By Elena Jackson Albarrán
Latin American youth leaders come to the U.S. every summer to gain skills to take back to their home countries. Over the twentieth century, American nation-states cultivated children and youth as cultural diplomats to promote capitalist-oriented development under the guise of hemispheric brotherhood. But upending the historical flow of knowledge production, this generation is prepared to engage and to defend their local realities and traditions.
A Virtual Reunion
From Panama, Nathanael—Natha, for short—leaned into his headset microphone, his face projected on the wall of a Miami University classroom bursting beyond capacity: “You all have a beautiful campus, wonderful working infrastructure, and incredible access to resources,” he affirmed. The Ohio students nodded—they’ve been told this since first setting foot on Miami’s campus. Indeed, institutional lore attributes an oft-repeated quote to Robert Frost, who hailed it as “the most beautiful campus that there ever was.” “We don’t have that here in Panama,” Natha emphasized, “but we do have ideas for social and political change.”
Roger chimed in to the virtual session from Ecuador, affable but pressing: “We have great projects going on, but our resources are constantly imperiled. Find ways to partner with us so that we can work together to effect change at the local level.” A political science major at the Universidad Central de Ecuador, Roger is also a member of the Colectivo Nueva Democracia, which encourages political engagement premised on fomenting cultures of dialogue and consent among emerging young leaders from differing political ideologies. On the side, he’s developing an app to promote eco-tourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Roger and Natha are alumni of the Summer 2018 social entrepreneurship branch of the Studies of United States Institutes for Student Leaders (SUSI) program, an initiative of the U.S. State Department. SUSI brings together cohorts of the best and the brightest young leaders from around the world in an immersive experiential summer program designed to expose them to local business and government practices, and to inspire and equip them in their initiatives in their home countries. The 20-person cohort spent three weeks at Miami University’s campus, where faculty affiliated with the Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies Program provided academic workshops. They finished their trip with whirlwind experiences in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. Their fellow program participants boasted equally impressive profiles and projects; for example, Dominican participant Ismael founded the organization Política Cool to promote citizen action—one of their pilot initiatives is the online platform Involucrao, designed to solicit and promote concrete ideas for change among young people.
Back in the virtual reunion, Kat, a political science major, joined the Google Hangout from Managua, Nicaragua. Her internet connection was choppy, and she is soft-spoken, but she conveyed her urgency nonetheless. She’s developing an app for employers to remotely interview job candidates to boost employment opportunities for young people fearful of leaving their homes. This is a timely innovation; since April 2018, Kat’s generation has been besieged by the ruling Sandinista government forces, headed by the once-revolutionary, now jarringly neoliberal Daniel Ortega, apparently lashing out against university students in his political death throes. She reported that more than 500 students have been killed since the spring, though official estimates of death tolls range. Classes have been interrupted, of course, and classmates with connections and means are seeking academic asylum abroad to be able to finish their studies. She’s chosen to remain—she feels a moral imperative to improve conditions in her community, and there’s much work to do.
From Colombia, Adrian had to sign in from several different locations before he was able to secure a stable connection. A telecommunications engineer major at the Universidad Tecnológica del Chocó, Adrian is also the co-founder and CEO of the Quibdó Leadership Academy, which cultivates skills and provides scholarships and mentorship, especially among the Afro-Colombian population. But universities have been on strike across Colombia for the past two months to protest the massive cuts to education being undertaken by the Duque administration. These types of strikes have historically been common among public universities, but now the private college students have begun to take up arms in solidarity, signaling the gravity of the crisis that their generation faces.
These Latin American students, momentarily reunited through tenuous fiberoptic connections zig-zagging the hemisphere, shared the effects of privatization and budget cuts that threaten their educational prospects in very tangible ways, and that has driven them to political action.
Historical Legacies of Youth Diplomacy
It is easy—perhaps necessary—to see these Latin American students’ sojourn north on Uncle Sam’s dime as part of a longer trajectory of officially-sponsored Pan American exchanges between exceptional youth. In particular, it is worth examining the tension between political symbolism and meaningful exchange that these young people’s mobility can signal. The history of academic exchange between young people in the Americas began auspiciously, recorded as none other than the nephew of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador himself. In 1822, twelve-year-old Fernando Bolívar appeared at the doorstep of a Philadelphia Quaker academy with his indigenous manservant, and earnestly set about the business of being an average student of high pedigree. The manual labor skills and bucolic setting of his hosts charmed him, but before long he preferred to return to the more bustling metropole of his native Venezuela (1). The younger Bolívar’s junket north offered him respite from the wars for independence, but he astutely saw that his fortunes were best sought in the nation-making processes that were unfolding at home. Yet over the course of the nineteenth century, the hemispheric balance of power shifted as the sleepy United States awakened to the potential of its southern neighbors and began to plumb their riches through might or through diplomacy.
