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UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

July 18, 2012 3 comments

 

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that academics are cloistered away in their ivy towers, isolated from the real world.  That’s certainly not the case with Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor does his share of research but much of it takes him out of his office, off campus, and out into mainstream of life, whether to the barrios of South Omaha or Cuba, where he’s traveled many times for his research.  I was reminded to post this profile of him I wrote a couple years ago after reading a piece in the local daily about his latest trip to Cuba, this time leading a group of UNO students to help restore a theater there that he hopes becomes a conduit for future arts-cultural exhanges.  In his work he’s just as likely to meet with folks just trying to get by as he is with U.S. and Cuban diplomats and leaders.  He’s even met Castro.

 

 

 

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

 

UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

For author, researcher, activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of political science Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political engagement is a birthright.

His mother Romelia marched with Cesar Chavez in the California migrant labor movement. Both his parents know first hand the migrant worker struggle. They also know the empowering change hard work and opportunity can bring.

Benjamin-Alvarado still marvels how his folks made “a hyper speed transition” from their vagabond life hand-picking crops wherever the next harvest was to achieving the American Dream within 20 years. “The day I was born my dad was picking lettuce and the day I graduated from high school he owned his own business and we lived in a really nice house in the suburbs.”

From his mother, who worked on behalf of women’s and Latino rights and as a political campaign volunteer, he learned activism. From his father he learned ambition and determination. As someone who grew up in The Burbs, never having to toil in the fields, Benjamin-Alvarado fully realizes how charmed he’s been to have role models like these.

“To this very day I’m reminded of the lessons and examples presented before me. These were people who prided themselves on what they did. They were people with an incredible sense of dignity and self respect,” he said. “I think what makes things like Cesar Chavez (or his mother) happen is they’re not willing to cede that one iota. They made it very clear that your abuse and subjugation of me will not define me.

“I shutter to think what my forbearers could have done had they had the opportunities I’ve been extended, especially given the incredible work ethic they had. They had no choice but to work hard. It’s only as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an incredible legacy and, in turn, responsibility I have to pay it forward. I’m very fortunate to have been able to live and travel all over the world and to be educated in incredible places. My whole thing now is what can I do to make sure others have these opportunities. I really do cherish what I have been granted and I feel an overriding sense of obligation.”

Despite comforts, life at home for he and his brother was unpleasant. Their father was an abusive partner to their mother. The siblings were also misfits in mostly Anglo schools and neighborhoods. To escape, the boys read voraciously. “That was our refuge from all the craziness in our lives. We were really just sponges,” said Jonathan. He did well in school and was enrolled in college when he abruptly left to join the U.S. Navy.

“I think everybody in my family was aghast but i really did it more for purposes of self-preservation and to establish some independence for myself. I needed to leave.”

His 1976-1980 Naval tour fit the bill.

“For me it was just four years of incredible discovery,” he said. “I met for the first time blacks from the northeast and Chicago, kids from the South and the Midwest, other Latinos.  All of that was very interesting to me. I came to appreciate them and their cultures in ways I couldn’t possibly have done so had I stayed sequestered in California, where it’s very insular and you think the world revolves around you.”

Back home he used the G.I. bill to attend ucla, where he said he went from doubting whether he belonged to believing “I’m competitive with the cream of the crop. That realization stunned me. There was no limit at that point. I was in a different world.”

Then an incident he doesn’t like discussing occurred. It took five years to recover from physical and emotional wounds. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree and did stints at Stanford and Harvard. He earned his master’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While working at its think tank, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he began intensive research on Cuba. He’s traveled there 25 times, often spending months per visit. Cuba remains a major focus of his professional activity.

Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, he seriously entertained doing clandestine work before deciding he didn’t want to give up his academic freedom. Besides, he said, “I don’t and won’t keep secrets because it gets you into trouble.” Already married and with a child, he opted to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Georgia. He landed major grants for his Cuban research. Along the way he’s become a recognized expert on Cuban energy and foreign policy, authoring one book and editing another on that nation’s energy profile and what it bodes for future cooperation with the West.

A temporary teaching post at Georgia then set him on a new track.

“I had not given the idea of being a classroom instructor much thought prior to that,” he said. “I thought I was going to spend my life as a senior researcher — a wonk. But I got this bug (to teach). I realized almost immediately I like doing this, they like me, this is a good gig. It didn’t feel like I had to work real hard to do it, a lot of it just came naturally, and I had this reservoir to draw on.”

When grant funding dried up he sought a full-time teaching job and picked UNO over several offers, in part for it’s dynamic growth and emerging Latino community. He’s been at UNO 10 years. His Cuba work has continued but in a different way.

