Celebrating Latino Leaders: Lourdes Alvarez
“There need to be more role models and more diversity among people in places of power and prestige. I think in a way, success is when it’s so normal that people see diversity in leadership and don’t question where the Latinos are."
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, University of New Haven
Hometown: Hamden, CT
Lourdes Álvarez has focused her scholarly attention on contributions to society by scholars, poets, mystics and dissidents living in the religiously tolerant cities in Spain prior to the rise of the fundamentalism and violence that ended the experiment in convivencia.
This was the focus of the graduate work that brought her to New Haven, but it began long before then.
“I was always very interested in cultures and contact between them, because I saw that in my own life – being in between cultures and in between languages.”
Lourdes was born in Texas, but grew up in California. Her parents had emigrated from Cuba in 1959. For a time, Lourdes attended a Catholic school run by Mexican nuns on the U.S. side of the border.
“It was against the rules to speak Spanish, so that’s all we did. My grandfather was pleased that my Spanish was so good, but he was less enthusiastic about the Mexican accent.”
Growing up, Lourdes became aware of being treated differently, because she didn’t “look” Latina.
“I think I was always more sensitive to the difference, not just from Anglo-Americans, but even within my own community. I would walk into a Mexican grocery and begin speaking to them in Spanish but they would answer me in English. And I would think, ‘You’re not even listening to me. You’re just looking at my face and making all kinds of assumptions about who I am.”
A Passion for Education and Athletics
Though Lourdes majored in neurobiology at the University of California at Berkeley, she was also interested in becoming as educated and confident a speaker of Spanish as she was English. She continued on to earn her Master’s degree in Spanish from San Francisco State University and her PhD in Spanish and Portuguese from Yale. Currently, she speaks five languages, if you count both standard and Moroccan Arabic.
Health and fitness is also of personal interest to Lourdes, who at one point left college to ride and race bicycles with the Berkeley Bicycle Club, a group of former, current and future competitive cyclists.
“I just felt amazing that I was hanging on! Most of the riders were national class athletes for many years – and I had never been very athletic. At first, I would ride with them until I got dropped. But then I would come back the next day and try to hang on a little longer, and a little longer the next day. So when I finally did not get dropped on one of their rides…that was just awesome!”
Lourdes says her decision to teach came naturally, as she considers herself a very social person. But, she is also attracted by the idea of education as a transformational activity.
“In my family, education was the key to social change. If you’re going to make a difference, that’s the most fundamental place to start.”
Lourdes began her teaching career as assistant professor of Spanish at Bard College in Hudson Valley, NY for seven years. She then relocated to Washington, D.C. and Catholic University of America, where she also taught Spanish and ultimately became Chair of the Department of Modern Languages.
“Teaching Spanish in the U.S. is about asserting the beauty and richness of a culture and history that is often times unknown. One of the things that I am most proud of in my teaching career is working with Latino students and helping them to feel confident speakers of both languages.”
But Lourdes says she retained a deep fondness for the Greater New Haven area. So when she learned in 2011 about the available dean’s position at the University of New Haven, she was intrigued.
Returning to Greater New Haven allowed her to reconnect with her mentor and friend María Rosa Menocal.
As director of the Whitney Humanities Center from 2001 - 2012, María brought together poets, artists, architects and other experts from so many walks of life, Lourdes recalls, and was beloved by so many people in the community.
“She had an incredible zest for life; her teaching and being a mentor wasn’t just about academics – it went well beyond that. She was masterful at bringing people together.”
Sadly, María passed away not long after Lourdes returned to the New Haven area.
“A lot of the things that she was interested in and that I am interested in are reflections of our modern day predicament in terms of tolerance and empathy and understanding of people who are different from us. She taught me so much about bringing joy to what we do in academia.”
Transforming a Community with Knowledge
Lourdes says part of teaching is attacking people’s arrogance around the present.
“We think that the present – as we know it – is the most evolved that we have ever been, that we are thinking more deeply and with a greater sophistication about human rights, for example. And then you’re confronted with a text from the 10th century, and it’s actually kind of stunning to see we’re not the first people to think these things.”
As dean, Lourdes sees herself as a community networker, as well as educator. She is able to connect resources at the University of New Haven to needs in the community and foster partnerships for students, faculty, school and community leaders.
Community is a central component to success, she notes, where an individual feels respected and able to lead a fulfilling life, while helping others. She says she is inspired by the work of individuals and organizations that are empowering individuals to take control of their own lives, in the Latino community and beyond.
“There need to be more role models and more diversity among people in places of power and prestige. I think in a way, success is when it’s so normal that people see diversity in leadership and don’t question where the Latinos are.”
Lourdes admits that, often times Latinos have national loyalties, which may lead to groups being pitted against each other. Organizing together for a political voice can be helpful because, when there is a political voice, people want to pay attention to it.
“I think Latinos in this country still haven’t really seen a figure who is capable of bringing the people together, transcending individual nationalistic types of identities. We need that; people should feel like they need to pay attention to the Latino community.”