By: Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.


Effective October 31, 2021, I stepped down as director of the Julian Samora Research Institute (JSRI). It has been my honor and great pleasure to have served JSRI and the peoples of Michigan and the Midwest over the past 14 years. The world has changed considerably since my family and I arrived at East Lansing. The move here was not fully appreciated by a tween and a young teenager who did not want to leave their friends in San Antonio. Since then, East Lansing and Lansing have become beloved cities for them. They are now productive young adults in the community. Sadly, we lost Lea, beloved spouse and mother, to cancer in 2014, but we have continued on, carrying her teachings with us as we pursue fulfilling lives.

MSU, too, has changed during my time here, as has the state, the nation, and the world. There have been many great achievements and some very disappointing events. We now have new leadership in Sam Stanley, who has adopted diversity and strategic frameworks that promise to transform the university into one that is more inclusive, equitable, and clearer about the pursuit of its mission as it adapts its role for tomorrow. Let us hope that promise is fulfilled for the good of people both here and abroad.

As director of JSRI I adhered to the principles of engaging communities and Latino organizations that promote the well-being of, communities. I stabilized the unit, which had a series of directors and interim directors during its first 18 years of existence. I worked to embed the Institute within external communities and collaborated with internal units interested in Latino populations. I was fortunate that my predecessors had developed a clear and laudable mission, “… to generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge to serve the needs of Latino communities in the Midwest and across the nation.” To achieve it, we developed a strategic plan that emphasized research in health, entrepreneurship, and gaps between service delivery systems and Latino communities, while supporting students, scholars, and communities.

We addressed concerns of Latino communities through a mix of activities grounded in the generation of knowledge in several critical areas, including history, demography, and education, among others. Our work was not just embedded in our communities, it was aligned with their needs. Early on, I learned from directors of Latino-focused non-profit organizations of the difficulties they had writing competitive proposals due to the lack of empirical information on Latino communities in Michigan. To meet that need we continued prior practices to provide research results on Latino communities and populations in our research newsletter, NEXO, and e-publications for use by community-focused organizations to write competitive proposals. Some directors have communicated that they have used the information in their proposals.

Our work went beyond Michigan to the Midwest. Upon arriving in Michigan, I sought assistance from the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, led at the time by Dr. Cornelia Flora, a distinguished professor at Iowa State University, to establish an interstate research and education initiative focused on generating knowledge about growing Latino populations and promoting educational projects to meet their needs. She and Professor Jan Flora convened a regional summit that led to the formation of an interstate initiative on Latinos and immigrants in the Midwest under the auspices of the North Central Regional Association (NCRA) of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors. The initiative continues its work today with scholars, community leaders, and others sharing research results and knowledge of Latino and immigrant community needs and effective practices in the Midwest.

Through the initiative, we conducted several major projects. One a survey of Extension employees relative to their capacity to provide services to Latino communities and another on the livelihood strategies of Latino farmers in Michigan, Missouri, and Iowa. Results from the Extension survey showed that employees perceived a lack of resources and support to serve Latino communities (See Research Report No. 55, 2016 and NEXO, v. 20, no. 1, 2016). The one on Latino farmers identified several needs, including more support from Extension.

In 2010, in collaboration with the Center for Economic Analysis at MSU, we published the first quantitative study of the economic and fiscal contributions of the Latino population in Michigan to the state’s economy. The study showed that Latino workers, not including migrant farmworkers, contributed $25.2 billion to the state’s output and $23.2 billion in secondary impacts for a total contribution of $48.4 billion to the state’s output. Since then, the Latino population in the state has increased by more than 125,000 persons who increase the population’s contribution more than ever before.

We also collaborated with colleagues in the College of Veterinary Medicine on a major project on reducing the incidence of mastitis on dairy farms in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Mastitis is a costly bacterial infection, in this case, in dairy cows. We led the evaluation component of the project and emphasized the important role of milkers (mostly Latino immigrants) in containing mastitis and the cultural lag that occurred as a result of the shift from family to large-scale corporate farms.

We also had success in other areas, including successfully nominating the first native-born Latino and Latina to receive honorary doctorates from MSU: Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC, and Marta Tienda, Princeton University. On a regular basis we responded to internal and external requests for information on Latino populations. We mentored two pre-tenured faculty members in achieving tenure, three post-doctoral scholars, several young scholars, and dozens of undergraduate and graduate students. We were instrumental in the establishment of three non-profit organizations in Michigan: Michigan Alianza Latino para Mejoramiento y Avance (MI ALMA), Michigan Alliance for Latinx in Higher Education (MALHE), and the North Star Alliance for Justice (NSAJ). Each is committed to promoting social justice and transforming Michigan into a diverse, equitable, and inclusive state. All of their work is related to the many challenges facing our communities, the nation, and humanity as a whole.

There are global challenges connected to global warming, the limits of capitalism, human migration, and the rise of authoritarian populism. Massive weather changes threaten the well-being of nations, their cities and their populations. Rising temperatures, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, all associated with global warming increasingly threaten our food systems, which are on the brink of collapse in many parts of the world. Potable water is becoming a scarcity that exacerbates the rising inequalities across nations. Yet, some national leaders have not rung the alarm and taken strident steps to halt the potential collapse of human civilization. There is an unwillingness, especially in Western nations, to critically examine how capitalist economies are at the root of our global problems.

Our economy is based on infinite growth despite the fact that the planet’s resources are finite. Values of rationality, individualism, and materialism promote practices that exploit resources and people for short-term profits without regard for their negative effects on the planet. At the extreme, it’s every individual for themselves using means-ends schemas to amass the greatest amount of wealth without regard for others or the planet. Among the powerful there is mostly insatiable greed, regard for self, and social status. These practices and characteristics have worsened with the onset of free market fundamentalism sixty years ago.

Free-market fundamentalism has engendered anti-government sentiments that threaten democracy, inequalities not seen since the period just before the Great Depression, private prisons that warehouse people for profit, authoritarian assaults on freedom of the press and academic freedom, and insatiable consumerism, among many other social problems. Missing is broad concern for the well-being of others, concern for the sustainability of the planet, and an understanding of the interdependence of all forms of life on the planet.

All of these issues are interrelated from the level of local communities to the global. In cumulative terms, the U.S. is the biggest contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that absorbs and radiates heat. Historically, the U.S. has intervened in the political economies in the Western Hemisphere, producing conditions that have caused major population migrations, with millions of Latin Americans forced to seek the means of life here and in other countries. Today, we find ourselves in a political environment in which millions are motivated by beliefs that threaten democracy and public safety. Social media, public skepticism toward and a limited understanding of science, antipathy toward government, and a resurgence of white supremacist views threaten not only Latino communities but the nation as a whole. In this context, researchers must confront the massive problems facing humanity.

My departure as director provides an opportunity for new leadership. I am hopeful that the emphasis on community needs will continue and that the University will recognize that greatness lies in aligning its work with the needs of communities. I leave thankful for all who supported and contributed to our work and grateful for the many friendships I was honored to have made during my time as director. Les deseo lo mejor a todos.