 

 

Benjamin-Alvarado with Castro

 

 

“The purposes of my visits have changed dramatically. Initially they were all for conducting basic research, doing lots of interviews on the ground. In the late 1990s I was involved in making some film documentaries for a PBS series. Then I spent five-six years taking students and faculty and people from the community to Cuba.”

Then the U.S. banned academic trips there. His last few visits he’s “been part of high level delegations with former Pentagon and State Department staff. This last one (in November) was with former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.” In 2006 he met with senior government officials, including Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, the president of the national assembly and ministers of other government bureaucracies. On these visits he’s there as “technical advisor-resident expert” for debriefings, analysis and reading beyond the rhetoric to decipher what’s really being said through interpreters.

He believes normalized relations only make sense for two nations with such an affinity for each other. Once restrictions are lifted he envisions a Cuban trip with area public and private sector leaders. He and a colleague plan to convene an international conference in Havana, of university presidents from North and South America “to discuss the trajectory of higher education in the 21st century for the Americas.”

His connections helped broker a deal for Nebraska selling ag products to Cuba. Closer to home, he advises government on Latino matters and is active in the Democratic Party. He’d like to see more Latinos active in local politics. A recipient of UNO’s Outstanding Teacher Award, he said the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO “has been a godsend for me. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community. There’s an element of it that is very personal. When we founded OLLAS we intentionally created something that would have a community base and make the community a part of what we do. We want our work to be not only politically but socially relevant. That’s been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken.”

Recent projects include reports on immigration and Latino voter mobilization.

OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

May 12, 2011 5 comments

As Nebraska‘s Hispanic population has grown significantly the past two decades there’s an academic-research-community based organization, OLLAS or Office of Latino and Latin American Studies, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that’s taken a lead role in engaging policymakers and stakeholders in Latino issues and trends impacting the state. I’ve had a chance the past two years to get to know some of the people who make OLLAS tick and to sample some of their work, and the level of scholarship and dedication on display is quite impressive. The following story for El Perico gives a kind of primer on what OLLAS does.  Increasingly, my blog site will contain posts that repurpose articles I’ve written for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper in Omaha and a sister publication of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  These pieces cover a wide range of subjects, issues, programs, organization, and individuals within the Latino community.  It has been my privilege to get to know better Omaha’s and greater Nebraska’s Latino population, though in truth I’ve only barely dipped my feet into those waters.  But it’s much the same enriching experience I’ve enjoyed covering Omaha’s African-American and Jewish communities.

 

 

 

 

OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Despite an ivory tower setting, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is engaged in community from-the-grassroots-to-the-grasstops through teaching, research and service.

The far reach of OLLAS, established in 2003, is as multifaceted as Latino-Latin American cultures and the entities who traverse them.

“We work very hard to bring to the table the different voices and stakeholders that seldom come together but that must be part of the same conversations. We do that very well,” said director and UNO sociology professor Lourdes Gouveia.

“We’ve been able to construct a program around this very out-of-the-box idea” that academia doesn’t happen in isolation of community engagement and vice-versa. Instead, she said these currents occur together, feeding each other.

“The impetus for creating this center was driven by what informs everything in my life, which is intellectual interest right along with an interest in addressing issues of inequality and social justice and making a difference wherever I am. So, for me, OLLAS was a logical project we needed to undertake.”

 

 

Lourdes Gouveia

 

 

At the time of its formation Gouveia was researching immigration’s impact in Lexington, Neb. “It was clear to those of us witnessing all the changes going on we needed a space in the university that addressed those changes with kind of freshened perspectives very different from the old models of ethnic studies.”

Assistant director and UNO political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said, “We very intentionally created something that would have a community base and not talk down to it, but try to make it a part of what we do. We wanted our work to be not only politically but socially relevant and that has been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community.”

OLLAS produces reports on matters affecting Latino-Latin American segments in Nebraska, including the economic impact of immigrants, voter mobilization results and demographic trends. Gouevia said the office takes pains to distinguish the Guatamalan experience from the Mexican experience and so on. She said it can be daunting for Individuals and organizations to navigate the rapid social-political-cultural streams running through this diverse landscape of highly mobile populations and fluid issues. OLLAS serves as an island of calm in the storm.

“I think people take solace in the fact that when things get too muddled and when things are going too fast ,” she said, “they can turn to us, whether as an organization or as individuals, and say, What do you think of this?”

“We’re a resource for the community. When it needs perhaps more academic analysis of something, they look to OLLAS for that,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “I think one of the other things people see us as is a real resolute voice — not that we’re going to go out and be the advocates — but when they’re involved and things get crazy, they’ll call us here and say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ People look to us for guidance and support as they’re trying to build a foundation.”

