expand the availability of policy-relevant research. The IUPLR is housed at Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies, which itself focuses on interdisciplinary Latino research.
ILS associate director Allert Brown Gort says, "Power comes from finding a common cause with people of a similar background.'' He speaks of plans to start a new organization, tentatively called the National Research Center for Latino Communities to advance those communities. Brown Gort emphasizes the importance of education for Latinos, pointing out that having university-based think tanks is a natural way to join the two community missions.
Education is a well-developed issue in Latino social science, but in most arenas, the demand remains for more research. The Julián Samora Research Institute is one such entity working to diversify its research. Its broad base of study includes examination of Latino social, economic, educational, political and health conditions. Its outreach initiatives target farm labor and rural issues, such as immigration, migration and demographic concerns, while dealing with families, income, gender, and economic and community development issues.
The Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, established in 1998, has taken as its mission the advancement of "knowledge and understanding of Latino contributions to U.S. history, culture, and society.''
At the same time, The Latino Initiatives Fund, administered by the center, supports Latino-based research, and educational and public programs, and takes on the profoundly important task of promoting the inclusion of Latinos and Latino perspectives in the institution's activities. Program director Refugio Rochín explains, "Most people think of the Smithsonian as museums, but it's the largest educational institution in the nation. The center is the national authority from a cultural standpoint on the Latino population. We discuss what should be included in collections, exhibitions and research of Latinos.
"Our influence functions to the degree that the Smithsonian has a place in our society and represents our history and culture for the nation,'' he says.
Partnerships such as this one allow access to resources and funding for the Hispanic community.
One example is the Mexican American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona, which recently received a joint three-year, $1.2 million grant to create the Arizona Hispanic Center of Excellence. The project is aimed at improving research on Hispanic health and enhancing the Medical College's ability to recruit and retain Hispanic students and faculty.
"We have an uphill battle,'' says its director, Adela de la Torre. "As researchers we need to have the support of the federal government, which comes from having people at the federal level who are sensitive to different cultures -- and I don't see it. There needs to be more.''
Autumn de León is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y.