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The First of Its Kind

by Dina Horwedel

Dr. Beatriz Cortez knows what it’s like to work toward educational goals as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. It’s not easy, to say the least, but as an associate professor of Central American studies at California State University, Northridge, Cortez attributes her academic and scholarly success partly to the fact that she had to maintain her status as a student while she awaited the lengthy documentation process.

That experience made Cortez into the independent researcher that she is today.

“I was always at the library doing research, working on my own,” she says.

Independence is something Cortez had to exercise early on as she emigrated at age 18 from El Salvador.

Cortez’s immigrant experience also informed her academic focus. She is the program coordinator of CSUN’s baccalaureate program in Central American studies, the first in the United States, and an associate professor at CSUN. The program was created seven years ago as an outgrowth of the university’s department of Chicana/o studies.

As the program’s coordinator, Cortez oversaw the approval of the baccalaureate program earlier this year.

“Overseeing a program that is the first of its kind has allowed me to have an input in the shaping of the program, its regional character, its interdisciplinary nature, its focus on diversity, its area studies perspective and academic excellence,” says Cortez. “Nevertheless, it is also quite a challenge since it is a pioneering effort.

An additional challenge has been establishing electronic bibliographies and resources for the department.

Because, Cortez says, “the literature available in English for teaching courses is limited, and the issues that pertain to the Central American experience are not the same that affect other communities.

“As a result, we designed our courses taking as a point of departure the experience of Central Americans inside and outside the region.

We followed models of other ethnic studies programs at our university, such as the Chicano studies, Pan-African studies and Asian American studies programs,” Cortez says.

Cortez says the Central American studies program provides space for interdisciplinary studies.

“It is especially important to address the colonial legacy in traditional disciplines, such as literature, history and anthropology, in order to create diversity and opportunity.” Cortez’s own work has become more interdisciplinary, and she is currently working on a book titled Aesthetics of Cynicism, which examines Central American postwar fiction and the cultural dynamics behind it.

After spending a six-month sabbatical in Guatemala, Cortez says she began to question what the concept of national identity means in Central American nations in the context of the indigenous and African cultures that exist there. “I look at the literature of indigenous groups, but also at the literature produced about them,” Cortez says.

The program has grown from six courses to 21 courses today, with three full-time professors, three affiliated full-time faculty members from other departments, and three part-time faculty members. The program is also hiring a new full-time professor specializing in the Central American Afro Caribbean/Atlantic Coast region.

With more than one million Central Americans living in California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of more than 3 million residing in the United States, CSUN officials say the program is a good fit.

“I think Cal State Northridge is absolutely the appropriate place to have the first Central American studies major in the country,” said Dr. Elizabeth Say, dean of the College of Humanities, when the major was announced earlier this year. “We believe this is a great example of our responsiveness to the interests and concerns of the community.”

Because of Cortez’s close ties to the Central American community, she was honored recently by the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund with the Salvadoran of the Year Award.

Cortez says she was honored to receive the award because it recognizes her efforts in helping to shape the discipline of academics from within the community. “It is important because it gives visibility to the whole program and not just to me,” she says.

Currently, 43 students are pursuing their bachelor’s in Central American studies and close to 600 students are enrolled in the program courses, Cortez says.

As part of a five-year pilot effort, university officials expect the Central American studies major to become permanent, pending a full review at the end of five years.

–Dina Horwedel

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