Helping build capacity within Latino-Latin American communities is a major thrust of OLLAS. No one at OLLAS pretends to have all the answers.

“We recognize that while we may be able to provide some reflection, we’re not the complete experts about what goes on in this community. We learn an enormous from our community work,” Gouveia said. “We engage on a very egalitarian basis with community organizations and treat them with the respect they deserve as the fonts of knowledge they bring to the realities.”

 

 

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

“We’re actually very intentional about not assuming we know everything and that we have to lead everything,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “For example, we often don’t lead the community meetings, we sit in the back of the room and let others assume those roles of leadership because they have been leading. I think the fact we treat others as equal and we’re willing to listen to them has engendered genuine partnerships in the community.’

One of those strong partnerships is with the Heartland Workers Center, an Omaha nonprofit that helps immigrant laborers deal with the challenges they face. The center teaches workers their rights and responsibilities.

Benjamin-Alvarado said far from the patriarchal, missionary approach others have traditionally taken with minority communities, OLLAS looks to genuinely engage citizens and organizations in ongoing, reciprocal relationships.

“We don’t go in and bless the community and come back, Oh look how good we have done, because that would be the wrong message. That has been the model that’s been utilized in the past by a lot of academic institutions in response to these types of communities, and they resent it greatly. They’ve been burned so many times in the past. We make sure what we do is interactive and iterative, and so it’s not a one-off. It’s something we continue to go back to all the time. It’s this constant back and forth, give and take.”

 

 

 

 

He said he and Gouveia recognize “there are other people in the community with immense knowledge who can articulate the issues in a way that resonates with the community more than we as academics could ever do.”

OLLAS also reaches far beyond the local-regional sphere to broader audiences.

“Something I think people are surprised about is how globally connected we are,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “We are one of the major nodes of a global network on migration development both as scholars and ambassadors of the university. We’re all over the planet. It’s a demonstration of just how deeply connected we are.”

Gouveia said the May 14-15 Cumbre Summit of the Great Plains, which OLLAS  organizes and hosts, “fits very well” the transnational focus of OLLAS. The event is expected to draw hundreds of participants to address, in both macro and micro terms, the theme of human mobility and the promise of development and political engagement. Presenters are slated to come from The Philipines, Ecuador, Mexico, Ireland, South Africa and India as well as from the University of Chicago and the Brookings Institution in the U.S.

A community organizations workshop will examine gender, migration and civic engagement. Representatives from social service agencies, the faith community, education, government and other sectors are expected to attend the summit, which is free and open to the public.

“We work with all these publics very carefully so that the community feels really invited as co-participants in these discussions, not simply as spectators or a passive public,” said Gouveia, who added the programs are interactive in nature.

“We put local people with the sacred cows, we mix and match, and the panels take on a life of their own,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “An academic will be talking about something and a local will say, ‘Thats’ not the way it happens,’ and to me that’s music to my ears.”

Another example of the international scope of OLLAS is the summer service learning program that takes UNO students to Peru. Benjamin-Alvarado said the experience offers participants “an interesting perspective on urban Latin America. All of them come back completely motivated and transformed by what they learn and how they utilize their classroom lessons. These are not summer fun trips. the students work the whole time in a shantytown in Lima.”

This summer he’ll be a International Service Volunteers program faculty adviser/coordinator in either Ecuador or the Dominican Republic. He said the research and engagement he and Gouveia do abroad and at national conferences increases their knowledge and understanding, informing the analysis and teaching they do.

“Our college has said we’re a prime example of what’s now called the leadership of engagement,” said Gouveia. She added that the broad perspective they offer is why everyone from educators to elected officials to the Chamber of Commerce look to them for advice. “I’m very proud of how many people contact us. It’s a great feeling to know that we do fill a major void in this whole region to do this very unique combination of things,” she said.

Opening new spaces for learning is another mission objective of OLLAS. It has sponsored a cinemateca series at Film Streams featuring award-winning movies from Spanish-speaking countries. It’s involved in an outreach program at the Douglas Country Correctional Center, where UNO faculty provide continuing education to immigrant inmates. Gouveia and Benjamin-Alvarado said it’s about bringing compassion and humanity to powerless, voiceless people whose only crime may be being undocumented and using falsified records.

The scholars are satisfied that anyone who spends any time with OLLAS comes away with a deeper appreciation of Latino-Latin American cultures, history, issues. Benjamin-Alvarado said OLLAS grads are today teaching in classrooms, leading social service agencies, working in the public sector, attending law school. He fully expects some to hold key elected offices in the next 10 years. He and Gouevia feel that a more nuanced perspective of the Latino/Latin American experience can only benefit policymakers and citizens.

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