In the Good Neighbor Era in particular (much of the 1930s and 1940s), young people’s exchanges became built into the programming efforts of the Pan American Union, particularly through its Office of Intellectual Cooperation. Children and youth from grade school to college assumed the mantle of Pan Americanism—carefully tailored for them in D.C. offices—and enthusiastically embraced the exchanges set up for them through curriculum guides, essay competitions, speeches, and pen pals. Some historical studies have examined the origins of sustained student exchange programs that got their start in this good-neighborly climate. But the exchanges were uneven. U.S. youth learned that their Pan American neighbors possessed troves of coffee, silver, wheat, sugar, timber, diamonds (diamonds!). Latin Americans, the northern Americans learned, were happy to dance and create arts and crafts—a friendly, unambitious lot, easily represented by dolls: for New Mexico junior high-schoolers building a Latin American tableau, "[t]he dolls themselves were bought in Mexico, and were, of course, Mexican dolls, but almost any brunette doll is suitable for this purpose" (2). Children in the U.S. looked to Latin American for raw materials, while their Latin American counterparts sought out exchange programs in the U.S. to bolster their technical skills. Developmentalist discourse became ingrained into a generation, as binary constructs divided the hemisphere into “the two Americas.” In 1940, local anti-imperialist Carleton Beals criticized State Department-sponsored cultural exchanges as doing little to mask the prevailing view of “our southern countries merely as our oyster to be devoured” (3).
It would be easy, given the intervening track record of U.S. hemispheric policy between the Good Neighbor years and the present, to dismiss current State Department efforts to expose Latin American youth to the (North) American way of life with a heavy measure of skepticism. But if we don’t attend to the ways that these SUSI alumni are navigating the opportunities and resources through their own political lenses and operating networks, we miss the chance to see something greater unfold. Roger, Kat, Natha, and Adrian have made effective and savvy use of social media and technologies of a globalized economy, faltering as they may be, to effect change in their respective communities on their own terms.
De-centering US Visions of Development
SUSI students in the Social Entrepreneurship program come from a range of social backgrounds, though they do not represent the technocratic elite that have historically risen to the top of political hierarchies in the neoliberal era. On one hand, they are all relatively privileged by the simple virtue of being university students. But on the other, they all attend public universities, and as such, share the expectation that their respective governments should guarantee a basic set of public services to their citizens. Prior to the SUSI program, some had traveled abroad, most had not. Some had a degree of proficiency in English, others did not see Spanish-language monolingualism as an inhibiting factor in globalizing entrepreneurial expansion in their respective local contexts. Ideologically, they have no problem with conspicuous consumption; most had set up Amazon Prime accounts within hours of setting foot on US soil. Though the State Department-funded initiative is clearly designed to orient students toward a certain model of development, and while the visiting Latin Americans certainly spent several weeks gaining exposure to U.S. institutions and local governance (and engaging in retail and entertainment with vigor), they consistently interjected perspectives grounded in their own realities. Furthermore, the faculty who designed the local program for them in Ohio introduced them to models of sustainability, small business culture, and social entrepreneurship that reflect innovative strategies for survival in a nearly post-capitalist world.
The networks forged and technologies engaged through these young people’s mobilities transcend Pan American political binaries of the developed/undeveloped world. This generation of youth has a heightened sensibility of the distinct and unique value of their local cultures and realities. Militza, a member of the dwindling Emberá ethnic group of coastal Panamá, returned to her village days after a playful photo shoot with SUSI friends in Times Square, to be named by her father as the village’s next chief—the first woman to assume this title. She, and her peers, see the global pathways of development as circuitous and reciprocal, not the linear trajectory imagined by modernization theorists of the past century.
Roger concluded the evening’s session with a poignant invitation: “Hey guys, I have to go to class. But on Monday, at 9:00 a.m., Ecuadorian students from across the country are going to join in a protest march against the draconian budget cuts. Please, find a way to join us in solidarity, to strengthen our numbers and our resolve, even if only in some symbolic way. Monday, 9:00.”
(1) “Visitas y una conversación,” Correo v. 28 (marzo de 1944): 25. Columbus Memorial Library, Organization of American States, Washington D.C.
(2) Irvin, N. E. An Approach to the Teaching of Latin American Culture to the Junior High School Children of Deming, New Mexico. M.A. Thesis (State College, New Mexico: New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1951): 13.
(3) Carleton Beals, Pan America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940): 429.
Elena Jackson Albarrán is associate professor of history and global and intercultural studies at Miami University of Ohio, and a member of the Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies faculty. She is the author of Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism (Nebraska 2015). Her current work undertakes post-colonial interpretations of transnational exchanges of youth culture in the Americas in the first half of the twentieth century.