From October 31st to November 2nd of 2019, the Julian Samora Research Institute marked its 30th anniversary with a national conference on the theme, “Latina/os and the Renewal of U.S. Democracy.” The conference included 22 panels and workshops on a variety of topics related to the conference theme, plenary addresses from Dr. Suzanne Oboler, the Honorable Fernando González Saiffe, and Baldemar Velasquez, a screening of the documentary film Searching for Sugarman, a concert by Gustavo Cortiñas Snapshot featuring Juan Daniel Castro, and a baile with music by Tejano Sound Band.
The theme of the conference, “Latina/os and the Renewal of U.S. Democracy,” points to a major political crisis currently underway in the United States. Director Rubén Martinez welcomed the conferees and highlighted the current constitutional crisis in America evident by open attacks on the free press, government agencies and representatives, and voting rights. He also pointed to political corruption, violations of human and civil rights, and overt racism. Nationalist neoliberalism, he argued, is our current social order that promotes economic freedom at the expense of intergroup relations, reduces society to market transactions, and promotes inverted totalitarianism through a managed democracy. He concluded by noting that Latinos and other ethno-racial minority groups have historically led struggles for the full realization of the promise of American Democracy.
Dr. Oboler, Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at the John Jay College of the City University of New York, addressed the conference theme in her opening keynote, “Forging the Path as We Go: Latinxs Transforming Democracy.” Concentrating specifically on the idea of renewal, she argued for the transformation of U.S. democracy into a true and active mechanism for inclusion and representation of all members of U.S. society. “Renewal,” she noted, implies that there is a moment in U.S. democracy where progress stalled and to which we might return. She recommended identifying ways of reinforcing solidarities and alliances among people of Latinx descent, as well as with African American and Native American communities. She concluded by emphasizing the important role that scholars can and should play in the transformation of U.S. democracy.
The Honorable Fernando González Saiffe, Cónsul Titular at the Consulate of Mexico in Detroit, Michigan spoke on the second day of the conference and described the role of the Consulate and the services it provides to Mexicans in the region. He spoke on current events in Mexico, noting that it is a democracy, and highlighted the direction of the nation under the leadership of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador which includes addressing inequality and fostering prosperity by investing in people. Turning to the U.S., he discussed the benefits of allowing immigrants to have driving privileges. He concluded by providing an overview of trade relations between Michigan and Mexico within the context of economic relations between the two nations.
A key component of the conference was a nationwide Graduate Student Paper Competition. The winner of the award was Jaime Sanchez, a doctoral student in history at Princeton University. He presented his essay, “What Are We?: Latino Politics, Identity, and Memory in the 1983 Chicago Mayoral Election,” on one of the panels at the conference. At the plenary of the second day, he received his award and provided conferees with a brief synopsis of his research interests and activities.
Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), closed out the conference by speaking on the role of labor unions in the renewal of American democracy. Speaking on FLOC’s previous successes with supply chain organizing on behalf of farmworkers, he argued that this approach could serve as a model within an integrated global economy, as the struggle for worker rights have parallels in other countries. He concluded by challenging scholars to address barriers to worker rights, including the right to collective bargaining. In particular, he pointed to the need to challenge the use of “restraint of trade” as the basis for opposing labor organizing.