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New endowment strengthens and diversifies Latin American Studies M.A. ProgramSandra Mabritto in 2013. (Photo provided by Professor Stephen Bell.)

New endowment strengthens and diversifies Latin American Studies M.A. Program

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

The Sandra Mabritto Memorial Fellowship Fund will provide permanent support for master's degree students in Latin American Studies at UCLA, laying the foundation for the program's sustainability.

UCLA International Institute, March 1, 2019 — In the past two years, the Latin American Studies M.A. Program has received over $2 million in gifts from the estate of Sandra Mabritto. The funds have created the Sandra Mabritto Memorial Fellowship Fund to support students in the program. The permanent endowment enables the program to compete with private universities for top students and to attract more diverse student cohorts each year.

Sandra Mabritto and Stephen Bell, Santa Monica, August 2000. (Photo provided by Bell.) “We are deeply grateful for this gift of student support, which has become essential for attracting students beyond California,” says medical and sociocultural anthropologist Bonnie Taub, co-chair of the program with Latin American Institute Director Kevin Terraciano. Taub teaches in the UCLA anthropology department and the Fielding School of Public Health. “M.A. fellowships supported by the fund were available for the first time in the current academic year (2018–19),” she notes, “allowing the LAS program to recruit three out-of-state students — thereby increasing total admissions by one-third.”

 “One of the great benefits of the fellowship fund,” notes Stephen Bell, professor of geography and history and a longtime member of the faculty advisory committee for the M.A. program, “is that it sets a precedent for sustaining the terminal M.A. program over the long run, creating a foundation on which future donors can build.”

A close friend and partner of Mabritto, Bell was instrumental in encouraging her to consider an endowment for the Latin American Studies M.A. Program. At his invitation, she attended a spring 2016 meeting where students graduating from the program presented their research, an experience that seriously inclined Mabritto toward her eventual bequest.

A consonance between donor and program

The Latin American Studies M.A. Program was a good fit for the wide-ranging curiosity and intellectual independence of Sandra Mabritto, an Angelino of Hispanic and Italian descent who died of cancer in 2017. A voracious reader in many disciplines, Mabritto as a young woman studied art at California State University, Los Angeles and political science at UCLA, but did not finish a formal degree. While at UCLA, she found a mentor in the late artist and philanthropist Lilian Levinson. The two became close friends and traveled widely together to view art.

A savvy real estate investor and gifted collector, Mabritto was also an enthusiastic member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. She had previously supported scholarships for Hispanic students at Santa Monica College and enjoyed learning about their progress. The gift to the Latin American Studies M.A. program honors both her Hispanic heritage and the breadth of her intellectual interests, while targeting support to students with an established track record. Mabritto also left gifts to the UCLA departments of geography and classics.

Spring 2017. Participants in the Latin American Studies M.A. Program Forum, including Magda
Yamamoto (far left), program student counselor; Bonnie Taub, program co-chair (2nd from left),
Stephen Bell, professor and faculty advisory committee member (far right), and 2017 student cohort.

The Latin American Studies M.A. Program is an advanced interdisciplinary degree that offers students the opportunity to focus their studies and research on a specific topic, sub-region or country. Spanish and Portuguese are mandatory, with students expected to achieve proficiency in one and an intermediate level of competency in the other. Students also have the option to simultaneously pursue a master’s degree in several other disciplines.

Both UCLA’s physical proximity to Central and South America and the background of many Bruins make the university an ideal setting for advanced study of Latin America. Additional incentives are the university’s extraordinary Latin American library materials (which include distinguished collections on Brazil), a large array of Latin American experts in schools and departments across the campus and UCLA’s longstanding commitment to the region. Although the Latin American Institute was created in 1958 and degree programs in Latin American studies soon followed, UCLA faculty — geographer Henry Bruman (1913–2005) among them — had identified Latin America as an important field of study at least two decades earlier. 

Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel and Verónica Cortínez, director of the UCLA Center for Southern Cone Studies, in
conversation following a screening of Martel’s latest film, “Zama,” in April 2018 (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

An interdisciplinary approach supported by dedicated faculty and librarians

Whether pursuing an M.A. as a prelude to a Ph.D. or as an opportunity to explore scholarly research on a country one knows well, current students reflect the amazing breadth of the LAS graduate program. Rigoberto Quintana, a second-generation U.S.-Central American and first-generation college student, attended high school on the wealthy side of Los Angeles while living in South Central L.A. His experience, he says, “sparked questions that deal with race, justice, and inequality” that — together with independent travel in Latin America — eventually put him on a path toward a Ph.D.

