UWM center links Milwaukee to Latin American cultures

A little boy returns from the Forest Home Library with a book of his own, to keep forever – in both Spanish and English.

A group of budding young musicians come together after school to share Latin and Caribbean rhythms in an Afro-Caribbean percussion band.

A Madison East High School teacher shares contemporary issues and histories of the nations south of the United States with his students.

All those moments grew from the many community partnerships nurtured by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS). The center, which celebrates its 50th anniversary as a continuously federally funded Title VI National Resource Center on Dec. 3, focuses on teaching, research and outreach both at the university and in the broader community.

Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies empowers student to reclaim her culture

“CLACS has been a wonderful source for information, and has helped us enrich the resources we provide to our community,” said Paula Mason, a UWM alumna and bilingual children’s and young adult librarian who served as a main point of contact with CLACS for the Forest Home Library.

The neighborhoods that Forest Home Library serves are largely Latino, and community programs there reflect that heritage. At a recent Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) program, for example, children and their families made paper flowers and altars to remember the dead – an important holiday in Mexico.

A grant to CLACS from the U.S. Department of Education made it possible for the library to buy Latin American/Latino-themed children’s and young adult literature to enhance its collection and give books to children as prizes at such events – in Spanish and English. CLACS, which for 18 years sponsored the Américas Book Award on behalf of the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, also donated additional children’s books from its collection.

“There is nothing like having a book of your own to take home,” Mason said. “It is something the child really cherishes.”

She has also taken part in workshops through CLACS and an online children’s literature course to learn more about Latin American/Latino perspectives, identities and communities. She weaves that information into programs and book discussions. For example, in telling stories from a book about the migration of monarch mariposas (butterflies) through Mexico and the United States, children get a chance to make a connection to their own family’s migration.

Often, visitors to the library are also making an effort to learn more about their own culture. Mason remembers one woman who came in looking for more information about Puerto Rican traditions because she wanted to share them with her grandchildren.

“We are making a difference with this partnership,” Mason said.

Music is another way of learning about the Americas. With advice and some support from CLACS, Johanna De Los Santos founded an Afro-Caribbean percussion and performance group for Milwaukee children. Proyecto Bembe, based at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, will give one its first performances at the CLACS 50th anniversary celebration on Dec 3.

De Los Santos earned a certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from UWM while completing her bachelor’s degree in International Studies. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from New York University, and now divides her time between Milwaukee and New York. She is co-executive director of the New York-based youth development nonprofit Art Start, which works with young people who have been homeless or incarcerated.

Her passion is integrating creative arts into the community, connecting music to Latino and Afro-Caribbean cultures through the after-school program. “It’s a culture-based music program that prioritizes ethnomusicology,” De Los Santos explained. “The kids can learn history, culture and language through the music.”

De Los Santos reached back to her contacts at CLACS, particularly Associate Director Julie Kline, for advice on getting the musical group going. CLACS also contributed seed funding. “The center was at the center of making this possible,” De Los Santos said.

Supporting K-16 educators is a major part of CLACS’ outreach efforts. William Gibson teaches social studies at Madison East High School and has attended several CLACS summer teacher institutes, and two professional development institutes at Yale, with educator professional development support from CLACS. He teaches world history and an elective class on Latin American history.

He also relies on CLACS’ expertise for resources to enhance his lectures and presentation.

“Latin America is often left by the wayside in survey courses because teachers often lack the knowledge base, but with so many students from Latin America, it’s important that we understand it.” And, he added: “The history is so compelling and fascinating, it gives all the students an opportunity to learn about a different area of the world.”

According to Julie Kline, “As a Title VI National Resource Center, community partnerships and educational outreach allow us to support goals of our partners while meeting our own mandate to encourage interest, curiosity, and learning about the Americas. CLACS’ public engagement contributes to training global citizens, not just on campus but beyond.”

These are just a few examples of what CLACS does to promote teaching and learning about the Americas in the region, state and country. Learn more about CLACS and its Dec. 3 anniversary.

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