Williams International

María Elena Cepeda, Associate Professor of Latino/a Studies

1.) What, specifically, is your field of study? And how does it relate to international issues?

I would characterize my field of study as transnational Latina/o Studies as opposed to international studies per se. My work is heavily interdisciplinary, and is best described as a combination of Cultural Studies (with a focus on popular culture), Media Studies, and Ethnic/American Studies (with an emphasis on Latina/o populations both in the U.S. and Latin America).

2.) What brought you to Williams?

My attraction to Williams was overwhelmingly based on the uniqueness and immense potential that I observed in its newly formed Latina/o Studies program, as well as the quality of my colleagues in Latina/o and American Studies. I believe that Williams remains the only liberal arts school in the United States that possesses a free-standing Latina/o Studies program. Typically, interdisciplinary academic programs and departments are staffed piece-meal by faculty who are otherwise contractually required to dedicate all of their energies to a traditional discipline (such as Psychology, or Sociology, for example). This leaves them little opportunity to participate in the life of interdisciplinary programs or departments on campus. In contrast, Williams’ free-standing Latina/o Studies program contains one faculty member whose sole contractual obligations are to that field, and it also includes various other faculty experts who are dedicated to teaching specific courses and advising students in Latina/o Studies. The College’s commitment to Latina/o Studies and the pioneering vision of Professor Carmen Whalen, the program’s founder, have undeniably contributed to a solid, rapidly growing program that is truly intellectually and socially dynamic.

3.) What is one of the best things about teaching at Williams?

The privilege of participating in the growth and development of a ground breaking, autonomous Latina/o Studies program and the community that has arisen from it.

4.) Despite being in western Massachusetts, is Williams a place that encourages dialogue about international issues? Or could Williams be more supportive in this regard?

Williams does make many sustained and visible efforts to encourage dialogue around international issues. That said, I am at times concerned that the content and form of this emphasis is not entirely in accordance with the realities of everyday life under globalization and transnationalism, but relies instead on previous understandings of key concepts such as borders, citizenship, and “home,” among others. The distinctions between the “domestic” and the “international,” while not entirely erased, simply do not exist as before, and our classroom practices must reflect these critical, long-term shifts. One of the most meaningful ways for the College community to engage these realities in a more substantial fashion would be via increased support of community-based learning courses that focus on the numerous, vibrant immigrant and migrant communities of Western Massachusetts, for example. Another necessary component of such an initiative would be on-campus opportunities for faculty and staff members to receive formal training on how to structure and teach those courses, as community-based learning is a rich pedagogical field of expertise in its own right.

5.) What is your favorite food?

Anything spicy, tart, or from Colombia’s large Lebanese immigrant community.

6.) Do you speak more than one language? If so, which ones?

My parents are immigrants from the Colombian Caribbean, therefore I was raised speaking both Caribbean Spanish and English at home. While I am certainly comfortable conducting a conversation, reading, or writing in exclusively English or Spanish, my first love is and always will be Spanglish (or what linguists might loosely refer to as “code-switching”). To understand me completely, Spanglish proficiency is a must. I also speak conversational Italian and Valencian, my partner’s home language. Valencian is a beautiful romance language spoken in eastern Spain. Catalan is very similar to Valencian, in fact.