“It was important for me to remain close to my community and family when I considered grad schools, [as they] serve as great motivators in my pursuit of fusing theory and praxis. It had long been a goal of mine to attend UCLA,” says Rigo, a graduate of Santa Monica College and California State University Los Angeles.

“The scholars’ work I referenced are teachers at UCLA, the university has a connection with the communities I am connected to and many of the mentors I’ve had throughout my life graduated from UCLA, so there has always been a lifelong, sometimes informal, connection with UCLA,” he adds.

Rigo’s research focuses on the Central American diaspora in the U.S., analyzing both the domestic political drivers of migration and its consequences on migrants’ health. “To that end, I am taking (or have taken) courses from various departments at UCLA, such as anthropology, sociology, Spanish, community health sciences and Latin American studies,” he says.

“The wonderful thing about being a part of an interdisciplinary program is that I can take multiple perspectives on a given issue,” remarks Rigo. “The UCLA staff and faculty of these departments, including the Latin American Institute, have been great in supporting and encouraging me and my research.”

Mayan Hip-Hop artist Tzutu Bak’tum gives an open-air public performance at UCLA on February 13, 2018.
(Photo: Deisy Moreno, LAI/ UCLA.)

Siara Biuk, also on the path toward a doctorate, concurs with Rigoberto’s estimation of the program and its faculty. After completing a B.A. in English with a focus on the literature of Latin America and the Caribbean, Siara worked for a few years while reading widely in the social sciences.

“I was excited to have the opportunity to study the region from a variety of perspectives,” Siara comments. “I already knew I was interested in the anthropology of Latin America; however, I had never taken an anthropology course before and wasn't sure if it was really right for me.”

UCLA also appealed to the East Coast resident, she explains, “because of its reputation as a research university and its proximity, both geographically and also in terms of past migrations and therefore social and cultural links, to Latin America!” Siara is focusing on indigenous studies, examining the ideologies of language revitalization in Latin America while learning Quecha with instructor Luz María de la Torre.

A 2017 book by Professor Steven Loza, professor of ethnomusicology and chair, global jazz studies, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music; and affiliated faculty, Latin American Institute. Overall, concludes Siara, “the program has helped… give me the skills to bridge the gap between an undergraduate degree in the humanities and a future career in the social sciences. I have had a lot of support from several fantastic professors in supporting my research and writing recommendations for my applications to Ph.D. programs in anthropology.”

Elizabeth Landers — who brings years of professional consulting work in a variety of industries, fluency in French and Spanish and robust conversational skills in Haitian Creole — has come full circle to the Latin American Studies M.A. program. After graduating from UCLA “many moons ago” with a double major in history and French, she went on to a successful business career. 

Graduate studies in Chicago, where she did an M.A. at Loyola University, prompted her to turn toward service. “Post-earthquake Haiti came calling,” she explains. “There, NGO and rural community development projects transformed into work in public administration,” she continues, “where I served as executive coordinator of Haiti's Presidential Advisory Council as well as deputy chief of staff to the minister of interior.” Her work in Haiti gave rise to questions about diplomacy, development and sovereign nation concerns that led her to the UCLA M.A. program.

Elizabeth’s research examines migration from Saint Domingue, Haiti, to Cuba during the Haitian Revolution. It’s a topic, she explains, that “necessitates an approach that is local, regional, and international. It also requires rethinking methodological and theoretical approaches to migration in their historical contexts — especially in light of the nature of the source material.”

“The support that I have received from UCLA’s faculty in multiple departments is extraordinary,” reflects Elizabeth. “Their generosity and willingness to explore ideas and concepts has not only enriched this study, but has also shed new light on an ostensibly closed chapter in history. UCLA’s library has also offered a treasure trove of resources and materials, as well as unflagging support and guidance from librarians, special collections and staff,” she remarks.

These students are just some of the extraordinary individuals in the Latin American studies M.A. program. Fortunately, the Sandra Mabritto Memorial Fellowship Fund will enable more such students to pursue their own educational and research interests in the program in the years to come.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Summer 2017. Katie Green (2nd from left, standing), a Latin American Studies M.A.
student focusing on  Brazil, with classmates in the "Theater of the Oppressed" summer study abroad program
offered by the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. (Photo provided by Ms. Green.)