Being Latin@ and a Scholar

by Sandra Chavez

I look at my life and realize how incredible it is to find myself at the GTU in Berkeley. I am an American citizen, born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, but my abuelita (grandmother) is quick to remind me, “Mexican comes before American.  You are Mexican-American and do not forget it.”

The weight of her words did not hit me until I began the doctoral program.  The Bay Area’s wealth of diverse cultures and peoples of various ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds drew me to the GTU.  I am not ashamed of my ethnic heritage, but I resist being reduced to it.  I find myself explaining I am Mexican-American and I am also a scholar of historical theology.  

The Latin@ community is particularly focused on community ties and familial bonds. In higher education, one discerns a responsibility to serve as a voice for our communities.  My success is shared by all. 

Lauren Guerra also understands this obligation.  She is a third-year doctoral student in Systematic and Philosophical Theology who was recently named a Louisville Institute Fellow.  “All of my education has been rooted in that sense of responsibility because there are so few Latin@s in higher education.  I feel tremendously privileged to be in a doctoral program and it would be a shame not to give something back, to highlight the needs of the Latin@ community.  I am explicit about my identity as a Guatemalan-Ecuadorian born in the U.S.”

Ethnic minorities in the U.S. are still highly underrepresented in higher education.  While people of Hispanic and Latin origins compose 16% of the population, they comprise only 4% of the faculty in American colleges and universities.  Given this disproportion, Latin@ scholars are determined to succeed and make an impact.

“Latin@ scholars broaden the cultural diversity of the academic discourse, intellectual life, and student body of host institutions and the broader academy,” explains Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado (Ph.D. ‘01), Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami.

The disparity for ethnic minorities in education will not disappear overnight, which makes programs that support rising scholars all the more important.  Although the number of current Latin@ students in the GTU’s doctoral program has grown to more than a dozen, external programs on a national level are irreplaceable.  The Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), housed at Princeton Theological Seminary, provides scholarships, cohort groups, and mentors to students. The GTU is one of HTI’s 24 participating member schools.

Guerra has enjoyed her experience with HTI, “Going to the summer workshops and being with other Latin@ doctoral students and Latin@ scholars has been very enriching.  My mentor also identifies as a Roman Catholic and does similar work. She has been a tremendous asset.”

Cecilia González-Andrieu (Ph.D. ‘07), Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola Marymount University, advocates for such programs. “Concerted efforts and partnerships, like HTI, are the only way to bring a community that has lacked resources and been excluded into something that remotely resembles parity.”  Both Gonzalez Maldonado and González-Andrieu are graduates of the Hispanic Theological Initiative.

The fields of theology and ministry are crucial areas for increasing a Latin@ presence in higher education, according to González-Andrieu, because the Latin@ community is overwhelmingly religious.  Guerra’s scholarship focuses on feminist, post-colonial approaches to soteriology and pneumatology.

Gonzalez Maldonado notes, “Churches must become advocates for marginalized Latin@ communities particularly on issues such as immigration and healthcare. We must support future generations of Latin@ ecclesial and academic leaders, who understand the interconnections between the church, the academy, and the broader society.”

Rebecca Berru Davis, a recent GTU graduate (Ph.D. ‘12) and another HTI alumna, focuses on this interconnection through the medium of art. “My interests, stemming from my Mexican-American roots, center on the rich tradition of Latin American and Latin@ art, the visual culture of marginalized communities, popular religion, and how art forms and religious practices reflect, shape and affirm cultural identity.” Davis is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

We who are Latin@ must navigate the responsibility to represent our community as scholars and to support one another, while also striving to be more than the Latin@ label.


Latin@ is a gender-inclusive term for referencing the Latino/Latina community.