Another child of the '60s is reaching middle age in Tucson: The Mexican American Studies and Research Center at the UA, born out of the civil rights movements for equality for Mexican Americans and African Americans, is marking its 40th anniversary this year. The center started with just two courses; today, the department offers a bachelor's degree program, a master's degree program and a host of research programs in fields such as education, immigration and public health. A Ph.D. program, which will be one of three in the nation, is being developed and is expected to accept candidates in the fall of 2010. The center also conducts research on immigration, health and education issues in the Hispanic community. Dr. Antonio Estrada, professor and director of the center, discusses the center's growing pains and its future.

How was the Mexican American Studies and Research Center started?

It was formed back in 1968. The community and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlán) were advocating for an academic presence here at the UA. Before then, there was no systematic or focused curricula. People felt there wasn't enough access for Mexican-American professors (and) not enough curricula that focused on Mexican-American culture. There was a lack of representation at the university overall.

Who are the students who focus in Mexican-American studies? What is the benefit of a degree in Mexican-American studies?

Similar to (many students in) American-Indian studies or African-American studies, the students want to come to the university to become doctors or lawyers. They don't see what it's going to do for them. But it's an added value to what you're already doing. If you are going to be working as a doctor in the Southwest, it makes sense to know the community and understand the population you are working with. Then you are a part of the community rather than apart from the community.

How has the department changed in recent years? What prompted changes?

The real impetus (for change) was in 1992. In another of the university's transformations, the center was listed as underperforming. There were things they suggested we do for the center. They suggested we form a more focused undergraduate degree, that we have more core faculty, and that we pump up academic performance. (Former director) Adela de la Torre revamped the undergrad program, making it more focused on public policy. We shifted the focus to social justice as a broad umbrella, with topics on health, immigration and education. Adela established the master of sciences program with focuses on Latino health and public policy rather than history or cultural studies.

What about more recently?

In 2000, we had our five-year review. It concluded that we need more space and faculty. There were some who felt that this was an opportunity to try to eliminate the center. There was an outcry from the community. We met with (then-president) Peter Likins and said that if the university would put resources into the center, then I would stay with the department and be the director. Over the last seven years, we have really reached out and made links with other colleges and other departments. We've come a long way, and we are central to the mission of a land-grant university.

What is the future of the center?

(UA) President (Robert) Shelton has expressed his desire that this become a Hispanic-serving institution. (A Hispanic-serving institution is a university or district where Hispanics constitute a minimum of 25 percent of the enrolled students.) It's inconceivable for me to think of the UA as a Hispanic-serving institution without a Mexican-American studies program. We want to grow. Based on population projections, I don't see how we can't grow. Ideally, I'd like to see us get larger so we can do more--not just to grow, but to become excellent. I think we're real close to excellence. (The community) sees our presence at the UA as a beacon, and our faculty serve as role models.

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